Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven


  Loma said, “What do you mean? Where?”

  “The control tower.”

  Loma said, “We’re not allowed up there.”

  “Well, we’ll just have to be quiet about it.” Paula got out of bed and reached for her boots and her zoot suit.

  Mudge and Sally started getting dressed, Sally chattering away. “There’s the cutest boy that works the control tower. Rodney Bloom. Red hair, blue eyes, built just like a football player.” She whistled. “I’ve had my eye on him for weeks now and the most he’s done is smile at me.”

  Loma said, “I’m not going.”

  I felt a thrill deep down as I stood up, the cot creaking, and pulled on my zoot suit over my nightgown, which was still wet in places.

  Mudge said, “All for one and one for all, Lolo. If you don’t go, we don’t go.”

  Loma was quiet. We all stood there waiting for her, and then she sighed and swung her feet onto the floor.

  It was a dark, moonless night, but we didn’t dare use flashlights. We tiptoed in a line, Paula leading the way, Loma falling last, and climbed the steep steps of the control tower. The boys in the tower nodded at us, but otherwise didn’t pay us much attention. We huddled together by one of the windows. Paula whispered, “They think we’re here to wait our turn in the flight line.”

  Sally leaned into me and said, “He’s over there.”

  I looked past her at a red-haired boy sitting behind a panel of switches. We watched him for a minute until he glanced up and saw us and smiled at Sally. She pinched my arm and put her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing. Then we watched the lights on the wings and tails of the planes as they took off and climbed into blackness. The lights traced a pattern around the field, just like floating, gliding stars, before coming back to land. We watched the traffic controllers direct the planes, waving different colored lights—red, green, amber. White was for emergencies. Shirley Bingham had told us about more than one girl that had an electrical failure, which meant the plane would plunge into darkness and the gear had to be pumped by hand. It also meant the radio would die, so the girl would have to land in silence.

  Just the thought was scary enough to keep me up nights long after the others had gone to sleep. I thought about Mudge saying Loma was the worryingest girl she knew. But she had no idea how much I worried each time before I flew and after. I could imagine every single thing that might go wrong. The only time I didn’t seem to worry was when I was actually flying.

  Tonight I didn’t worry though. I just stood there with my friends and watched the bright-white lights of the planes taking off and landing and soaring high above us.

  On Saturday nights the girls and me went to the Avengerette Club in town and danced with the cadets. Every week Ty asked me to go with him as his date and every week I said no. This didn’t mean I didn’t dance with him now and then, but I never danced more than three or four dances with him a night. On Saturday, July 10, I danced six.

  On Monday, July 12, I was sitting on the runway in my BT, waiting to take off, and suddenly Ty appeared, pulling himself up into the plane. He sat in the seat behind me and slouched way down, looking out the window at the ground below. He said, “Go, go, go—before they see me!”

  I said, “You’re not supposed to be in here.”

  He said, “Go!”

  “You’re going to get me in trouble!”

  “Go, Velva Jean!”

  I pulled the throttle and I went. I took off faster than I should have because he’d surprised me and shook me up a little. It was one thing to try to dance with me but another to get into my plane when I was supposed to be flying solo. I lived for these moments up in the air all by myself. I thought, Ned Tyler, you’re going to be sorry you got in my plane today. I thought I might take him into a dive or a spin, or maybe one spin after another, over and over.

  The clouds were rolled into huge, billowy masses. They looked like mountains made of snow. I took us in and out between the clouds, up and down. When we climbed above them, Ty leaned forward and said, “I like it best up here. Up above the overcast. Look around you—nothing but blue.”

  I didn’t say anything to him, and he leaned forward then and said in my ear, “You ever been fence hopping?”

  “What’s that?”

  “We have to find a farm first.” The way he said it was funny because all there was out here was farms. “You just put her down, low to the ground as you can, and when you come to a fence you have to hop it. Just watch out for bushes and cows.”

  We flew for a bit and I thought: I’m not going fence hopping just because you tell me to. I’m not doing anything I don’t want to do myself. There was a white fence down below, and there were horses grazing behind it.

  “Now!” he said.

  I dropped us down sharp and fast, soaring over the ground as close as I dared. I hoped I’d scared him. The fence was right in front of us, and I thought: This is so stupid. Do you want to get yourself killed? But I didn’t feel scared because suddenly I felt his hands on my shoulders and this made me feel like I could hop a hundred fences all in a row.

  I pulled up just as we got to the fence and then I dropped back down and found another one. We did that over and over, both of us laughing, till Ty started singing “Don’t Fence Me In.” Then I flew us high up into the air so we could head on back to Avenger Field. I looked down at the ground and everything looked the same and I didn’t see any sign of the base.

  I said, “Which way is it?” I was trying to remember what Puck said about knowing your compass because sometimes you found yourself without any landmarks to go from. He had been making us practice this again and again—naming each town we passed over, not by the water tower, but by direction. He always said: “You have to figure it out on the basis of what you know, not what you see.”

  Ty said, “I think we need to go east.”

  I had a doubtful feeling in the back of my mind, but I turned the nose of the plane eastward, and we circled over more farms, more fences, more cows. I said, “I don’t think that’s right.”

  He was checking his compass. He said, “Try south.”

  I pointed us south, and we flew for a while over more farms and cows and fences. Then we flew west and then north till we were right back where we started but not anywhere close to Avenger Field. I waited to feel the panic that I usually felt when I got lost and didn’t know where I was going. This was one of the worst things about flying—trusting your judgment, knowing where you were, where you’d been, where you were headed. But I didn’t panic because Ty was sitting right behind me, and all I could think was that I was finally having adventures and wasn’t that what I’d been missing all along?

  We landed at Bruce Field in Ballinger, where they trained Army Air Corps flying cadets. I knew that the base was southeast of Sweetwater by about forty miles. Ty helped me down from the plane as some of the cadets came to meet us. He said, “They won’t believe their eyes when they see you.”

  I radioed back to Avenger to tell them where we were, and then we were invited to stay for dinner. We ate country fried steak with gravy and mashed potatoes, and I could barely eat because it was so hot and my stomach was jumping around from the excitement of it all. The cadets wanted to know everything about the WFTD, and sometimes I talked and sometimes Ty did. I liked sitting back and listening to him talk about my flying and how brave I was and how brave all us girls were because we weren’t just doing the same jobs as men but were having to prove ourselves on top of it.

  And then the cadets talked about their flying and about why they did it. When it was Ty’s turn, he said, “The reason I fly is simple—because no matter how much shit life deals you, the sun is shining up above any overcast if you just climb high enough. I call it ‘ceiling and visibility unlimited.’ ”

  I turned this phrase over in my mind and gave it a good think. I decided ceiling and visibility unlimited sounded like something I believed in too.

  Afterward we walked to the BT and flew
back to Avenger Field, where I was given two demerits for losing my way, and Ty was given six for stowing aboard without clearing it first. He walked me to my bay and said, “Sorry for getting you in trouble, Velva Jean.”

  I said, “It was worth it,” which it was.

  He said, “I’m thinking Bruce Field was a pretty nice base.” As he said it he moved in closer and my heart went thud-thud-thud. “Maybe I could put in a request so that when we’re transferred they’ll send me there instead of to California.” He was standing over me, and I had to tip my head back to look at him. The moonlight was catching the side of his face, and I decided I liked his long nose and his broad mouth and the way his hair was standing up here and there. He was bright and alive. There was nothing black and white about him.

  I said, “I like your hair.”

  He sighed. “Ah, that’s it, then. You only want me for my hair.”

  I laughed. “It’s just about the best hair I ever saw.”

  He said, “And would you love me just as much if I was bald?”

  I’d never teased like this with a man before and I realized I liked it. I wondered if I was flirting, and if so if I was good at it. I said, “I don’t think so.”

  “Well.” He rubbed his jaw. “I don’t blame you, although I’m pretty sure I’d love you if you were bald as a bullfrog.” For one moment, I thought he was going to kiss me, but then he said, “Velva Jean, I want to take you on a proper date. We don’t have to go walking or dancing if that’s too much for you. We don’t even have to go fence hopping. But maybe something safe and harmless like drinking tea or sitting. We could even eat a meal of some sort, but I don’t want to push it.”

  I laughed even though I didn’t want to, because the thought of going on a date with someone—anyone—right now was enough to make my head go light. I told myself: It’s only tea or sitting. It’s only a meal. You don’t have to marry him. You don’t have to fall in love.

  Good, I told myself. Because I can’t.

  And then I thought, He may not like you anymore anyway after you tell him about Harley.

  “Okay,” I said to him. “I’ll go.”

  July 16, 1943

  Dear family,

  I wish I could send you a picture of what I look like. I know newspapers and magazines are telling us to “Cheer the way to Victory by looking your loveliest.” But up at 6:00 a.m., sharing a bathroom with ten other girls, mess at 7:00, followed by PE, Morse code, flight simulation on the Link trainer, and flight training, leaves no time for primping. Also, we donated our lipstick tubes, all but one each—did you know they’re being turned into bullet casings? Between the four of us, we gave up eleven lipsticks, though most of those belonged to Mudge. We’re sunburned and freckled, windblown and covered in dust, tripping around in coveralls that are five sizes too big.

  We started cross-country this week. Mudge and me flew to Big Spring, Lubbock, and Spur, and today Sally and me buzzed over the lake at Abilene doing lazy eights and chandelles, which is a climbing turn that starts with a dive to gain speed and uses the momentum of the plane. When we’re not flying, we’re marching in parades, doing infantry drills, cleaning our barracks to get ready for inspection (trying like everything to get rid of the sand), and studying, studying, studying. My back aches so much at the end of each day that I can hardly stand up. I’m afraid I could walk in the door and you wouldn’t know who or what I was.

  But I’m happy. I think that even with all the fighting in Europe and the Pacific and worrying about my brothers and missing you all, I’m maybe happier than I ever been in my life because I know I’m being useful and that I’m playing a small part in this great big war.

  I love you, each and every one—

  your Velva Jean

  TWENTY-SIX

  For our proper date, Ty and me packed a picnic and drove to Lake Sweetwater. On the way there, I thought about all the things he didn’t know about me and wondered how long it would take to fill him in on everything, all these things Harley already knew. How could he get to know me without seeing Daddy Hoyt and Granny and all the people I loved, in the place where Mama was buried and where my songs came from? He wouldn’t know about Indian message trees. He’d never heard the way Fair Mountain hummed like it was making its own music. He’d never been to Deal’s or ridden up on the Scenic, that road on top of the mountains. He didn’t know about the giant that lived in Devil’s Courthouse or the Nunnehi that helped you find your way if you were lost in the woods. I sat there thinking all these things and I got myself so worked up that I thought, You should just get out right now and start walking back to Avenger Field.

  Lake Sweetwater was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, just like the Scenic. Besides the lake, there was an open amphitheater, a baseball field, two fish hatcheries, a stone clubhouse, a boat pier, a fishing pier, a nine-hole golf course, and a suspension footbridge over the lake. There were picnic benches, camping areas, rock bridges, lookout houses, gravel walkways, and a paved road that ran around the outside of the lake.

  Ty carried the food in a brown paper sack, and we walked over the suspension bridge and the rock bridges until we got to the picnic area. We didn’t hold hands because I was careful to keep mine in my pockets, but we walked side by side. It was a beautiful day—a little hazy, the sky white instead of blue. I could see people playing golf and swimming, but we had the picnic tables to ourselves.

  Ty set everything up, and I helped him, and then we sat down. I looked around me for a long time before I started eating, and thought what a lovely place this was and how I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else at just this moment, not even the Opry.

  Ty said, “I hope you don’t eat like a girl.”

  I said, “I love to eat.”

  “Thank God.”

  We ate watermelon and ham sandwiches and potato salad. I thought the food tasted better sitting outside in the sun at Lake Sweetwater than it ever would have if we’d been sitting inside the mess hall.

  Ty said, “I’d like to thank you for coming on a proper date with me, honey, even though I’d a lot rather show you an improper one.” He clinked his bottle of Coca-Cola against mine and drank it down. “One thing at a time though.”

  Then he set his Coca-Cola on the table and said, “Tell me about you.”

  “About me?”

  “Yes.” He leaned back on his arms and smiled at me. “Don’t leave anything out, because I’ll know if you do. And don’t just tell me the good stuff.”

  I thought, There’s more bad stuff than good stuff. And I wondered how that had happened to me. I was charmed. I was lucky. Everyone from my own mama to Aunt Junie, the witch-healer, had told me so. I didn’t feel like one of those people that other people felt sorry for because they had too much sadness and heartbreak. But when I sat down and added everything up I realized I could have been.

  I told him about Mama and Daddy and Sweet Fern and my brothers, especially Johnny Clay. I told him about being saved and going to fetch the moonshine when Mama was sick and how I prayed to Jesus to save her. I told him about the note that Daddy left and how Mama took to her bed afterward and never got up again. I told him about my daddy leaving us with Sweet Fern and how Johnny Clay and me ran away and then how we came back and the panther almost got us. I told him about the road that was built across the mountains and how my brother and my daddy went to work on it. I told him about the Wood Carver and how I would go visit him and the train wreck that killed Danny Deal. I told him about Lucinda Sink and Johnny Clay and about how he gave Danny’s yellow truck to me and how I taught myself to drive it. I told him about making my record and saving up money for Nashville. I told him about the outlanders and how the Wood Carver was chased away along with so many of my friends, and I told him how I knew then that I had to leave no matter what and that my daddy had left me money and Johnny Clay gave me a map and he also gave me the note my daddy wrote Mama, back before she took to her bed, and how all it said was that he loved her and was trying to earn some mo
ney to help her feel better.

  And then I told him about Harley. I didn’t want to tell him everything, no matter what he said. (I thought: But you did just tell him everything, girl—you told him things that no one else knows the whole of, not even Harley, not even Johnny Clay.) So I just said that I was young once and fell in love and got married and then I left him.

  Ty said, “Do you still love him?”

  “No. I haven’t for a long time.”

  “No regrets?”

  “No.”

  Ty was quiet for a moment and then he said, “Thank you for telling me about that. I imagine it wasn’t easy to do. Thank you for telling me about everything, honey.”

  I said, “You’re welcome.” And suddenly I felt lighter, like I’d just set down one of the burdens I always carried around with me.

  That night we watched a baseball game—Champion versus Divide—and after Champion won there was a pop and then a crack and then a burst of color, just like a star exploding in red, green, and blue. Ty and I sat side by side and watched the fireworks, and I thought about how fireworks were a good idea because they made a person happy to see and to hear. Then I remembered the fireworks at the Tulane Hotel and the way Charlie Jones had kissed me.

  Ty took my hand then and he was warm and strong, and I could feel his pulse beating into mine. There was an explosion of purple and gold, and I said, “Oh!” Then that was it—after just a minute they were over. I sat waiting for more.

  Ty said, “They have to skimp on the fireworks because of the gunpowder used to make them. Too valuable to waste these days.”

  I said, “They were pretty while they lasted.” I was still watching, just in case.

  He said, “Well, look. There’s another one.”

  I said, “Where?” The only light in the sky was the moon.

  He said, “And another. That was a good one—red, white, and blue.” The sky was quiet and dark.

 
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