Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven


  I thought, He’s making them up just for me. It was the sweetest thing I could imagine. I said, “There goes another. Purple and green. Like a starburst.”

  He said, “Red this time. Then blue. Then red again.”

  I said, “I like the gold ones best.”

  He said, “Well looky there, honey! A gold one. And another.” He was pointing. “And another. There and there and there.”

  In my mind I could see them clear as day. I said, “They’re beautiful.”

  Ty brought my hand to his lips and kissed it, never taking his eyes off the sky.

  Back at base I started wishing time would slow down. I wanted to go back to the beginning of the day and start over again so I had everything to look forward to. I moved slow as could be getting out of the jeep because I didn’t want the date to be over.

  Ty stood there holding my door. He said, “Please take your time, honey. The longer you take, the longer the date lasts.” I laughed because he had read my mind.

  When I was out and standing there, he shut the door behind me and we stood looking at each other. I felt like I should say something but I didn’t know what to say. Thank you for the most wonderful day? Thank you for listening to me and wanting to know so much? Thank you for sitting there while I talked on and on about the deepest things in my heart and for never looking twitchy or bored or bothered and for not thinking bad of me for having a daddy that left and for having a marriage that didn’t work out?

  He said, “You should see your face.”

  I put my hand to my cheek in case my thoughts were showing through—things like, Thank you for hearing all the bad things that ever happened to me and still making me feel loved.

  And then I thought: Oh my God. I feel loved.

  He said, “Hell.” And then he kissed me. For a minute I let myself be kissed. And it was warm and electric and sweet, and my stomach dropped right into my feet. I thought I might melt right into him, right into his skin, and then he pulled away and he said, “I hope that was okay.” He had his hands on my shoulders, those long fingers playing with the ends of my hair. “I mean, I know it was okay because I’m a damn good kisser, but I hope it was okay to do that.”

  I looked up at him and for a split second, there in the moonlight, he looked like Harley—tall and dark and handsome—but different. I felt a chill, even though it was hotter than hot out. I said, “It was.”

  He said, “I thought it was a bit . . .” He frowned, thinking. “A bit blam! Like in comic books. Pow! Blam! Magic!”

  I laughed even though I was shaking like I was standing in a snow bank. I said, “Blam!”

  He said, “You make me feel fifteen again, honey. But only in the very best way.” He leaned in, and this time I put my hand on his chest. I said, “I want you to do it again, but you shouldn’t.” There was so much else to say: I’m married, but not married, and until I’m not actually married I can’t fall in love with someone new. I’m here to be a member of the WFTD and earn my wings and that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve traveled a long way to get here and I won’t let anything come in the way of that now.

  He looked sad, somewhere behind his eyes. But he smiled when he said, “Too much magic?”

  I said, “Yes.”

  And then I turned around and walked to the barracks and didn’t look back once. That night he played taps in the normal way, without anything added. Three days later the cadets were transferred out of Avenger Field and sent to Ontario, California.

  On the afternoon of July 20, just before mess, I was in the latrine washing my face and hands, trying to get the dust off me, when I heard a crash from our bay and, right after that, another. I dried my hands and walked into the room to find Loma lying like a dead person, facedown on her cot, her books and shoes scattered on the floor. Mudge was standing in front of her wardrobe mirror, brushing her hair.

  I said, “What happened?”

  Mudge said, “I don’t know. She just came in here throwing stuff.” “Loma?” I sat down beside her on the cot. Her shoulders were shaking and she was making little sounds into the pillow.

  Suddenly Sally and Paula came running in. “We just heard,” said Paula.

  “Heard what?” Mudge shut the door to her wardrobe.

  Loma said something into the pillow.

  Mudge said, “What did you say, Lolo?” She looked at us. “What did she say?”

  Sally sat down on the other side of Loma and started rubbing her back in little circles. “She washed out.” She cracked her gum like an exclamation point.

  “What?” More and more girls were washing out—31 from our class of 112 already. But those were other girls in other bays. Loma was one of us.

  She rolled over, her face red, her hair sticking to her cheeks. I brushed her hair away and handed her a handkerchief. She wiped her eyes and then cried harder and then wiped her eyes again, and then she sat up and said, “I knew it. Didn’t I tell you all along? I knew I was going to wash out.”

  Paula sat right down on the floor beside Loma’s cot and said, “Tell us what happened, Lo.”

  “I was up for a check ride today, but no one told me ahead of time, and they gave me three, one after another. Three! The first one was okay, but the second was bad, and I blew the third one by coming down bumpy and overshooting the runway.”

  “There’s got to be something we can do,” Mudge said. She was looking at us. “Talk to Puck? Go to Miss Cochran?”

  Loma said, “You think no one else has tried that? You know as well as I do that once you wash out, you’re out.”

  We sat there, all of us, not talking. And then Sally cracked her gum—one, two, three times—and started to cry. Suddenly Mudge was crying and I was crying and even Paula was crying a little. We wrapped our arms around Loma in a big group hug and just rocked back and forth, back and forth.

  When we pulled away, all of us sniffling and snuffling, Loma said, “I can’t go back to making supper and cleaning the house. My little girl and my husband are so proud of me. Now I’m nothing but their stupid old wife and mother again.”

  This made me think: Why wasn’t it enough for Loma to be a wife and mother? Would it be enough for me? For any of us? Could we go back to regular life after being here, after we’d lived up in the sky? I thought that after the war was over the ones that could put away their silver wings and go back home and have babies and not feel like they were missing out on anything would be the lucky ones. I thought about Sweet Fern and her tidy house and her tidy hair and her quilts and the curtains she’d sewn herself. And I remembered her telling me to go because she couldn’t. That she needed me to.

  “How can I ever tell you fools good-bye?” Loma said. “I’ll never in my life have friends like you again.” Then she swore for the third time in her life, and put a whole dollar in the cuss pot.

  Loma left the next morning. The rest of us flew to one of the auxiliary fields they’d set up to help with air traffic, and we rode home in the cattle wagon. While the other girls talked and laughed, Paula, Mudge, Sally, and me sat in the back in silence. I stared out the window at the flat, brown landscape, and it suddenly hit me how beautiful it was in its own ugly way. What if I had to leave it? Where would I go? What would I do? Go back to work as a waitress? Go home to Fair Mountain and sit up in Mama’s old house, up in my old bedroom, when a big, terrible war was changing the world?

  As far from home as I was in that flat and dusty place, I felt home again. I guessed that was who I was now, this person meant to struggle on my own, out in the great wide world, doing things for myself. One thing I loved about flying was that no one could keep you grounded or rooted like a bush or a tree when you were in the sky.

  July 31, 1943

  Dear Velva Jean,

  I hope you don’t mind my writing, but I couldn’t help myself. I’m here in Ontario, California, at the Ontario Army Airfield. You’ll have to come to California sometime because I think you’d like it. The sun shines all the time, but it’s not hot as Ha
des like it is in Texas. It’s a desert, but there are also palm trees and mountains, even if they’re brown and scrubby and not the kind you like. I haven’t seen the ocean yet, but we’ll start maneuvers soon, and I plan to fly over it even if I have to steal a plane to do it.

  In case you couldn’t guess, I sure did like meeting you and I hope it’s okay if I write you now and then. I’d love to hear from you in return because, as you know, the best time of the day is mail call. You’re about the loveliest thing I ever did see, Velva Jean, inside and out, and I want you to know that even if I never see you again, I’m happy to know you.

  The main reason I’m writing, though, is because I was just in the rec room, where they were playing the radio. What do you think was on? “Keep on the Sunny Side.” So of course I thought of you.

  Hope you’re keeping the dust out of your eyes and your feet off the ground.

  Your friend,

  Ty

  August 3, 1943

  Dear Ty,

  Thank you for your letter. I’m sorry I didn’t get to say good-bye, but I want you to know that you can’t count on me to write you letters and be your friend. I’m not in any place to be romantic with anyone. I left my husband a long time ago, but he’s still my husband, and I don’t want to drag anyone into my life when I’m not free. I wish we’d gotten to dance more and that we could have gone on another picnic, but it’s better that we didn’t. I hope you see that.

  Thank you again for the letter. But I don’t think you should send any more.

  Your friend,

  Velva Jean

  August 6, 1943

  Well now, dammit, Velva Jean. I don’t give a hang if you’re still married, as long as you’re not married in your heart. Now you’ll say I don’t know you all that well, and I guess I don’t, but it don’t take much to recognize that you’re a rare girl. Maybe you don’t see me in quite that same light, but sometime, someday, you’ll lose your heart to some stupid man and I think it might as well be me.

  Your husband’s not the problem. The worst rival any man will have with you is your love for flying and driving and the fact that you just ain’t cut out for living a normal, boring life. In other words, don’t stick Velva Jean back up on that mountain. But you know what? I don’t want a housewife and I don’t want a girl who can’t fly. I want you.

  I’ll tell you this—if I hear about you giving your heart to the first guy who comes along after me, I’m coming back to Avenger and giving you both what for. All I want is a chance.

  I hope you know I wouldn’t give you hell if you hadn’t stole your way into my heart. And I know, I know you didn’t mean to. Another thing—don’t worry about hurting me. I’ve been hanging around for a long time on this earth (twenty-five years to be exact) and my heart is tough enough on the surface that it would take a pretty hard blow to break it. (Although I’ve got a feeling that a blow from you would pack a pretty punch.)

  Take care, little one.

  Your friend,

  Ty

  August 9, 1943

  Dear Ty,

  Mercy, how you talk. I’m so afraid of doing something that will lead you on that I’m scared to open my mouth or, in this case, my typewriter. At the same time, I want to lead you on. In spite of everything you say about how tough your heart is, I know it’s a good and sweet heart and it would kill me if I ever was to break it. But if I don’t write you and I tell you not to write me anymore, I just might break my own.

  What to do?

  Your cautious friend,

  Velva Jean

  August 13, 1942

  Dear Velva Jean,

  For God’s sake, woman, you’re sweet to be so worried, but listen to me good here. You asked me what to do, and I’m going to tell you: go ahead and lead me on. That’s right—break my heart if you can (and I’m sure you can), because you already gave me fair warning. If I choose to ignore it, it’s my own foolish fault.

  Love,

  Ty

  August 16, 1943

  Dear Ty,

  You’re going to wear me down, aren’t you?

  Love,

  Velva Jean

  August 19, 1943

  Dear Velva Jean,

  Yes.

  Love,

  Ty

  TWENTY-SEVEN

  On August 20 newspapers reported that First Sergeant Beachard Samuel Hart, twenty-five, a medic from North Carolina, led a marine platoon to capture a hilltop on New Georgia, in the central Solomon Islands, overlooking the Munda Point airstrip. Reporters said the New Georgia jungle was “the worst terrain of the Pacific campaign.” The marine invasion forces had to cling to hillsides while nine thousand Japanese soldiers hid below in dugouts.

  It took the marines weeks to reach the airstrip, which was seven miles from the shoreline. On August 3, Beachard and his platoon found themselves in front of a hilltop overlooking the airstrip. While the Japanese fired machine guns and threw grenades at them, they pushed right on through to a point midway across the hilltop.

  When his soldiers ran away and Beach was left by himself, he crouched behind a tree stump and continued fighting, even though he wasn’t carrying a rifle and was shot in the hand and also in the ear. He hurled thirty grenades at the Japanese dugouts, forcing the enemy to run. Twenty-eight Japanese soldiers were killed in the attack.

  When asked how he found the courage to do it, Beach replied, “Have you ever prayed?” When told he might be a candidate for the Medal of Honor, he said, “I’d rather they didn’t. I did what anyone should have done, even if not everyone would have.”

  I clipped the story out of the newspaper and folded it into my hatbox along with other stories printed about my brother, Beachard S. Hart, who never did believe in wars between men or fighting or killing but who believed in peace and forgiveness and who was happiest when he was on his own, wandering the woods and the mountains.

  We started night flying the week of August 23, and while the other girls were finishing mess or taking turns in the showers I reported to the flight line early and sat down on one of the low wooden benches that were lined up by the runway. It was dusk, and the sky was turning all shades of pink and gold and orange. I watched the lights of the airplanes circling the field: white, red, white, red.

  And then I got out my notepaper and wrote a letter to Ty. We were writing every week, back and forth, and I was trying to be reasonable and not like him too much.

  I wrote to him about learning cross-country flying, instrument flying, and how to fly in formation. I wrote to him about learning to fly the beam, which was what they called it when you hit just the right spot on the radio signals that were beamed out from airports. If you were exactly on the beam, there was a hum that went out, but if you were to the right of the beam you heard what they called an A sound, which was like a dot-dash, and if you were to the left of the beam you heard an N sound, which was a dash-dot. The two sounds blending together made the solid hum of the beam. It was like a perfect note in music.

  I wrote to him about Puck—about how he said, “When you’re sitting in that cockpit, I want you to picture the flying you’re doing in that particular airplane. It’s just you and that one plane. You’ve got to know just what that plane can do for you.” I wrote to him about how, on August 5, the WFTD had merged with Nancy Harkness Love’s WAFS, and we were now officially the WASP, which stood for Women Airforce Service Pilots.

  And before I could write about anything else—like how I missed him and how I thought about him and how I got sad sometimes because he wasn’t there, even though I was glad he wasn’t there because I would want to spend time with him and not be working and studying like I was supposed to—Paula and Mudge and Sally and the other girls came out of the bays one by one. They sat down beside me, and Sally put her head on my shoulder and went right to sleep.

  That night we were flying the Cessna C-78, which was a twin-engine wood-and-fabric advanced trainer that had a range of 750 miles. The best thing about this was that we got to fly wit
h each other, three to a plane—two WASP trainees and an instructor. One of us girls would fly out and the other one would fly back. We drew straws to see who would go first.

  I folded up my letter and put it in my pocket. We sat there waiting our turn—Mudge and me were flying together, going up with Lieutenant Whitley, who Mudge had her eye on. Shirley Bingham walked up to tell us that Life magazine was coming to Avenger Field to do a story on the WASP and take photographs of us.

  Mudge said, “How do you know?”

  Shirley said, “I work in the office. Jackie Cochran told me.”

  Mudge started fixing her hair, just like a photographer was there right now.

  Shirley said, “She gave them a list of the most photogenic girls and you two”—she looked at Mudge and me—“are on it.”

  I thought about the most famous magazine in the world coming here, to Avenger Field, and taking pictures of us and how funny it was that somewhere—wherever Life magazine’s office was—someone had a list with my name on it. I thought maybe I would tell Ty about it in my letter.

  “It’s a lovely night for flying.”

  We looked up and there was Jacqueline Cochran standing next to us, so close we could touch her, looking at the sky, watching the planes already in flight, her hands shoved in her trouser pockets. It was surprising to see her because she didn’t spend a lot of time on base. We heard she was spending more and more of her time in Washington, D.C., trying to get the status of the WASP changed from civilian to military.

  Her lipstick was faded, like she’d just had a cup of coffee, but she looked as handsome as ever. Shirley Bingham had told us that Miss Cochran also ran her own cosmetics firm and had created something called Wonda-matic mascara.

 
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