Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  We sat blinking at this woman, the most famous female pilot in the world, and finally Paula, who was the bravest of us all, said, “Yes, ma’am.”

  Jackie Cochran walked over to the wooden bench where we were sitting and sat down right beside me. She said, “You’re Velva Jean Hart.”

  I said, “Yes, ma’am.” The other girls gawked at me.

  She said, “You sent me a number of letters.”

  I said, “Yes, ma’am.” I thought about the last one I’d written her, all about how I knew she was an orphan who didn’t go to school and who had to choose her name out of a telephone book and how her and me were alike because we came from the same place. I suddenly wished it was my turn to go up in the Bobcat because I thought these might not be things a person would want to hear about herself, especially from a stranger, even if they were true.

  She crossed her legs and smoothed her pants and pulled a cigarette case out of her pocket. It was beautiful—made of gold, with rubies and diamonds and emeralds on the face—and it shone in the light. She opened it and pulled out a cigarette. She offered me one, and I shook my head. Everything she did seemed elegant.

  I couldn’t help myself. I said, “How pretty.” More than anything, I wanted to hold it and run my hands over the stones. I thought about the emerald my daddy had given me years ago, back when he used to come around before he left us for good, and the gems he tried to mine for a while.

  She handed it to me and said, “Do you see the pattern on this case?” She reached over and tilted it in my hands so I could see it in the lights of the control tower and the planes overhead, and the moon high above. I could see that the jewels made some sort of pattern, but I couldn’t tell what it was.

  I said, “It looks like a route, like a course that’s been plotted.” Paula, Mudge, and Sally were leaning around me, trying to look over my shoulder. Shirley Bingham and some of the other girls waiting nearby were doing the same.

  She said, “It’s the route of the Bendix Trophy Race.” The Bendix Trophy Race was a transcontinental, point-to-point air race that was supposed to interest engineers in building faster, more reliable planes. The pilots that entered the race flew from Burbank, California, to Cleveland, Ohio. Miss Cochran had won it in 1938, and by doing so opened the race up to women. “My husband gave it to me as a memento.”

  I said, “It’s beautiful.” I wanted to own it. I felt jealous of the case and jealous of Miss Cochran for having something so pretty that meant so much to her. I wanted something like that myself and a husband who was so excited about me being a pilot that he would take the time to think it up.

  I handed the case back to her because I was afraid if I didn’t I might put it in my pocket. She said, “My husband’s confined to a wheelchair.” This was something we’d heard about her husband, Floyd Odlum, a rich lawyer who had sponsored her in one of her earliest races. He stayed at home in New York while she traveled the world and flew.

  She held the case, turning it this way and that in the light. She said, “We write to each other every day.”

  I tried to picture this man in his wheelchair, writing his wife letters while she called herself “Miss” Cochran and broke the sound barrier and won air races and created a program for women pilots, the first of its kind. I thought he must be about the best man in the world to give her a beautiful cigarette case like that, to help her remember a race she’d won.

  Jackie Cochran said, “In real life, I’m Mrs. Floyd Odlum, but up in the air and on the flight line I’m Jacqueline Cochran. I like being both.”

  I thought, He gets to fly through you and he helps keep you on the ground, but not in a rooted way like a tree.

  She lit her cigarette and inhaled. Her fingernails were painted a dark, shiny red. Her hair was curled, resting just above her shoulders. She inhaled again and stood, slipping the cigarette case back into her pocket. “Safe flights, ladies.” Then she walked away toward the control tower.

  “Well,” said Mudge.

  “Well,” said Paula. “What do you think that was about?” Before I could think about it or answer her, it was my turn to go up, and Mudge and I walked to our plane.

  The runways were lit by flares, and as I took off with my quadrant—the four of us rising into the sky one by one—all I could see were the flares on the ground, which looked more like flames. They seemed closer than they were and for a minute they were blinding and I couldn’t see anything but the burning red-orange of the fire and the blur of taillights. For one awful moment I thought I was out of formation and that I’d lost everyone.

  I remembered something Puck had said about using your artificial horizon if you lost track of where you were. I thought I never would get used to something called an artificial horizon, and then I wondered if that might make a good song or at least the name of one. Something about learning to fly without looking at the sky, just trusting your judgment and letting it guide you even though you didn’t know where on earth it was taking you.

  I’d plotted my course that afternoon, drawing a line on a chart, listing the checkpoints—Roscoe, Loraine, Westbrook, Big Spring, Stanton, Midland—and the miles between each one. The weather said we’d have a tailwind heading out.

  I was flying the takeoff and Mudge would do the landing. This suited me fine because I liked takeoffs better. I loved the thrill of pouring the coal into it, as we called it, and holding the throttle and pointing the plane up into the sky.

  Night gathered around us like a blanket. The sun was gone and there wasn’t a moon. We were at three thousand feet and the cockpit was dark. Only the instrument panel was lit, the dials looking like little points of starlight.

  I said to Mudge, “How long does a divorce take?”

  She didn’t ask me why I wanted to know. She said, “A year. Sometimes longer.” Our voices sounded strange, like they were hovering above us.

  I thought about being Mrs. Harley Bright for another year. I suddenly felt like I couldn’t be Mrs. Harley Bright for five more minutes.

  Mudge said, “But not if you go to Mexico.”

  I thought about what flying meant to me, how it was so much bigger than anything. Being up in the sky with the ground below, spread out this way and that way, made a person realize how some things in this world are big and some things are small. I loved flying because it taught me to stand on my own and be on my own when I was most scared of doing both. In an AT-6 or Cessna or Stearman or AT-17 Bobcat, I was beyond the keep, which was something we always said to each other. “Beyond the keep” meant that no one had a hold on you, no one could keep you, because you couldn’t be pinned down. Flying made me feel free, like I could go anywhere.

  August 30, 1943

  Dear girls,

  Well, I’m back in Monongah, and I still can’t believe I’m here. Peggy is happy to see her mama, and it’s amazing how much she’s grown. She’s as tall as Sally, but of course that’s not too tall, is it?

  I hope you all will write me the news, because even though I’m not there I want to know what you’re doing and what’s going on. How are things developing with Lieutenant Whitley, Mudge? Is he paying any attention yet? How much money have you added to the cuss pot since I’ve been gone, Paula? Have you heard from your bugler, Hartsie? Has Sally stopped talking and chewing gum in her sleep? Has she got a date yet with her redhead?

  Tomorrow Peggy and I are going to the picture show to see Song of Bernadette starring Jennifer Jones, who’s almost as pretty as Hartsie. I can’t wait for the day when I can go see Barbara Fanning, alias Eloise Mudge, in pictures. Then we’re going to eat supper at the diner and maybe do some shopping. I’m going to have to figure out how to fill my days now that I’m not up at six and going from the mess to the classroom to the flight line. You should see me trying to walk like a normal person! I’m still marching wherever I go.

  I miss you all. You’re the best group of girls I’ve ever known.



  September 1, 1943

  Dear Velva Jean,

  I hope you’re happy. I don’t sleep. I don’t eat. I’m almost bald from the stress of being away from you. The guys all say I’m worthless on the flight line. Just about the only thing I can do these days is play the damn bugle, but instead of reveille or taps I start playing “Keep on the Sunny Side.”

  Is it strange to say I miss you? Probably. I know we didn’t get much time together in the scheme of things. So forget I said it.

  But I do.



  September 3, 1943

  Dear Ty,

  We have a cross-country trip coming up, to Blythe, California. I’ll let you know as soon as it’s on the books, but I thought maybe, just maybe, I could see you. How far is that from Ontario? Will you come?



  Velva Jean

  September 6, 1943

  Dear Velva Jean,

  Hell yes, I’ll come to Blythe, wherever the Sam Hill that is. Are you kidding? I’d go to the goddamn moon, girl.




  Juárez, Mexico, was the divorce capital of the world. Mudge said this was where everyone went, even movie actors like Hoot Gibson, the rodeo champion, and his wife, Sally Eilers.

  On September 7, Paula and me were scheduled for a cross-country to the Army Air Forces base in Alamogordo, New Mexico. We were flying together in the AT-17, or Bobcat, but this time we weren’t taking an instructor along. Alamogordo was about one hundred miles northeast of Juárez, which was just over the border from New Mexico and Texas. We figured we could make our trip, and on the way back we could stop in Juárez and get me a divorce. I knew it might be a serious matter, flying a military plane out of the country during wartime, but I didn’t care what they did to me. I needed to be beyond the keep, and I figured I would rather be locked in an army prison than stay married to Harley Bright.

  Paula was flying when we ran into an electrical storm just after we passed over the New Mexico border. We were above the rain and above the clouds, but there was lightning on all sides of us. I stared out the window and saw what looked like flames. I sat straight up and thought: The wing is on fire. The engine’s on fire. We’re going down. I was going to have to die Mrs. Harley Bright.

  Paula shouted, “Do you see it? Saint Elmo’s Fire?”

  I said, “What?”

  “Saint Elmo’s Fire! The flames outside. It looks like ball lightning, but it’s not. It’s an electric discharge that happens during thunderstorms, usually over the ocean. Sailors use it to travel by.”

  I stared out the window and watched the flames dancing. They were spindly and delicate, like miniature lightning strikes. They looked like tree limbs covered in bright-white ice. I thought, They’re helping me find my way.

  We lost our bearings and overshot Alamogordo, landing at the first airfield we saw. As far as we could tell, we were somewhere north of Albuquerque. As we came in, we could see that the airfield was really some sort of huge, sprawling compound built on a sandstone mesa in the middle of what looked like a desert of other mesas. The land went on for miles—flat scrubby desert ringed by mountains—and as we got nearer to the ground we could see that barbed wire ran around it, sometimes just two or three feet high, like it was made to keep in cows or horses, and sometimes as high as nine or ten feet. There were armed guards stationed in a tower and along the fence, and as Paula took us in I said, “They’re aiming their guns at us.”

  She said, “Who is?”

  “The guards.”

  “Which ones?”

  “All of them.”

  “Jesus, Hartsie, where are we?”

  “I don’t know. Some sort of military base?”

  As soon as we landed, bumping down onto the flat of the desert, the guards ran for us, guns out and pointed in our direction, and yanked us out of the plane. Two young men in beige pants and white shirts—one of them with a shock of dark hair that stood straight up, the other skinny and balding with big, round glasses—stood frowning at us. They were the only ones that weren’t in uniforms.

  The dark-haired one said, “Where are you coming from?” He made it sound like we were out for a joy ride, like maybe we’d stolen this plane and were just flying it around for fun.

  The rain was pouring and thunder boomed in the distance. There was a lightning strike over one of the mesas, and then another. Even though it was hot as an oven, I started shivering. Paula said, “Texas.” But it was hard to hear her over the thunder.

  The guards surrounded us then, and we took off our helmets. One of them said, “It’s just a couple of girls.” I didn’t like the way he said it, like this meant we couldn’t be dangerous or important.

  Paula said, “We’re WASP trainees from Avenger Field in Texas. We were headed to Alamogordo.”

  The balding man with glasses said to the dark-haired man, “Jackie Cochran’s girls.” He had a strange accent.

  The dark-haired man said, “A little off-base, aren’t you?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Let me see some ID.”

  We pulled out our ID badges and handed them to him. I was good and mad by now because I was wet as a sponge, standing there in the pouring rain, thunder booming all around us, guns pointing at us from every angle.

  He said, “Do you know where you’ve landed?”

  Paula said, “No, sir.”

  “You’re in Los Alamos.” Los Alamos was at least 250 miles north of Alamogordo. I was trying to think of an airfield in Los Alamos. Just like he read my mind, the man said, “You’ve just landed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.”

  The balding man said, “Feynman.” It sounded like a warning.

  That was all they said, but by not saying anything, by the guards and the guns and the barbed wire, I knew there was more to it than that.

  Even with the storm crashing around us, we were told we couldn’t overnight at the lab. The officer in charge, Colonel Martin Hascall, offered to send someone back to Avenger with us, or at least down to Alamogordo. We sat in a private office in one of the low, ugly buildings that was built into the desert. It was Paula, Colonel Hascall, and me. One of the other guards had come in and brought us food.

  I said, “We’re not heading back to Sweetwater yet. We’re on our way to Juárez, Mexico.”

  He said, “Mexico? No. Never land in Mexico, because they’ll put you in jail and not let you out.”

  I said, “I have to go to Mexico.”

  Paula said, “She’s getting a divorce.”

  I said, “Paula.”

  She said, “Maybe he can help us.”

  We both looked at Colonel Hascall. He said, “You can’t get this divorce any other place?”

  I said, “It takes too long.”

  Paula said, “Juárez is the divorce capital of the world.”

  He said, “Among other things. It’s also the prostitution capital, the drug capital, the murder capital.”

  I said, “We just need to go for one day, just long enough to get me divorced. You don’t understand, sir. I need to be beyond the keep.”

  When the storm died down, Colonel Hascall sent us to Alamogordo with two of his men, Gene Gilbert and Roger Keil. We called Avenger Field to check in, to let them know where we were and that we’d be home the next day. Then, after spending the night at the Alamogordo base, we set off for Juárez with the sergeants.

  We landed at noon, just over the Texas border, near El Paso, at Fort Bliss, and from there the four of us drove to Juárez. Sergeant Gene Gilbert was in his late twenties, tall and blond and pale as a ghost, with bright blue eyes and red-framed glasses. Sergeant Roger Keil was a head shorter, dark as a gypsy, and built like a freight train. He was my age.

  We were stopped at the border where we showed our IDs and the guards let us through after Sergeant Gilbert told them we were only there for a day and that we’d be leaving by nightfall. The guard said, “Welcome to Mexico. Watch out for those
two girls. Don’t let them out of your sight. And be back before dark.”

  I felt a thrill go through me. I’d never in my life been outside the United States, and here I was in Mexico. I suddenly felt as far away as the moon from my family up on Fair Mountain and Gossie in Nashville.

  Gene Gilbert was driving and Roger Kiel sat next to him. Up in the front seat, Sergeant Gilbert was talking about what we should do and how we should act when we got out of the car. He said, “I want you girls to hold our hands and stick close to us.”

  I felt another thrill as I imagined a place so dangerous that girls couldn’t be out alone. I couldn’t help it—the thrill was the same kind I felt when I thought about prisons or crazy people or walking through the woods at night, watching out for haints.

  Sergeant Gilbert said, “The divorce should take a couple of hours at most. We’ve got a buddy that came down here last month, and it only took him an hour.”

  I looked at my door and tugged on the lock just to make sure it was in place. I looked across at Paula’s, and it seemed to be pushed in. I wanted to see Juárez, to see the whore ladies and bad men and murderers walking the street, but I also didn’t want them in the car with me.

  We drove through downtown, and Paula and I stared out the windows at the old crumbling buildings and donkeys and painted ladies. I counted at least twelve murderers as we headed for City Hall. I grabbed Paula’s hand and squeezed it. She said, “Shit, Velva Jean.” Then to the boys: “I’m glad you fellas are with us.” I thought she had her eye on Sergeant Keil even though he didn’t say two words.

  “Much obliged,” said Sergeant Gilbert.

  To keep my mind off the sagging store awnings and the trash in the street, the chickens running wild, and the balconies crowded with men drinking tequila, I thought about all the things I would write to Johnny Clay in my next letter. He would be sick with envy when he knew I’d come here.

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