Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  Then I looked around me—really looked—and the closer we got to City Hall, the sadder I felt because Juárez was a sad, dirty place, and this was where my marriage was ending. I thought about how it began—about the pretty little church up on Fair Mountain that Daddy Hoyt founded, and Reverend Nix asking me if I took Harley Bright as my husband while my family watched. I thought about my white dress, the one that had belonged to Aunt Bird, and the Balsam Mountain Springs Hotel, where we danced under the stars and ate lime-pepper steak.

  I started to think about Harley and got a creeping feeling in my heart. Right now he was probably sitting up in Devil’s Kitchen at his house or at the Little White Church. He might be at Deal’s buying more sugar for his daddy’s moonshine or preaching a revival down by Three Gum River. He might be sitting in his mudroom writing a new sermon or rocking on the porch with Pernilla Swan. And here I was in a car with two strangers and a girl he didn’t even know, in another country—a dirty, dangerous place that smelled like whiskey and farm animals—about to end our marriage.

  We pulled up in front of City Hall, which looked like a grand old Spanish castle. Sergeant Gilbert opened my door and Sergeant Keil opened Paula’s, and we took their hands and walked up the steps. My heart was thudding in my chest, and I suddenly felt like I might faint right there. Sergeant Gilbert stopped and said, “You okay, Velva Jean?”

  “I’m okay, sir.”

  He laughed, looking down at his hand holding mine. He said, “Gene.”

  He helped me on up the steps and to the front door and inside, Paula and Roger Keil leading the way. Roger asked one of the armed guards who was stationed just inside where we should go. The guard pointed down the hall, and I let myself be dragged along, not feeling my feet or my legs anymore. The only thing I could feel was Gene’s hand around mine, pulling me forward.

  We walked down the hall and turned a corner and then another corner and suddenly we were in a big room, and there was marble everywhere and cracks in the floor and in the walls. I looked up at the ceiling and there were cracks there too, and I wondered what had caused them. There was a line of people and we stood in this and waited.

  Paula said, “If the girls could see this.”

  Avenger Field felt as far away as Fair Mountain. I wondered what Mudge and Sally were doing right now, and I thought of Loma and wondered how it felt to her, being a wife and mother again. Soon I wouldn’t be a wife anymore. I would be an ex-wife, and I thought this was a horrible word, like boogeyman or rickets. Now, and forever after, I would be Harley Bright’s ex-wife. I would be divorced. Just like I was half an orphan. All bad words that meant I was scarred and used up, just like an old pair of shoes or a coat no one wanted anymore.

  I could hear one of Harley’s sermons in my head: “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives.”

  When it was my turn in line, I stood at the counter and before I could even say why I was there the man handed me a stack of paperwork. He said, “Fill this out and pay five dollars.” His accent was thick. He had coal-black hair and a bushy mustache. He said, “Bring back here when done.”

  I’d brought fifty dollars with me because I wasn’t sure how much it cost to get a divorce and I didn’t want to go all the way to Mexico and not have enough money. I counted out five dollars, and thought I would have paid all fifty if that was what it took. Then we sat down on a bench where there were other men and women filling out forms. Roger handed me a pen, and I started to read.

  The form asked for everything from my name to Harley’s to when we were born to where we were from to when we got married and where. There were four pages, and I filled them out as best I could. When it asked what Harley did for a living, I wrote “preacher.” It didn’t ask what I did, but I wrote in “wife’s job: pilot.” The last question said, “What is the reason for your divorce?” And instead of giving you space to write, it gave you five things to choose from: “abuse, infidelity, mental instability, criminal behavior, abandonment.”

  I thought about all the reasons I was here in Juárez filling out these forms when I’d thought, six years ago, that I would be married forever. There wasn’t room for all the reasons, and none of the five choices fit. I finally checked “abandonment” because that was how I’d felt for a long time, even if Harley hadn’t ever gone off and left me like my daddy did.

  The words played in my head over and over, like a record: What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.

  Let no man separate.

  Let no man separate.

  I signed the papers and then I stood in line again, and when it was my turn I gave the forms to the same man, who said, “Come back in three hours.”

  And that was that. I looked at Paula and Gene and Roger and suddenly felt ashamed that these three people who I barely knew had to see me like this, here in the Juárez, Mexico, City Hall, asking for a divorce from my husband.

  I said, “Thank you all for being here.”

  Paula threw her arm around me. She said, “What say we go get a drink?”

  We spent the afternoon at a place called La Fiesta Supper Club. It was still early, but we walked inside and they sat us at a little table near the dance floor. The Supper Club was swanky and bright—a million different colors, palm trees in the corners, lanterns in blue and pink and orange hanging from the ceiling. The waiters wore red and there was a large dance floor with a stage.

  Gene said, “You wouldn’t believe the folks that play here.”

  We ordered champagne and flautas, which were little corn flatbreads rolled up like cigars and filled with chicken and cheese, and the waiter brought chips and something green and thick that Roger said was “guacamole.” I thought it tasted like fresh-cut grass, or what fresh-cut grass would taste like if you were to eat it. We ate every last bite, and then the waiter brought us more and we ate that too. I decided getting divorced made me hungry.

  I’d only tasted champagne once before, at the Tulane Hotel, and I wasn’t sure I liked it. The taste of it made me feel mean and happy all at once, but I liked the way the bubbles went up my nose.

  We asked the boys questions about the Los Alamos National Laboratory, but the only thing they said was that it sat on the site of the old Los Alamos Ranch School, which was a private school for teenage boys, and that the work being done there was going to win the war and change the world forever.

  Then the music started, and it was Count Basie and his orchestra. I’d never seen Count Basie before, but I knew his songs because he was one of the most famous bandleaders in America. He was a short colored man with a wide-open face and a great big smile. He wore a checkered suit and black tie and sat down at a white grand piano, facing his band.

  I said to Paula, “Let’s get ourselves up to the front so we can see him better.” I wanted to get a closer look. We danced through the men and women who were suddenly filling the floor, looking young and colorful, just like pictures out of a magazine. They called out to us as we pushed through—Paula, me, Gene Gilbert, Roger Kiel. When we got to the front, Count Basie started to play “One o’Clock Jump,” and we spun each other around. For the first time in a long time I felt the worry melt away. I forgot why I was there, in this other country, in this particular town. I thought, I can’t go back to being Mrs. Harley Bright any more than I can go back to the seventh grade.

  In between songs, Count Basie said, “This goes out to all the girls and boys who are fighting right now.” He nodded straight at me. He said, “Git up here, honey.”

  I said, “Me?” Paula pushed me toward him.

  He said, “You there, in that uniform. What are you? A WAVE? A WAC? Come sit up here and help me with this.”

  Paula shouted, “We’re WASP!”

  He said, “Pilots! Even better.”

  He opened up sheet music and set it in front of him. He said to me, so no one else could hear, “Can you read music?”

  I said, “Yes, sir.”

  He laughed. “Good.” Then he signaled his orche
stra and started singing a song called “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” which was all about saying good-bye to the things that bored you and saying hello to a new horizon filled with joy and sunshine.

  When it came time for the last chorus, I sang with him. He looked at me like he was surprised and then he nodded. He let me sing the very last verse all on my own. They went right into “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” after that, but he winked at me as I walked away. People started clapping, and I took a little bow.

  Paula said, “Holy shit, Hartsie. Where’d you get those lungs?”

  We danced after that, the four of us, and as we danced the words to “Beyond the Blue Horizon” raced through my head over and over. It felt good to sing again. It had been much too long. I thought that when I got back to Avenger Field I might write Darlon C. Reynolds a letter just to remind him I was out there.

  On our way back to City Hall, we stopped at a market where Gene Gilbert bought a bottle of tequila, and we all bought straw hats, and I bought a six-stringed mariachi guitar the color of sand. It was made of rosewood and had a starburst painted in the center, and it was the prettiest guitar I’d ever seen. As we climbed the steps to City Hall and walked down the hallway, turning and then turning again until we were in the same room with the same cracked marble, I thought of all the songs I’d write on my Mexican guitar. I could hear Count Basie in my head and me singing along with him. I thought that I was walking beyond my blue horizon right then, right that minute.

  We waited in line at the same counter, and then the same man with the same mustache handed me a single piece of paper that said I, Velva Jean Hart, was now a divorced woman.

  I wondered at what moment it had happened and why I hadn’t felt it. How could I not have felt it? Was I drinking champagne? Eating guacamole? Singing with Count Basie? Dancing with Paula and Gene and Roger? I stood there suddenly feeling like a soldier missing an arm or a leg. My phantom limb—the Mrs. Harley Bright that was cut off and gone.

  “Congratulations,” the man said, but he was already waving the next customer up to the desk. I wondered how many divorces he oversaw each day and if he himself was divorced or if he was happily married. Maybe he had a wife he went home to each night. Maybe he climbed in bed next to her and held her close and told her how lucky he was, how lucky they both were to have each other.

  On the drive back to Fort Bliss, Gene Gilbert passed the bottle of tequila back to me. He said, “Congratulations, Velva Jean. To being beyond the keep.”

  The day after we got back from Mexico, I went up by myself in the AT-6 and I sang as loud as could be. It was a day of blue sky and white clouds, which hung low and didn’t get in the way of the sun. The sunlight caught the plane and turned it from silver to white, shining it from nose to tail, wing to wing.

  As I flew I sang marching songs and songs from the radio and one or two of my very own songs too. I sang “Beyond the Blue Horizon” three times in a row, making up words when I couldn’t remember the real ones, and then I sang “The Unclouded Day.” How long had it been since I’d sung like this? Not since Nashville. Not since flying in the Aeronca. I sang into the airplane radio and thought about Judge Hay and Darlon C. Reynolds and wished somehow they could hear me.

  After landing, I climbed down from the plane and walked across the runway and suddenly I heard the sound of whistling and clapping. Paula, Mudge, Sally, and the other girls were standing around in their zoot suits and turbans or baseball caps. They were all cheering. “You been holding out on us, Hartsie,” Sally shouted.

  I stopped right there and said, “What are you talking about?”

  Paula said, “That radio goes straight to the control tower, honey. As soon as you started song number two, they put you through the loud speakers.”

  It wasn’t the Grand Ole Opry, but without knowing it I’d just given my first concert since singing with Travelin’ Jones and his band two years ago. I pulled off my helmet and pulled off my turban. Just then a man walked up and he was carrying an enormous camera, so big it looked more like an accordion. He had gray hair and wore sunglasses, and a black string with a badge hung around his neck. He said to me, “You there. I’d like to take your picture up on that plane.”

  I thought about how I must look. No makeup, lipstick faded, my hair in a ponytail because this kept it out of my face when I was flying, dressed in my zoot suit, sleeves and pants rolled up. I said, “My picture?” The other girls were staring at him, staring at me. Mudge was rummaging around in her pockets, and she pulled out a lipstick and held it out to me.

  He said, “No no—like you are. I want to catch you just like that. Up on that plane you just flew.”

  I handed my helmet to Sally and then I climbed up on the plane, up on the wing, and sat there, my legs swinging off the side. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I didn’t know whether to smile or look serious. No one had ever taken my picture before, except the photo booth next to Bootsy’s in Nashville. I hoped I wouldn’t look silly.

  The man said, “I want you to act natural. Sit there, just like you are, and let me worry about the photograph.”

  I swung my legs and tried not to fidget, and then all of a sudden there was a roar overhead and a Beechcraft AT-11 went zooming past. I forgot about the camera and the man with the gray hair and raised my chin to watch it go. I would never get enough of flying—the power of the planes, each one so different, the rush of feeling, the race of your heart as you started climbing and went faster, faster, faster, higher, higher, higher. I closed my eyes and felt the sun on my face and listened to the engine roar as it headed away, beyond the keep, beyond the blue horizon.

  “Perfect,” the man said.

  I opened my eyes and remembered where I was, and there was the man with his accordion camera and my friends standing around behind him.

  He said, “Thank you, little lady.” And then he set off toward the mess hall.

  I called after him, “Wait a minute. What’s this for?”

  He stopped and called back, “Life magazine.” Then he turned around and kept walking.

  September 9, 1943

  Dear Harley,

  I need to write this right now because if I don’t I will keep carrying you around inside me where I don’t want you. I truly loved you or felt I did. I loved you the best I could. When I married you, I did it with my whole heart. I loved being Mrs. Velva Jean Hart Bright, Harley Bright’s wife.

  Then something changed, though it’s hard to say when. It’s like we were on this happy ride together, side by side, enjoying it all, and then the next minute I was looking over my shoulder to see where you’d gone.

  I’m sending you a copy of the divorce paper along with this letter. I wish you only the best in this life.


  Velva Jean


  SEPTEMBER 11, 1943





  SEPTEMBER 12, 1943





  On September 15, the girls and me took off as a group from Avenger Field. We flew over El Paso and Lordsburg, New Mexico, and the mountains just north of there, and then instead of stopping for fuel in Phoenix, where a bad storm was brewing, we landed at the Camp Navajo military base near Flagstaff. From there, we took off together again, but this time, one by one, I lost sight of Paula and Mudge and the others till it was just Sally and me, and then finally just me. It was always hard to keep other planes in sight when you were up in the air.

  I was on my own, flying over the San Francisco Peaks, a group of ancient volcanoes, some as high as twelve thousand feet, which was twice as high as my mountains back home. They were the highest mountains I’d ever seen.

  I’d never flown so high before or so far and the AT-6 bumped and jumped like a li
ttle toy plane. It suddenly felt so small and flimsy, more like a paper airplane than a real one. They hadn’t given us much training in mountain flying and suddenly I realized how scary this was. I’d been so excited leaving Avenger Field, because leaving this time meant nothing but Ty, Ty, Ty. Some of the girls had been sick to their stomachs over the idea of long-distance mountain flying. Before we left, Sally said, “Aren’t you worried, Velva Jean? Aren’t you scared shitless?” She dropped a quarter in the cuss pot.

  “No,” I said. “I know the mountains. I’m not scared of mountains.”

  But these mountains weren’t like my mountains—these were taller, bigger, larger, wider. They were sharp and jaggedy and bare, like they’d been whittled and all the hard edges were left, none of them smoothed down or polished. These mountains didn’t slope and curve like the ones I was used to. They were all cold, hard surface and no trees, and they pointed up toward the sky, toward my plane, like a knife, the white of too-early-in-the-season snow mixing with the brown of the rock. This left me chilled inside because I thought about what the air must be like at the peaks—windy and cold as the North Pole.

  One thing I knew was that I would never want to get lost there. I’d plotted my course as careful as I could before I left Texas, and I knew I was closing in on Blythe. I could see desert down below, scrubby and sandy. The mountains dropped down some and smoothed out, but they were still high and rough and rugged.

  The closer I got to Blythe, the more my stomach jumped. I felt twitchy and nervous at the idea of seeing Ty. I thought how nice it would be if Ned Tyler was the man I was supposed to be with forever and ever, and then I wouldn’t have to meet lots of men and go on dates with them and hope that they fell in love with me or that I fell in love with them.

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