Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  But what if he didn’t like me? What if I didn’t like him? What if I liked him too much? What if he liked me and then changed his mind about me? What if I changed my mind about him? I’d only just got myself free of Harley. Was I ready to fall in love with someone again? And could I help falling in love anyway? What if it was too late and I already had?

  Ty was at the base when I got there. I climbed out of the cockpit and he was the first thing I saw before Paula or Sally or Mudge or any of the others who were climbing down from their planes, peeling off their flight jackets, goggles, helmets. We lined up and filled out our paperwork, and just like that we were on leave for the night. I looked up and there was Ty with his big smile and all that dark hair. He picked me up and swung me around and for a minute I thought he was going to kiss me, but then he threw me over his shoulder and carried me off.

  Paula shouted, “Hey, Tyler! Bring her back!”

  And Mudge yelled, “Let him keep her. At least till tomorrow when we fly home!”

  He dropped me down into a jeep and then ran around to the driver’s seat. He said, “Time’s a wastin’, honey. Let’s go see what this town is all about.”

  Ty and I ate dinner at Valentino’s, a little restaurant in Blythe where the waiters spoke Italian and wore red shirts. I ate chicken Parmesan, and he ate lasagna, and we drank red wine out of blue glasses. The wine made my head feel light and a little bumpy, like the AT-6 going over the mountains, but it also made me feel warm inside in a way that kept growing and growing, like I’d swallowed a hundred lightning bugs.

  We talked about Oklahoma and North Carolina and his family and my family and music and the war and us. He said, “Honey, I think you’re the most wonderful girl. I’m sitting here listening to you, but I keep getting distracted because you’re not a damn sheet of paper.” Then he said, “Blam!”

  I said, “Magic!” Then I said, “I’m sorry we didn’t get to say good-bye before you left for Ontario.”

  He took my hand then. “That’s the thing about looking back.”

  When he didn’t say anything else, I said, “What’s the thing?”

  “When you’re looking back, you can’t look forward. And sometimes you run smack into something and hit your head.”

  I laughed. “So looking forward is much better.”

  “Unless you like head injuries.” He raised his blue glass. “Forward.”


  We clinked glasses and drank and I thought, I am sitting here falling in love with you. And instead of making me want to run away, the thought made me feel calm and happy. I sat there feeling loved, way deep down. I thought that maybe I’d had to leave Harley to meet Ty, that maybe it all came down to that. I thought that meeting Ty was just like The Wizard of Oz, and that after I’d been living in black and white for years and years he suddenly came through and turned everything into color.

  Afterward we walked through downtown Blythe holding hands. Blythe was just a few blocks of flat, square buildings right in the middle of the desert. The landscape was all sand and cactus. There wasn’t anything pretty or romantic about it, but it felt pretty and romantic because I was there with Ty.

  While we walked, he told me about his favorite explorer, a man named William Clark. He was an American soldier, territorial governor, and Indian agent, and with Meriwether Lewis he’d led an expedition across the upper Midwest to the Pacific Ocean. Ty said it was because of William Clark, not the Wright brothers or Charles Lindbergh, that he learned to fly. He said he always wanted to be an explorer, that it was his life’s dream since he was a boy.

  We talked about the Opry and rhinestones and Hawaiian steel guitars and expeditions and making maps and making discoveries. All of a sudden a giant bird swooped overhead, with a wingspan as long as an AT-6, black body, red head. I jumped ten feet and Ty laughed. He said, “It’s a turkey vulture, Velva Jean. It’s a big, ugly thing, but it won’t get you.”

  I said, “I’m not sure I like the desert.”

  The turkey vulture landed nearby and didn’t give us a single look. He was going after something on the ground, but I didn’t want to see what it was. Ty grabbed my hand and ran me to the other side of the street.

  The door to a café stood open. It was called Lulu’s. There was music coming out into the night from the inside. There was a family in the window—a mother, father, and son. The son was spinning a pinwheel round and round, and I watched as the mother took it away from him. The father grabbed it then and stuck it in his coat pocket and blew on it till it twirled. The mother and son laughed, and I wondered where they found a pinwheel. It seemed like such a happy thing in the middle of a war.

  Ty pulled me close and we started to dance, right there in the street. This wasn’t something I ever would have done in my old life, and I thought: Look at me. Velva Jean Hart. Divorced woman. WASP. Dancing in the streets with a strange man who isn’t Harley Bright.

  I said, “You know, I just got divorced.” I was suddenly feeling worried.

  Ty said, “I’m glad you’re divorced. It means you’re not still married.”

  I said, “I don’t know where I’m going after Avenger Field or what I’m going to do when the war is over.” It was important right now to say these things. I wondered if I’d like Tulsa or if maybe we could live somewhere else, like Nashville. I tried to picture Ty in Nashville and decided he would fit there just fine.

  He said, “We can figure that out. There’s time.”

  I said, “I want to go back to Nashville some day to try to record my songs.” I thought: You’re going to scare him off, girl. He might think you mean that you’re going there no matter what, with or without him. Or he might think you’re asking him along.

  Ty said, “Then you should go back to Nashville. I want you to do all the things you want to do in this world. I’ve never been to Nashville, but I’m sure I could find something to do.”

  He kissed me then, and this time I let myself kiss him back. His lips were soft and firm and full and warm. His arms were around me. They felt strong and sure. I closed my eyes tight and made a memory so that I would always be able to conjure this moment. I breathed him in and felt the memory click just like a camera, and I knew that he was in there forever.

  The girls and I left early in the morning, just after first light. Ty was leaving right after. He said he wanted to watch me take off first. He said, “I’m working on a song for you. I already got part of it in my head. I’ll play it for you when I see you next, honey. I’ll come down to Avenger.”

  I said, “When do you get shipped out?”

  He said, “About a month.”

  The sadness started creeping in. I could feel it coming over me like a fog. He said, “Hey now. Look forward. And remember what Puck is always telling you: have faith in your compass. And if that doesn’t work, just be thankful I’m not bald.”

  I laughed at this.

  He said, “That’s better.” Then he put his hand in his jacket pocket and fished around and pulled out his compass. He said, “I want you to have this. My dad gave it to me before I left home for the army. He said it would help me find my way.”

  I took the compass from him and turned it over in my hand. It was the most beautiful shiny gold with a little cover that popped open and something etched into the back: “NET.”

  Ty said, “I reckon I already found my way, so I want you to have it.”

  I said, “What’s NET?”

  He said, “Ned Edmund Tyler.”

  I said, “I can’t take this.” It was smooth and cool in my hand. It was a part of him and I held it tight. I thought it was worth fifty of Jackie Cochran’s cigarette cases.

  He said, “You already did. Just remember—ceiling and visibility unlimited.”

  Then he kissed me again and told me he’d write me, and I climbed into my AT-6. Ty was flying a P-38, and as I taxied down the runway I saw him lean against it. He waved and through the glass I waved back, although I didn’t think he could see me.

  Flying back over the San Francisco Peaks I got as high as I could over the pass, the route I’d charted through the mountains. The wind was stronger flying east, and the plane slugged through, every now and then hitting a rough current and bouncing or dropping. It felt like driving my old truck over the cattle road down to Hamlet’s Mill—all bumps and thumps. When I was just clearing the pass, the engine sputtered and coughed and then shut off.

  My hands started shaking and for one second I went clammy all over, thinking, You just lost an engine over these ancient volcanoes, these San Francisco Peaks, the highest mountains you ever saw, maybe even the highest mountains in the world for all you know. In my mind I saw the newspaper pictures of Carole Lombard’s plane on a Nevada mountainside, smashed into a thousand pieces. I thought about every single person and thing I had to live for in this world, from Ty and Johnny Clay and my yellow truck even down to Hunter Firth, that old brown dog.

  Then I tried to remember everything I’d learned about flying—how to restart an engine, how to trust my judgment. I nosed the plane downward till I was flying at a lower altitude. I undid my safety belt and double-checked my parachute and rolled back the canopy that covered the cockpit so I could jump if I had to. I counted to ten, getting ready to pull myself out and through. Where would I fall? Where would I hit? The side of a mountain? The forest below? Suddenly the engine caught again, and I thanked Jesus right then and there. I shouted it loud as I could.

  I snapped myself back into my safety belt. If I was going to clear the mountains, I’d have to climb back to my original altitude, so I pointed the plane back and up, bouncing and bumping on the current, until I was as high as before. Two minutes later, the engine quit again. This time my heart skipped a beat in my chest so that my breathing was off and I had to think to catch my breath. I wanted to cry but didn’t let myself. I said, “Dammit, Velva Jean.”

  I dipped down again and the engine caught. Went back up and the engine died. I figured it was carburetor ice because the carburetor heaters never did work in these old planes and the engines would sometimes quit now and then. But I’d never had one die over the San Francisco Peaks.

  Puck took me up once in a PT, back when I first started flying with him. He cut the engine and said, “You need to learn what to do when you lose power.” The plane had hovered for a moment and then started to fall. For some reason, all I could think of then was Harley. As we fell toward the earth, Puck said to me, “You can’t always restart an engine once you’ve cut it. You can’t go back once you’ve gone.”

  And then he told me to picture practicing letdowns and landings at a pretend airport in the sky. He said, “You can correct any mistake if you just go high enough. If your engine dies on you, just stay high as you can.”

  Now I pictured Puck’s pretend airport. I dropped down and waited for the engine to catch—holding my breath until it did. And when it did, I climbed back up just a little, but not as high as before, and then I imagined myself reporting my positions to an imaginary control tower, slowing the plane to make a downward entry into the traffic pattern, dropping the gear, rocking the wings back and forth to make sure the gear was down and locked. In my mind I dropped two inches of flaps at 150 miles per hour, propped to 2,350, made my final approach, dropped full flaps, and then glided at 135 miles per hour to a perfect landing.

  I was flying so low over the white-brown peaks that I felt I could reach my hand out of the window and feel the cold of the snow on my fingertips. I hugged the mountains so tight, I could see the valleys and the dips and the lines in the rock face. Compared to the mountains, my AT-6—the Sweet Six, as we called it—was small as a toy. I would just trust my compass—Ty’s compass—and trust myself. I would follow the outline of the mountains until I was over them safely.

  I stopped for gas at the army airfield in Deming, New Mexico, and climbed out of the plane—legs shaking, knees buckling—because I wanted to feel the earth underneath my feet. It wasn’t enough to stand there and so I sat down, right on the hard, warm pavement of the runway, and when that wasn’t enough I lay back so that every part of me was touching the ground. I lay there for thirty minutes, staring at the sky, thinking how high and far away it was and how crazy I was to ever want to go back up there. All I wanted was some food and to sleep in my own safe bed, but first I had to get on home to Texas.

  An hour later I took off for Sweetwater. Just south of Dallas, a dust storm swept up and for the next sixty miles I had to fly blind. I flew into Avenger Field blind as a bat, and then I suddenly saw the flares lit along the runway.

  I touched down thankful, weary, and hungry. I wanted food and my bed and never to fly over mountains again. The first person I saw was Paula. She was staring up at the sky with a mad look on her face. Then there was Mudge with her eyes all pinched in a way she hated because she said it gave her wrinkles. And Sally just beside her, crying. I climbed out of the cockpit and my feet hit the ground like lead. Sally liked to talk, but she wasn’t one to cry. I tried to think what might have happened.

  As I started walking toward them, they looked at me—all at once—and I stood still, yards away from them, because I didn’t want to get any closer. I thought if I stayed there, rooted to that spot, I wouldn’t ever have to know what it was.

  Ty’s engine caught fire on the outskirts of Blythe, just above the mountains. The plane crashed into the side of Eagle Mountain, near the Kaiser Steel mine. The miners followed the smoke and flames to a flat spot at the base of the mountain, a place covered in snow, and that was where they found Ty. He had tried to jump before landing, but his parachute slammed him against a cliff. The miners took him to the nearest hospital, where he died an hour later.

  Paula said Ty lost consciousness and never came to again. He just drifted off, and suddenly his heart—the one he had written about in songs to me—stopped beating.


  During the week of September 27, three weeks before graduation, we took our final exams and had our final flight checks. As the four of us fell asleep at night, one of us would say something like, “Is the rule, ‘Never have high manifold pressure with low RPM,’ or is it the other way around?” Meanwhile, another one of us would be mumbling “GUMP” in her sleep, which stood for “gas, undercarriage, mixture, and prop,” which was the way we had to execute the routine cockpit check before landing. Eventually, one by one, the other girls would drift off to sleep, and I would lie awake till morning. I hadn’t slept more than an hour each night since getting back from Blythe.

  On September 29 a letter came for me from Blythe, California. I stood in the PX and stared at the envelope. It was from Lieutenant Ned Tyler and it had been mailed before he left Blythe in his P-38 to go back to Ontario.

  I walked outside into the fall air, which was turning cooler now, and sat right down on the steps and opened the letter. My hands were shaking so that the words on the page looked like they were moving.

  He wrote:I think the hardest thing I ever did was watch you take off this morning. I stood there till I couldn’t see you anymore and then I sat right down on the flight line and finished this song. I know it won’t beat you home, but I wanted it to get there not long after you do. I hope you like it, honey. You deserve a million of them, better than I can write.

  See you at Avenger fast as I can.

  You Make Me Happy

  You make me happy.

  Whenever you’re around I’m safe inside your sunshine smile.

  You make me handsome

  whenever I feel my nose just seems a bit too round.

  You make me special, and God knows I’ve longed to be that kind of guy

  to have around.

  You make me lovely, and it’s so lovely to be lovely to the one I love.

  Remember how we flew to Blythe

  without a locust in our sight

  and Valentino’s cozy corner felt like heaven for a moment,

  while the waiters brought us wine and drink

  and I led you dancin
g down the street?

  And though it’s simple, it still means the best day that I’ve lately seen.

  And don’t forget the funny bird, and pinwheel that seemed so absurd,

  but must

  have meant a lot to them.

  And in two weeks we’ll fly again, perhaps a Chinese dinner then.

  You make me happy; you make me smile.

  You make me love you,

  and that could be the greatest thing my heart was ever fit to do.

  I laid my hand on the paper and felt the lines of the pen, the way the words pressed harder here, lighter there. I ran my fingers across every letter, thinking about Ty’s own fingers—the ones that played the bugle and held my hand and brushed the hair out of my eyes—writing each one. And then I thought about what he said to me in Blythe—telling me to look forward, to fly above the clouds so I was higher than the overcast. “Ceiling and visibility unlimited.” I knew enough in my life to know that people died and went away and you could look backward and stay looking backward or you could pick yourself up and go on.

  I saw him sitting across from me, raising his blue glass. I heard him say, “Forward.”

  “Forward,” I said, just like he was there to hear me.

  For my last flight check with Puck, I sat in the AT-6, which was, of all of the ones I’d flown, my very favorite airplane. Duke Norris once told me to get to know the cockpit of any new plane so well that I could sit there wearing a blindfold and touch and name every single instrument. He said, “It may save your life one day.”

  On the afternoon of my last flight check, I sat beside Puck and closed my eyes and thought: I’ll never be able to do this. After all these months of training and all these planes I’ve flown, I’m going to wash out right now, just three days before graduation.

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