Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven


  The last thing the colonel said to us before we left his office was, “I’m giving you a chance right now, ladies. You can go home or you can stay. I advise you to go home and knit socks for the troops.”

  Neither of us said a word to that, just stood there and faced him. I was a Women’s Airforce Service Pilot. Jackie Cochran had pinned on my silver wings. General Hap Arnold himself had said we were capable of flying anything put in front of us. I tried to stare down Colonel Wells like I’d seen Johnny Clay stare people down. I didn’t blink or flinch. But inside I wanted to run away from him and this place as fast as I could go.

  We were assigned to the bay that once belonged to the dead girls. The only thing left to show that they’d been there were some white curtains with black polka dots and maps pinned up across one wall. But I could feel their ghosts all around us. Colonel Wells didn’t tell us how they’d died, and we didn’t ask.

  That night Sally and me lay in our beds, and I wondered if it was too late to go back to Avenger Field and ask for another assignment. The barracks were right next to the runway, which meant the lights from circling planes and the control tower flashed in our window.

  Sally said, “I hate this place. It’s the ugliest place I ever saw. Tomorrow I’m going to plant a garden right outside our window so we have something pretty to look at.”

  We heard shouting and then running down the hall. There was a banging at our door and the door across from us. Someone tried the handle, but it was locked. I sat straight up and so did Sally.

  A male voice said, “Come out, Waspies!” Then laughter. Then running.

  I wondered about the girl who used to sleep here before me. What was her name? Where was she from? How old was she? Was she married? Engaged? A mother? A sister? Did she lie here in this same cot and think about how much she hated Camp Davis? Where did she hope to go next? What did she do before she learned to fly?

  For the first month, Colonel Wells kept us grounded. We worked in the dispatcher’s office with an old woman named Louella Corbett, who was simple and polite, and who gave us letters to type and papers to file. Sally said, “I can’t believe I earned my wings just so I could go back to being a secretary.”

  When we weren’t working, we went to ground school. This included classes on some things we already knew from Avenger Field and some things we didn’t know—military courtesy and customs, how to pack a parachute, navigation and weather, automatic pilot, flight regulations, aircraft maintenance, flight logs, fuel systems and carburetion, radio compasses, Ferry Command rules, and military law.

  We went to classes with the men and we ate with the men, and when we weren’t going to class or the mess hall we were marching everywhere with the men. We found right off that Colonel Wells wasn’t lying—they didn’t want us here. They called the barracks telephone all night long asking for dates, but not the kind of dates a decent girl went on. They might as well have been calling the Alluvial Hotel and asking to speak to Lucinda Sink. They slipped notes under our doors and knocked into us in the mess line so our food spilled everywhere and laughed louder than they needed to if we missed a question in class. I thought I might as well be in the sixth grade again, up at the little one-room schoolhouse in Alluvial. These were grown-up men but they were acting worse than Hink Lowe or the Gordon boys ever did back when we were kids.

  On November 29, Colonel Wells let us out from behind our desks and put us on the flight line. Each day after mess, we checked the flight board to get our assignments. The men had what was called a “ready room,” which was more like a lounge, where they waited for flight assignments, but we got ours in the dispatcher’s office, where we sat on hard benches and weren’t supposed to talk too loud.

  Major Albert Blackburn started us off in the L-5, which was a small Cub-type airplane. He was a stout man who stood stiff as a poker and never looked us in the eye when he gave orders—like he couldn’t bear the sight of us. We had to fly low and slow, following a tree-top-level pattern over the camp, going round and round for hours, testing artillery tracking. I thought it was shameful. We’d been trained on bigger, faster planes than this L-5, and now here we were, puttering around like old men. As I flew circle after circle, I looked down over the base—at the runway where A-24s and B-34s were lined up, waiting for the male pilots to take off in them, at the B-17s, which loomed over all of them like silver giants, the daylight catching them and holding them so that they seemed brighter than the sun itself.

  After the second day of shuffling about in the L-5, Sally sent a telegram to Jackie Cochran, telling her what was going on. The next day Miss Cochran flew into Camp Davis in her militarized Beechcraft and called a meeting with Colonel Wells.

  The day after she returned to Washington, D.C., we were ordered to go up solo in the A-24, which was a two-seater single-engine dive bomber, to test radar tracking by the gunner trainees. One of the other girls told us that these A-24s were returned from the South Pacific because they weren’t fit for combat anymore. Their tires were rotten, the instruments weren’t working right, and parts of the plane would fall off in the air. But it was better than putting around in the L-5, and we knew Jackie Cochran had gone to bat for us, which made us feel looked after and important.

  The week of December 13, Sally and I checked the assignment board in the dispatcher’s office and this time our mission was tow targeting. We stood around the board with the other WASP, the ones who had been there longer, and I said, “What’s tow targeting?”

  Janie Bowen said, “Just what it sounds like—you’re going to be pulling a target behind you while gunners shoot at it.” Janie was from Greenville, South Carolina, and she’d been here for three months already. She was one of the tallest girls, gawky as a bird, with curly blonde-brown hair. She didn’t wear a stitch of makeup.

  I said, “Shoot at it?” I was getting a bad feeling, the same kind of sinking, nerves-on-edge bad feeling I had when I was running through the Terrible Creek train wreck looking for Harley, not knowing if he was alive or dead.

  Janie said, “Fifty-caliber machine guns and twenty- and forty-millimeter automatic cannons. Did Jackie Cochran tell you she was sending you here on a secret mission?”

  Sally said, “She sure did.”

  Janie said, “Well, this is part of it. You’re not allowed to talk to the newspapers or tell the folks back home what you’re doing.”

  Suddenly I wished for my yellow truck. I thought if I had that truck I would climb into it and drive back home right now. I’d drive up Fair Mountain, right up to Mama’s, and get on out and go lie up under the porch, which was where I always used to take myself when the world got to be too much.

  On December 18, I sat in the cockpit of the Lockheed B-34, high above the Atlantic Ocean. There weren’t any uniforms for the WASP at Camp Davis, but for flight training we wore giant coveralls that looked a lot like our zoot suits. I was wearing my coveralls now and towing a raggedy cloth target behind my plane. One of the enlisted men, a fellow from Ohio named Gus Mitchell, was riding in the backseat, operating the target and cable. He had brown hair thick as a boot brush, and ears that stuck out like trophy handles.

  As soon as we were over the beach, I radioed the artillery officer who was in charge on the ground, and at the same time Gus turned the winch handle and let out the cable that the target was attached to. I wondered if the cables were made of nylons, just like the ones Gossie and I donated back in Nashville—maybe a pair of my own nylons was being used on this very plane. After we’d flown up and down the beach, just over the water, I was supposed to swoop down, and Gus would release the target, dropping it to the ground so the gunners could see the number of hits they’d made.

  To the rear of the plane I could see little black puffs of smoke, which meant the gunners down below and in near-flying planes were aiming at the target. Then there was a puff to the left of me, just by the cockpit. Then two more puffs even closer. Every fourth or fifth bullet was a tracer that sparkled just like a firecracker. These
were to show the gunners where their bullets were going.

  The B-34 was a twin-engine bomber a lot like Amelia Earhart’s Electra. I tried to think of this and think about what she might have done if they’d made her tow targets while cadets and officers shot at her. All I could really think about, though, was that I didn’t want to die up there, because there was so much I wanted to do in this world: sing at the Opry, make more records, see my family again, meet a man and fall in love and have it last forever. Three more black puffs exploded to the left of the cockpit.

  Over the intercom, Gus said, “What the hell are they doing?”

  “Trying to hit us?”

  He said, “They’re trying to hit you, not me.” He said it like this was something I’d asked for.

  I thought, I hope they do hit you. I hope they blow your ears right off. Then I swore into my radio, hoping Sally would hear me in her B-34. I said, “The gunners have chicken feed for brains. They’re trying to kill me.”

  There was a blast of static and then I heard a faraway voice say, “I want to turn this plane around and head back, but I’m afraid they’ll shoot me out of the sky.” It sounded like Sally.

  When I finally came down, the target was torn to shreds and the tail was shot full of bullet holes. There were three holes on the left wing and two in the cockpit door. I climbed out and ran my fingers over them. The holes were as small as quarters. I thought about the bullets that made them and how any one of them could have killed me.

  Sally was still in the air, flying over the sand dunes. The gunners shot twenty or thirty rounds at her and finally the target she was towing fell blazing into the water before it could even be released. The officers and enlisted men standing on the ground started clapping and shouting “Good work!” I knew they were talking about the gunners and not us.

  Sally swung her plane toward the runway. Major Blackburn stood nearby watching, arms folded across his large barrel chest. An officer standing next to him looked around at no one and everyone. “Hell,” he said, “they missed the girl.” Everybody laughed.

  “Life magazine.”

  I turned to see an officer who was just my height, maybe a little taller, with stooped shoulders, a round waist, and hair the color of mustard. He had one of those fat-boy comedy faces, like Fatty Arbuckle’s or Oliver Hardy’s, the kind that always looked like it was smiling whether he was or not. I knew by his stripes that he was a first lieutenant.

  I said, “Excuse me?”

  He said, “I thought that was you. You’re better looking in person.” He sounded like he was from Alabama or maybe Georgia.

  “Thanks.” I was too shook up right now to think about anything other than the holes in my plane.

  Like he read my mind, he said, “Look, the gunners are assholes.”

  I said, “What’s going to happen to them?”

  “Nothing.”

  “They tried to kill us.”

  “Colonel Wells will say there’s no way to prove they ain’t just bad marksmen.”

  I said, “If they’re bad marksmen my name is Fifinella.”

  The officer laughed at this. He said, “Good to meet you, Fifinella. Lieutenant Bob Keene, at your service.” He shook my hand. “They’re just scared—all the men here are. You girls have got ’em all stirred up, afraid you all are going to show them up and show everyone that you’re better than they are.”

  I said, “And what about you?”

  “Me?”

  “Are you afraid we’re going to show you up?”

  He laughed again. “It never crossed my mind.” He walked away, whistling.

  I thought to myself, Well, maybe it should.

  That night Sally and I sat with Janie Bowen at supper. The mess hall was drafty and sprawling—long picnic table after picnic table seating a thousand men at a time and us, just twenty-five girls sitting side by side at one table in the middle of the room. Dinner was fried oysters. The night before it had been oyster stew. I pushed my food around and wished for Sunday, when we could go to the Post-Service Club Restaurant and buy eggs and bacon for thirty cents.

  I turned to Janie and said, “Tell us about the girls we replaced. I want to know how they died.”

  Sally sucked in her breath. She said, “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to hear it. If I hear it, I’ll picture it. Don’t tell me.” She covered her ears and looked down at her plate, like she was trying to figure out how to keep eating without her hands. She sighed and took her hands off her ears. She picked up her fork and said, “Well, I’m not listening.”

  Janie said, “A girl named Laurine Thompson was flying just over the runway when the engine caught fire. She couldn’t get out fast enough, and she crash-landed. The plane exploded on impact.”

  I stopped eating. Sally’s fork sat in midair, on its way to her mouth but now completely forgotten.

  Janie said, “The second girl, Sandy Chapman, lost an engine over the ocean and her plane went into a spin that she couldn’t get out of. She plunged nose-first into the water and drowned.”

  She took a bite of her food. When she did, a girl with glasses and her hair pushed up under a baseball cap leaned forward across the table. Her name was Ruth Needham. She said, “There was another one. The very first one. This was about six months ago. They never talk much about her.”

  Janie said, “Dora Atwood. She lost her landing gear just south of the camp, on a routine ferrying mission down to Florida. She jumped from the plane and the parachute didn’t open.”

  Another girl, Helen Stillbert, who was slim and pretty and had the air of a proper lady, said, “We think it was sabotage.”

  Sally let her fork fall with a clank. “Sabotage?”

  Ruth said, “They check out all the planes that crash, and one of the mechanics said it looked like each of them was tampered with. The head mechanic is a guy named Harry Lawson. It pays to get to know him and his crew, make friends and all that.”

  Janie held up her hand and started counting on her fingers. “Harry Lawson said they found an old oil rag in the engine of Laurine’s plane, sugar in Sandy’s fuel tank, and a razor blade tucked inside Dora’s parachute. When she tried to open it, the razor tore a hole in it.”

  Sally said, “Did they do anything? Colonel Wells?”

  I said, “What about Miss Cochran? Does she know?” I thought about Fifinella, our mascot, flying over the gate at Avenger Field, and how she was supposed to keep us safe from gremlins and engine failure.

  Janie took a drink of water. She set down her glass—a tall tin cup—and it made a ringing sound on the table. She said, “She knows. She came down here after Sandy’s accident to investigate, I guess because enough WASP started protesting. A couple of girls quit. But she never did anything about it. She told us she’d take care of it, but we’re still waiting.”

  Sally said, “I didn’t come all this way to die. If I’m going to die, it’s going to be in my sleep when I’m ninety-eight years old, lying next to Cary Grant or Robert Taylor, not being shot out of the sky like a goose.”

  Janie said, “Best thing you can do is make friends. Favorite girl pilots get to fly with the top men pilots, and the men pilots kind of look after the girls they like most. They call them ‘pilot’s girls.’”

  “How do you get to be a pilot’s girl?” I asked, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

  “You go on dates with them.”

  Sally said, “I’m not dating a pilot just so he won’t shoot at me.” She snapped her gum.

  Janie said, “You don’t have to sleep with them. Just date them, make friends with them.”

  Ruth said, “But run the names by us first. We have yes and no lists.” She looked around. Gus Mitchell was sitting at a table with a short, dark man with a face as flat as a bulldog’s. She said, “Yes to Gus, no to Leonard Grossman.” She pointed at an officer across the way. She said, “Vince Gillies. No.” Vince Gillies had thick red hair and looked like something that lived in the ground. I remembered him from our first day
of tow targeting. He was the one who’d said, “Hell, they missed the girl.”

  I sat there not eating and wondering exactly what kind of mission we were on, here in the middle of swampland, surrounded by men who were making it clear they didn’t care about silver wings or Jackie Cochran or Life magazine or whether we knew Morse code or night flying or instrument flying or flying the beam. I felt a sharp stab of homesickness—for Avenger Field, for the Lovelorn Café, for Mama’s house up on Fair Mountain, for under the porch.

  Across the room Lieutenant Bob Keene sat on the corner of a table, talking to some of the other men. He glanced up and saw me looking at him and nodded. I thought it was good to see a friendly face when I was surrounded by a thousand strangers, men who hated me and wanted to shoot me out of the sky without even knowing me.

  December 20, 1943

  Dear family,

  Camp Davis is swell. The food is great and the other girls are nice. We can’t believe we’re actually here on assignment, that we’re official WASP now and just as good as doing active duty for the military, even if we are still civilians.

  The men are handsome and there are so many of them! You wouldn’t think there were any boys fighting this war right now in Europe or the Pacific with how many officers and cadets are stationed here.

  We march everywhere, just like at Avenger. We fly six days a week, and if we’re weathered out for a day or two, we fly the weekend to make up for it. We wait at the flight board for our assignments, and if we don’t have a flight that day, we go to the Link trainer for practice or we work on Morse code or study the latest airplane information so that we’re up to date.

  Sally says hi. She’s one of the best friends I ever had, next to you all. Do you have any news from Johnny Clay, Linc, Beach, Coyle, or Jessup? Every now and then I read about something brave and dangerous Beachard has done and it gets me thinking about when he was little and they didn’t think he’d live and how he would go out in the woods for hours and just walk, all the time getting stronger and stronger. I think maybe he was preparing for this all along.

 
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