Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  That’s all the news that’s fit to write. I just wanted you to know I’m safe and happy. I hope the winter isn’t too bad up on the mountain. I love you all.

  Velva Jean


  On December 20, at two o’clock in the morning, I was thrown out of my bed. The floor was shaking, the walls were shaking, the glass in the windows rattled, and all the books and notebooks and pens flew off the desk and onto the floor. There was a great boom, like thunder, from somewhere in the distance, but it was the kind of thunder you felt deep in your chest, like something exploded in your heart.

  Sally hung on to her bed like she was riding a bull. She said, “Hartsie, what is it?”

  “I don’t know!” A plane crash? A bomb? The Germans?

  Just then the room settled. The night got quiet. I was able to make out the details of shapes—polka dots on the curtains, the shoes under my bed, the red of a book cover. I could almost see Sally’s face.

  The two of us met at the window and looked out into the night. From the direction of the ocean we could see a great orange fireball, like the sun had fallen into the water. Smoke covered the stars, making it the blackest of nights.

  We pulled on our coats and ran outside and stood there with the other girls, the pilots, the officers. We watched the fireball burn, but instead of shrinking down it seemed to get larger and brighter. Everyone was buzzing and humming: “Is it one of ours?” “A bomber?” “A ship?”

  Major Blackburn walked out onto the runway, still in uniform. He said, “Looks like a German U-boat torpedoed one of our freighters. Too soon to know the damage.”

  I knew the Germans were out there but I couldn’t believe they were so close to us—under the water just like giant sharks or sea monsters, way down deep where you couldn’t see them in an A-24 or a bomber, not even in the B-17, which was supposed to be magic, or the B-29, which was the biggest bomber of all.

  All of us, men and women, stood in the winter cold, watching the fireball burn and burn. I was shivering so hard—from the damp coming off the water, from the thought of the Germans just miles away—that one of the officers gave me his jacket and helped me pull it on over my own. For those minutes that we stood there, we were on the same side, looking out at this enemy we had in common. I thought that if you didn’t know what it was and what had caused it, that glowing sun would be almost pretty.

  Two hours later there was another explosion, louder than the first. It didn’t wake me up because I was still awake, lying in my bed, trying not to picture German soldiers climbing out of the ocean and walking up the beach, guns in hand, breaking into the barracks, knocking down our door. I thought I might never sleep again.

  In the morning we learned that forty-seven of the forty-nine men aboard the freighter City of St. Mary’s were killed. Two hours later all fifty-one of the men aboard the supply ship Jacksonville died when the same German U-boat opened fire. The Jacksonville had been carrying oil, gasoline, and fresh fruit and vegetables to our allies in Europe. For the next week, crates of cabbages, apples, carrots, and oranges washed up on shore, and oil covered the beach.

  Now that I was stationed on the coast, the war seemed suddenly closer, and not just because of the U-boats. Planes came and went and pilots came and went, leaving for England or Scotland. We heard about battles from the soldiers who returned to the base hospital, missing a leg or an arm or a hand. We read in the news about the U.S. Marines landing on the Solomon Islands, and U.S. soldiers fighting the Japanese on Makin and Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands, where forty-six hundred Japanese and eleven hundred Americans lost their lives.

  In Iran, President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, prime minister of the United Kingdom, met with Joseph Stalin, who was the leader of Russia, to talk about the invasion of France. American troops landed on the island of New Britain, in a place called the Bismark Archipelago. General Eisenhower was appointed supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force to lead the European invasion, starting in France. And the United States sent fifteen atomic scientists to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where Paula and I landed when we lost our way.

  On December 21, the day after the City of St. Mary’s and the Jacksonville sank to the bottom of the ocean, a navy patrol torpedo boat, commanded by marine lieutenant and medic Beachard S. Hart, sank after being cut in two by a Japanese destroyer off the Solomon Islands. The newspaper story said, “Lieutenant Hart swam to a small island in the Solomons, where he freed thirty-five American prisoners of war and captured five Japanese soldiers.”

  I showed the story to every single one of the girls. I said, “That’s my older brother.” I thought about the way Beach didn’t like attention or a fuss being made over him. He was happiest when he was by himself and on his own, writing “Jesus loves, Jesus heals, Jesus weeps” on trees and rocks. I thought this was just another way of carving his messages.

  On December 24 we woke to rain. A fog rolled in off the ocean, covering the black of the swamp and the dirt-brown of the buildings and the ugly green of the planes so that Camp Davis looked almost pretty.

  At seven o’clock that evening, I spun my hair into a victory roll, painted my lips with my Max Factor Comet Red lipstick, and pulled on my dark-blue dress with the skirt that twirled. Sally and I met the rest of the girls outside the barracks, and together we walked to the service club for the Camp Davis Christmas dance. As we walked, I looked out over the water and thought about the U-boats that were hiding there, way in the deep. The thought chilled me all over. It felt strange to be done up in my prettiest dress and going to a party when the war was being fought right there, just miles away.

  The ballroom of the service club was a handsome room, large as the Fiesta Supper Club in Juárez. It was decorated with red and green streamers and twinkly lights and the biggest Christmas tree you ever saw. Round tables with white cloths were set up all across the room, and there was a stage in the middle, with music stands and instruments but no orchestra.

  After we ate a turkey dinner, the orchestra came out and started to play. I thought of Charlie Jones and wondered where he was, if he was entertaining troops overseas with his band or if maybe he was in the trenches somewhere.

  Sally and the girls and I walked over to the table where drinks were set up, and we poured ourselves punch and stood comparing stories about how mean the men at Camp Davis were. A few days before some of the pilots had gathered up a bunch of stray dogs and painted “WASP” on their sides and then turned them loose on the base. This was supposed to mean we were either dogs or bitches, or maybe both, and we had to spend all afternoon chasing them down and cleaning up after them while Major Blackburn shouted at us.

  A girl named Francine, with a sweet, freckled face, said, “They treat the Injuns just as bad.”

  I knew there were Indians on the base, but I’d never once seen any of them.

  Sally said, “I don’t see a single Indian in this room.”

  Janie said, “They keep them hid away, just like they wish they could do with us.”

  I said, “Aren’t they training with the other men?”

  Ruth said, “We think they’re rounding them up to be code talkers, which means they’ll be shipped out to the marine base in San Diego or the army base at Fort Benning.”

  I had no idea what a code talker was, but I decided it sounded wonderful, like being a spy.

  The band left for intermission. Most of the men were standing around drinking and talking to each other. There were groups of girls off to the sides, keeping to themselves. I thought it was just like school, with the boys on one side and the girls on the other.

  Ruth said, “Do any of you play or sing?”

  Sally said, “Velva Jean sings. You should hear her.”

  Ruth grabbed my hand. “Come on.” She dragged me along till we were up on the stage. She sat down at the piano, and Janie sat behind the drums. Ruth pushed her glasses up on her nose and started playing “Over the Rainbow.”

  Sally sa
id, “I want to play something,” even though I knew full well she couldn’t play anything. She picked up a pair of maracas.

  I didn’t want to sing “Over the Rainbow,” even with all those nice words about bluebirds and blue skies and trouble melting like lemon drops and dreams that you dared to dream really coming true. I wanted to sing one of my songs or one of the songs I grew up on. I wanted to hear some mountain music with guitars and banjos and fiddles.

  I said, “Do you all know ‘I’ll Fly Away’?”

  They sat staring at me and then Ruth began picking out the tune on the piano.

  I thought: Great holy Moses. It’s been so long since I sang anything. What if I forgot how? What if I can’t remember the words?

  And then I sang. The men kept talking and drinking. I heard Vince Gillies—the one that looked like he lived in the ground—laugh louder than he needed to at something one of his friends was saying. A few men glanced over and then some of them stood there looking. Little by little, they fell quiet. Behind me I heard Janie say, “Good grief, Velva Jean. Sally wasn’t lying.”

  When the shadows of this life have gone,

  I’ll fly away . . .

  In all, we sang three songs, and the orchestra played with us on the last one, which was “Don’t Fence Me In.” I loved that song. I loved it because it made me think of Ty, and the memory of him singing it was both sad and sweet. And I loved it because it was exactly how I’d felt in my life—until I came to Camp Davis—ever since I left Harley, ever since I learned to fly. When we were done, there were whistles and clapping and I tried to slip away without anyone noticing, but then Bob Keene asked me to dance with him.

  He said, “There’s more to you than meets the eye, Fifinella.”

  Sally danced by us with Gus Mitchell, who was two heads taller than she was. She waved and I waved back.

  Bob Keene said, “You sure can sing. Tell me, is there nothing you can’t do?”

  There was plenty I couldn’t do, but I didn’t say so. Instead I said, “I’ve always sung, ever since I was little. My whole family plays music.”

  He asked me more questions then, all about my singing, and I thought it was nice that he wanted to know but I felt like I was telling him something about me from the outside in, instead of showing him from the inside out. I thought about Butch Dawkins, how he had known my music and my songs and how I didn’t have to tell him about them because he knew that part of me from the inside. I didn’t think music was something you could talk about like this, dancing at an Army Air Forces service club while an orchestra played “Little Brown Jug” and while there was a war going on not only across the ocean but underneath it.

  He said, “I played guitar for a while. Never was much good at it. I wanted to be outdoors too much, not cooped up inside. I played baseball, I wrestled, I boxed. I wanted to be heavyweight champion like Max Schmeling or Max Baer.” He talked on about boxing—Jack Dempsey, Henry Armstrong, Joe Louis—and then he said, “But all that stopped when I learned to fly. I was eleven when Charles Lindbergh made his flight to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis.” He talked for a while about Lindbergh, about his races, about the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby and what a goddamn rotten shame that was, and then he told me about his own flying and how he joined up with the Army Air Forces long before Pearl Harbor.

  He said he was from Social Circle, Georgia, born and raised, though he always itched to get out and do something more, especially once he started flying. He said he knew he was meant for other places, and I said, “You’re living out there, just like I am. You’re going after your destiny instead of waiting for it to come to you.”

  He said, “That’s right.”

  The song ended then and one of the pilots cut in. Bob Keene thanked me for the dance and walked away. The pilot said, “Zeke Bodine, good to meet you.” He had bright-yellow hair and front teeth that crossed in the middle. He seemed like a nice boy, but I thought he looked like a duck.

  I said, “Velva Jean Hart, good to meet you too.”

  We danced, and while we danced we talked about all the polite things you talk about when dancing with someone you didn’t know—how did we get here, what did we do before the war. I thought: Here we go again. How many more conversations like this do I have to have tonight?

  When he asked me where I was from I said, “North Carolina.”

  He said, “Charlotte?” Zeke Bodine was from lower Alabama, so I knew he wouldn’t know Fair Mountain.

  I said, “Alluvial. It’s near a town called Hamlet’s Mill.”

  He said, “Alluvial . . .”

  I said, “It’s in the mountains.”

  Zeke Bodine said, “We got a guy here from Alluvial. No, not from there, but he spent some time working up there.”

  I said to Zeke, “You’re making that up.” I thought maybe he was trying to charm me by pretending we had something in common.

  Zeke said, “Why would I make that up? This guy spent some time working up there in a CCC camp, up on that road they built.”

  I said, “The Scenic?”

  He said, “No. Some parkway. The Blue-something Parkway.”

  I stopped dancing. There were a lot of boys that worked up on that road, hundreds of them. But somehow I knew without asking. I said, “Do you know his name?” Vince Gillies was on his way over to me. I could see him coming.

  Zeke Bodine said, “I don’t know. Indian fella, at least part Indian, part something else.”

  I told myself: Don’t get ahead of yourself, girl. It could be anyone.

  He said, “Doesn’t talk much. Keeps to himself. And plays the guitar like one mean and angry son of a bitch.”

  December 25, 1943

  Dear Hartsie and Sally-Hally,

  So here I am, still in Texas, only without my best pals. Texas ain’t the same without you girls, and I’m hoping to transfer soon as I can. This is going to sound dull as dirt to you, but I’m flying cargo and ferrying new planes from factories. So far I’ve been to Salina, Kansas; Detroit, Michigan; and Long Beach, California. Do me a favor and don’t tell me too much about the important work you’re doing in North Carolina. I don’t think my ego can handle it, and you know how fragile my ego is.

  Guess what? Some of the officers built a golf course nearby, so that’s the one good thing. I’m practicing every day when I’m not flying and studying. (I thought we were done with ground school—what gives?) It’s scary how rusty I am, but by the time I leave here, I aim to be better than I ever was. When this war’s over, I’m getting right back on the circuit.

  Seriously, I miss you like hell. I’m not much of a letter writer, but I wanted you to have my address so you know where to send care packages.



  P.S. Did you hear about Mudge? She got a part as a female pilot in a movie called Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, starring Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson!

  December 25, 1943

  Merry Christmas, Mary Lou!

  What do you know? I’m engaged. Not to a gardener or a married man this time or anyone my father would ever approve of—this one’s a soldier. A sailor, actually. He came through Nashville on his way to New York, and we spent one week together, mooning around the town. His name is Clinton Farnham, and he’s not dashing at all, which is one thing I love about him. He’s just the nicest guy I ever met and he loves me exactly for me. We’ll get hitched after the war, although I wanted to do it before he went. He wants one of those fancy weddings with a hundred guests and a champagne fountain, so I guess we’ll have to wait. He’s been gone two days now, and I’m a wreck. I’ve given up all plans of going to China and hunting snow leopards. Instead I’m thinking of joining the WAVES just to be near him.

  You take care of yourself. Don’t fly those rotten ol’ planes for rotten ol’ Jackie Cochran if you don’t want to.

  Your old pal,



  Christmas fell on a Saturday, and Sally and me spent our mor
ning in Holly Ridge, since it was the closest town to Camp Davis, lying just outside the swamp. We called it “Boom Town” because it was so small that boom, you were in it; boom, you were out.

  We wore the only everyday uniform we had, not counting coveralls, which was men’s dress pinks and greens—a light-drab shirt with an olive-drab tie and dark-olive trousers. The Army Air Forces General Headquarter’s patch was sewn on the upper left sleeve of the shirt, and we wore our silver WASP wings above the left breast pocket.

  Over all this we were bundled up in wool coats and scarves so that you couldn’t tell we were girls at all. I thought we looked like penguins. We walked up and down the three short blocks, and everything was closed up tight except for a music store that sold records.

  We went inside and I rubbed my hands together. They were freezing even in my gloves. Up on the wall over the cash register was a banjo, the only instrument in the place. It shone bright and silver, and Sally stood there staring at it, her hands on her hips.

  There were records in bins and crates, and some were stacked up in corners and against the wall. I started looking through them, and I heard Sally ask the man at the counter how much that banjo was. I said to her, “I didn’t know you played banjo.”

  She said, “I don’t yet.”

  I picked out an album of Xavier Cugat playing congas and one of Martha Tilton, who had the sweetest voice I’d ever heard. As I walked to the counter, I passed a stack of records and there on top was Roy Acuff. I almost picked it up and then I didn’t because I decided that was my old life—a life spent worrying about the Opry and singing for Darlon C. Reynolds—and Roy Acuff had no business here in my new one. When I went up to the counter to pay for the records, Sally was counting out just enough money for the banjo.

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