Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven


  She said, “Once I learn to play, I’ll be able to serenade Gus Mitchell.” She winked at me.

  I said to the man behind the cash register, “Why are you open on Christmas?”

  He said, “I’m not. I just came in to fetch something for the wife.” He held up a record—George Gershwin’s Piano Rolls. He said, “I had to hide it here otherwise she would have found it before today and ruined the surprise.”

  I said, “Thank you for letting us buy these things.”

  He said, “Merry Christmas, girls.”

  Sally picked up her banjo and held it like a baby. She said, “What do you know, Hartsie? It was meant to be.”

  Back at the barracks, a group of us gathered in Janie’s bay, the one she shared with Ruth. The two of them had an old Victrola that Ruth had brought from home. We put on Xavier Cugat, and I brought out my Mexican guitar and Sally sat down with the banjo, plucking away at it even though she didn’t know what she was doing. Janie played the drums on her footlocker, using pencils as drumsticks, and we all sang Christmas carols. It sounded awful, but none of us cared. Even with a war going on everywhere you looked, and my brothers off to God knows where, and me worrying about them and missing them and missing everybody up on my mountain, even with all that, it was one of the happiest Christmases I’d ever had.

  On December 26 we were back in the air. Even though it was a Sunday, we had to make up the time we lost during the holiday. An A-24 had just been delivered to Camp Davis from Wyoming, and Ruth and I were scheduled to fly it down to a base near Fort Myers, Florida. A captain named Leonard Grossman—the man with the bulldog face from Janie and Ruth’s “no” list—flew with us, and we knew that we were carrying something important that he would be dropping off, but we didn’t know what it was. Head mechanic Harry Lawson wasn’t even allowed near the plane when the officers were loading it.

  I was first pilot on the trip down. I pretended the A-24 was the B-17 Flying Fortress. I liked ferrying work not just because it got me out of the swamp but because it made me feel like I was really doing something—taking planes to men who would be using them in combat. But I still wanted to do more. I wanted to fly farther and in a powerful ship like the B-17. I wondered if that feeling would ever go away, if I’d ever feel like I finally got far enough and high enough.

  Just over the Okefenokee Swamp, the plane started to pull and suddenly I couldn’t get hold of it. The engine shook so hard that my teeth rattled and I knew we were running out of oil.

  Ruth said, “Should we land at one of the auxiliary fields?”

  Captain Grossman said, “I think we should limp home, get back to base.”

  I couldn’t see anything but green and black down below for miles around us. I said, “I think we can make it to Jacksonville.”

  We double-checked our safety belts. I didn’t say anything to Ruth or Captain Grossman, but I could barely keep control of the plane. It was trying to go in a circle, and I was fighting it. I retracted my flaps to restore normal flight altitude, but the speed was too low. Then I saw a town down below, and a field. I knew it wasn’t Jacksonville—it was too soon—but I could land in a field. The A-24 wasn’t an Aeronca, but I figured I’d done it once and I could do it again.

  I aimed the nose in the direction of the field and said a quick prayer to Jesus. Somehow I brought it down, the plane jerking to the right and bumping along. When we came to a stop, Ruth burst into tears and Captain Grossman slapped me on the back. “Good work, Waspie,” he said.

  I sat there trying to breathe. Slow and steady. Slow and steady. I closed my eyes and then I undid my belt and climbed down.

  When we checked the engine, the oil was gone. There wasn’t a single drop left. Captain Grossman stayed with the ship while Ruth and I hiked to the nearest farmhouse. We came back with the farmer and enough oil to fill our tank. We flew on down to Fort Myers, and the next day we filled up the oil tank for our trip back to Camp Davis.

  When we landed, there were cadets, men and WASP, gathered around, and when the three of us appeared they started clapping. Major Blackburn stalked up to me and I thought “oh no.” But he said, “Good work, Hart. Congratulations on bringing it home.” And then he stalked off.

  Chief mechanic Harry Lawson inspected the plane and said that the oil had been drained—maybe because of a leak—even though the check-out sheet said oil was added before we took off. Harry Lawson was a balding man, formal and stiff as a drawing room, with the slightest hint of an accent, but not a southern one—it was a faraway, over-the-seas one that made me think of the young man at Los Alamos, the one with the round glasses. Harry Lawson seemed more like someone who should be reading books than someone who worked on airplanes. I went to bed that night thanking Jesus for keeping us all safe and for helping me land that plane in a field instead of in a swamp.

  The next day Mr. Lawson wrote up his report, which held me responsible because I hadn’t double-checked to make sure the oil was in the plane before we left. Colonel Wells gave me an official reprimand because he said I burned up an engine, which was going to cost the government money. He said, “What’s the matter with you? Are you flying for the Nazis?” Everyone was, all the time, worried about spies. “That’s no scrap plane, Miss Hart. That airplane cost sixty thousand dollars!”

  I walked out of his office, trying not to cry or hit something or kick something or yell. An hour before takeoff, I’d gone over the engine and double-checked the oil. I’d been doing this on every plane I flew since my flight back from Blythe, the time my engine went out over the San Francisco Peaks. The thing I’d forgotten to do was sign the check-out sheet saying I’d looked everything over and that all was okay.

  I walked onto the flight line even though it was dusk and time for mess and the girls would be expecting me. I stood there thinking about rainbows and bluebirds and blue skies, and they all seemed too far away. All I could see was swamp everywhere. I thought: That’s it. I’m going to be court-martialed. I might as well just pack my things and go on home. And maybe it’s a good thing. This place is the worst place I ever did see. It’s worse than Devil’s Kitchen.

  I heard someone walk up behind me but I didn’t budge or look. I didn’t care. It would probably just be one more person getting ready to write me up for something I didn’t do or lecture me or shoot at me.

  “Nice landing.” It was a lazy-sounding voice, gravelly and rough, like the person speaking had just woke up. I froze. The hairs on the back of my neck and on my arms prickled like I’d seen a spook.

  I turned around and saw the wide, high cheekbones and sleepy dark eyes, the brown-black hair, still long, not cut short like a soldier’s. In addition to his medicine beads, he wore dog tags, and he had the same crooked, gap-toothed smile. His uniform was the olive green-brown of an army man.

  As I stood looking at him, the first thing I thought was, There you are. Then I heard his song in my head, the very first one I’d ever heard him play that long-ago July night down at Deal’s.

  I said, “Butch Dawkins.”

  He said, “Velva Jean Bright.”

  I said, “It’s Velva Jean Hart now.”

  He nodded like he’d been expecting it.

  I tried to say I was sorry then for Harley and for everything, but he said, “It’s good to see you.” And that was it. I knew somehow we were square.

  We walked to the mess hall but didn’t go in. Instead we sat down on the wooden benches just outside. I told him about Johnny Clay, who I hadn’t heard from in weeks, and how I learned to fly, and even a little about Nashville, and he sat there and listened, not saying a word. I didn’t mention Harley or Juárez, but I told him I’d gone home again and that I didn’t know when I’d ever be going back.

  Then he said, “You’d best eat something, girl, before they put it up.” And he got up and walked me to the mess-hall door and said he had to go, and suddenly he was gone—back to join the other Indians? Where did they keep them? What was he doing here at Camp Davis? I stood there wond
ering if I was going to see him again or if maybe I’d made him up, just like a haint.

  ~ 1944 ~

  I’m flying high above the clouds.

  I’m flying swift and free . . .

  —“Beyond the Keep”

  THIRTY-FOUR

  On January 1, Ruth Needham picked up an A-24 in New York, stopped at Camp Davis to refuel and check in, and was flying the plane down to South Carolina when she lost all the controls except the throttle and had to jump. An antiaircraft lieutenant was flying with her and when he jumped out of the plane he hit the propeller.

  The lieutenant died instantly, but Ruth was still alive. Sally, Janie, and I went to see her at the base hospital, and she looked small and bruised lying in her bed. She broke her leg in the fall and cracked three ribs, but otherwise she was okay.

  I took Ruth’s hand when she held it out, and Janie said, “What happened up there?”

  Ruth said, “I don’t know. One minute all systems were go, the next the fuel pressure warning light started flickering. Then the prop control went out, then the trim tabs, the wobble pump, the fuel selector, and the radio. The only thing that didn’t fritz out was the throttle.”

  We asked her questions, and she answered them for as long as she could, and then her head started nodding and her eyes drooped closed and she drifted off to sleep. We slipped outside, and in the hallway Sally said, “I’m sorry—all the controls go fritzy at once? I don’t buy it.”

  Janie shook her head. “Me neither.”

  They looked at me and I said, “Me neither.” And as I said it a chill ran up my spine, uncoiling just like a snake. I thought of Laurine Thompson and Sandy Chapman and Dora Atwood, girls just like me, just like Ruth, who came to Camp Davis to fly and then died when something went wrong. I heard Colonel Wells’s words in my head: The planes are retired. The planes aren’t fit for combat anymore. And then I heard Helen Stillbert saying, “We think it was sabotage.”

  The day after Ruth got out of the hospital, they sent her to base court to face charges for damaging government property and for putting her passenger in harm’s way.

  Three days later, she was cleared. She kept to herself after that, sitting silent at mess while the rest of us talked around her, her nose in a book while waiting on the flight line, turning in early at night, long before bed check.

  Through it all, I wondered just where Jackie Cochran was and if there was anyone on this base that we could trust. Some of the men were nice enough. They didn’t seem to mind that we were here as much as the other army air force pilots did. I wondered about the other 49,500 men on base—would they have been nicer if we were assigned to work with them? Or would they have been just as unhappy to see us as the pilots were?

  The night Ruth was cleared, I was scheduled to fly my first searchlight mission. This was a kind of racetrack pattern at different altitudes, so I would be going up and down and up again while the artillery men tried to spot me and follow me with their searchlights. Before I took off, I told Harry Lawson that I wanted to look over the engine myself.

  He said, “It already checked out. I have the paperwork here.”

  I said, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to go over it again.”

  While he watched me, I went over the gas tank, the carburetor, the oil, the engine, the landing gear, the propeller—every control and dial and lever. When I was done, I made sure to sign my name to the papers to say everything was okay.

  I still felt nervous as I took off. What if the engine caught fire? What if I lost a wheel? What if the controls went out? I looked outside the windows and all I could see was the blinding yellow-white of the searchlights. I couldn’t read the instruments or see where I was headed, and so I tried to remember everything I’d learned at Avenger Field about flying blind. I remembered what Puck had taught me: “When you’re sitting in that cockpit, I want you to picture the flying you’re doing in that particular airplane. It’s just you and that one plane. You’ve got to know just what that plane can do for you.”

  By now I knew the A-24 better than any other plane I’d ever flown. I closed my eyes and pictured the control panel. At first it was blurry, but little by little all the levers and dials and buttons filled themselves in until I could see them in my mind. I reached forward and adjusted the prop control, the trim tabs, the throttle. I saw the sky above Camp Davis just like I was looking at it. I pictured it like a road I was driving in my yellow truck.

  An hour later, after I was sitting on the ground again, I thought that searchlight missions were a bit like life. Sometimes you could lose your way and not know where in the world you were going, but you just had to keep your head and remember your instruments. I thought maybe I was knowing my compass more and more.

  Jackie Cochran arrived the next morning in her Beechcraft. She called all twenty-five WASP together in the office she sometimes used, which was a small room next to the dispatcher’s office. We crowded around the table, lining the walls, sitting in the chairs and on the floor. Ruth sat front and center, her leg in a cast, her face still bruised.

  Miss Cochran looked like she’d been awake all night. There were little lines around her eyes underneath the makeup. She sat on the edge of the table, hands on either side of her, legs stretched out in front, ankles crossed.

  A couple of the girls raised their hands. Miss Cochran nodded at them. “You’ll have a chance to talk. First, I want to address this latest accident.” She looked at Ruth, who was staring at her through her glasses, blank as a stone wall. “The plane’s log showed that there had been a complaint about the engine, Miss Needham, prior to your flying it. The complaint was written up but for some reason the plane was never repaired. I imagine this was just an oversight, but I assure you I’m going to look into it.”

  Sally snapped her gum in Jackie Cochran’s direction in a way I knew meant “I just bet you will.” Miss Cochran glanced at her and frowned.

  Ruth said, “Why even bother?” Her voice was flat and far away.

  Miss Cochran looked at her long and hard and then she looked at the rest of us. “Anyone else? I want to hear what you have to say.”

  Sally cracked her gum again, and then we all started talking at once, telling her just how scared we were, how angry we were. We told her about the crude comments, the teasing, the target shooting. We told her the A-24s were faulty and not fit for training, especially at night.

  She held up her hands and said, “All right, all right. This is what I can do. I’ll talk to the mechanics. I’ll test-fly some of the planes tomorrow. I’ll see if we can’t get to the bottom of this, but you have to be quiet. If I hear or read so much as a cough in the press about things not running well here, about anything less than perfect harmony between the WASP and the male pilots at Camp Davis, I’m going to make some personnel changes.”

  The next day Jackie Cochran test-flew several of the planes, including the A-24s. Afterward she met with Harry Lawson and went over the squawk sheet, which was where pilots reported all aircraft technical problems and the mechanics responded with how they’d taken care of them and when.

  The twenty-five of us waited on the edge of the flight line, and when Miss Cochran was finished she walked over, hair blowing in the wind, smiling. She said, “Yes, the planes have some problems. They’re old. They’ve been through it. But I don’t see anything life threatening.”

  When some of the girls started to talk, she held up her hand. “Look. They have problems, but what plane being flown these days doesn’t?”

  Sally said, “I’d like to be relieved of my target-towing duties.”

  Helen Stillbert said, “Me too.”

  Janie said, “And me.”

  I said, “And me.”

  A half dozen other girls spoke up, but by now Miss Cochran was frowning and shaking her head. “No,” she said. “No one’s resigning and no one’s being relieved of any duty. You’re here to perform a mission. The future of this program is at stake.”

  Sally said, “We could go to
the FERD.” FERD was the Ferry Division of the Army Air Forces, and even though we were nonmilitary, we could go there to complain or even resign.

  Jackie Cochran said, “If you do, I can still override them.” She was smiling but her tone was cold. It was a look I’d seen before on Sweet Fern, on Harley.

  By nightfall she was gone, and the next day we were back on the line, taking our turns towing targets in the A-24s. When I came down, I counted eleven bullet holes in the tail of my plane, five in the wing, five in the cockpit, and one in the nose. I thought to myself, If you can fly here at Camp Davis, you can fly anywhere.

  On January 14, I got two letters at mail call, one from Janette Lowe, Hink’s sister, who wrote me all the way from England to tell me how she was a nurse for the Red Cross and to thank me for all I did to help her, back on Fair Mountain, when she was attacked by the German from the CCC camp. The other letter was from Butch Dawkins. All it said was, “Girl—you free tomorrow night around seven? I got someplace for us to go. Butch.”

  I sat down on the flight line and waited my turn, and while I waited I thought about Butch and then I thought about Ty. I reached into my pocket for his compass and ran my fingers over each letter: N-E-T.

  The thing I’d never said to anyone, much less to myself, was that Ty would be alive if it wasn’t for me asking him to meet me in Blythe. I should have just been happy to write him letters and let him write me songs and see him the next time he came to Avenger Field. This was something I went over in my mind again and again—my telegram telling him I would be there, his telegram saying he would come—like going over it would change it somehow. Like maybe if I thought enough about it and pictured it different in my mind he would never have been in Blythe in the first place, which meant he would never have crashed into that mountain.

 
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