Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  Sometimes I made myself think about what our lives would be like if he was still here. I went beyond the good and the happy and wondered if I ever would have stopped loving him like I stopped loving Harley. Would we have fought about little things or big ones? Would he have got tired of me? Would I have stopped talking to him about my songs? Would he have stayed away from home more and more? Would I have woken up one day and find out I didn’t love him anymore?

  When I got back to my bay, I opened my hatbox and set Ty’s compass inside it, on top of all my other treasures. “I’m sorry,” I said, and it was silly to say it to something so small that was only made out of metal, but as I closed the lid to the hatbox and locked it up in my footlocker I felt like I was leaving a part of me behind.

  At seven o’clock the next evening, I met Butch Dawkins outside my barracks. I was wearing my blue dress and my Comet Red lipstick and some of Sally’s best perfume. Outside it was already night, the last traces of the sun fading right into the ocean. Butch was dressed in his uniform. His skin was dark against the green. Some of the army air force pilots walked past and stared at us. They called out to Butch—“You lost, Injun? You need some help finding your way back to your teepee?” They all laughed at this like it was the funniest thing and then they walked off, blowing kisses at me.

  He said to me, “I guess I should’ve met you someplace.”

  I said, “It’s just as bad for you to be seen with me.”

  He said, “Well, then. We’re going to have us an adventure.”

  He didn’t say a word about how I looked, didn’t tell me I was pretty or that he liked my dress. He didn’t tell me I had the prettiest face on Fair Mountain—Fair Mountain or anywhere.

  He said, “Ready?”

  I wondered why it should matter to me if Butch thought I was pretty. Maybe because there were other girls in this world he probably did think were pretty and I at least wanted to be one of them. But maybe he didn’t like girls with hair that waved too much in the heat or had eyes that weren’t one color but a lot of them. He might not like girls with heart-shaped faces who weren’t tiny like Sally or bigbosomed like Sweet Fern. He probably liked Indian girls or Cajun girls, exotic-looking ones with dark hair and almond-shaped eyes and skin the color of caramel.

  There was a juke joint out in the country, just past Holly Ridge, called Leona’s. I talked and talked on the drive there, thinking how silly I sounded going on about everything from Life magazine to Dan Presley’s airplane spotting to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Yet I kept on talking. Butch stared straight ahead, one hand on the wheel, the other arm crooked out the window. The cold air blew in through the window flaps, but I was warm from the heater. I liked the feeling of hot and cold, hot and cold. Just when I got too hot, there would be a rush of cool air. Just when I got a chill, I could feel the heat.

  I kept thinking: I am here with Butch Dawkins. The world sure is a small place. I couldn’t get over it.

  Every now and then Butch said, “You up to somethin’, girl. Sho’nough.”

  I chattered on and on and then I made myself stop talking so that he could talk. I said, “Where did you go after you left Alluvial?”

  He said, “Here and there.”

  “Did you make it to Chicago, home of the blues?”

  “Not even close.”

  “Did you make it to New York?”


  I said, “Where did you go?”

  He said, “Around and about.”

  I sat there for a while and remembered driving him in my yellow truck, back when he would come visit me up in Devil’s Kitchen and we were writing songs. I thought about us driving and singing, him playing his steel guitar. I said, “You still writing songs?”

  He said, “I been trying to. What about you?”

  “Not as much anymore.”

  He said, “There’s a lot I been brewing on since I joined up. I’ve got words all around me, ones I want to put down, but so far they don’t want to come together. I got tunes, though, all through my head.”

  I thought it was nice to hear him talk, even if it was the one thing I’d ever heard him talk about—his music. Then I thought with a pang how long it’d been since I had anyone to talk to like this about writing and how I’d missed it. I was starting to get tired of singing other people’s songs.

  I said, “I’m going to write a song about flying a plane while men are shooting at you, trying to blast you out of the sky just because they’re afraid you’re better than them.”

  Butch laughed at this. I sneaked a look at him, trying to see his smile. His teeth shone white in the dark. He said, “Some fellas have a hard time with the fact that women can do the same thing they can, and better even. I know it, Velva Jean. They feel the same way about Indians.”

  I soaked in the feeling of the way he said my name, which sounded both old and new. It was a long time since I’d heard someone say it who knew me so well, and I thought about what a difference it made, how it sounded good to my ears. I liked having someone who knew me, not just from Camp Davis or Avenger Field, but from back home, from years ago. Butch Dawkins stirred up music that I didn’t think was in me, or that I’d only heard far, far off in my mind, like it was coming from miles away.

  I wanted to ask him about the work he was doing in the army, but instead I said, “We should write a song about it.”

  He said, “You onto something there, girl. Fo’ sure, fo’ sure.”

  Leona’s was a clapboard shack with a tin roof, sitting in the middle of a field at the end of a dirt road. I could feel the music as we drove up. It traveled out the door and down the steps and into the ground surrounding the shack, snaking along the dirt road, reaching up through the tires of the jeep Butch had borrowed from base, into the seats of the car, and into me.

  Inside, Leona’s was no bigger than the bay I shared with Sally. Just like the juke joint in Nashville, the one I’d gone to with Johnny Clay and Gossie, there were so many people—every single one of them colored but us. Two men stood in a corner playing guitar and drums. Butch grabbed my hand and led me through the crowd till we were standing right by the band. The air was smoky, the lights dim. I leaned in to Butch’s ear and said, “How can two men make that big sound?” The sound was bigger than anything I’d ever heard. It made me want to cry and dance at the same time. I wanted to climb inside of it and live there.

  He said, “Music at its purest.” From his pocket he pulled out a brown square of paper and some tobacco and started rolling a cigarette on his leg. I watched him for a moment. The grace of his hands, which were wide and strong. The loose, smooth way he moved. He stuck the cigarette in his mouth and lit it. The music was pulsing through me so that I wondered where it stopped and where my own pulse started. I stared at the cigarette and for some reason I had the urge to take it from Butch and smoke it myself.

  Then Butch took my hand and pulled me to him, cigarette between his teeth. I was so close that I could feel his dog tags against my chest, could feel his breath in my ear. My head went spinny from the smoke and the music and the nearness of Butch. He was both easy and electric. Sexy. I forgot about Camp Davis and target towing and Colonel Wells and reprimands. I even forgot all the Indian and Cajun girls in the world while I just let the music run through me.

  On the way home, we pulled back the window flaps and let the cold, raw air beat in. My hair whipped around and I could feel it curling but I didn’t care. Butch’s cigarette glowed red in the dark.

  He talked all the way back. He talked about the blues. He told me about all the different types. He said, “There’s St. Louis blues—that sort mixes blues with ragtime and jazz. There’s country blues, like Jimmie Rodgers and Blind Lemon Jefferson. That’s usually played on banjo and guitar, and then Sylvester Weaver brought in the steel slide guitar, which he fretted with a knife blade, and that led to Delta blues, which is just plain old steel guitar and singing. Blues stripped down to the basics. I call it naked blues.”

; I thought, That’s the kind of blues you play.

  He talked about Piedmont blues and Memphis blues, boogiewoogie and big band blues, and jump blues like the kind Count Basie played. I told him about singing with Count Basie in Mexico, and he whistled long and low. He held the cigarette in his left hand, the one hanging out the window. He said, “Damn, girl.” His voice was scratchy, like he’d yelled it raw.

  He talked about Robert Johnson, about how all he wanted was to be a great blues musician. How, in the 1920s, he was just a young colored boy living on a plantation in Mississippi when one night at midnight he stood at a crossroads and sold his soul to the devil, who took his guitar from him and tuned it so that he could play the guitar like no one else before or since. Years later, when Robert Johnson was twenty-seven, just a few years older than me, he was killed after drinking whiskey poisoned with strychnine, like what they drank up at the snake-handling church on Bone Mountain.

  I sat there listening to Butch. I thought how much I loved to hear him talk and that this was the most I’d ever heard him say. I said, “All this time, I thought there was just one kind of blues.” Then I told him about all the names Daddy Hoyt gave the blues—not the blues you played but the blues you felt. The Gentle and Wholesome Blues, the Sadistic Blues, the Mean Devil Blues . . .

  Butch said, “J’ai le blues. ‘Have the blues.’ J’ai le blues de toi. ‘I have the blues for you.’ There’s a song in there somewhere.”

  I looked at his profile, and I suddenly thought of the first time I ever saw him, driving up to Harley’s house with Johnny Clay in Danny Deal’s old yellow truck—my truck now. I wondered where my brother was and wished he was there with us, riding in that jeep. I wished we could go back to that moment when he and Butch pulled up in front of the house and I stood on the running board feeling the rumble of the truck for the first time. When Johnny Clay asked me to go for a ride, I wished I’d got in that truck right then, between my brother and Butch Dawkins, and just driven away.

  Butch started humming, like he was searching for the song.

  I said, “We should write it.”

  I sneaked into the bay around 4:00 a.m., taking off my shoes just outside the door so I didn’t wake up Sally. For such a little girl, she could snore louder than a steam engine, but she was quiet now. I heard her stirring around in bed. She said, “Hartsie?” Her voice was blurry. “How was it?”

  I said, “Go back to sleep. I’ll tell you tomorrow.” I wanted to keep the night to myself just a little longer. I wanted to get in bed and give Butch Dawkins and Leona’s juke joint and Robert Johnson and all the different types of blues a good think.

  Sally said, “Gus Mitchell kissed me tonight . . .”

  I said, “Was it wonderful?” She didn’t say anything. “Sally?” I could hear her breathing slow and even, in and out, in and out, and then she started to snore.

  After I washed my face and brushed my teeth, I climbed under the blanket and rolled onto my side. I pulled the covers up over my shoulder but poked my left foot out, just a little, because I liked having one leg free, even in winter. Then I set about to thinking:

  Butch Dawkins is a different sort of man than Harley. He’s a different sort of man than these army air force pilots. He isn’t one to chase a girl or fall in love with her right off without even knowing her. He isn’t one to sweep a girl away to the Balsam Mountain Springs Hotel or take her away on a train here and there and everywhere and be wild and bold and loud.

  I thought of all the ways he was different from Ty and this should have made me like Butch less, but it didn’t. I just wished I knew more about him. The only thing I’d ever really heard him talk about was music. I remembered Bob Keene telling me all about himself at the Christmas dance. I realized, as I lay there, that Butch hadn’t answered a single question—not really, not truly—all night.

  I got up and dug my hatbox out from my footlocker, careful not to wake up Sally. I pulled open the lid and searched with my fingers till I found Ty’s compass. There were the initials: N-E-T. I shut the hatbox and closed the locker and got back into bed. I slid the compass under my pillow and rolled onto my side. I wrapped the fingers of one hand around the cool, hard metal and after a good, long while I went to sleep.


  The Norden bombsight looked just like a lopsided camera and was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the U.S. military. It was an analog computer that calculated the path of a bomb based on the crosswinds, altitude, and airspeed. The bombardier told the computer the airspeed, wind speed and direction, altitude, and angle of drift, and then the bombsight calculated the route of the bomb. As the airplane got closer to the target, the pilot turned the plane over to autopilot, which took the plane to the exact location and dropped the bomb over the target. The bombsite was accurate enough to hit a hundred-foot circle from an altitude of twenty-one thousand feet. Basically, it could shoot a tick off a dog.

  The bombsight was loaded onto the aircraft under armed guard and covered until it was in the air. Bombardiers were required to take an oath promising to defend it with their lives. If the plane had to make an emergency landing on enemy territory, the bombardier or pilot was responsible for shooting the bombsight with a thermite gun, which was able to melt the Norden into a lump of metal. When you were ferrying a Norden bombsight, you had to fly with the gun strapped to your hip.

  On January 18, we—a select group of WASP and army air force officers—were told we’d be ferrying a Norden bombsight, and then we were taken to the Cemetery, which was what we called the scrap yard where crashed planes were stored, looking for things to melt with our thermite guns. Lieutenant Bob Keene and Captain Theodore Dailey and head mechanic Harry Lawson led us through—Sally and Helen and the rest of the girls and some of the male pilots too. There were guards with guns pacing back and forth around the borders of the scrap yard, and one of the guards was Zeke Bodine. We made our way through the wreckage and past wings, propellers, a cockpit all by itself, engines, tires, control panels, cables, a pilot’s seat.

  Suddenly Bob Keene stopped and said, “Here.” We lined up around him. To the left and the right, stacked up and scattered around and sitting on the ground were twenty or thirty little black boxes no bigger than my mandolin.

  Sally said, “What are those?”

  Bob Keene said, “Flight recorders. Not all ships have them yet, but they record aircraft performance parameters and conversations in the cockpit, radio transmissions, background sounds.” He pointed the thermite gun at one. “In case of a crash you can open them up and try to figure out what caused it.”

  I said, “They look all closed up. Shouldn’t they be opened?” I wondered if Ruth’s plane had a black box, if it was one of these. I thought, Maybe we need to see what’s inside.

  Bob Keene said, “These are old ones—ones they don’t need anymore.” I wondered if this was true. He shot at the nearest black box and it melted right into the ground. Captain Dailey, who was so skinny he looked eight feet tall, started lining everyone up so we could all take a turn.

  I stood at the back of formation, just behind Helen. The breeze blew my hair around my face and up in the air. The ends of it kept getting stuck in my lipstick, the part that hadn’t come off. I was tired and run-down because I’d stayed up too late the night before, trying to write a song. The words were coming, but I couldn’t hear the music like I wanted to because every time I got near it I started thinking about the parts of an AT-17 or A-25 engine or things I’d learned in physics class, like that water wasn’t compressible but air was until an aircraft passing through it reached the speed of sound.

  As I moved up the line, closer to the black boxes, I thought that they were like the heart of a plane—the place where all its secrets were locked up—and that it felt wrong to be shooting at them.

  When it was my turn, I wrapped my hand around the thermite gun, just like they’d showed us. Bob Keene stepped in and said, “Let me help you, Fifinella.” He tried to correct my grip, b
ut Captain Dailey said, “What are you doing, Lieutenant? She’s got it perfect.”

  Bob Keene frowned and stood back, while I raised my gun and aimed at one of the black boxes. I thought they looked like broken hearts, all sealed up and shattered and melted into nothing.

  The following week we started survival training and gas-mask drills. Captain Dailey said this was something we needed to learn because even if we were just ferrying planes around our own country we still had to be prepared for the enemy. We could be hijacked. We could be shot down out of the sky. Some of the planes we were flying were new and used advanced technology. Captain Dailey said this made them as good as actual weapons, which meant the Germans and the Japanese wanted to get hold of them and find out their secrets.

  We had to wear our masks and run through tents filled with poison gas. Then Captain Dailey made us run through with our masks off, over and over again until we could recognize the odor of each kind of gas: mustard, phosgene, lewisite, chloropicrin. The one I hated most was tear gas, which burned my face and neck and left me blind for hours.

  By bedtime, my eyes were still tearing. I stood in the bathroom of our barracks, staring at myself in the mirror—red eyes, puffy circles underneath, tears forming at the corners, nose like a clown, cheeks stained with little lines of water creeping down my face. I looked like a dirty little urchin, like a down-and-out. I looked like one of the Lowe boys, always hanging around on their daddy’s porch, faces brown, hair sticking up, chewing tobacco. I looked like a girl doing man’s work, but for once I didn’t care. I wasn’t here to be crowned Gold Queen or get my picture taken for Life magazine.

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