Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven


  I leaned in close to the mirror and said, “Just look at you, Velva Jean Hart. You don’t even look like yourself.” I felt my phantom limb again. Now that the “Bright” was officially gone, I thought my name was like a soldier missing a leg or an arm, like how they knew it was gone but they could still feel it there, in the hole where it used to be.

  January 30, 1944

  Dear Velva Jean,

  We had a letter from Linc yesterday morning. He’s on one of 240 ships that set sail from the Bay of Naples on January 21. He said there were thirty-five thousand men, American and British, sailors and infantry, and that Coyle is there too. They’re headed to a beach someplace between Naples and Rome, though he can’t say where.

  I never really knew Butch Dawkins, but any friend of Johnny Clay’s is a friend of ours. What he’s doing is good and important work. Daddy Hoyt says to tell you that after the Civil War, the Navajo were punished if they were caught speaking their own language. And now the government’s asking for their help! He says he wonders where Butch learned it because if you don’t learn Navajo or Comanche as a child, you usually can’t learn it at all.

  Daddy Hoyt also says to tell you this story: There’s an Indian legend about hero twins that fought off monsters that were threatening their world. The twins went to the sun to ask for a weapon that could kill the monsters, and the sun gave them a thunderbolt. The twins came back down to earth and used the thunderbolt to kill the monsters and save the world. One of the things that saved them was that the monsters couldn’t understand them because the twins used a language that only they knew.

  Remember we love you.

  Ruby Poole

  THIRTY-SIX

  On February 1, Ruth resigned from the WASP and went home to Illinois. I wondered what would happen if we all dropped out, and I liked thinking of Jackie Cochran coming to Camp Davis on her next visit and finding us all gone. But where would we go? What would we do? I couldn’t go back to Fair Mountain now for anything. Just like how, once I taught myself to drive, I couldn’t very well teach myself not to drive, now that I knew how to fly, I couldn’t very well stop flying.

  Two days later three female reporters came to Camp Davis to interview the WASP. The day before they came, Colonel Wells gave orders to clear out a storeroom in the administration building and brought in a table and chairs. A sign was hung on the door—gold and shiny just like the one outside his office. It said “WASP Nest.”

  In groups of five or six, we were rounded up and brought to the WASP Nest to talk to the reporters. They were nice but businesslike. They said, “Oh what a nice office the Army Air Forces has given you.” We didn’t tell them that up until yesterday our office was a storeroom.

  The reporters said they’d been hearing rumors about men sabotaging the WASP, about women being harassed and even shot at. One of the reporters said, “Before we came here, we were up at Camp Lejeune, talking to the women marines. Some of them say they fear for their lives.”

  We answered politely and carefully, not saying a word about ferrying Norden bombsights or being shot at by male pilots, all except Sally, who said, “There’s truth to everything those girls told you. We’ve been going through it since we got here.”

  The reporters started asking a hundred questions then, and Sally answered all of them.

  On our walk back to the bay, I said, “You shouldn’t have said those things.”

  Sally said, “Aren’t you tired, Hartsie? This isn’t what I signed up for. This isn’t why I learned to fly. I’m sure I’ll tick some people off when the articles come out, but how’s that any different than the way they’re feeling about me now? At least this way I know I’m being honest.”

  She was right, and I knew she was right. I wished then that I hadn’t just sat there like a stump. I wished I’d been as brave as Sally. “Or as reckless,” I heard a voice say.

  The next morning Sally and I walked over to the WASP Nest to get our assignments, but the sign was gone. We went up and down the hallway, searching for the office, trying to see if we’d remembered it wrong. Then we walked back to the first door we’d stopped at and opened it. Instead of the table and chairs, the room was filled with boxes and brooms and equipment. Our WASP Nest was back to being a storeroom.

  I didn’t see Butch again till Thursday. I came out of the mess hall just after supper, with Sally and Janie and Gus Mitchell and Vince Gillies, and he was standing outside smoking a cigarette. He shook the hair out of his eyes and said, “Hey.” His eyes flicked over at Gus and Vince. “Hey,” he said again, but they just stood there.

  I said, “Hey.” I thought: Where have you been? Where did you go? What are you doing here? How can I find you?

  Sally started talking to Gus and Vince, pulling them away.

  Butch said to me, “It ain’t going to do you any good to be seen with me. They hate us more than they hate you.”

  I said, “I don’t care.” And I didn’t.

  He said, “I been working on a song.”

  He didn’t ask what I’d been doing or how I was. He didn’t ask me if I’d been shot at lately. He didn’t know anything about Ruth’s accident or Jackie Cochran or the Norden bombsight.

  I said, “I been working on one too, but it’s stuck. I can’t get it out no matter how I try. When I moved to Nashville, I just wrote and wrote, but ever since the war, ever since learning to fly, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to write again. All I can think about is airplanes.”

  He said, “Maybe you’re still learning to fly.”

  I thought this was about the craziest thing I ever heard. I was a WASP. The most famous female pilot in the world had pinned my silver wings on my uniform. I was ferrying planes for the military.

  He said, “What time’s bed check?”

  “Ten o’clock.”

  He nodded. He took my hand. He said, “Come on.” I turned back to wave at Sally and the others, and Gus and Vince were still staring at Butch, only now they were staring at our hands.

  The Indians lived on the far side of the base, nearest the swamp, over by Highway 18, which ran right past Camp Davis on the other side of the marsh, and an old runway that was now covered in moss. They slept in large brown wood-frame tents, and the ground around them was muddy from the rain that seemed to come in off the ocean every day till you were surprised you didn’t find moss and mildew growing all over yourself.

  I said, “Why do they keep you over here?”

  He led me past the tents to a small square building with lights in the windows. He pushed the door open and said, “Go on in.”

  Inside there was just one room and it was warm and bright. Half a dozen men sat in front of a fireplace, playing cards, smoking cigarettes. One of them was playing the guitar and another was singing. They didn’t look like Cherokee, and I guessed these were the Lumbee—light skin, brown-black hair, dark eyes—and maybe some of the Navajo and Comanche too. The Lumbee were supposed to come from the Croatan Indians and the white men of the Lost Colony, which was a group of the first English settlers that came to America and vanished one winter. No one ever knew what happened to them.

  The Indians hollered to Butch as we came in, and nodded at me. The air was friendly and easy. I wanted to sit down and talk to these men. They reminded me of home, of Granny, who was part Cherokee, and Beachard, who looked the most Cherokee of any of Mama’s children.

  Butch’s steel guitar was propped in a corner. He picked it up, and then we sat down away from the fireplace and the card players and the man playing guitar. There were three chairs, and Butch set his steel guitar on one of them. He pulled off his jacket and rolled his shirtsleeves up over his elbows. I thought about the tattoo on his arm—a guitar with writing on the neck and flames shooting out of the pegbox and the words “The Bluesman,” written across it.

  I said, “Are those the other code talkers?” I liked the way “code talkers” sounded. It made me think of the Indian message trees on Fair Mountain, of how the Cherokee used to bend the trees to m
ark their way and leave messages to each other in the ones that were hollowed out.

  He said, “How did you hear about code talkers?”

  I said, “Some of the girls here. They said you all might be rounded up to do code talking.”

  “I guess classified don’t always mean ‘classified.’ ”

  I said, “Oh, is it top secret? Like spies?”

  He smiled, “Something like that.”

  “What kind of code do you talk in?”

  “Navajo. Comanche. Choctaw.” He ran his hands through his hair and pushed a piece of it behind his ear so it wouldn’t fall in his face. He looked at me. It was the kind of look that was hard to read. He looked like he was thinking things over.

  I started getting nervous a little, the way I sometimes got around him. I felt the need to fill all the spaces when I was with him.

  I said, “Code talking sounds important.”

  He said, “It is.”

  I said, “I heard each code talker’s assigned an officer and that officer has to protect them.” Sally told me that the officer had orders to shoot his code talker if the enemy tried to capture them.

  Butch said, “You know a lot.” He rubbed at the back of his neck. He leaned forward in his chair, arms resting on his legs. “The important thing’s protecting the code, not the man talking it.”

  I looked around at the other Indians. “They look young.”

  “Most of them never been off their reservation till now.” He picked up his guitar again and started tuning it. I thought he always wanted to be doing something with his hands—rolling a cigarette, playing guitar. “Navajo’s the rarest language on earth. It’s never been written down. All these years, they have to memorize it and then pass it down and around. Like a song. Like the way you know it first, before you write it. And the way it’s hard to write down sometimes because it’s just in you.”

  “I thought you were Choctaw.”

  “Half-Choctaw. Half-Creole. But I learned the Indian languages a long time ago. I speak Cajun, Creole, French, Patois, Gullah, Geechee. I figure the more words you know the better.” He strummed the guitar. “At the start of the world there were words. The first word was light. The second word was earth. Then water. Then air.” He said the word for each one in Navajo, and it sounded strange to me, like he was making it up. “The Navajo believe the universe was created by words.”

  I believed this because, when it got down to it, words were just about my favorite thing and you didn’t have much if you didn’t have words. I thought that maybe they were the most powerful thing on earth. Sometimes they could lift you up like you’d just been saved, and sometimes they cut through you till you couldn’t breathe. I loved the feeling when you found just the right one after you’d been looking for it for a while. I hated the feeling when you couldn’t catch them like you wanted to or when someone used them against you.

  Butch said, “Navajo’s one of the hidden languages of the world. In Navajo there’s no such thing as choosing the wrong word. You have to say it right or you end up saying something else.”

  Then he started to sing, low and growling. It was a bluesy song, but not deep-down-in-the-gutter bluesy like the ones I’d heard him play back up in Alluvial. This one was yearning and lonely and raw right down to the bone. His voice was deeper, scratchier, more whiskey-and-cigarettes than the last time I’d heard him sing. It seemed older and had more shades of something in it—a kind of aching, a kind of heartbreak.

  I thought, Something’s happened to you, Butch Dawkins, since I seen you last.

  I wanted to know what it was—if it was a person or maybe some sort of misfortune or tragedy—that had changed him. I wanted to climb inside that song right now and try to heal the heartbreak.

  After he was done singing, I tried to think of something to say. He might wonder why he was sharing this song with me when all I did was sit there and stare at him and not have anything smart to mention about it.

  I thought about talking to him about burdens and scars and the things we carry around with us in this life. The more things that happened to me, the more I thought it was like carrying a suitcase—you kept adding things to it, like your mama dying and your daddy going away, heartbreak over your husband, heartbreak over a boy that died. You just started adding these things to your suitcase until the case got heavier. You still had to carry it around wherever you went, and even if you set it down for a while you still had to pick it up again because it belonged to you and so did everything inside it.

  I thought of saying all this, and then I just said, “What’s that song called?”

  He smiled, a slow and lazy grin. I liked what it did to his face, shifting the angles, making them softer. Butch said, “It don’t have a name yet. I’m thinking of calling it ‘The Bluesman.’”

  “Like your tattoo?”

  He laughed and then nodded. “Yes, ma’am. I know I want to write a song called ‘The Bluesman’ someday, but I’m still waiting for the right one. Nothing I ever wrote’s been good enough.”

  I said, “You never told me how you got your tattoo.”

  He sat back in his chair, strumming the guitar a little more so that I knew he was about to start another song. He said, “I know.”

  I went to bed that night hearing his song in my head. Just the memory of it made me sink a little deeper into the bed, my heart weighing down my body till I thought I might break through the mattress and fall onto the floor. I thought about a language that couldn’t be written. I thought about all the words on this earth that I didn’t know. I wondered if learning them would mean being able to write more songs, better songs.

  Then I tried to remember the words that began the world. I said “light,” “earth,” “water,” “air” to myself one by one, first in English, then in Navajo, until I fell asleep.

  Not All the Risk Is in the Sky

  By Lydia Lowe for the Wilmington Morning Star

  February 19—Cold nerve, steady hands, keen mind, and a willingness to do a job that takes patience and more patience. No glamour and no cheering crowds, just hard sober work and the kind of courage that can carry on when the probing searchlights blind you and you have to fly by your instruments to keep the course.

  That’s the sort of women pilots Jacqueline Cochran has trained, and is training, to help the army. The girls have made the transition from 450-horsepower ships to 1,250 horsepower in a single jump, a move to “hot” ships that land at 110 mph. They are flying everything these days. Most had little more than thirty-five hours of flight time when they started their course at Sweetwater, Texas. They had everything to learn. They dug their toes in and did learn, but they aren’t through yet.

  They may not be overseas, but these girls are turning in extraordinary contributions. Several of them have even given their lives for their country, when the planes they were flying crashed. But they don’t just fear for their lives in the air. They live in fear on the ground too, specifically at Camp Davis, the Army Air Forces base to which they’ve been assigned, on a swamp along the coast. They live in fear of harassment by male officers, fear of so-called friendly fire by gunners that shoot recklessly at the planes they fly while target towing, fear of sabotage on the planes themselves. There is enough risk involved in flying powerful warplanes without adding in these factors. Perhaps Jackie Cochran should spend less time in Washington, D.C., and more time looking after her pilots. Who says there isn’t a war being fought right here at home?

  February 21, 1944

  Hey, girl,

  Been working on something here. See what you think. I ain’t sure if what I got is a verse or the chorus. Maybe you can tell me.

  (Sorry I ain’t one for letter writing. Got to save all the words up for songs.)

  You made somethin’ out of nothin’—

  made me look around and see.

  You made always out of never—

  you made a man out of me.

  Your smilin’ eyes saw somethin’

  no on
e else could see.

  (Somethin’ somethin’ somethin’)

  You made a man out of me.

  I don’t know. I think there’s something there, but the words just drift on off before I can catch them. I’m stumped.

  Butch

  February 22, 1944

  Butch,

  I think what you’ve got here is the verse and the chorus. I did some work on it after I got off the flight line yesterday and again today. See what you think.

  Do you have the melody yet? Because I started singing one today when I was up in the A-24.

  You made somethin’ out of nothin’—

  made me open my eyes and see.

  You made always out of never—

  you made a man out of me.

  Your smilin’ eyes saw somethin’

  no one else could see.

  Makin’ somethin’ out of nothin’—

  you made a man out of me.

  Your listenin’ ears heard somethin’

  yearnin’ to be free.

  Makin’ somethin’ out of nothin’—

  You made a man out of me.

  That first one’s your chorus. That’s the part I been singing all day, ever since I went up and then ever since I landed. It needs more verses of course, but what do you think?

  Velva Jean

  February 23, 1944

  Velva Jean,

  I think you know how to throw it down, girl.

  Can’t wait to hear the tune. Lay it on me.

  Butch

  THIRTY-SEVEN

  On February 25 a man named Rolf Stigler was arrested in New York City where he’d been working as a cook on the SS Argentine . The newspaper said he’d come to the United States in 1935 and was made a naturalized citizen two years later. From the SS Argentine, he’d been transporting microphotographs and other materials from the United States to South America, where the information was then sent on to Germany.

 
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