Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  Two days later Fritz Kramer was arrested in a section of New York called Yorkville where he was running an Italian restaurant named Little Dominic’s. The restaurant was a sort of undercover clubhouse for other German spies, and most of his customers worked in national defense production. He learned information from them without them knowing it, and then he reported it to the German gestapo. When the FBI arrested him, he was carrying twenty letters addressed to people in Europe. They also found books about magnesium, aluminum alloys, uranium, and plutonium.

  Colonel Wells sent out a warning that spies could be anywhere. Suddenly we were on lockdown, having to sign in and out every time we came and went from the base, even if it was just to go into town. I started looking at everyone, wondering if they were spies: Gus Mitchell, Harry Lawson, Major Blackburn, Vince Gillies, Bob Keene. Sally and I stayed up late at night and talked about who we thought might be spies. We decided that if anyone was a spy it would be someone like Zeke Bodine, who was so nice and normal that he was almost certainly hiding something, or Colonel Wells, who looked almost exactly like a spy in a movie.

  After the newspaper article appeared in the Wilmington Morning Star, Sally was pulled off the flight line and given desk duty. At eight o’clock each morning, she reported to Louella Corbett in the dispatcher’s office, and at five o’clock at night she was released. She received an official reprimand from Jackie Cochran and was told she would be returned to the flight line only when she could be trusted to hold her tongue and “maintain discretion regarding the mission to which you’ve been assigned.”

  On February 28, Miss Cochran herself showed up at Camp Davis. I was on the flight line, just climbing out of my A-25, when I saw her plane on the runway. Louella Corbett met up with me and said, “You’re wanted in the office.”

  I said, “What’s going on?”

  She didn’t answer. She trudged on ahead, her skirt rising up in folds over her enormous bottom.

  Inside the dispatcher’s office, Helen Stillbert was sitting on a chair, legs crossed neatly. She said, “What do you think, Hartsie? Miss Cochran wants to see us, just you and me.”

  I waved at Sally, who sat behind a desk answering phones. She rolled her eyes at me and snapped her gum good and loud. Louella Corbett jumped like she’d heard a gunshot. I sat down next to Helen. I tried to think of anything I might have done wrong.

  Helen said, “Maybe we’re being transferred.”

  As much as I didn’t like Camp Davis—as much as I hated the tow targeting and the rude comments and the attitudes of the men and the swamp that surrounded us—I wasn’t ready to go. Not yet. Not till I helped Butch finish his song.

  Jackie Cochran sat in the office she sometimes used when she was on base, and Helen and I stood in front of her because she hadn’t offered either of us a chair. She brushed a hair out of her face and said, “The male pilots are refusing to fly the B-29.”

  Helen said, “The Superfortress?”

  Jackie Cochran ignored this because she didn’t like people to interrupt. She said, “It’s the largest long-range bomber ever built, but it’s complicated and it has a habit of catching fire. The men are afraid of it. They say it’s too big to manage and it’s unsafe.”

  I said, “Is it?” Although I’d never seen one close-up, I knew that the B-29 Superfortress could fly higher and faster than any other bomber on earth. It was the biggest, fastest, and most advanced airplane ever built. It was twenty-five feet longer and twice as heavy as the B-17 Flying Fortress, and its wingspan was forty feet wider. In 1942 the Boeing Airplane Company’s chief test pilot, Eddie Allen, took up a B-29 on its second flight ever and an engine caught fire and burned through the wing. Eddie Allen and his ten crew members died, along with eighteen workers on the ground, when they crashed into a meat-packing plant.

  Miss Cochran said, “General Arnold has ordered me to select two pilots to train on the B-29. He wants you to travel from base to base to prove to the male pilots that the bomber is safe to fly. Obviously it’s a big ship and you can’t fly it alone. You’ll go as pilot and copilot, but we’ll assign you a crew.”

  “That will make us even more popular with the men,” Helen said, but Miss Cochran ignored this.

  I remembered what Colonel Wells had said about us being expendable, and thought: If they want the male pilots to fly that plane, then make them fly it. Why should we have to? We’d be in a fine mess if all the brave boys fighting in this war were suddenly too scared to fly or fight.

  Miss Cochran said, “I won’t lie to you. It’s a hot plane, difficult to handle. The engine’s temperamental. There have been some accidents, some deaths. But it’s a well-engineered plane and it’s easier to fly than some of the twin-engine ships.”

  She looked at us like she was waiting. We didn’t say anything. “It’s vital that we do this. Not only to demonstrate once and for all how valuable this program is, but you’ll be transporting some important cargo to a base in New Mexico.”

  I said, “Los Alamos?”

  She looked surprised. I knew I caught her off guard because she answered me. “Yes.”

  Helen said, “Why us?”

  “In wartime we need the best we can get up in the air, and you two are the best pilots I have. This is a highly classified mission, ladies. The B-29 hasn’t been used in combat yet. The government considers it one of our secret weapons. That means this doesn’t leave the base, which means no talking to reporters.”

  I thought about Sally sitting outside answering phones. “Yes, ma’am,” we said.

  Then she handed us each a book. As she did, she said, “Whatever you do, don’t make any mistakes or it will go against the whole organization.” The book was the Airplane Commander Training Manual for the Superfortress. I flipped it open to the table of contents: “Operating Instructions”; “Flight Operating Data”; “Emergency Operating Instructions”; “Operational Equipment”; “Flight Operating Charts, Tables, Curves, and Diagrams.” I wanted to stop right then and read the book from cover to cover.

  The B-29 manual reminded me of Man and the Motor Car and How to Drive, the books I’d borrowed from the library when I was teaching myself to drive. That night after mess I sat on my cot and studied diagrams of the manual controls, the pilot’s control stand and switch panel, the engineer’s control stand and switch panel, and the aisle stand. I’d made a brown-paper cover for the book so no one could see the title.

  Sally walked into the room from the bathroom, her hair wrapped in a towel. She said, “What are you reading, Hartsie?” She picked up her banjo and played the first few notes of a song and then she set it back down. She was getting better.

  I hated to lie to her, but this was classified, and even though she would find out after I started training, I thought about the way she’d told the newspaper reporter too much, and so I said, “Just studying up on the A-25.”

  She said, “I miss flying.”

  “You won’t have to sit behind that desk forever.”

  She made a face. “I know.” Then she picked up the watering can she used for her garden and went back to the bathroom to fill it up. When she carried the can outside, I lay down and read a little more until my eyes grew as heavy as the summer air on Fair Mountain. When I couldn’t keep them open any longer, I put my finger in the page to mark it and thought: I’ll just close my eyes for a minute. Then I’ll read some more.

  Before I knew it, it was morning, and I woke up with my finger still marking the page. I went back over some of the things I’d read the night before, trying to memorize the manual controls location diagram, and then I dragged myself out of the bed, body aching, and got myself ready for another day.

  The B-29 arrived sometime in the night. My cot rattled me awake and for a moment I thought the U-boats had attacked us again, that maybe they’d pulled right up on the beach and opened fire. From her bed, Sally was shouting but I couldn’t make out what she was saying. There was the sound of thunder, as loud and terrible as the explosion of the Terribl
e Creek train wreck. I jumped out of bed and threw the window open wide and stuck my head out.

  The sky was lit up and bright and something silvery-white was dropping toward the airstrip. At first I thought it was the moon. Sally was beside me standing on her tiptoes. “A plane,” she said. But not just any plane. The biggest plane I’d ever seen. The B-29.

  Sally said, “Is that a Superfortress?”

  I said, “I’m not sure,” because she wasn’t supposed to know anything and I didn’t want to give myself away. But all I could think of was Miss Cochran and what she’d said to us: “This is a highly classified mission, ladies. The B-29 hasn’t been used in combat yet. The government considers it one of our secret weapons.”

  I lay awake the rest of the night, and the next morning Sally and me rushed out to mess with the other girls, all of them chattering about the explosion that woke them up and what it might have been—a rigid airship, a fleet of bombers. The airstrip was empty except for the usual A-25s and B-24s and C-47s, and there was no sight of the B-29. Helen sat next to me, setting her tray down with a smack. She leaned in close and said, “Did you see it?”

  “I heard it before I ever saw it.”

  She said, “They brought it here for us, Hartsie. Just you and me.” The thought of it made my skin go prickly.

  That afternoon, after ground school, an officer, one of the ones that worked under Colonel Wells, found first Helen and then me and told us we were wanted at Hangar 12, which sat behind the other hangars, near a small grove of pine trees and jungle trees and the ooze of the swampland. Instead of the green-and-gray camouflage of the other planes, the bomber was silver and the sun beat down on it, catching the shine of the metal so it looked like the bomber was on fire. There were other bombers being used in this war—the B-17, the B-24, the B-26. But the B-29 was the biggest one of all and I, Velva Jean Hart, was learning to fly it.

  Major Blackburn and Bob Keene were in charge of our actual flight training. On the first day, Bob said to Helen and me, “Nothing personal, but I should be flying that bomber, not you. I’m trained on it. I got experience on it. I’m supposed to be the one flying it. The other fellas may be chicken livered, but not me. The only reason they gave it to you girls is publicity.” His face didn’t look so friendly anymore.

  After he walked away, I said to Helen, “How are we supposed to not take that personal?”

  Helen and I took turns sitting in the pilot’s seat and studying the controls. I’d been reading about these very same gears and levers and pedals and wires for days now, but I had never in my life seen so many up close and not in a diagram. Some of them were labeled and some of them weren’t. I remembered sitting in my truck for the first time and looking at the dashboard. “Clutch, brake, gas,” I heard myself say back then, over and over till I got used to it.

  Even if someone could figure out all these knobs and levers, I wondered how on earth you could actually get the B-29 into the air. It weighed seventy thousand pounds unloaded and had a wingspan of 141 feet and a length of 99 feet. It sat 27 feet off the ground and had a maximum speed of 375 miles per hour. It could hold 9,501 gallons of gasoline.

  The B-29 held the first onboard computer of any airplane. This was called the Central Fire Control system and it guided the turret guns—each turret was controlled by its own computer. Altitude, speed, air temperature—they all made a difference in how well and how hard the bullets hit their target.

  I was getting to know the Superfortress from every angle. I figured I could take apart that bomber and put it back together again if I had to. I thought, when you got down to it, that the B-29 was just like an enormous yellow truck.

  Harry Lawson said the cowlings around the four 200-horsepower engines were too tight and this was why the engines overheated so often and even caught fire on the ground before takeoff.

  Bob Keene said to Major Blackburn, “We could only be so lucky.”

  I said, “What did you say?”

  Bob smiled. He said, “Relax, Fifinella. I was only joking.”

  I just wondered about that.

  On March 14, Helen and I pulled on fleece-lined leather pressure suits and boots and spent time in a pressure chamber in one of the base labs. In the pressure chamber, test crewmen had to deal with the stratospheric temperatures and pressure conditions we could expect while flying a B-29 at heights of up to thirty-three thousand feet.

  I didn’t like the pressure chamber because it made me feel penned in like an animal. The heat turned me dizzy and the pressure changes made me sick to my stomach. I felt like I was being thrown around in the back of my truck or buried alive.

  By March 16 I’d grown what Major Blackburn called my “sky legs.” He was waiting for me outside the pressure chamber, making notes on a clipboard. As I wobbled out, he said, “How was it, Hart?”

  I said, “Fine, sir.”



  He turned to the officer working the controls. He said, “Hear that? What do you think?”

  The officer said, “I think she’s ready to fly.”

  Sally turned twenty-four on March 18. Sally, Janie, Helen, and me dolled ourselves up and went to the service club. We heard the service club before we got to it, and that was because the music coming out of it was as blistering as a hot day in Texas when the heat rose off the ground and hovered there—so hot you could see it. It made me think of a thunderstorm and lightning and the way I felt after a good cry.


  Inside the club the army air force pilots were talking and laughing. I saw Leonard Grossman and Zeke Bodine across the way, talking to two girls I didn’t know, but they didn’t seem to see me. Some members of the British unit were there and some of the officers, including Bob Keene and Theo Dailey and Vince Gillies.

  The band was set up on the same stage I’d sung on at the Christmas dance. I recognized the drummer and bass player as two of the Lumbee Indians. Butch Dawkins was playing guitar. He was wearing a white undershirt, just like the one I’d seen him wearing that night at Deal’s. And he was bent over his guitar, hair hanging down, working the fingerboard with the broken bottle neck. The tattoo on his arm changed as his muscles shifted, tightening, relaxing. “The Bluesman.” I thought how he was just like a haint, showing up here and there, going away, coming back. I never knew when I was going to see him.

  He started to sing and he sounded wild and mad, like an animal caged up in a trap, trying to lash its way out. His voice was a growl, then a howl—just like at Deal’s—but there was something else in there that unsettled me. Sorrow. Lonesomeness. Loss. I wondered what was in the suitcase he was carrying around with him.

  One by one, cadets and officers came up to ask Sally and Janie and the other girls to dance, till soon it was just Helen and me standing there. Some of the men would walk by and look right at us only to keep on walking, asking another girl to dance.

  Helen said, “Brrr. I should have brought a wrap.”

  I stood there telling myself that it was okay, that it didn’t matter, that I didn’t want to talk over this music or dance to it anyway. The music was too deep, too raw. It was Butch Dawkins up there, naked from the inside out, for everyone to see.

  Butch was singing with his eyes closed. Something about El Paso and Las Cruces, New Mexico—about being on the road, about trying to go home. Sally went dancing by with Gus Mitchell. He was looking down at her like she was the only girl in the room, and she was looking up at him like he was the only boy.

  Helen was saying something about leaving, about getting out of there, but I didn’t say anything because I was thinking about El Paso and Las Cruces, New Mexico, and the B-29: “The B-29 is equipped with five power-operated gun turrets, remotely controlled, with each turret housing two .50-caliber machine guns . . .”

  Helen said, “I mean it, Hartsie. I won’t stand here like Hester Prynne. We might as well have a scarlet B-29 stitched on our dresses.”

  Suddenly, just like he was waiting for
that moment, Butch said, “I want to thank you all for listening to us tonight. If you don’t mind, we’re getting ready to throw it down.” Only the way he said it was like: “we’re getting ready to throw. It. Down.”

  Then he started in on a wild, thumping song that reached so fast and far inside me that I couldn’t breathe. That music thudded and stomped and wailed and howled till I thought I would go crazy if he didn’t stop it, because it was too much to hear and feel.

  Vince Gillies danced by with one of the other WASP, and said, “What’s the matter, Fifi? Injun got your tongue?” He laughed at this, and even though it was a big, friendly laugh it didn’t sound friendly at all.

  Helen grabbed my hand and said, “That does it,” and started pulling me toward the door.

  Butch looked up then. He sang the next line, which was something about hitching to a truck stop and being a long way from home. He was staring right at me, and suddenly I was surrounded by haints— Mama, Daddy, Ty. I didn’t have to conjure anything because it was being conjured around me, spirits stirring up and reaching for me, trying to pull at me. It was like the fire up at the Wood Carver’s, when they threw all his carvings in to burn and the flames and the smoke climbed up into the night, reaching for more, burning, burning.

  March 19, 1944

  Velva Jean,

  I couldn’t sleep tonight for writing. Too many words traveling in my head. I wrote some down. See what you think.


  The Barefoot Blues

  I got me some blues,

  got the blue-sky blues

  got the low-down blues

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