Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  got the high-flyin’ blues

  got the blues from my head

  down to my shoes,

  if I had any shoes.

  Got the barefoot blues.

  Got the piano blues

  and the guitar blues

  and the singin’ blues

  and the silent blues

  and the hard-time blues

  down to my shoes,

  if I had any shoes.

  Got the barefoot blues.

  Got the lovin’ blues

  and the leavin’ blues

  and the lyin’ blues

  and the cheatin’ blues

  and the makin’-up blues

  down to my shoes,

  if I had any shoes.

  Got the barefoot blues.

  Got the crazy blues

  and the hurtin’ blues

  and the lovin’-somebody-

  don’t-love-me-back blues

  and the lonesome blues

  down to my shoes,

  if I had any shoes.

  Got the barefoot blues.

  Oh, I got me some blues,

  got the blue-sky blues

  got the low-down blues

  got the high-flyin’ blues

  got the blues from my head

  down to my shoes,

  if I had any shoes.

  Got the barefoot blues.

  March 20, 1944


  I love your song, especially because it makes me think of driving back from Leona’s juke joint and talking about all the different kinds of blues in the world. I think my favorite line is: “And the lovin’-somebody-don’t-love-me-back blues.” Now I want to hear you sing it.

  I wish I had something to send to you.

  Velva Jean


  Major Blackburn and Bob Keene flew to New Mexico, to the

  Los Alamos National Laboratory, on March 23, which meant we had a four-day break from training on the B-29. After groundschool classes in safeguarding military secrets and defense against chemical attacks, I thought I might go see Butch Dawkins.

  It started raining as I walked down the rows of barracks and tents, heading in what I thought was the direction of the Indian camp. The rain came down harder and heavier, puddling at my feet. The air smelled like salt water. I passed a group of enlisted men—more boys than men, all Adam’s apples and gangly wrists and big feet. One of them said, “Where you going, sister?”

  One of his friends pushed him and said, “Can’t you see? She wants me.”

  I started to get a bad feeling. There were four of them and one of me. I walked faster, and suddenly one of them came running up beside me. He said, “Hey, where you going? Not real friendly, are you? Where you off to in such a hurry?”

  Another one ran up and now he was on the other side of me. He said, “Don’t play coy, Waspie. We know the real reason you’re in the military.” He reached out for me.

  I started to run, splashing through water till I had soaked myself up to my knees, my hips, my stomach. I must have run over that whole base till I finally saw a grove of trees that looked familiar. It was hard to tell in the rain, but I ran toward them, and there was the old runway, washed out by the water, and there were the tents, and, just past them, the small box building that the code talkers used. I thought: What if Butch leaves for the war and doesn’t even tell me? What if he’s already gone? How will I find him again? I pushed the door open and hurried in from the rain, my pants and shirt sticking to me, my shoes squishing on the carpet. I shook myself off, just like a dog, and pushed my hair out of my face.

  I heard a voice say, “Look what the cat brought.” And there sat Butch, by the fireplace, guitar on his knee, papers spread out in front of him. He was wearing an undershirt, his dog tags and medicine beads shining against the material. He stood up and handed me a blanket. I wrapped it around myself, shivering, even though it wasn’t really cold outside.

  He said, “You okay?”


  “You look spooked.”

  “I’m fine.”

  “You sure?” He was looking into my eyes like he was trying to see if this was true.

  “Yes.” And I was fine now that I’d seen him, now that I knew he was still here.

  “Come on over, then, and dry out.” I followed him to the fireplace. I was careful not to drip on his papers as I sat down in one of the chairs. He moved the papers around, tidying them up. He said, “I don’t usually like writing these things down. I like carrying them in my head.”

  I said, “Why are you writing them, then?”

  He said, “Because I wanted you to look at them, and it’s easier on paper. I was going to mail them to you. I didn’t know when I’d see you next.” He pushed one of the papers forward. “That’s the one I been working on most. It’s sort of following me around and not letting me alone.”

  “You put down music?”

  “Some. Chorus mostly.”

  I said, “Ever since I left Nashville—I don’t know.” I pushed the paper back to him. “Maybe you better do it on your own.”

  He said, “Do you remember that song we wrote up at Devil’s Courthouse?”

  I pulled the blanket tight around me. I thought of days spent with Butch on my porch when Harley was away and afternoons up at the Devil’s Tramping Ground, playing and singing, and—one time—dancing. I saw Butch sitting outside of Deal’s and me standing there and us singing the song we wrote together while Harley stood off and watched.

  Butch said, “I never wrote with anyone else, girl. I never showed my songs to anybody. You’re the only one I ever done that with, and that one we wrote together is still one of my best songs.” He said it matter-of-fact and not at all romantic, just like he was talking about the weather or what he ate for breakfast.

  He handed me the paper. I saw the words and the music and they started blurring on the page, right before my eyes, like they were jumping, fighting, spinning. He didn’t ask if I had my heart set on anyone or why the officers and cadets hadn’t asked me to dance at the service club the week before, and I sat there thinking that maybe the only reason Butch talked to me was because I liked to write songs. What happened if he stopped writing music one day? Would he still want to talk to me then?

  He said, “Why you think you’re stumped?”

  “I don’t know.”

  He sat there studying me. He rested his elbow on his knee and his chin in his hand and just looked right into me. Finally he sat back and said, “Girl, we got to get you out of here.” He tapped me on the head. “And get you back into here.” He tapped me on my heart, just over my left bosom. This was enough to make me go short of breath. I started breathing raggedy and quick, just like I’d run up a mountain. I tried to be quiet about it so he couldn’t tell, and the quieter I tried to be, the more out of breath I got. “Now, tell me what you want to write about. Don’t think about it. Just say it. First thing that comes to mind.”

  I said, “Being beyond the keep.” I waited for him to ask me to explain what that meant, but instead he picked up his guitar.

  He said, “Okay. Good. That’s where we start.” He thumped the guitar a little and twirled the broken bottle neck. He said, “Indian army soldiers get themselves ready for battle the same way their ancestors got ready. There’s a belief in keeping balance in yourself and with everything around you. They make an offering to the universe to ask for whatever they’re asking for—keep me safe, keep me healthy, make me rich, make me happy. They all carry something to protect themselves, a talisman.” When I looked at him funny, he said, “Like a lucky charm.” He switched his cigarette to his left hand and held the broken bottle top with his right.

  I said, “That’s yours.”

  He said, “Since I was ten.”

  “Where’d you get it?”

  “My daddy.” The way he said it made me know there was a story but that I wasn’t going to hear it right now. He rubbed his thumb back and forth over the
sharp edges. I held my breath a little, waiting to see him draw blood. He said, “What’s your lucky charm, Velva Jean?”

  I thought about this. All my treasures were locked away in my hatbox. The framed Opry picture, Mama’s old hair combs, the clover jewelry we’d made when I was little, Mama’s wedding ring, the emerald Daddy gave me before he went away for good. I thought about the two little carvings I had from the Wood Carver—one of a girl with her mouth open in song, the other of a girl with her arms open in flight. I thought about the compass Ty had given me the last time I ever saw him. One of these was probably my talisman, but I wasn’t sure which one.

  He said, “Take your time. You got to choose wisely. More than likely, it’ll probably choose you.”

  As he said it, I thought that talismans might be like brace roots and that you could probably have more than one.

  For the next three days, in my off-duty time, I met Butch at the code talkers’ building, where we sat by the fire and worked. I brought my Mexican guitar and also my songs, the ones I’d written in Nashville and after. There wasn’t much I was proud of, but we talked about them and ideas I had for songs, and mostly he played me things he was writing.

  When we weren’t doing that, he taught me some French, Geechee, Patois, and Cajun, and even some Navajo and Comanche and Choctaw, so that I could learn more words than just the ones I knew already. Once we sang the song we’d written up on Devil’s Courthouse, the one I’d helped him with, about a girl that was as lovely and loving as she was loved. Something went through me as I sang with him. He bent his head over the guitar while he played, and I watched his face. I thought how he was the kind of handsome that sneaked up on you, that you didn’t see right away, but how it was also the kind that grew and grew until you couldn’t stop looking at him.

  Butch glanced up at me with the last line of the song, and we sang it together, eyes locked. I tried to make myself look away but I couldn’t. Looking at him direct like that was, I thought, like staring at the sun—I felt blinded.

  March 28, 1944


  Here’s a song I wrote just now. It’s isn’t much, but it’s the first one I’ve finished in a long while. I wrote the music for guitar and banjo. My roommate, Sally Hallatassee, is learning the banjo part right now and sometimes we play it together, her on the banjo and me on my Mexican guitar.

  Thank you for getting me out of my head and back into my heart.

  Velva Jean

  Music in the Stars

  I’m mountain bred

  and Opry bound

  and free as a lark in spring—

  I’m gettin’ me some wings

  to spread in the sky

  and some brand-new songs to sing—

  There’s music in the stars,

  there’s songs in the clouds,

  like some heavenly jubilee.

  Can you hear it, can you feel it,

  can you bear it, can you share it?

  Can you fly away with me?


  At quarter past two on Friday, March 30, General Hap Arnold arrived at Camp Davis with Jackie Cochran and a group of men who stepped onto the airfield looking very important. One hour later, Helen and I were in the B-29 hangar with Harry Lawson, Bob Keene, and Major Blackburn when General Arnold and Miss Cochran came bustling in, followed by the five men. Everyone shook hands all around while Miss Cochran made the introductions: World War I fighter pilot Eddie Rickenbacker; two army air force officers from Washington, D.C.; radio news reporter H. V. Kaltenborn; Lieutenant Bruce Arnold; and his daddy, General Hap Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces.

  Eddie Rickenbacker was tall with white hair and the blackest eyebrows you ever saw. He carried a cane, but he didn’t seem to need it. He said, “I want to see inside this thing. Let’s see how different it is from the planes I flew in the first war.”

  Harry Lawson said, “By all means.”

  The men crowded into the fuselage. Harry pointed out the pilot’s control stand, the copilot’s control stand, the aisle stand between them, the engineer’s switch panel and instrument board, the radio operator’s table, and the hydraulic-panel access door.

  General Arnold was studying the engineer’s switch panel. He was wearing a uniform with lots of medals. He said to Harry Lawson, “What do you do with this tugboat in case of an emergency takeoff?”

  Eddie Rickenbacker said, “Tugboat is right. This is a different ship from the ones we took up in ’18.”

  Before Harry Lawson could say anything, Bob Keene started talking about wing flaps and cowl flaps and crew inspection and then he explained how to make an emergency landing—only most everything he said was wrong.

  Miss Cochran, General Arnold, the officers, the radio reporter, and Eddie Rickenbacker all stared at Bob Keene. Harry Lawson stood watching him like he was a skunk that had just wandered into his house.

  General Arnold barked out, “Dammit, son. I’m not asking about the landing. I want to know about emergency takeoff. How in God’s name do we expect these little girls to get this monster off the ground if conditions aren’t favorable?”

  Eddie Rickenbacker said, “The thing must weigh a hundred thousand pounds.”

  Bob Keene said, “Seventy thousand pounds, empty.” But I don’t think anyone heard him because by this point they were grumbling.

  I cleared my throat and said, “I’m sorry.” The men turned to look at me. I smiled my sweetest smile at Bob Keene and said, “The officers are always wanting us to prove how much we know. I think Lieutenant Keene might rather one of us explain it.”

  Bob Keene was giving me a look so cold I nearly shivered. I said, “If an emergency takeoff is necessary before the engines are warmed up, you need to dilute the oil to lower its viscosity to a point where there’s no danger of the hose connections being blown loose. Then you check all flight controls, check that the fuel boost pumps are on, and the mixture controls are set to Auto-Rich. You set the turbocharger to 8 and the propellers at 2,600 miles per hour.”

  The men were staring at me like I’d started speaking in tongues. Miss Cochran beamed. Just days ago, Senators Joseph Hill of Alabama and Harold Burton of Ohio made a proposal to the United States Senate that female pilots be officially recognized as part of the Army Air Forces. If Senate Resolution 1810 went through, it would mean her dream of turning the WASP from a civilian group into a military group would finally come true.

  General Arnold said, “What if the engine fails during takeoff?”

  I put my hand in my pocket and felt Ty’s compass. Every day I picked a different talisman to carry around with me. I said, “Then you need to feather the propeller right away and shut off the fuel valve and mixture control. You retract the landing gear as soon as possible and use the trim tabs to make up for unbalanced conditions.”

  General Arnold crossed his arms and said, “What if the engine fails during flight?” His mouth was serious but his eyes were smiling.

  I thought: Go ahead and challenge me, old man. I will answer any question you have. I said, “In that case, you turn the AFCE master switch off, close the throttle and cowl flaps, and shut the booster pump controls for the engine that failed. You need to feather the propeller and trim ship to correct any unbalance, and then you can turn the AFCE switch back on.”

  General Arnold opened and closed his mouth without saying anything.

  I said, “You just have to make sure you don’t attempt to feather more than one propeller at a time because it uses too much current.”

  General Arnold leaned over and shook Jackie Cochran’s hand. The radio reporter said, “What’s your name, soldier?”

  “Velva Jean Hart, sir.”

  The reporter said, “You girls are WAVES?”

  “WASP,” Helen said.

  “WASP. Right.” The reporter made a note. He said, “Impressive program, General, Mrs. Cochran. Good work. Too bad your male pilots aren’t as knowledgeable. But then maybe that’s why you need women to fly this p

  Eddie Rickenbacker said, “We’re only as strong as our weakest link,” and smacked the floor with his cane. “Maybe somebody needs a demotion.”

  General Arnold frowned at Bob Keene, and then turned to the reporter. “This just goes to prove what Mrs. Cochran and I believe about the WASP: our best pilots are pilots first, without regard to gender. The aircraft doesn’t know whether there’s a man or a woman at the helm. Women can fly our big planes with the same skill and savvy as men, if they have the talent, the training, and the will—and Miss Hart is one of our best pilots.”

  I felt my face go red. Everyone was looking right at me, and Jackie Cochran was smiling at me so wide and bright that it was just like the sun. I thought: It’s hard to believe there was ever a time in my life when I went to the sewing circle and canned jars of preserves and made care baskets for the heathens with Berletta Snow and Sister Gladdy Harriday and cleaned Harley Bright’s house while I waited for him to come home from church and notice me.

  I didn’t always let myself stop to think how far I’d traveled, but when I did stop to think about it I figured I was about as far away from Devil’s Kitchen as a person could get.

  An hour later I left the hangar. Helen stopped to talk to Harry Lawson, and I walked out into the sunlight and straight into Bob Keene.

  I said, “Lieutenant.”

  He said, “Fifinella.”

  I looked around, but we were alone. I kind of nodded at him and then started walking toward the bay, hoping he wouldn’t follow me.

  He caught up quickly, falling into step beside me. He said, “You know, there’s a mine in the mountains west of the Salton Sea in California that contains the only available source of this calcite crystal needed to make the Norden bombsight.” His hands were shoved into his pockets just like he was out for a stroll in the sunshine. I thought again that he looked like Oliver Hardy or Fatty Arbuckle, but not as friendly because the smile he wore was a baiting kind of smile, the kind that always set me on edge.

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