Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  I could see Janie up ahead with some of the other girls, heading to the mess hall. I waved but she didn’t notice me.

  Bob Keene said, “It’s called Iceland spar because the first place they ever found it was in the cavities of solidified lava, which is what Iceland is made of. It’s one of the rarest materials on earth.”

  I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to say, so I said, “How interesting.” I shivered. There was something about the ocean damp and the wind always blowing in from the water that chilled me deep in my bones, even with the sun beating down.

  He said, “You think you’re like that, don’t you? Like Iceland spar.”

  A voice behind us said, “Lieutenant Keene.”

  General Arnold was heading for us, his face as red as a tomato. He was followed by Eddie Rickenbacker, the army air force officers from Washington, D.C., and his son.

  Bob Keene’s eyes went dark and he wasn’t smiling. He leaned in close to me and said, “Don’t ever try to show me up again.” And then he said, “Coming, sir,” and walked away.

  That night I had a dream I was up flying in the AT-6, just like the ones I used to fly at Avenger Field. It was a black, moonless midnight, and I was out over the ocean, so far over it that I couldn’t see land anywhere. I thought I was alone in the cockpit, alone in the sky, and then I looked at the seat next to me, and Harley was there. I said, “Harley? Where did you come from?” But he didn’t say anything. I said, “Harley?” He just sat there, staring out the window, out into the dark nothingness of the night and the water. “Harley? Harley? Harley?”

  Suddenly I knew what I had to do. I undid my safety belt and checked my parachute and kicked open the cockpit door and jumped. I fell fast and hard and started counting, “One . . . two . . . three . . .” I pulled my rip cord and for one minute I didn’t think my parachute would open. I was free-falling toward the water. Above me the plane disappeared. I pulled my cord again and this time the chute opened. I started floating then, just like a cloud, just like a leaf spinning its way down from a tree in fall. I was a foot above the ocean when I closed my eyes and sucked in my breath, ready to go under. I hit the water and went down, down, down.

  I woke up kicking off the sheets like they were a parachute. For some reason, I couldn’t breathe. I started coughing. From her bed, Sally said, “Hartsie? What is that?” She was coughing too. I pulled myself out of bed, lungs heavy, eyes heavy, and flipped on the light.

  There was smoke sneaking under our door, curling up into the room and spreading out around us. At first I thought it was fire, but then my eyes started tearing and my stomach started lurching and I knew by the smell that it was tear gas. I said, “Grab your gas mask.”

  I threw open my footlocker and pulled mine out. Sally opened the windows and I opened the door, and there was a brown metal canister right outside, gas pouring out of it. Sally threw me my gloves, and I picked up the can and ran outside with it. I was sick and dizzy, and tears were streaming down my cheeks. I ran with it right over to the edge of the runway, to the swamp, and threw it into the muck. I watched it sink, my eyes stinging, my stomach cramping into a ball.

  I thanked Jesus that it wasn’t mustard gas or nerve gas. Mustard gas blistered the skin and sometimes caused pneumonia, and nerve gas attacked the body’s nervous system. There were different types of nerve gas but the worst was soman. After you inhaled it, you only had a couple of seconds before you went into convulsions. According to our army manual, a victim of soman would die within two minutes.

  Colonel Wells was in New York for the week, which meant that Sally and I met with Major Blackburn in his office the next morning to report the tear gas incident. My eyes were still watering so much that I looked like I was crying. Sally kept dabbing at her nose and eyes with a handkerchief. The major sat behind his desk, frowning, looking more like a bad-tempered bear than an officer in the Army Air Forces. He listened to every word we had to say and then he asked us to fill out a report.

  He said, “You did the right thing to come to me. I’ll pass your report through the proper channels. And I’ll post a guard outside your barracks to see it doesn’t happen again.” He stood up then and marched to the door.

  I felt my heart sink like a stone to the very bottom of my chest. Major Blackburn laid his hand on the doorknob and frowned at us. He pushed open the door and waited till we walked out before closing it.

  After lunch Sally and I fell into marching formation with the other pilots and officers outside. It was her first day back on the flight line after being grounded by Jackie Cochran. Bob Keene was on one side of me and Zeke Bodine was on the other. We marched from the mess hall to the runway. The only sound was Captain Grossman counting us off, until Bob Keene said, “How’d you sleep last night, Fifi?”

  I turned my head to look at him, just enough so Captain Grossman yelled at me. Bob Keene stared straight ahead like he’d never said anything at all.

  That night a young cadet was stationed outside our door, gun at his hip. He was big and broad and looked as serious as Mrs. Garland Welch trying to save her soul at camp meeting. He nodded to us as we walked up, and after we showed him our IDs he let us into our room, where we climbed into our beds without brushing our teeth. Sally didn’t even take off her shoes. In minutes, she was asleep. I lay there listening to her snore and thought that maybe one day I’d write a song about two girls, one from North Carolina and the other from Indiana, who wanted to fly even though everyone tried to stop them.


  Two nights later Sally and Janie were scheduled for a routine check on the A-24. I remembered when I liked flying the A-24, but now it seemed dull and ordinary after the B-29, although I didn’t say this to Sally because she was excited to be flying again. Besides, ever since she’d found out about Helen and me and the B-29 mission, she said she was “jealous as a hen,” even though I knew she was proud of me.

  Janie was scheduled to go up with Gus Mitchell just as the sun was setting, but she hadn’t eaten since breakfast and she was so hungry we could hear her stomach growling. Sally said, “I’ll go, Janie. You get yourself a good meal.” When Sally cleared it with Gus, he said he didn’t care who went first as long as they got back in time for him to buy her a drink at the service club.

  Inside the mess hall, I sat with Janie and Helen and the other girls. I could see Vince Gillies and Bob Keene across the room. First Vince and then Bob turned in my direction, but they looked right through me, like I wasn’t even there. Then Bob said something to Vince, and they laughed loud and long.

  I stared at my plate—fried chicken and rice. There was too much gravy on everything, and I tried to dig the rice out from underneath. I made myself think about the B-29: Hydraulic pressure gauge. Lamp controls. Throttle levers. Elevator tabs. Control wheel. Turn indicator. Flight indicator. Tachometer. Suction gauge. Radio compass. Blind landing indicator.

  Suddenly the emergency siren blasted, cutting the night in two. I dropped my fork and pressed my hands over my ears. I hated the way the siren went through you. My first thought was that the German U-boats had torpedoed another one of our ships. The next thought I had was: Sally.

  Everyone ran outside, tripping over each other, pushing each other, falling into each other. The smoke filled my lungs. Four hundred yards or so from the end of the runway I could see the flames. All of us, men and women, officers and enlisted, ran for the plane. It was surrounded by a deep ditch on one side and the swamp on the other.

  Gus Mitchell lay on the ground, jacket and shirt burned off. His skin was raw and pink, and I thought of Harley after the train wreck. Gus wasn’t moving. The emergency crew rushed in to pick him up and take him to the hospital. I ran after them. “Gus! Did Sally get out? Where’s Sally?”

  Gus didn’t blink or move. I couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead. I started running for the plane. The flames were climbing into the trees, spreading up and out and over so that it looked like everything was on fire—the swamp, the ditch, the ground, the sky. I wa
s choking on the ash and the smoke, which was black and thick and covering everything. My eyes were watering just like I was running through tear gas. I hollered, “Sally!”

  I could hear something. I told myself: It’s the siren. Just the siren. The sound was high and loud and horrible. I stopped running and looked at the faces of everyone else standing there—Janie, Helen, Bob Keene, Major Blackburn, Harry Lawson, Vince Gillies, Colonel Wells, the cadets, and, off to themselves, the Indians. They were listening too. But it wasn’t the siren. The siren was quiet. There was the rush of water from the fire trucks and the shouts of men as they tried to fight the fire and the rumblings of everyone standing there watching. And there was the sound of screaming coming from the plane. I ran toward the wreck again and suddenly Butch was there, grabbing me out of the way. He said, “They’re trying to get to her, but the fire’s too strong. Stay back.” He had to shout to be heard over the flames.

  “Sally!” I was crying now and coughing because the smoke was everywhere, filling every space inside me. “Sally!” My throat felt raw from the smoke and the shouting, but I kept at it until I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned and there was Jackie Cochran, tears running down her face. She said, “Hush, child.” I couldn’t tell if she was talking to me or to Sally.

  Five minutes later the screaming stopped. The silence that followed was worse than the screams. The firemen could only get within three or four feet of the plane. The flames fought them off, keeping them away. Thirty minutes later the firemen weren’t any closer. An hour later the flames were still climbing into the sky.

  I knew then that Sally was gone, really and truly, and even if the fire died down and the firemen could reach the plane, it would be too late.

  Gus Mitchell woke up in the ambulance as they were driving him to the base hospital. He said that the takeoff and flight were normal until just before landing. Toward the end of the check flight, the control tower called Sally and told her to shoot a landing on runway two. She entered the pattern at eleven hundred feet and let the wheels down. Gus said he could feel the throttle moving back and forth and realized the engine was dead. At seven hundred feet and just over the runway, he took over flying from the backseat and hollered at Sally to jump. He finished the ninety-degree turn, flew a shortened downwind and base leg, and was trying to round out a turn into the final approach when the landing gear of the A-24 hit the tops of the tall sea pines that surrounded the field. The plane nosed down, hit the ground, and split in two. Gus felt the airplane shudder and then he blacked out.

  Janie and me sat on the steps of the barracks, right by Sally’s garden, and watched the fire burn itself out. Janie had smuggled two bottles of beer from somewhere—I didn’t ask where—and we drank them while the ash fell on us like rain. I didn’t want to go back to my room that night or ever. I couldn’t stand the thought of being in there by myself. Instead of two dead girls haunting that room, there would be three.

  Janie said, “It should have been me.”

  I said, “You didn’t know, Janie. No one could know.”

  She looked at me and said, “How am I supposed to forgive myself?”

  I put my arm around her. We sat there watching the flames, and then I started singing “I’ll Fly Away,” and Janie joined me. Halfway through, we started crying so hard that we couldn’t sing anymore. We didn’t stop crying until the fire finally went out.

  Back in my bay, I sat on my cot and looked at Sally’s bed across from mine. Her things were everywhere—her shoes, her dresses, her books, her packs of gum, her banjo. I picked up the banjo and held it in my hands without playing it. I felt the cold of the metal against my skin and thought, I wonder where Ty’s bugle is. Did he have it with him when he crashed? Did it go back to his parents? Did they throw it away or is someone somewhere playing it?

  I looked down at the banjo and started playing the song I’d written, the one Sally and I were learning together. I sang the words and played it through and then I lay the banjo on her bed, peghead and tuning keys resting on the pillow, just like it was a person.

  March 18, 1944

  Dear Mother,

  I thought I’d sit down on my twenty-fourth birthday and write you a letter to thank you for each and every thing you and Dad have done for me. If it wasn’t for the two of you, I wouldn’t be a pilot or a WASP—I’d still be typing letters at old Doc Cady’s office.

  Thanks for helping me get here and for understanding why I had to break it off with Joe. Maybe I’ll be a wife and mother one day. That’s what everyone expects and what I guess I expect too. I’ll probably be good at it. But so far I never met a boy I liked so much as flying.

  You asked what I love most about it and here it is: I love watching the earth change below me from brown to green, from flat to hilly, depending on where and how far I go. Being high up is a good place to see what the world is made of.

  I love my friends, maybe best of all, and I love red wine and dancing at the service club with handsome men who don’t expect me to settle down and knit them socks anytime soon.

  I love the deep bone-weariness after six hours of flying and the soreness in my hands that means I’ve wrangled a plane that was built for a man and not a “little girl.”

  I love my flight jacket and my helmet and I even love my coveralls because wearing them means I’m getting ready to do what I love most in this world.

  Most of all, I love being happy. Know that if anything ever happens, I don’t want you and Daddy to be sad for too long because I went out flying.

  All my love,



  As WASP, we were still civilians and not military, which meant Sally’s funeral wasn’t paid for. The other girls and me pooled our money and paid for her casket to be sent back to Indiana, where it would be buried in the little church cemetery, next to Sally’s grandparents and a baby brother that died in 1928.

  Janie and Helen and I flew to Indiana with Miss Cochran in her Beechcraft. Gus Mitchell wanted to go, but he was still in the hospital. Sally’s mama was smaller than Sally, but her daddy was a great big man, almost as big as the Wood Carver. Sally’s brothers were all too young to go to war—the oldest was just fourteen—and all her sisters were there: me, Janie, Helen, Paula, Mudge, and Loma.

  At the sight of my old friends, the tears started spilling out. I hated crying. I thought of all the times in my life I’d had to cry over people I’d lost and I was sick of it. I decided that after I got through this, I wasn’t ever crying again, no matter what.

  Paula looked tan and fit. She’d been transferred from her base in Texas to Dodge City, Kansas, to train on the B-26. Mudge was painted up and fancy, wearing a smart suit she said was made by one of the MGM studio designers. She brought her new boyfriend with her—Van Johnson, the movie star, who was tall and blond and looked just like a regular man, only nicer. He wore a dark suit and stood by Mudge’s elbow like he was waiting to see if she needed anything.

  Loma hugged each of us so hard I thought she’d squeeze the life out of us. She was crying and crying as she said, “I’ve missed you fools more than you know.”

  I’d never seen so many flowers. Mudge said, “There are too many here for the living.” Somehow I knew what she meant, and the thought made my heart ache. There were letters and telegrams that talked about Sally in the past tense, and I couldn’t make sense of this because to me Sally was still there. I kept waiting for her to show up, barreling in the door, cracking her gum, playing her banjo, chattering like a squirrel.

  At the funeral I looked at Jackie Cochran and thought, This is all your fault. I wondered what she was going to do about Sally’s death, if she was going to look into it or just pretend it was an accident like she’d done with Ruth and with the other girls, the ones that died before we got to Camp Davis. I stared at this woman, the greatest female pilot on earth, and I thought, Maybe you’re a great pilot, but you’re not a very good person. She looked at me, and I held her gaze for one long moment before I
looked away.

  Sally’s casket wasn’t draped in the United States flag and there wasn’t a twenty-one-gun hero’s salute. She was laid in a plain wood casket and put deep in the ground, in her small hometown, where, after a while, no one would remember how brave she was.

  After the funeral I found Sally’s daddy and gave him her banjo. I told him about how we went to town on Christmas Day and how the music store was open even though it wasn’t supposed to be, and how Sally saw that banjo and decided right then and there that she was going to learn it. He held it for a moment, picking at the strings. He said, “Sally always did the things she set her mind to.” Then he handed me the banjo and said, “Why don’t you keep it to remember her? Sally wrote me about your music. She said you’re as good as Martha Tilton or Anita O’Day. That banjo needs to be played, and it’ll only sit here collecting dust.”

  I hugged him and then he turned away, wiping his eyes with the backs of his hands. I walked out to the front porch, where the girls were sitting. I sat next to Mudge, in the porch swing, the banjo on my lap. Janie, Helen, Loma, and Paula sat on the steps and on the railing. Van Johnson stood in the yard, smoking a cigarette and talking to Sally’s brothers.

  Paula said, “FUBAR.” I knew exactly what this meant, from Johnny Clay.

  Loma said, “Twenty-five cents please.”

  We laughed, but it didn’t last, winding down fast and fading away till there was nothing left. Mudge and I rocked back and forth slowly, pushing the swing together. She fished something out of her purse, and it was a silver flask, sleek and shiny. She took a drink and passed it to Paula. I watched as Paula drank and then Loma, and I thought I wouldn’t mind getting good and drunk for the very first time in my life. When it was my turn, I took a long gulp and nearly coughed it all back up.

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