Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven


  Mudge slapped me on the back till I stopped coughing.

  “Easy, Hartsie,” Paula said.

  I held up the flask. “To Sally.” I took another drink and passed it to Janie.

  “To Sally.”

  One by one we toasted Sally Hallatassee and emptied that flask of whiskey till you could have held it upside down and not a single drop would have come out.

  Sally’s mama had been cleaning all morning and buzzing around just like a hummingbird. I’d never seen anyone so busy. Sally’s daddy stood watching her and he had that helpless look that I’d seen men wear before—Danny Deal and Coyle, Linc, my own daddy. He said to us, “I don’t know what she’ll do when this funeral is over. It’s the only thing keeping her going right now.”

  I thought, I don’t know what any of us will do. Sally was one of my best friends. That wasn’t anything you could replace, just like you couldn’t replace Ned Tyler or my mama. I would go back to base and expect Sally to be there, but instead there would be no one. I would fly the B-29 with Helen, if they still wanted me to, and I would go around to all the military bases and show the men how things were done.

  I felt the place where Ty used to be, and where Sally used to be. The phantom limbs were multiplying.

  When we landed at Camp Davis, Janie, Helen, and I climbed out of the plane and stood on the runway, waiting for Jackie Cochran. I held the banjo in my arms like a baby. Finally she came down from the cockpit, pulling off her helmet, running her hands through her hair, squinting in the sun. She said, “Ladies,” and started past us.

  I said, “We need to know what’s being done about Sally.”

  She stopped and looked at me. She said, “What do you mean?”

  Janie said, “About the investigation into what happened.”

  Miss Cochran said, “I promise you I’m doing everything I can to make sure we get to the bottom of this. We don’t know that it’s sabotage, but if it is, I plan to find out and something will be done about it.” Her face was hard to read—I thought she seemed tired and sad but that she was also on her guard with us.

  I said, “Sally wanted to fly more than anything else in this world, just like we all do. She came to Texas to fly for you, to be a WASP. She came here to take part in your program. She did all she could to be a good pilot and make you proud.”

  She didn’t say anything for a good long moment and then she said, “I’ll do my very best.”

  Jackie Cochran left for Washington, D.C., the next day. She didn’t say a word to any of us about her investigation into the crash or what she might have found out. She didn’t even tell us good-bye.

  I watched her plane take off and then I walked over to the Cemetery. I looked for Zeke Bodine and at first I didn’t see him. One of the other guards said, “What are you doing here?”

  I started to tell him: I’m trying to find out the reason why one of the nicest girls you could ever meet, one of the best friends I ever had, is dead. But then I saw Zeke Bodine and waved at him, and he came over and said, “What’s going on?”

  I said, “I need to see Sally’s plane.”

  Zeke said, “Sorry, Velva Jean, we can’t let you in here.”

  I said, “Just so you know, Zeke, I plan to get in there one way or the other.”

  The other guard started to say something, but Zeke said, “I’ve got this.” He waited till the guard walked away, looking over his shoulder, watching us, before he said, “I’m awful sorry about Sally.”

  “I need to see her plane. I know they’ve already picked through it.” Or maybe they hadn’t. Maybe no one was even paying attention. “But I’ll feel better if I see it. I need to know what happened.” And when I do find out, someone will be sorry. I don’t care if I have to become Bonnie Parker again, just like when Johnny Clay and me were on a wayward path and following Harley Bright around Alluvial with his bad Barrow gang. I don’t care if I get locked away in Butcher Gap Prison just like Junior Loveday, who killed all those men just because there was a meanness in him that he couldn’t help. Maybe his meanness comes from being a Loveday—my mama said they were all of them mean as dirt for as far back as anyone could remember—but my meanness comes from one terrible thing happening after another, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to put up with much more of it.

  Zeke stared at me, and I stared right back, not blinking, not flinching. I knew I looked mad as a wild boar. Finally he said, “Go on.” He glanced around him to see if anyone was watching. “But if you get caught, you’re on your own.”

  I thought: I already am.

  I didn’t know where to look, but I figured her plane—what was left of it—might be near the front since the accident had only just happened. I made my way through the maze of olive drab and silver and looked for the black of fire damage. Walking through the crushed metal and parts of airplanes made me think about the fact that every day I was going up in these ships that were made out of bolts and steel and glass, and that it didn’t matter if the cockpit was armor plated because all these things could be broken, which meant you could be broken too.

  Five minutes later, toward the middle and not the front, I found an A-24 cracked in two. The engine and cockpit were thick with black. I pushed through parts from other planes, sending some rolling to the ground. I laid my hands on the cockpit and the metal felt thin and cold. The glass of the windshield and canopy was cracked and foggy. The glass over the backseat was shattered. That must have been how Gus was thrown out. I wondered if Sally had kicked the glass from inside or if the cracks were made by the fire. They said she was still strapped in when they got to her.

  I climbed up on the wing and then stepped on top of the cockpit. I wanted to get a good look at the safety latch, to see why it was she couldn’t get out of there in time. I ran my hands over the hatch, the place where it should open. I thought about where this plane had been before it came here. Maybe it flew in the Pacific. Maybe over Guadalcanal. Maybe Beachard had flown in it while he was there or it might have flown over Italy. Linc and Coyle Deal might have looked up from the beach somewhere near Naples and seen it. I wished I could find the little black box. What would it tell me?

  Rumors were spreading around the base that Sally’s plane was brought down by friendly fire. Some of the pilots said they were there when Lieutenant Bruce Arnold, son of General Hap Arnold, snatched a gunner’s hand from the trigger after he saw a .50 millimeter round fired at Sally’s A-24.

  The inside of the cockpit was charred as black as the outside. I could suddenly hear her screams and I tried quick to think of something else—anything else: marching songs, Ty’s songs, Butch’s songs, Sally’s banjo, the cracking sound of her gum.

  I crawled through the hole in the side of the plane—the one the firemen made when they were trying to get Sally out—and sat down in the pilot’s seat. I reached up for the canopy safety latch, wrenching it back and forth, up and down, but it wouldn’t move. I stood on the seat and ran my fingers over the hinges, over the joint of it. The latch was bent like a pretzel, right at the tip. There were marks on the side that shouldn’t have been there, like someone had tried to twist the latch out of shape, and I couldn’t tell if this was from fire or something else.

  Someone wanted this to happen.

  I tried to push the thought out of my head, but it kept coming back. The hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up, which meant that it was probably true. But who would do something like that?

  “You there.” I turned at the voice. Harry Lawson was walking up. He said, “Get down from there. What are you doing? Do you have permission to be in here?” His accent was shorter, more clipped than usual.

  I said, “My friend was in that plane. She died in there.” I thought maybe if I told the sad truth of it he’d feel sorry for me and let me keep looking. I said, “I need to know what happened.”

  He said, “You can’t be in here. It’s regulations.” I took a last look at the cockpit—at the safety latch—before climbing down. He reached ou
t a hand to help me make the jump from the wing.

  I said, “What about the black box?”

  “The black box?”

  “Was there a flight recorder on her plane? One that could tell us something?”

  I thought about all the people I knew who had little black boxes—my daddy, the Wood Carver, Harley Bright. Butch had a little black box all locked up tight, full of secrets that I would never get to open no matter how much I wanted to see inside it.

  He said, “No.”

  I said, “Are you going to report me for being here?”

  He took his time answering and finally he said, “No.”

  On the morning of April 3, I typed a letter to Major Blackburn and a letter to Colonel Wells, asking them to investigate the rumors about Sally’s plane. Each of the girls—there were twenty-three of us now—signed it. We delivered copies to their offices, and then I went back to my bay and wrote another letter, this one to Jackie Cochran. In it I thanked her for the experience of being a WASP and told her I needed to resign. As much as I loved being a WASP, I couldn’t be part of a program that didn’t look after its people. This was not the way I wanted to serve my country. Flying for Jackie Cochran was starting to feel a little like flying without a parachute or a safety belt. I listed every awful thing that had happened since I’d been there—the oil draining out of my engine, Ruth, the tear gas, Sally—even though she already knew it all too well. I wrote: “Flying is dangerous enough without feeling like a target. I might as well join our boys overseas and drop bombs on Germany because I wouldn’t be near as scared as I am here.”

  Janie and three of the other girls wrote letters too, all telling Miss Cochran that they were leaving the program and why.

  That afternoon I went up in the sky for the first time since Sally’s accident. I was in an A-24, but I was by myself. The air was so rough that it shot me up from nine hundred feet to twelve hundred feet and then back down to eight hundred. I thought: I could die just like Sally. I could be gunned down or I could lose an engine or the engine could catch fire. Each time I go up, there’s no guarantee I’ll come down in one piece. Every single time I fly from now on, I am on my own.

  I was taking chances, but they were small chances compared to the ones taken every day right now all over the world. Beach in the Pacific. Linc in Italy. Johnny Clay who knows where. I could be at home on Fair Mountain and be caught in a storm or slip down the hill. I could fall in the bathtub or be run over by a car going out of control. I could lose my way in the woods and be attacked by a panther cat. I could drown in Three Gum River. I could choke on an apple or trip over a tree root and hit my head or be bit by a mad dog. I figured there were a lot of ways to take chances in this world, that every single day was a chance. It wasn’t up to us to say where or when.

  My landing was bumpy. As I taxied in I looked over my head at the safety latch. I flipped the latch with just two fingers of one hand. It opened quick and easy.

  Five days later I got a telegram from Miss Cochran saying, “Resignation denied.” That night, I sat at the desk in my empty room and typed out a will. I wasn’t sure how a will was supposed to read, but I thought it was a smart thing to do.

  I, Velva Jean Hart, being sound of mind and body, do make this my last will and testament.

  I don’t have a lawyer and haven’t ever made a will before, so I hope that this will be good enough and that all my wishes will be carried out.

  I don’t have much in this world, but what I do have I want to leave to my family: my mandolin, my Mexican guitar, my hatbox of treasures, my clothes, my record. I leave Sally’s banjo to her mama and daddy. Maybe they can learn it someday so that it doesn’t go dusty.

  I leave all my songs to Butch Dawkins. Of all the people on this earth, he’ll know what to do with them.

  I don’t have much money, but I leave what I have to Sweet Fern to help with the children.

  I don’t want anyone to wear black for me. I want to be buried beside Mama. I want “The Unclouded Day” played at my funeral. Get Johnny Clay to sing it, if you can find him. And tell him he’s worth more than Lucinda Sink. Tell him he’s worth the whole world.

  Know how much I love all of you, each and every one, and how much I’ll miss you. And know that I died doing what I loved most.

  Sincerely,

  Velva Jean Hart

  Butch and I sat side by side on the steps of the control tower. It was Sunday and the airfield was quiet. He’d shown up after breakfast, just like a haint, to tell me how sorry he was about Sally. The sight of him—the brown-black hair, the sleepy dark eyes, the unshaved face, the crooked smile, sadder today—made me start to cry even though I’d promised myself I’d never cry again. He said, “I know.” And then he pulled me in and gave me a hug—right in front of everyone—and I breathed in the smell of woods and tobacco. He was the closest thing I had to home right now, and I held on to him.

  I could hear his heartbeat, could feel him breathing. When we broke apart, he said, “You know what I like about you? You are one down-home girl, Velva Jean.” He said it soft and lazy, his voice scratchy as sandpaper. The way he said it sounded sweet and sexy.

  I was still breathing him in. I said, “What’s that mean?” I wondered if it was a good thing or a bad thing.

  He said, “You got the strongest spirit I ever did see. I think I’m gonna write a song about that and dedicate it to you.”

  I didn’t feel strong. I felt small and sad and weak. I felt just like I was inside one of Butch’s songs—one of the angry, mean, deep-down-in-the-gutter songs that made me want to run and shout and cry and take his guitar from him and smash it. But I also felt like I was lost in one of the heartbreak songs—the downhearted, bluesy ones that made my hair stand on end and filled me with a deep, way-down sadness I couldn’t shake for days.

  Now we sat with our knees almost touching, working on a song. His guitar rested against his leg as he played. I was trying to put my mind into the music, but it kept spinning away from the words and the tune. Every time I got back to focusing, there would go my mind, flying away like a butterfly.

  Butch strummed the guitar. He was humming. I said, “I don’t know anything about you.”

  He said, “Yes you do.” He kept humming. He sang a couple of lines. I said, “I don’t. You know everything about me but you won’t tell me anything about yourself.” I pictured a black box inside Butch, locked up tight, where his heart was. I wondered if anyone had ever seen inside it.

  He plucked at the guitar and then was quiet for a second and then he grinned, but it wasn’t a real kind of grin, the kind that lit up his face. It was the kind someone gives you when they don’t know what else to do. He said, “You can add me to your list of conquests, girl. Is that what you want?”

  My heart was racing. I was suddenly mad. I said, “Don’t be like that.”

  “What? Isn’t that enough?”

  “Don’t be one of them. Some normal boy. Don’t do that when it ain’t you.”

  He said, “Why don’t we just work on a song? That might be the best thing to do, sho ’nough.”

  I didn’t feel like talking or writing a song. I wanted him to do the talking for once. I said, “I need you to tell me something.” I pictured aiming a thermite gun right at his black box.

  He said, “What?” He didn’t sigh or roll his eyes or sound impatient. He sat there waiting to hear what I had to say.

  I said, “Something. Anything. I’m tired of doing all the talking.” I thought: I’m tired of talking through music. I was as stirred up as a hornet. I told myself, Calm down. This isn’t about him. This is about Sally and Harley and Ty and your daddy. Don’t do this to Butch. Remember who you’re talking to. He never did anything to you. Be quiet, Velva Jean. Stop it right now. I said, “I need you to tell me something about you or I’m going to get up right now and go back to the barracks.”

  Butch got quiet and part of me thought, Oh no. Now I’ve made him mad. But the other part thought, He’s g
ot to learn to speak up sooner or later.

  We sat there a long time, and then he said, “I grew up in Louisiana. Little place called La Coupe in Lafourche Parish, down on the bayou, down by the Mississippi, but we call it Cut Off. About two thousand people. My mama was Choctaw. My daddy was French Creole. I don’t have brothers or sisters, none that I know of, but with my daddy you can’t be too sure. I grew up with music—Indian chants. Hymns. My mama was religious. She said God was in nature. I left home when I was thirteen and earned my way as a ranch hand. I went up through Louisiana and over to Texas, one dusty small town after another. Then Oklahoma, then New Mexico, where I lived with the Comanche and then the Navajo, one of them my great-granddaddy. I learned guitar in the Mississippi Delta from a famous old bluesman.”

  I looked down at his arm where his tattoo was. I said, “What was his name?”

  He smiled and there went his whole face, lighting up. He said, “I can’t tell you that. I promised him not to. But he was magic. I never heard anything like him.”

  He started to roll a cigarette, then put the paper back away. He rubbed his hands together and stared out toward the horizon. Little drops of rain started falling, but I kept sitting there, not wanting to break the spell.

  He said, “I played the rodeo circuit, riding bulls, roping cattle, sleeping in the back of my truck, and when that broke down, hitchhiking between border towns. I hitchhiked all the way to Knoxville . . .” He kind of drifted off here and it seemed like he was remembering something he would rather not remember. I thought about his black box again and wondered if somewhere in Knoxville there was a girl who’d seen inside it. Maybe she was the reason it was shut up so tight.

  He closed one eye and then the other and said, “I was there for a while, and then I came down through Virginia, thinking I would go to Nashville, and that’s where I heard about that road being built in the mountains. The Scenic. I was out of money by then and needed a job pretty bad, so I went to the CCC and applied.” He stopped talking.

 
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