Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  I waited for more, but when he didn’t say anything, I said, “And that’s how you got to North Carolina.”

  “That’s how I got to North Carolina.” He seemed restless, like talking so much was making him itchy. I wanted to ask him where he went after North Carolina, after Harley drove him out, but I didn’t.

  I said, “How old are you?” I didn’t know why this seemed important, why I thought it would tell me anything much about him.

  He seemed to be counting. “Twenty-five, I guess.”

  “What about your talisman? The bottle neck?”

  “Let’s just say it’s a reminder to me of the kind of life I used to lead. And the kind I don’t want for myself anymore.” He seemed to be done talking.

  Then, because I could—because he was there and alive and real—I reached out my hand and laid it on top of his. I let it sit there, light as could be. I looked out at the horizon. I thought, If I never learn another thing about Butch Dawkins, he told me these things for me. Because he knew I needed to hear them. Like a gift.

  Sitting there with him made me feel peaceful and good, down in my whole self. It was a different kind of feeling than sitting with Harley or even Ty. I felt like Butch and me were sitting here side by side, each going halfway, on the same level, believing in the same things, loving music, understanding music, understanding and knowing sorrow and loss but also knowing how to pick yourself up out of that loss and keep going. I could look at Butch and know that he saw me—not just my hair and face and figure—but the inside me that not everyone could see.

  I thought about the Navajo hero twins, how they fought the monsters and saved the world by speaking their own special language that only they could speak. We had a language like that, Butch and me. I didn’t know what it meant or what we were to each other, but sitting there side by side, looking forward, felt good.

  April 5, 1944

  Dear family,

  Thank you for all your notes and thoughts. Camp Davis isn’t the same without Sally. We’ve been together since Sweetwater, and I don’t know what it’s like to be a WASP without her.

  You asked how it feels to get back in the air after something like that happens. I think you just have to keep going. It’s really only when I stop and only when I’m on the ground that I think of all the things that could go wrong. When I’m in the air, I only think of flying.

  I wanted you to know that I’m going to be flying over you soon. Look for me on April 11. I can’t tell you what I’ll be flying, but it’s big and loud and you can’t miss it. Tell Dan Presley to get out his aircraft spotter’s manual so he can give you all the details after. General Hap Arnold himself asked me to fly this plane for the Army Air Forces. I’m going to all the bases in the country to show the men pilots it’s safe to fly.

  I love you so much.

  Watch for me.

  Velva Jean

  April 9, 1944

  Velva Jean,

  I finally finished the song. Don’t know why this one was giving me so much trouble, but I’m feeling right about it now. Thanks for being part of it.


  Somethin’ Out of Nothin’

  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.

  You took a half-count, no-good man

  with nothing left to give—

  and with your smile and with your touch

  you made him want to live.

  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.

  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.


  On April 11, the day I was scheduled to fly the B-29, three things happened that nearly kept me grounded. The first was that Helmut Stein was arrested at the Wilmington shipyard, where he was working as a painter. Mr. Stein was a German spy who had worked at the shipyard for two years, gathering information about ships—materials, equipment—sailing for England. He had also gotten his hands on a classified booklet put out by the FBI, which contained information about national defense materials, and he had stolen detailed charts of the United States coastline. He was linked to Rolf Stigler, the man arrested in New York City, where he’d been working as a cook on the SS Argentine, and Fritz Kramer, who was running the restaurant Little Dominic’s. The three of them were part of a spy ring, but there was no way of knowing yet how many more were involved.

  Wilmington was just thirty or forty miles from Camp Davis, and Major Blackburn and Jackie Cochran told me that they didn’t want me flying the B-29 until we were sure Camp Davis was secure. They came to me two hours later and said I was cleared to go.

  The second thing that happened was that Harry Lawson uncovered misfiled papers stating that traces of sugar were found in the gas tank of Sally’s A-24. He found Janie and me on the flight line and said there was something we needed to know. Harry Lawson hadn’t paid us much mind since we’d been at Camp Davis, so we couldn’t believe he was talking to us now. He told us about the sugar in the tank. As he said, “Enough to stop an engine in no time at all.”

  I couldn’t understand what he was saying, why he was telling us. “Do you think the papers were misfiled on purpose?” I asked him.

  “Yes,” he said.

  “Who could have done that?”

  “Anyone with access. Anyone wanting to cover this up.”

  Finally I said, “Why are you telling us this?”

  He didn’t say, “I’m so sorry about your friend.” He said, “Because a time long ago I knew a girl who flew.”

  I decided to go back to my bay and write another letter of resignation to Jackie Cochran. But on my way to the barracks I saw, under my window, Sally’s garden. All of us girls had been taking turns watering it, and now every flower was blooming and it was only April 11. It was just a little patch of sunshine in the swampy dirt that surrounded the building. I thought about Sally and how proud she was of me for flying the B-29, how much she wished she’d been chosen to fly it herself. And I turned around and walked back toward the runway.

  The third thing that happened was that Butch Dawkins showed up to tell me he’d got his orders and that he was being shipped out to Fort Benning, Georgia. He was officially a code talker now. We stood on the flight line, me in my coveralls and turban, Butch in his uniform, and said good-bye. There were only a few other WASP around, but not a single army air force man, and I was grateful.

  I thought: I’m not ready to say good-bye to you.

  Everything was happening too fast and too much at once—Sally, the accident that might not be an accident after all, Butch leaving, flying the B-29.

  The sun was beating through the clouds. The morning had been rainy and wet, but the sky was turning blue.

  I thought: Don’t go. Not yet. We’ve got too many songs to write.

  He said, “I want you to remember something.” And then I thought: This is it—the moment he tells me how he feels about me. Maybe he’s in love with me. Maybe he’s loved me ever since the last time I saw him, ever since he left Alluvial. Maybe he’s getting ready to open that little black box.

  He said, “Words have power. Words and language have blessing and protection. The Navajo pray by asking the sun and the earth to spare them from any bad thing.”

  What was he saying to me? He didn’t say, “I’ll miss you. I can’t wait to see you again. I hope I don’t get my stupid self killed so that I can come back to you.”

  He said, “My granddaddy was one of the original eight code talkers in Wo
rld War I. They placed corn pollen on their tongues as a blessing so they could speak more clear.”

  “Corn pollen?” What was he trying to tell me?

  “You don’t know how many times I wish for corn pollen, girl. Like right now.”

  The sun suddenly broke its way through the clouds, blinding me. For a moment I couldn’t see him.

  He said, “I finished a new song.”

  I thought how I must look, standing here in the bright, white sunlight, every tired line on my face showing, every freckle. My eyes were puffy from crying over Sally—it hit me at strange times, when I least expected it. For some reason her death was bringing up Ty’s all over again. My heart ached so much that I knew you could see it in my face. I thought about how heavy my suitcase was right now.

  He leaned in and touched my cheek. I held my breath. I thought that one touch was more than anything I’d ever felt before. Our faces were inches apart. I could smell the tobacco on his breath. I tried not to stare at his mouth. He kissed me then, on the forehead, and I wanted to laugh out loud with relief and shame and disappointment and heartache. I was such a fool over Butch Dawkins. Right then I thought: I will run away with you. Just ask me.

  Then he pulled away and the moment was over. It was gone. It had only been sunlight and clouds and a silly hope, melting like a black box under a thermite gun in the harsh light of day.

  “Good-bye, Velva Jean,” he said.

  I was suddenly back in Alluvial, watching Butch get on that train that would take him out of the valley, rounded up with every other outlander who Harley said didn’t belong.

  Don’t go, I thought.

  “Good-bye,” I said.

  One hour later the B-29 rolled out under the sun. Officers, cadets, WASP, reporters, Jackie Cochran, and even General Hap Arnold were scattered across the runway, huddled in groups, hands over their eyes to see past the glare. It hit me that everyone was fighting this war. Each of us standing there was a part of it.

  Then, for the very first time, another thought hit me, and this one was horrible: This plane I was getting ready to fly was a bomber. In addition to the bombs it carried, there were ten machine guns and one cannon on board. I didn’t want to picture what those bombs or guns or cannon might do someday to someone I didn’t know, in a country I’d never seen.

  I climbed into the bomb bay and watched as a fire truck pulled up on the landing strip. I was traveling with two engineers and two flight technicians—all men, and not a one of them happy about being there. I wasn’t sure if this was because they were afraid of the bomber or afraid of me, the girl pilot. Helen and I would fly around the country together in the B-29, but today my copilot was Captain Leonard Grossman. He was there in case anything went wrong.

  Inside the cockpit, I strapped myself in, wearing my parachute, my life jacket, my electrically heated flying clothing, my oxygen mask, a knife, and a quart of water. A steel helmet, flak vest, and oxygen bottle were right beside my chair. Just before I started the engine, the door to the plane opened and Captain Theo Dailey appeared in the cockpit. He said, “There’s been a switch, Grossman. You’re out. Keene’s in.”

  “What the hell?” Captain Grossman was already strapped in and ready.

  “Sorry, Grossman. Orders.”

  “Who from? Blackburn? Wells? Don’t tell me Jackie Cochran.”

  “Sorry. I’m just the messenger.” Captain Dailey was already climbing out.

  Captain Grossman muttered to himself as he unstrapped his safety belt and unhitched his oxygen tank. He pulled off his helmet and said, “Goddammit.” He left without one word to me.

  Jackie Cochran’s voice scratched over the radio from where she sat up in the control tower. Her voice came through in a blur of static. She said, “Remember we need you, and not Lieutenant Keene, to fly this ship to prove the point that a woman can do this. He’s just there in case of emergency because he’s trained on this plane longer than you have.”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  Bob Keene sat next to me. He hadn’t said a single thing since he strapped himself in. Just got up into the plane and didn’t even look at me. I thought he was pale, like maybe he’d caught the flu. His face looked clammy and his hands shook on the controls. I thought: We’ll see who’s Iceland spar. He may have been trained on this plane but when it comes down to it, he’s just another man that’s too afraid to fly the B-29.

  After all the hatches were closed, I fastened my seat belt and adjusted my seat and I put on my throat microphone and earphones. I told the engineer to start the putt-putt, and when he didn’t do it, Bob Keene gave him the order again. This time the engineer listened, and so I turned on the emergency ignition switch. I tested the lights and the alarm bell. I depressed the brake pedals and set the brakes. I tested the throttles while Bob Keene tested the flaps.

  The B-29 had to be handled carefully. To start the engines you had to see that the automatic pilot master switch was off. Then you checked over the four surface control adjustment knobs making sure all their pointers were up. You set the manifold pressure selector to the zero position and pressed all four propeller switches to increase their rpm, holding them till the lights on the copilot’s panel flashed.

  I told the engineer to start number one engine, and then Bob Keene had to repeat the order because the engineer still wasn’t listening to me. I pushed the throttle to 1,200 rpm and signaled for number two. I did this over and over till all four engines were running.

  I signaled the ground crew, released the brakes, and after I was cleared for takeoff I turned the plane around and pointed it down the runway. Bob Keene lowered the wing flaps. I pushed hard on the brakes and opened the throttle slowly. Then I let up on the brakes and accelerated down the runway till we were at ninety-five miles per hour.

  You sometimes needed to juggle the throttle, the pedals, and the superchargers before you got it just right, but that was the only way to get a B-29 into the air. As Jackie Cochran told us again and again, “It’s a big, heavy, powerful airplane. Handle it kindly, handle it precisely.”

  This plane was called Flyin’ Jenny, after my favorite comic-book pilot, Jenny Dare. Walt Disney’s Fifinella—the official WASP mascot—was painted on the side. The bomber was heavy taking off, and I thought for one minute that we wouldn’t make it. The engines roared like a tornado, and I wondered if I’d be able to hear again for a week.

  I thought: I must be crazy to take this big contraption up into the sky. It’s like flying a battleship.

  I couldn’t breathe and almost reached for my oxygen mask. Above ten thousand feet, an oxygen mask had to be worn by one man—or woman—in each compartment. But I knew the reason I couldn’t breathe wasn’t because of the pressure. It was because going up, up, up in this bomber was the most thrilling thing I’d ever done—even more thrilling than singing for people or learning to drive. I thought: This plane will make its way to Germany or Italy or France or the Pacific. This could be the very plane that wins the war. I wish I could be the one that flies it then.

  As I flew up higher and higher, a song started somewhere in my head. It was a song I’d never heard before and was writing right then in that moment. It went something like:Shadows fall but I’m above them.

  I’m flying free,

  changed my ground legs for my sky legs,

  and now I’m flying free . . .

  Over my headset, Miss Cochran said, “How are you doing, pilot?” The radio crackled.

  I said, “Great, ma’am.”

  She said, “Jackie.”

  I said, “Jackie!”

  She said, “We’re all the same up there.”

  We’re all the same up there, she said.

  I’m flying free.

  I flew up above the mountains, which were enormous and dark and smoking. My route was to fly to the Tennessee border before turning back. This meant that I would fly directly over Fair Mountain and Alluvial and the rest.

  I hoped my family was watching. I wanted them to look and s
ay, “There goes Velva Jean, our own Velva Jean. Look at her way up there.” I forgot all about Bob Keene sitting in the copilot’s seat, drops of sweat running down his face. Instead I thought about Harley. I hadn’t heard a word from him since I told him about our divorce. He had stopped writing me long ago. I hoped he might be watching from Devil’s Kitchen or the Little White Church, and I hoped Pernilla Swan was watching too. I could hear every last thing he’d say about women knowing their place and if the good Lord had meant for women to fly he would have given them some sense. I hoped wherever he was he’d forgiven me.

  My yellow truck was something, and the Scenic—built on top of the mountains—was something, but the sky was a different kind of highway. We were flying high enough that we could soar smooth over the mountains but low enough so I could at least get a good look at them. The mountains were climbing higher and growing darker. They were black and brown and green. This was the land of Tsul’Kalu, the giant; and the fairy people and Spearfinger, the witch of the woods; and the devil himself, whose courthouse and tramping ground were up near Devil’s Kitchen.

  I could see the smoke and then the mountains that I knew were mine. They looked so small from up in the sky. I saw a dark ribbon winding its way from the top of one mountain to another—the Scenic. I wanted to go lower, lower, lower till I could land on the peak of Fair Mountain and run down the hill and see Daddy Hoyt and Granny and even Sweet Fern in Alluvial. I thought of all the people I loved, right there below me, and I almost started to cry.

  In my headset, I heard Jackie Cochran say, “Everything all right up there?”

  I said, “Everything’s fine. It’s just so good to be home.”

  I circled over Cherokee, right at the Tennessee border, and then headed east again, back toward the coast. I was making one more pass over my mountains when one of the engines caught fire. Down below I could see the peaks—Blood and Bone and Witch and Devil’s Courthouse and Fair Mountain, which belonged to me and my family. I was losing altitude fast. I shoved the throttle all the way forward to blast out the flames. I held the stick all the way back and slammed on the toe brakes. The fire grew brighter, bigger, spreading toward the cockpit where I sat, and then the flames reached out across the wings, where the gas tanks were. I could hear the engineers in my intercom, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying.

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