Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  Next to me, Bob Keene had gone white as a haint. He was gripping the gears and talking fast and furious. I wondered if he was praying.

  I thought of aiming for the Scenic, of using it as a runway, but the road curved and twisted too much. I would never be able to land there without going over the side. The mountains were too high, too wild, too rough. I tried to think of a place I could bring the plane down. Alluvial was too small, too protected. I didn’t want to risk the lives of the people who lived there—Sweet Fern, Mr. Deal, Elderly Jones, Lucinda Sink.

  I wouldn’t let myself think about Carole Lombard crashing into a Nevada mountain or Ty crashing into the mountains around Blythe. I thought: Use these mountains as a compass. You know them better than any place on earth. Let them guide you. Down below I saw thick green trees and the blue-black of water—Three Gum River. I remembered the game I used to play back when I was trapped up in Devil’s Kitchen: I pictured Three Gum River emptying into the Pigeon River, which flowed into the French Broad River, which merged with the Green River and then with the Broad River, which eventually flowed into the ocean. I knew every twist and turn, and I followed that river now, downward, eastward, knowing it would take me out of there.

  The B-29 was dropping. I steered it as best I could away from Fair Mountain, and then away from the bordering mountains of Franklin, Highlands, and Cashiers. I prayed, Lord, if I crash this plane, please let me crash it far away from anyone. I wanted to get as far off from everything and everybody as I could. I followed Three Gum River and then the Pigeon River and the Scenic and the mountains that rolled one after the other. I looked for a wide-open place to take the plane down.

  Then the mountains thinned and dropped and suddenly I could see a blue wall of hills—just hills, not mountains—and more blue-black of water. Know your compass, I told myself. I thought we were in South Carolina now, just below the North Carolina line, and over the Jocassee Gorges. They were a series of steep-sided gorges, but down below them was a flat forest floor with rivers surging through.

  I suddenly heard my daddy’s voice, back when we would sit on our porch and he would teach me about the mountains, about where we lived: “Streams named Saluda, Toxaway, Eastatoe, Laurel Fork, Thompson, Whitewater, Horespasture, Devils Fork, Bearcamp, and Chattooga carved the gorges and made waterfalls.” I knew it rained here more than any place on earth and because of this it was green in a way that only Ireland or emeralds were green. I knew the Indians had named it Jocassee and that it meant “place of the lost one.”

  Suddenly the B-29 dropped, and we hit the surface of the water. As soon as we did, engines one and three were torn completely off the airplane. The fire was in number four engine. I could hear one of the engineers now. He was saying that part of the skin on the underside of the left wing was torn off and that the left horizontal stabilizer was twisted. I closed all engine shut-off valves and also the throttles, then I tried to feather engines two and four.

  I heard Bob Keene say something in my headset. It sounded like “I’m sorry.”

  I said, “What? Why? What are you saying?” The bomber skipped and left the water, gaining three hundred feet. The plane was shaking so hard that I could barely hold it.

  He said something but I could only hear parts of it. “I’m sorry,” he said again. He was struggling with his safety belt, struggling with his parachute.

  I said, “Don’t you leave this plane! Not yet!”

  Bob Keene’s speedometer showed an airspeed of 45 miles per hour but mine showed 150 miles per hour. He sank back down in his seat, his safety belt still unlatched, and together we fought to hold the plane, to keep the nose in the air. I thought about Jackie Cochran saying I had to fly this plane by myself, no matter what, and wondered where in the hell she was at a time like this.

  We were still flying at 150 miles per hour when the airplane hit the water again. In my earpiece, I could hear the technicians at the back of the plane. There was the sound of raised voices, of yelling. Something in those voices—a kind of wild panic—went right through me and made my knuckles go white more than the fire in the engine or the way we kept dropping into the water. I thought I would rather land on earth than water, because I knew if we landed in water we’d only have a few minutes before the plane sank, and that might not be enough time to get out.

  I pulled as hard as I could on the throttle, and the bomber shook like an earthquake. I felt something cold and wet on my hand and knew that I’d pulled so hard that I was bleeding. The plane rose to three hundred feet and then five hundred. I heard Bob Keene in my ear: “They bailed. The bastards jumped.”

  I looked out my side window and saw two figures falling. Where were their parachutes? I had to look away, back through the windshield, and when I looked back again they were gone. They were too close to the ground. There were too many trees.

  “Did they have chutes?”

  There was a blast of static and Bob said, “I don’t know.”

  In a split second, I remembered everything I’d learned about flying—how to land in a crosswind. Flying the beam. Flying blind. Restarting the engine once it was cut. Night flying. Flying cross-country. Knowing my compass. Trusting my judgment.

  And then I remembered flying in the Aeronca with Johnny Clay, coming down fast over a field while I thought about everything that had happened to me so far in my life—Mama, Daddy, panther cat, Harley Bright, Wood Carver, Butch Dawkins, learning to drive, recording my songs, leaving home, Nashville. My whole life going by like a newsreel.

  I remembered my prayer: Dear Jesus, please don’t let us die. I don’t want to die. Not like this . . . I’ve got too much to do in this world. Please help me land this plane safe and, so help me, I will earn my leaving home.

  I knew enough about flying not to crash. I knew before going up in the B-29 that it might catch fire and that the propellers might fail. It was part of the risk. There was always a risk when you flew, really flew. Like Carole Lombard, serving her country and flying home to see her husband. Like Ty, going back to his base after flying to see me. Like Sally, taking Janie’s place so she could eat her supper, and flying the mission she was given to fly.

  Bob Keene shouted, “Jump!”

  I shouted, “You jump!” I was going to stay with the plane as long as I could.

  We were coming down fast over rocks, water, and trees. The B-29 was in an inverted spin, which meant I was upside down. I fought with my safety belt before cutting it loose, and then I flipped the latch and scrambled out. My leg was hit hard by the rudder, and for a minute I saw stars. The ground was hurtling toward me, and I jumped. I felt myself falling and it felt slow and fast all at once. I remembered what Johnny Clay said about the seconds it took to die.

  I counted to two and pulled the rip cord on my parachute. I knew I’d stayed with the plane too long, and my chute still wasn’t open when I saw that the ground was already too close. It was sandy and marshy. There were so many trees. I looked for Bob Keene, to see if he’d got out, but I was falling too fast to see anything but a blur of blue and green and black.

  My chute opened and the wind caught it and flew me just like a kite. I slammed into the ground and popped the release on my left leg and chest buckles. I was working on the right leg when a gust of wind lifted me into the air. I pulled the cords on one side, trying to collapse the chute, but the wind was too strong. It slammed me against the ground again and then carried me up into the air over and over.

  My heels were dragging and I could feel holes burning through the soles of my boots. I started praying hard to Jesus. Please let me live. Please let Bob Keene live and the engineers and the technicians too, even though they jumped. Please don’t let me die. I’ve got too much to do in this world and in this life. I have songs to write and songs to sing and planes to fly and I want to see my old yellow truck again.

  And then I started singing, because Mama always said that singing was like praying twice.

  Oh, they tell me of a home where my friends have gone.<
br />
  Oh, they tell me of that land far away,

  where the tree of life in eternal bloom

  sheds its fragrance through the unclouded day . . .

  And then I heard another song, the last one Ty had written me, with its funny tune that I’d made up myself. Even though he’d never sung it to me, I could hear him singing it now.

  You make me love you,

  and that could be the greatest thing my heart was ever fit to do.

  I thought I was underwater. I drifted in and out and I could see pieces of things—all blurred and at a strange angle. Trees. Earth. Dirt. Water. Rock. Sky. Flames. I could see my arms thrown out in front of me, only they seemed to stretch on and on, my hands lying yards away. I tried to move, but then I would drift off again. When I drifted back, I was lying just like before, arms stretched on and on, hands out of reach. My eyelids felt fuzzy, my head heavy. I told myself to move, to at least turn to the left so I was lying on my back. I felt like I was at the bottom of a river, feet trapped in the sand, trying to pull myself to the surface through oceans of water pushing down on me, filling my lungs, my throat, my head, all the empty spaces inside my body. Everything was foggy, like the fog was settling around me, pressing me down. Water. Fog. Water. Fog. I thought I was moving, but I wasn’t. I was drowning.

  I woke up sometime later and things were less blurry. I blinked at the sky. All around me was the green of emeralds, of Ireland, or the way I’d always pictured it to be. The first thing I thought was: Heaven’s above me. I’m not dead. I felt the ground underneath my body. I thanked Jesus and prayed I wasn’t broken anywhere. I moved my limbs one by one, and my right ankle burned like it was on fire. I had to raise my head to look at it, just to be sure it wasn’t, and when I raised my head the fire moved to my brain. I saw stars and lightning and closed my eyes fast, hoping they would go away. My breathing was raggedy. My ribs felt tight like someone was sitting on them, like they were being strangled. I opened my eyes to make sure I wasn’t wrapped up in my parachute. And then the stars came back. I lay there with my eyes closed, wondering how many things were broken.

  When I could, I opened my eyes again and slowly, carefully, pulled myself up to my elbows. I lay in the middle of a clearing edged by trees. The B-29 was smoking in the distance, shattered in pieces, burning as bright as twelve bonfires. The blue sky was black and gray with smoke. I didn’t know how long I’d been knocked out, but I could tell by the slant of the sun that night would be coming soon.

  I pulled myself up all the way, to my hands, to my knees. Each move brought new shots of pain, like gunfire hitting me here and here and here. I leaned over my parachute and yanked the rip cord off.

  I got to my feet and it took about a hundred years, and then I started walking toward the plane. The B-29 was broken into three pieces, scattered across the ground, in the clearing, in the trees. Each section of the bomber blazed with fire, the smoke rising in three fat columns that joined together in the sky in a giant, billowing cloud. The flames were crackling and snapping and climbing up tree trunks and limbs, and underneath the crackling and snapping I heard a great, echoing roar. I shouted for Bob Keene. I shouted for the engineers. I went from section to section, held back by the flames, and I strained to see them. I shouted till I was hoarse and my throat was raw from the hollering and the smoke. I started coughing then and couldn’t stop. I doubled over and held my stomach and felt a stab of pain in my ribs as they cinched around me like someone was squeezing the breath out of me. I almost blacked out again.

  I backed away from the plane, my throat burning from the smoke, my face burning from the heat of the fire. I tripped over a rise in the earth and kept backing away on my bottom, scooting myself backward as fast as possible.

  When I got to my feet, yards away, I looked in every direction, expecting help. Where were the emergency trucks? The crowds? How could no one have seen or heard such an explosion? How could no one see the smoke and the flames? I started walking away from the crash, following my compass. I waded through field and grass and dirt and mud, through thickets of trees and open land. I came to an old split-wood fence, flecked with white like it had been painted once, long ago. Without thinking, I stepped on the rail with my bad ankle, and the pain was a sting that made me holler, so I climbed through instead of over. My head felt tight, like it was closing in on itself, and every now and then I turned so dizzy that I had to stop and close my eyes.

  There was a road on the other side of the fence—just overgrown dirt tracks covered up with weeds and tall grass. I held on to the fence to keep myself up and pulled out my compass. It was the compass Ty gave me with his initials on the back. I felt them now in the metal: N-E-T. “Okay,” I said to myself for no reason except that I needed to hear a voice, even if it was my own.

  My hand was shaking as I held the compass, and I put my left hand under my right one to try to steady it. I needed to head west, which meant, more or less to the right. I set off down the road that wasn’t much of a road—it called to mind the old cattle road that came down from Alluvial to Hamlet’s Mill. I was dragging my ankle and trying not to worry. And then I reached into my pocket and felt for the wooden flying girl. Today I’d brought the compass with me as something I might need for my flight and not as a good-luck charm, but I’d brought the wooden girl as my talisman. I pulled her out and she was in two pieces, broken in half where her heart would be.

  I walked for an hour, maybe more, judging by the way the sun was dropping in the sky. I started singing to keep my mind off the pain of my ankle and the pain of my ribs and the pain of my head. I was making up words now like I used to up in Devil’s Kitchen—just a jumble of words with no real tune, to help me keep going. “One foot forward, next foot forward, one foot in front of the other, one step closer to home. You don’t have to walk all the steps at once. Just one step and then another.” What was it Johnny Clay had said? “One more step. One more step . . . After all, you can’t run them all at once.”

  And then I heard Ty saying, “When you’re looking back, you can’t look forward.”

  I started singing Ty’s song then, running through it again and again. His words were good company. They made me feel like he was close by.

  Every now and then I stopped to catch my breath because my ribs were tightening up, just like they were closing in on themselves, and my ankle was throbbing so bad I almost felt I could hear it. The sun was settling in the sky and I was still in the middle of nothing but fields and trees and an overgrown dirt road. I hadn’t passed a single house.

  An hour later the sky was a hazy mix of gold and orange and pink and blue. The moon was shining where the sun used to be, and I felt night coming down around me. I had turned off the dirt road and was now heading west on a road that was paved in some places and gravel in others. I was hoping for a car or a truck, but that road was just as empty as the sky. I was beginning to wonder if maybe I’d died in the crash and maybe this was heaven after all and I was just wandering around and around. The thought spooked me. I thought, What if I’m really dead? I started walking faster, through the pain of my ankle and my ribs and my head. Would a compass work in heaven? Could it help you find your way? Or did all roads lead to the same place up there?

  And then I thought: Oh my God. What if I’m not in heaven at all? What if I’ve gone straight to hell, even if I did get myself saved when I was ten?

  There were two figures coming toward me, and for a minute my heart stopped. Mama? Ty? Danny Deal? Sally? Suddenly I saw the faces of all the people I’d lost in my life, even the Gordon boys and Reverend Nix.

  The figures were on horseback, and one of them wore a cowboy hat and the other one didn’t. It hit me that if I was in hell, I’d be down there with bad people, and that these men coming toward me could be wicked and depraved.

  But maybe I wasn’t dead at all. Maybe I was alive and here were just some regular, alive people who could help me. I wanted to run, but my ankle wouldn’t work and my head went dizzy, so I just kept
on toward them, slow as could be, running in my mind.

  When they got to me, the one with the hat said, “Where’d you come from, boy?” He whistled. “You look like you been through it.”

  The other one, the younger one, jumped down from his horse and said, “Jesus. What happened to you?”

  The older one, the one with the hat, climbed down, and they were both standing there, and I thought that they were probably father and son. They had the same sandy hair, the same sandy skin, the same kind brown eyes and wide noses. Suddenly I couldn’t speak. I held up my rip cord to show it to them.

  The son said to his daddy, “He must have been in an accident.” To me he said, “Did you crash your plane?”

  The only thing I could do was nod. My ribs had closed up and my throat had closed up and my head had closed up and my heart. I nodded till my head felt like it was going to spin off my body. Then I pulled off my helmet and the father said, “Why it’s just a little girl,” and that did it. Down-home girl or not, I started to cry.

  The next thing I remembered was lying in a hospital bed. I woke up once and saw a doctor standing over me, checking my pulse, checking my eyes. I said, “Am I dead, then?”

  He said, “You’re very much alive, young lady.”

  I said, “Really?” My voice sounded shadowy and far away.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]