Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven


  He said, “Yes.”

  “Good.” I thought of Mama and Ty and Sally and all the people I wanted to see. And then I thought of all the people on this earth, still alive, that I wanted to see even more.

  I said, “There were men with me. Lieutenant Keene . . . engineers . . . technicians . . .” My eyes were heavy. My head was heavy.

  The doctor said, “I’m sorry.”

  He was sorry. So sorry. Bob Keene was sorry. “I’m sorry.” This meant my crew was gone. They were dead. They weren’t very much alive anymore. They weren’t alive at all. Bob Keene, who should have been Leonard Grossman, who should have been Sally—and Sally was dead too. I tried to remember the names of the other men. I didn’t even know them. One was Wallace . . . or Warren . . . I thought one was Richard . . . or Raymond?

  I closed my eyes again and slept.

  I had a dream that I was holding on to my rip cord, the one I’d taken off my parachute, and Butch was there, standing over my bed, dark eyes worried, hair falling in his face. I could see his dog tags hanging over me, swinging back and forth, back and forth in the air. I tried to touch them, but my arms were heavy and my eyes were heavy and I couldn’t move. He was saying something, or maybe singing something, but I couldn’t understand it. “Your heart is in the music . . . your soul is in the song . . .”

  I dreamed that my daddy was there, his face lined from the sun and the wind. He looked older but the same. His hand was rough around mine. I could feel the calluses from the work he did with his blacksmithing tools. I said, “Where have you been? I thought I saw you at graduation.” But my mouth wouldn’t move and the words slurred and stayed inside when they should have been outside. I told myself: Wake up, Velva Jean. Wake up so you can look at him and make a memory because you don’t know when you’ll see him again.

  I said, “Don’t go away this time. I need you to stay.” But I couldn’t tell if the words got out or not.

  The rough hand tightened. A voice said, “There now. There now.” It was a voice as rough as the hand holding mine. “There now,” it said over and over. “There now.”

  I dreamed that I woke up and saw Daddy Hoyt and Granny, one on either side of my bed. Granny sat with her eyes closed, rocking back and forth, muttering something low. Daddy Hoyt stood watching me. The doctor was frowning in the doorway. I could feel the weight of something on my head, on my heart, on my ankle, and I knew Daddy Hoyt had made a poultice for me and that he was healing me with his herbs just like Granny was healing me with a witch spell. The doctor won’t like that much, I thought.

  I woke up again and Daddy Hoyt and Granny were still there. I blinked my eyes and suddenly I could feel the pain spreading through my body, starting in my ankle and moving up into my ribs, my chest, my head. I cried out and the sound of it surprised me. I tried to pull myself upright, through the haze. Granny laid a hand on my arm and said, “Hush now, honey. We’ve come to take care of you.”

  Terror in the Sky, Terror on the Ground

  By Humphrey R. Moore for the Charlotte Observer

  On April 11 one of Boeing’s top-secret B-29 Superfortress bombers caught fire an hour and twenty minutes after takeoff from the Army Air Forces’ base at Camp Davis and crashed into the Jocassee Gorges, on the border of North and South Carolina, just east of the Great Smoky Mountains. Lead pilot Velva Jean Hart, twenty-one, survived, while five crewmen perished in the crash. Although the event could not be concealed, the purpose of the mission remains classified.

  A fire erupted and two engines were lost after the aircraft hit the water. Two army technicians bailed out of the plane, but their chutes could not deploy in time. The giant bomber slammed into the earth just short of Lake Jocassee, killing two engineers aboard as well as the copilot.

  The Jocassee Gorges lie mostly in Transylvania County, North Carolina, an area that encompasses the Toxaway, Horsepasture, Thompson, and Whitewater Rivers as they flow into Lake Jocassee in North and South Carolina. Lake Jocassee splashes against the base of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, the “Blue Wall” of hills that delineates the sharp transition between the Carolina mountains and the plains and hills of the western Piedmont.

  At 4:30 p.m., residents of Box Creek, just three miles away, heard an unusually loud aircraft pass overhead. Seconds later the sound of the engines ceased abruptly as the bomber impacted the earth and was consumed in a huge fireball.

  Without hesitation, the people of Box Creek responded to the crash. Ronald Butterfield, Andrew Pitts, and Phil Woodbine arrived at the scene of the wreck within an hour of the crash and were soon followed by others who tried to assist in the search. The would-be rescuers found a large area of wet, burned ground littered with molten metal and debris. Pockets of aviation fuel lit up the scene as they ignited with a dull roar. The gallant efforts of the townspeople were for naught; there were no survivors. Or so they thought.

  Brave Velva Jean Hart, in spite of a sprained ankle, four broken ribs, and a partially fractured skull, walked five miles, looking for help, until she was discovered by Hugh Ray Sr. and Hugh Ray Jr., who found her on Old Highway 64. She was heading west, she said, before she collapsed. They assumed she was an enlisted man before she took off her helmet. “Why it’s just a little girl,” Hugh Ray Sr. recalls remarking.

  The brave little pilot is fighting for her life at the base hospital at Camp Davis, where she is serving her country as a pilot with the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP. Jacqueline Cochran, director of the WASP, said she was proud of Miss Hart and of all her girls. She said, “When the men of the Army Air Forces refused to fly the B-29 because of safety concerns, Ms. Hart stepped forward to volunteer herself as pilot. This accident had nothing to do with her skills as a flier, and everything to do with simple engine malfunction. I guarantee she will be back in the sky again as soon as she recovers.”

  April 12, 1944

  Dear Velva Jean,

  I ain’t writing to lecture. I’m writing to say I’m glad you’re alive. And I’m writing to tell you to stay safe. I’ll always worry on you because that’s my job, but that don’t mean I want to keep you here where you don’t belong. Even after the crash, I know you belong where you are, up there in the air.

  I wanted to come look in on you with Granny and Daddy Hoyt, but I got to stay here with the children. They promised to bring you these letters from all of us back home.

  Do you know I started watching for you? Dan Presley and me goes out at night and climbs up on the roof of the house and looks for airplanes. We don’t see many, but every time we do we say, “I wonder if that’s Velva Jean.” Yesterday we saw that bomber going overhead and Dan Presley said, “That’s a B-29, the biggest bomber in the world.” And I just knew it was you flying it. I still got chill bumps on my arms.

  So you get better. No more crashes. And don’t you give up. You’ve come too far.

  Your sister,

  Sweet Fern

  FORTY-THREE

  When they heard news of the crash, Granny and Daddy Hoyt packed one bag between them—full of medicines and herbs and letters from my family—and climbed into my yellow truck. Daddy Hoyt didn’t know how to drive too well, but he said it was amazing how fast you could learn something when you needed to. He said by the time they got to Cedar Rock, just west of the mountains, he knew what he was doing.

  Just like the newspaper said, I had a sprained ankle, four broken ribs, and a partially fractured skull brought on by a hard knock on the head, which almost scalped me. Now that I’d sent plenty of prayers to Jesus, thanking him for saving me, I wondered if it was vain to thank him for saving my hair too.

  I said, “You didn’t have to come.” Even though I was glad they did. I’d never been so happy in my life to see anyone.

  Granny said, “Yes we did.” Then she got up and left the room because I could tell she was about to cry.

  Daddy Hoyt sat beside me, holding my hand. His old face was sad and worried. His white hair was thinning a little in front and on the sides. I felt so ba
d for worrying him, for making him leave the mountain and drive all this way.

  He said, “You’re going to be okay. You just need to stay in here for another day or two.”

  I said, “The others? The men that were with me?”

  He shook his head. “I’m sorry.”

  I’m sorry. What was it Bob Keene said to me before we crashed? “I’m sorry.”

  We sat there, both of us thinking about five men we didn’t really know, who were dead now. I said, “Did they find out why this happened?”

  “If they did, we haven’t heard anything.”

  I thought: If they did, they probably wouldn’t tell us anyway.

  I’m sorry.

  I’m sorry . . .

  I said, “Before I was awake, did anyone else come visit me?” I thought of Butch, of my daddy.

  Daddy Hoyt said, “A lot of those girls, the WASP. They said they were friends of yours. Nice girls.”

  I said, “Anyone else?”

  “Jacqueline Cochran and some sort of colonel or major.”

  I said, “Didn’t anyone else come? Did you see anyone else?”

  He seemed to give this a good think. He said, “No, honey. I don’t remember it if I did.”

  I tried not to let this pull me back down into the deep of the water, into the fog. My mind went blurry for a minute, and then I made myself concentrate and focus and not think about dreams and haints, which was all they were.

  I said, “Tell me the news from home.”

  Daddy Hoyt was sitting quietly already but now his face got still.

  I said, “Something’s happened.”

  He squeezed my hand and then he let it go, sitting back in his chair. He rubbed his hands on his pants—the same old work pants he always wore, except when he was wearing his herb-gathering overalls. He said, “We haven’t heard from Johnny Clay.”

  I said, “Isn’t that normal? I mean, he’s never one to write much. He’s probably off fighting . . .” There had to be some reason he was bringing this up, and it made me uneasy in my mind.

  He said, “We’re sure he’s fine.” He didn’t sound sure though.

  I felt that same underwater, sinking feeling that I felt when I woke up from the crash. “What do you think’s happened?”

  He shut his eyes, just like he was trying to sense Johnny Clay in this world. He opened them again and looked at me, and his eyes—blue and gold like my mama’s—looked two hundred years old and full of burdens. He said, “I don’t know.”

  I was released from the hospital a week later, and Granny and Daddy Hoyt left a few days after that. I stood, leaning on Janie, waving good-bye as they pulled away from the base in my yellow truck. I hadn’t cried since the day the Hugh Rays found me, but seeing my grandparents drive away—taking home and the mountains with them—sent me to bawling. Janie put her arm around my shoulder. She said, “That sure is one hell of a truck, Hartsie.”

  I wanted to run after them, but instead I laughed. I said, “It is one hell of a truck.” Then I wiped my eyes and told myself I was a down-home girl and that this meant I would just keep on going no matter how loaded up and weighted down my suitcase was.

  Back in the barracks, I pulled my parachute rip cord out of my pocket and laid it under my pillow, where I kept it when I slept. Maybe it was my talisman now, or one of them. Then I got out Mama’s Bible and sat on the bed, careful with my ribs, my ankle, my head. I opened the book and wrote: “April 11—Velva Jean flies a B-29 and survives.”

  I stared at the page, and it didn’t seem like enough to write. There was so much more to it than that. I sat there for a long time, thinking of all the things I hadn’t written down and all the things that could be written: from Avenger Field to Ty’s crash to Sally’s funeral to the songs I hadn’t written, the songs I was trying to write, learning the B-29, Butch leaving, waking up from the accident, meeting the Hugh Rays, the dreams I had in the hospital about Butch and my daddy—I also dreamed Granny and Daddy Hoyt, or thought I did, but they were really there. Were Butch and my daddy there too?

  But I didn’t write any of it. Instead I put the book away again, and then I lay back on my bed and closed my eyes and waited till the room centered itself. Lately when I shut my eyes, the room spun around me. The spinning got slower and slower until finally the room stood still. I conjured my dreams till I could see Butch’s dog tags swinging over me and feel my daddy’s rough hand in mine.

  On Friday, April 21, I dressed in my pink and greens and stood in front of Colonel Wells and Major Blackburn and Jackie Cochran and General Hap Arnold, inside one of the Camp Davis courtrooms. Vince Gillies, just promoted to first lieutenant, was there, staring blankly at me from his chair. He shifted around during the meeting, cracking his knuckles, scratching his cheek, looking up at the ceiling.

  I tried not to show my nerves, which were cluttering my stomach and jittering my mind. I stood still as could be and answered all their questions, like how low did I fly over the mountains and when did I first notice the fire and why did the technicians jump when the rest of us stayed and why did I leave the plane. I answered every question, calm as could be, trying to keep my voice from shaking.

  When I was finished and they were finished, I said, “I’d like to say something.” General Arnold nodded at me. I said, “When I was little all I wanted to do was grow up to sing at the Grand Ole Opry. I saved my money for years and years, ever since I was seven years old, just so I could get there one day. In 1941 I left everything and everyone to go to Nashville to make that dream come true. And then the war happened and I learned to fly, and suddenly the Opry didn’t matter quite so much because I had a new dream.” I looked at Miss Cochran. “I wanted to be like Jacqueline Cochran and I wanted to serve the country I love.”

  Miss Cochran started to say something, but I said, “I left everything and everyone to come here, just like Sally Hallatassee left everything to be here. We all did, each and every one of us, but ever since we came to Camp Davis it’s been nothing but close calls and accidents and tear gas under our doors at night and now this. Sally is dead. No matter how many times I ask Jesus to bring her back, he can’t. I can’t. But I need to know that you’re going to figure out why these things are happening, and why I almost died too.”

  General Arnold said, “Are you finished?”

  I said, “Yes, sir.” My heart was beating so fast I was afraid it might fly right out of my chest. My stomach was jumping like I’d swallowed a hundred crickets. There was more to say, but none of it was fit to say to a general, a colonel, a major, and the woman in charge of the Women Airforce Service Pilots. I thought, If I only wasn’t a lady, the things I could say. Which was a funny thing to think because all these years of Sweet Fern telling me I would be a lady one day, and all these years of me telling her not to say it, to take it back, I guessed I finally was one.

  I remembered what the Wood Carver said to me after Harley and the others burned his carvings and turned him out of his house: “They’ve violated the sanctuary of my home. They’ve violated the spirit of who I am. There’s no going back, Velva Jean. This place will never be the same.” I thought that, next to Sally’s death, this was maybe the worst thing of all—they had violated the sanctuary of my home and the spirit of who I was. For me, the WASP would never be the same.

  General Arnold said, “I give you my word that military intelligence is looking into this matter, Miss Hart.” He seemed like a kind man and a fair man. There was something in him that made me think of Daddy Hoyt.

  I said, “Thank you, sir.”

  He dismissed me then, but as everyone was standing up to go, Lieutenant Vince Gillies said, “I have a question.”

  General Arnold said, “Go ahead.” He didn’t sit down again. He looked impatient to get away.

  Vince Gillies said to me, “How did you manage to get out of the plane in an inverted spin?”

  I thought of something Beachard had said when they asked how he managed to single-handedly fight off the Japanes
e to capture a hilltop overlooking the Munda Point airstrip in the central Solomon Islands. I looked right back at Vince Gillies and said, “Have you ever prayed, Lieutenant?”

  My answer hung out there in the air. No one said anything. Vince Gillies rubbed his face and cracked his knuckles and tipped his chair back so only two legs were on the floor. I wished I knew a Cherokee spell to make him fall over.

  General Arnold said, “You have my word, Miss Hart.” And then he turned on his heel and clipped out of the room, the others following. I walked right after them, right past Lieutenant Vince Gillies. I walked right out the door and into the sunlight and didn’t stop walking till I got to my bay.

  Jackie Cochran grounded all bombers for a week. It turned out that the rudder cables in my B-29 had been tampered with, and even she couldn’t pretend it was just the mechanics overlooking something by accident. When reporters stopped by the base asking for me, I was given orders not to talk to them.

  I waited to see what Miss Cochran would do about it this time, but she left Camp Davis without a word to any of us, even me, who had almost died, and went back to Washington, D.C. Janie and I stood by the barracks, by Sally’s garden in full bloom, and watched her take off.

  I thought: There goes the most famous woman pilot in the world, the woman that gave me my chance and gave me my wings. And after all that, I’m nothing but a guinea pig—just like Sally used to say. Jacqueline Cochran might as well be sabotaging the planes herself for all she’s doing about it.

  I couldn’t believe we’d come from the same place, her and me—both orphans with no real education, who believed in following our dreams. I thought back on the last letter I’d written her, back when the only thing I wanted was to be a WASP. Right now I felt like the queen of Egypt compared to her, for all we had in common.

 
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