Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven


  Janie spat on the ground and said, “That’s what I think of Jackie Cochran and her experimental program.” She turned toward the barracks where Sally’s flowers were blooming, the only bright spot on the base. “You coming, Hartsie?”

  “No,” I said. “In a while.”

  What I wanted right now was to fly, but I was still grounded because of my ankle, my ribs, and my head. I found Gus Mitchell and asked if I could borrow his jeep. He was out of the hospital and on crutches, but he couldn’t drive yet.

  I said, “How are you doing?”

  He said, “One day at a time. I miss her like hell. How are you doing?”

  I said, “The same. I miss her too.”

  The jeep was louder than my truck and it rattled so much I was afraid it would fall apart. I drove fast as I dared through the base and past the base and onto the dunes and the sand. I looked out toward the ocean, where the U-boats were probably hiding, and then I parked the jeep and sat there and this time I didn’t think about Jackie Cochran. Instead I thought about Johnny Clay and where he might be. I didn’t need to know where he was. All I needed to know was that he was somewhere and that he was safe.

  And then I thought about Butch. I hadn’t heard a word from him since my accident. Would it have hurt him to write to me to say something like “I’m so happy you didn’t die”? The thought of almost dying made me impatient with everyone—Jackie Cochran, Colonel Wells, Butch. I thought about all the times it felt like I was trying to get his attention, just like I tried to get Harley’s attention and my daddy’s attention, trying to get them to see me.

  I remembered everything Butch had told me about himself—Cut Off, Louisiana; Indian mama, Creole daddy; Navajo great-granddaddy; leaving home at thirteen; riding the rodeo; hitchhiking; learning the blues in Mississippi; Knoxville; the broken bottle neck talisman; his age. I’d been so happy when he’d told me things, but now I realized it wasn’t much at all when you got down to it.

  Life was too short to spend it trying to get a man to tell me how he felt about me. I wanted to feel like the most special girl in the world—a girl who was as loving and lovely as she was loved, just like Butch once wrote in a song that may or may not have been about me.

  On the morning of May 1, twenty-five new WASP arrived on base. I watched as they jumped down from General Arnold’s personal airplane and stood in the sunshine, hands on hips, looking over Camp Davis, faces mixed with excitement and nerves. I watched as they took in the swamp; then as they turned their eyes up to the sky to gaze at a B-17 roaring past. I thought with a pang that this was what Sally and I must have looked like when we got here, months ago.

  This was only the start. One of the girls who worked in the dispatcher’s office said Louella Corbett told her more women were coming. She said the army was sending members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, or WAAC—now officially the Women’s Army Corps, or WAC—to work in the office and as radio operators and mechanics and air-traffic controllers.

  Later I saw one of the new WASP talking to Zeke Bodine outside the rec building, and when I ran into her in the hallway of the barracks after that I said hi and told her my name, and she said her name was Trudy, which was short for Gertrude, which was her mother’s name and her grandmother’s name and her grandmother’s name before that.

  She was telling me about Maryland, where she was from, when I said, “Whatever you do, look over your own airplane and don’t trust anyone here, not even Jackie Cochran.” Her mouth popped open into the widest O—big as a doughnut—before I walked away.

  Two hours later Harry Lawson was arrested. The afternoon had gone cloudy. A storm hovered over the ocean. I was walking to the flight line, ready for my first flight since my accident, when I saw him being taken away by men in dark suits. Gus Mitchell was standing nearby, leaning on his crutches. I thought, Here we are, both of us survivors.

  Gus said, “It’s the goddamned FBI.”

  Harry Lawson was led past, staring ahead like he didn’t see any of us.

  Now everybody had stories to tell about Harry Lawson, and everybody said they saw it coming. The truth, we learned piece by piece, was that his real name was Felix Lewison, and he was from the Rhine Province in Germany. Thirty-one German agents had formed a spy ring in the United States. Helmut Klein, Fritz Kramer, Rolf Stigler, and now Harry Lawson, were all a part of it. They’d been placed in key jobs around the country to get information that could be used to carry out acts of sabotage. One person worked on an airline so he could report allied ships that were crossing the Atlantic Ocean; some worked as delivery people so they could deliver secret messages alongside normal messages; some worked in shipyards and air bases.

  Harry Lawson grew up in Germany and was hired out to a draftsman when he was eleven. He fought for Germany in the First World War, when he was seventeen. He was a machine gunner on the Western Front before he went to sea. According to the newspaper report, he lived a “lonely, rootless life,” until he went to California when he was twenty-five and became a U.S. citizen under the name Frank Lewis. He worked as a mechanic for Consolidated Aircraft and got married to a local girl, a pilot named Rose.

  When Harry was twenty-eight, Rose was killed in an airplane crash, and he went back to Germany because, after her death, there was nothing for him here and his life in the United States was over. He got a job in a turbine factory, where he worked until he was recruited to be a spy. They never found out the cause of Rose’s accident.

  After learning codes, photography, microphotography, radio transmission, and other spy techniques, Harry Lawson was sent back to the United States to meet Inspector Herman Lang, who had secured a position with the makers of the Norden bombsight. Weighted down with instructions, five messages in microfilm hidden in his watch, a thousand dollars, and a new name—“Harry Lawson”—he took a job as a mechanic at Camp Davis, North Carolina, where the Norden bombsight was being tested and the B-29 was going to be ferrying top-secret parts to a laboratory in Los Alamos.

  Colonel Wells released an official statement in the afternoon, which said that Harry Lawson had been arrested on suspicion of being a German spy engaged in sabotage. He said that a complete investigation was under way by the highest authorities.

  At mess that night, the entire room was buzzing with the news, everybody offering up pieces of information they’d overheard from Major Blackburn or Colonel Wells or from one of the radio operators or the reporters that were lurking around. Everyone seemed happy that there was finally someone to blame for the accidents, for Sally’s death.

  I couldn’t believe Harry Lawson had been a spy all this time and I hadn’t caught him. I prided myself on being able to recognize spies and murderers and other crazy types of people. Johnny Clay and me had practiced being spies since we were little, and then practiced seeing spies when we were in Nashville. And there was Harry Lawson, all that time, right under my nose. They were blaming the sabotage on him, but he had told me about Sally—about the latch that was tampered with—and the misfiled papers. Why would he tell me about them if he’d done these things himself?

  As Janie and Helen and I walked by a table of officers on our way out the door, I heard one of them say to another, “What will the girls do with one less mechanic to blame for their accidents?” They all laughed at this like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard.

  I thought about taking my tray and knocking him over the head with it, but instead I said, “What makes you think we blame the mechanics?”

  Maybe it was Harry Lawson that was responsible for the sabotage, but I thought that was too easy. He might have been to blame for some of it. Or it could have been Bob Keene who did most of it or some of it or all of it. I might never know for sure. Only a handful of people were allowed near the B-29, but that didn’t mean an officer couldn’t break some rules and step over hurdles. It happened all the time.

  The officers got quiet, and I turned around then and left, Janie and the other girls right behind me. My ankle still hurt,
but I walked out of there just as tall and majestic as I could, like an Indian princess.

  By morning the storm had blown over and the sun was burning bright over the water. I met Major Blackburn at Hangar 4, which was where they were keeping what was left of the Flyin’ Jenny under guard. Ever since Harry Lawson was arrested, there were guards on patrol everywhere—along the beach, along the highway, along the runways, around the hangars.

  Major Blackburn didn’t say anything, just nodded at me and at the guards. We showed our IDs and one of them opened the hangar and let us in. Even in pieces, the B-29 looked giant as a monster. If I didn’t know it was an airplane, I might not have been able to guess what it was from the crushed and twisted metal, all of it burned black, even on the inside.

  Major Blackburn said, “Five minutes, Miss Hart.”

  After seeing what was left, I couldn’t believe I’d survived at all. I climbed through the wreckage, going over every inch of that plane. I knew it would have been picked clean by now by whoever might have made this happen—if someone made this happen—just like a dead squirrel in the woods. Unless, of course, the person that made it happen wasn’t here anymore. I remembered Bob Keene’s white knuckles, his pale face, the sweat on his brow.

  I’m sorry.

  He didn’t know he’d be flying on the B-29. He thought it would be someone else.

  I looked for anything that might be a clue as to what happened, why it happened: an oil rag, sugar in the fuel tank, sand in the carburetor. I checked the propeller, the landing gear, and the rudder cables. They’d been nicked, like Jackie Cochran said, just enough—as neat as the split of the Wood Carver’s axe against a tree limb. I heard his voice in my head, telling me you had to know just where to make the cut.

  I dug through the ruins looking for the flight recorder, but it wasn’t there. Then I thought about my real black box, the one where I kept all my hurt and sorrow, all my scars.

  Major Blackburn walked up then and said, “Did you find what you were looking for?” There was something in his voice that was almost kind.

  I said, “No, sir. Not here. Not yet.”

  May 2, 1944

  Dear Velva Jean,

  Thank you for your long-ago note. I’m glad you like the wooden figure. Yes, she’s meant to be flying. She’s meant to be you. I’m glad she’s one of your talismans and that you are healing from your crash, but I’m sorry she got broken. I don’t know that she had anything to do with you surviving. I think that was up to you.

  I am sending another flying girl to you. I made her from my Jesus tree, or dogwood, the one that sits in front of my old cabin. You’ll remember that tree has been through a lot but always stayed standing, even in the most terrible storms. I’ve never made a carving from it because, as I told you once, its brace roots are too strong. This means it needs to become a tree and stay a tree, which is what it was meant to do. But I thought it was time to make an exception. As you see, she’s a very small girl but a sturdy one. I doubt the tree will even miss the wood it took to make her. I thought if you were going to be taking this little girl up in the air with you, we had to make sure nothing can break her.

  Don’t worry about your old friend. I am making my peace.

  I’m glad to know your light is shining bright, just like it was meant to do.

  I will see you again.

  Your friend,

  Henry Able

  FORTY-FOUR

  On May 5, I sat alone in my bay, at my desk, at my typewriter, all my notes and papers spread out in front of me. There were papers with just a word or two and papers with stanzas. There were scratch marks where I’d crossed things out and napkins because I couldn’t find anything else to write on. There were sheets of notebook paper with lines I’d drawn across them, just like Butch had taught me to do back in Devil’s Kitchen, when I was trying to write the tunes.

  I took all those words and lines and papers and for the first time in a long time I was able to pick just the ones I needed and put them together. I thought maybe it came from being grounded, from having nothing else to do.

  After I had typed all the words and had the music in my head, I sang the song to myself, sitting there at my desk. I played Sally’s banjo as I sang it. The windows were open and the day came in, the sun hitting the floor like the shadows of dancing men, the wooden ones made by the Wood Carver. The white curtains with black dots floated up like a haint, then back down, then up again.

  It was funny about writing. It was like flying or driving or playing an instrument. When you were doing it like you were supposed to be doing it, you knew it right inside you. You could feel that this was the way it should be. But when you wrote a word that you didn’t believe in, that didn’t fit, it stuck out just like a bumpy landing or a bad turn or a false note.

  The other funny thing about it was that you couldn’t hide from the bad things. If you were going to write anything good or deep or true, you had to let in the sadness and the sorrow and the loss. These were all the things I tried to keep at a distance, but sometimes you needed to let them in, just like the blues—you needed to feel them to write them.

  I pulled the paper out of the typewriter as careful as I could. I carried it just like a baby over to my cot, where I laid it on the pillow. I pulled my hatbox out from under the bed and opened it up. It was full of treasures that wouldn’t look like treasures to anyone else. The clover jewelry that Mama and I had made years ago was brown and dry. The pictures of Carole Lombard and Charles “Buddy” Rogers I’d cut from movie magazines were fading yellow. Even Daddy’s emerald—the one he brought me from the Black Mountains—was dusty. I pulled it out and rubbed it green.

  The breeze from the window lifted my song up like an airplane and sent it sailing. I caught it and laid it on top of everything in the hatbox, and then I shut it away. I wasn’t sure if I would ever fly again, which was why I needed music and songs and writing. I needed to remember my real life’s dream, the one I had before I ever wanted to learn to drive or to fly.

  It wasn’t a smart song or a fancy song, but I thought it might be the best song I’d ever written.

  On May 7, General Hap Arnold’s plane arrived at base, only he wasn’t on it, because he was somewhere in England. The plane was delivering forty-five members of the Women’s Army Corps. The WAC were going to be living on the other side of base, separated from the men by the highway. Janie said they were going to have their own PX and mess hall.

  The WAC uniforms were neat and smart. They didn’t have to wear coveralls and turbans or pink and greens when they went to town. The jackets they wore were short and snug, the color of sand. On one collar was a brass disk with the initials “U.S.” On the other collar was a brass disk that showed the head of Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of war. They wore smart little hats that looked just like the ones the male officers wore, and straight skirts that hit right at the knee.

  We stood in our caps and coveralls, rolled up to the knees and elbows, watching as the girls—who looked like girls and not boys dressed up in clothes they stole out of their daddy’s wardrobe—marched smartly out of the plane and across the runway in two orderly lines. I knew I should be glad they were here because they were girls like us and they’d had to deal with some of the same things we’d had to deal with on military bases—men being rude and crude and making mean comments. But I wasn’t one bit happy to see them.

  I thought, Where have you been while we’ve been here in the swamp, being eaten up by mosquitoes and shot at every day, risking our lives going up in old, worn-out planes that men are too afraid to fly? These girls looked like girls that would sit behind desks and type things and file paperwork. I wanted to wear a pin of Athena on my collar, but I didn’t even have a collar. I didn’t think they’d done a thing to earn those uniforms.

  On the morning of May 10, the base doctor gave me a letter that said I was ready to fly again. As I walked to the dispatcher’s office to get my flight assignment, I looked at the letter and thought: How doe
s he know I’m ready? How can he look at my ankle and look at my ribs and look at the outside of my head and tell me I’m ready to fly? He’s probably never even been up in a plane, and if he has he’s never flown it himself. He doesn’t know what it’s like to crash and nearly die. He doesn’t know if I’m ready to do it again. How dare he say I’m ready to fly.

  I almost ripped up that letter right then, but instead I walked into the dispatcher’s office to get my flight orders. A half dozen of the WACs typed and filed away in their neat little uniforms.

  Louella Corbett looked up from her desk and said, “How’s the recovery? Ready to go up again?”

  It was easy for her to ask me that from behind her desk where the biggest thing she had to worry about was a paper cut.

  No, I’m not ready to go up again. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to go up again.

  “Dr. Geary says I am.” I handed her the paper.

  She glanced at it, and while she did I looked at the WACs. Their fingernails were painted red or pink to match their lipstick. Their makeup was fresh and their hair was curled. They looked like they’d had a long night’s sleep on a bed made of clouds.

  Louella Corbett said, “Colonel Wells has your assignment for you.” A telephone rang at a nearby desk. One of the WACs answered it.

  I said, “Colonel Wells?”

  The WAC held the phone out to Louella and said, “Mrs. Corbett, it’s General Thomas.”

  Louella said, “Thank you, Mona.” She smiled at me as she stood up to take the phone. She said, “Good luck, Miss Hart.”

  Colonel Wells sat behind his desk, frowning over his mustache. Helen Stillbert and I stood across from him at attention. There were files stacked on his desk, and I could see upside down that they said “WAC.” I wondered how he must feel having his base overrun with more girls.

 
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