Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven


  He said, “Normally these orders would come from Jackie Cochran or General Arnold, but she’s in Texas right now and the general has flown to England. You’ve been ordered by Ms. Cochran and Brigadier General Ralph Dodson to ferry a plane to the U.S. Air Transport Command base at Prestwick Airport in Scotland. It’s a classified delivery mission. You will be the first women during this war to fly overseas for the military, and only the second . . .” he looked at me, “and third,” he looked at Helen, “in history.” He frowned deeper as if to say this was the last mission on earth he’d ever have come up with on his own.

  In spite of my ankle and my ribs and my head—and even in spite of my heart—I felt myself leaning forward but not actually leaning forward. It was a leaning forward in my mind, wanting to hear every word he was about to say to me.

  “You’ll do a checkout ride on the B-17 next week and depart for Scotland soon after. This is a top-secret mission. We don’t want any press attention until the flight has been completed.”

  I could feel chill bumps rise on my arms even though it was warm in the office and warm outside. I had been wanting to fly the B-17 ever since I got to Camp Davis and saw them gleaming silver in the sun. The B-17 Flying Fortress was a four-engine bomber that newspapers and newsreels called one of the greatest weapons of the war. This was mostly because it was being used for daylight precision strategic bombing against the Germans. It was a high-flying, long-range ship that was as mythical as Tsul ’Kalu or the Nunnehi because the people who flew it said it could unleash great destruction, that it could actually defend itself, just like a soldier, even without a man at the throttle, and that it had the ability to return home despite serious battle damage. So far it had dropped more bombs than any other U.S. aircraft in the war.

  I said, “Sir?”

  He said, “Yes?”

  “I thought we were supposed to fly from base to base demonstrating the safety of the B-29.” I let the question hang out there, hoping he wouldn’t think I was mocking him or Jackie Cochran or the entire Army Air Forces.

  He seemed to sigh into his desk without actually sighing. He said, “We’ve shelved that mission for now. This is more urgent.”

  I thought: I just bet. You mean Jackie Cochran got wind of another chance to show us off to the world. The B-29 didn’t work? Fine—let’s send some girls across the ocean in a B-17.

  Before we left, Colonel Wells said, “Miss Hart, the flight recorder from your B-29 is under review. Investigations like this take time, but I did want you to know we are doing everything we can.” I looked at this man and remembered how he told me on my very first day that I wasn’t wanted. Now he seemed like just another man sitting behind his desk, trying to do his job. I wondered who he was before the war.

  I said, “Thank you, sir.”

  Outside the office, Helen said, “How do you feel about getting back up there, Hartsie? Are you ready for that?” There was a cloud hanging over her face, and I wondered if she was nervous about the idea of flying with me.

  I said, “I’ll be fine.” I had to be. Jackie Cochran was the only woman in the world who had ferried a bomber to Britain. I was going to make history.

  At the end of the week Helen and me started our training on the B-17 with a bomber pilot just back from England where he’d been flying for the 8th Air Force. His name was Tommy Collins and he was big and rambling and blond and blue eyed and had a grin like a little boy up to no good.

  The B-17 was smaller than the B-29, but it was still seventy-fivefeet long and had a wingspan of over a hundred feet. Helen and me followed Tommy Collins around and through the plane. He said, “When I trained on this ship, we needed 130 hours in the air, which means you’ll be on the flight line 5 hours a day—maybe more—seven days a week. You need to learn to synchronize all four engines, basic flight maneuvers, how to handle stalls, and how to fly and land this thing when one or two or three engines go out.”

  Helen looked at me and I thought: He doesn’t know about the accident. He doesn’t know that I’ve already landed a four-engine plane when two of its engines were out and one of the other ones was on fire. He doesn’t know I’ve flown the biggest bomber on earth and that this one could almost fit inside it.

  I listened to him talk about the hours of cross-country experience we would need, day and night, so that we could get enough navigation and radio experience to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. He told us this was a $300,000 weapon of war that weighed fifty thousand pounds and carried ten hours worth of fuel. We went over the cockpit procedures and the pilot’s checklist. And through it all, I wasn’t worried. I felt far away from myself, like I was floating up above, looking down on Tommy Collins and Helen and me. I could see myself standing in the cockpit, sitting at the throttle, but it was just like I was watching someone else.

  At 7:30 the next morning and the next morning and every morning after that for the next two weeks, we met Tommy at the B-17, walking past the army air force officers who said, “What’s this war coming to that they’re giving girls the same training that we’re getting?” I took my turn in the pilot’s seat and went through the checklist.

  I liked going about my business without anyone worrying over me. I was glad Tommy Collins didn’t know about my accident. It let me keep to myself and concentrate on what I needed to do. But on Tuesday, May 23, I arrived at the flight line just before Helen and saw that Tommy Collins was wearing a worried look. He said, “Velva Jean, I heard about your accident.”

  Something in me sank. I didn’t want him to know. I didn’t want anyone to know. I wanted to go on like nothing had happened, without having people looking at me like I needed to be fussed over and watched and treated like a glass figurine.

  He said, “I don’t know why they’re sending you back up so soon, and in this monster of all things.”

  I said, “It’s okay.” My voice had an edge to it, though I knew he was being nice.

  He said, “You poor poppet.” And something about those three words was sincere and sweet and made me mad. “You don’t have to fly this if you don’t want to.”

  I said, “I’m a WASP. I have to fly it. It’s why I’m here.”

  And then, without waiting for Helen, I climbed up into the plane, my hands shaking, and sank into the pilot’s seat. I sat there seeing red. I was sick to death of people telling me I couldn’t do this or that or that I was a girl who had no business being there. All I wanted was to do my work, the work I was chosen to do, and have everyone leave me alone.

  In a moment Tommy came through the door and up behind me, and then Helen poked her head in and said, “Sorry I’m late.”

  I waited till everyone was strapped in, and then I flipped on the electrical switch that activated a hydraulic pump that gave oil pressure to start number one engine. I pushed the button that read “start engines,” and the eleven-foot-seven-inch propeller shook itself awake and started to spin. In less than two minutes, all four engines were thundering and I couldn’t help it—I felt a thrill deep down.

  I put my hand on the engine throttles and steered my way down the runway, edging the four throttles forward so that the bomber began to roll. At 110 miles per hour, I pulled back on the control wheel and the Flying Fortress lifted off the runway. When we reached the end of it, I pushed the control wheel forward, bringing down the nose so that the B-17 could gain speed. The plane hummed as the main landing gear and tail wheel came up into the belly of the plane. The airspeed rose to 135 miles per hour, and we started to climb.

  Beside me, Helen pulled her earphones off one ear. This was something we usually did because even though the headphones were supposed to help protect our ears, the noise of the engines was so loud that it could leave you deaf for days. But this time I left my earphones on. I wanted to hear the roar of the engines. I wanted to feel the power of the plane go through me. My skin hummed and my teeth jittered. The B-17 was rough and strong, like flying a mountain.

  I could crash at any moment. One of the engines could catch
fire or one or two or three of them could die. The ship could go into a dive or a spin that I couldn’t get out of. There might be an oil rag on the engine or sugar in the gas tank or sand in the carburetor. Another plane might clip one of our wings, or we might go crashing into the side of a mountain just because the fog rolled in and we didn’t see it. My parachute might not open in time, and even if it did I might land too hard.

  I thought of all the things that could happen to me. This was something I never used to do till Sally was killed, but now I made myself run through every single kind of crash, every single kind of accident. Then I settled back behind the throttle and looked out at the blue sky—the bluest I’d ever seen. There wasn’t a single cloud. Only sunshine and sky stretching for miles and miles so that the whole world seemed to be made up only of blue. I heard the song I’d written—my new song—start up in my head.

  I’m flying high above the clouds.

  I’m flying swift and free.

  I’m flying with my own true heart

  toward my destiny . . .

  The B-17 was lighter and sleeker than the B-29 and seemed to fly even faster. I climbed to three thousand, four thousand, ten thousand feet. When I got to twelve thousand, I put the B-17 Flying Fortress through a slow roll. It was like dancing, like music. It was the most beautiful plane I’d ever flown. In my earphones I heard Tommy Collins say, “Christ, Velva Jean. That was mad.” But it was an admiring sort of comment.

  As I came out of the roll, I thought that when you got down to it every plane was the same. Some were bigger, some were harder to handle. But they were all just wings and power and speed and height and glorious, joysome flight.

  When I got back to the barracks, I ran into Janie in the bathroom. I stood in front of the sink brushing my teeth while she rubbed cream over her face. She said, “This is the third pot of this stuff I’ve run through since I’ve been here. That swamp air just sucks it out of you.”

  I wiped my mouth and said something like yes, isn’t it awful, but my mind was actually on the B-17.

  Janie said, “Oh hey. A girl was here looking for you. A WAC.”

  “Who was she?”

  “Beats me. She didn’t want to leave her name or anything. Said she’d find you later.” She picked up her cream and her towel. “Night, Hartsie.”

  “Night.” I leaned in close to the mirror and looked at myself. I whispered, “You did it. You’re flying again. And you’re still here.”

  For the first time in weeks—since before my accident, before Sally—I slept through the whole night. No dreams. No waking up. No stirring around. Just sleep, quiet and deep.

  June 1, 1944

  Dear Velva Jean,

  I got a lot of words in me I’d like you to hear, but I don’t know where to start. I try to think about the Navajo, about how there’s no such thing as choosing the wrong word, but how you have to say it right or you end up saying something else.

  Well I ain’t so good with letters. I’m better with songs. Here’s one I been working on. I wrote it for you, girl.

  Butch

  The Bluesman

  I am travelin’ to Somewhere

  as fast as I can go.

  Just strangers on the highway,

  nobody that I know.

  I thought I had the Right of Way,

  but then you came along,

  no map, no compass, no way—

  nothing but a song.

  Your heart is in the music,

  your soul is in the song,

  your eyes are on the future—

  just let me come along.

  I had to know you somewhere,

  maybe long ago,

  on some forgotten highway

  where time was movin’ slow.

  Or maybe on a pathway

  where I knew that I was lost

  or on a bridge to Somewhere

  ’til our footsteps crossed.

  It don’t matter where or when,

  or who or what or why—

  I’ll love you forever

  and on the day when we die

  I’ll sing “Your heart is in the music.

  Your soul is in the song.

  Your eyes are on the future.

  Just let me come along.”

  FORTY-FIVE

  On June 4, each WASP received a brand-new uniform. Jackie Cochran was still in Texas, but she sent a note calling them our “Santiago Blues,” and telling us they had been made just for us by fashion designers at Bergdorf Goodman, a fancy department store in New York City.

  The uniforms were the deepest, darkest blue, the color of the night sky—long jacket with a belt, white blouse, black tie, straight skirt that hit just below the knee (and pants too), white gloves, and a smart-looking little hat, called a “beret,” designed by a place called Frederick’s of Hollywood in California. The gold seal of the United States was stitched onto the beret, the winged arm patch of the Army Air Forces was stitched onto the left shoulder of the jacket, and a gold “WASP” pin, with crossed wings and a propeller, was clipped to the collar.

  Janie, Helen, and the rest of the girls and me tried them on right away and marched around base where the army air force officers and cadets and Major Blackburn and Colonel Wells and, most of all, the WACs, could see us. Nothing I’d ever worn—not my dress with the bolero jacket or my blue dress with the skirt that twirled or even the gold dress Gossie borrowed for me from Gorman’s—had made me feel so glamorous.

  That night before bed, I was still wearing my uniform while I washed my face and brushed my teeth. I thought I might just sleep in my Santiago Blues designed by Bergdorf Goodman of New York City, because, after everything, I finally felt like an official pilot for the government, even if General Hap Arnold and the Army Air Forces still called me a civilian.

  On June 5, Helen and I received orders that we were leaving the next morning. I packed my clothes and my shoes and my Mexican guitar and Daddy’s old mandolin and all of my talismans. I gave Sally’s banjo to Janie, who said she was going to learn to play it, and after she did she was going to pass it on to the next WASP and the next one until all the girls learned. Then she would send it home to Sally’s mama.

  After mess that night I sat down at my desk and typed a letter to Darlon C. Reynolds.

  Dear Mr. Reynolds,

  I hope you are doing well. I’m sending you this song I wrote. It’s a good one. It may even be my best one. Thank you for looking at it. And thank you for telling me I could do better.

  I leave for Scotland tomorrow but when I’m back and this war is over, I would love to talk to you about making records. I think, after everything, singing is still my life’s dream.

  Sincerely,

  Velva Jean Hart

  On the morning of June 6, I dressed in my Santiago Blues and said good-bye to Janie, and then I met Helen outside the barracks. We each carried one army duffle bag. Mine had my clothes and my mandolin and my Mexican guitar and the entire contents of my hatbox—all my talismans—tied up in the bolero dress Harley bought me from the Hamlet’s Mill department store. I carried Ty’s compass in the pocket of my slacks and my rip cord and the wooden flying girl, the new one, in the other pocket. I was loaded down with lucky charms.

  On our way to the flight line, we stopped at the PX so I could post my letter. The postmaster said, “As a matter of fact, something just came for you.”

  It was a letter from Beachard, dated May 24. It contained just a handful of lines: “Wanted you to know I’m okay. I’m in a place called Saipan. Biggest invasion of the Pacific so far. Using B-29s. The closest any American has come to Japan in this war.” I folded up the letter, giving thanks that he was safe and wishing I could fly a B-29 to the Pacific.

  Saipan—there was something about the names of these places, especially the ones in the Pacific, that unsettled me and gave me the deepest, darkest kind of spooks. Europe was one thing—a different world with different languages—but the Pacific, with its jungles and men hiding in th
e earth and thousands and thousands of dead soldiers washed up on beaches was enough to keep me up at night.

  Tommy Collins stood by the B-17, talking to the mechanics, checking out the crew. Helen and me were pilot and copilot, but we would be flying with a squad of nine men—navigator, bombardier, flight engineer, radio operator, nose gunner, two waist gunners, a tail gunner, and a ball-turret gunner—as well as the Norden bombsight.

  Tommy handed me a .45. I took it from him and strapped it on. He said, “If you’re ever in England, honeybee, I’d love to take you out.”

  I said, “Thank you,” because I didn’t know what else to say. Nice as he was, I knew I would never go out with Tommy Collins.

  Your heart is in the music.

  Your soul is in the song.

  Your eyes are on the future.

  Just let me come along.

  The crewmen climbed aboard one by one. Tommy said, “All right, then, we’re just waiting on one more.”

  Helen adjusted her helmet, her goggles. She looked at me. “You sure you’re ready for this?”

  “I’m ready,” I said.

  Tommy said, “Here we go, then. All here.”

  I turned to see a WAC uniform and my first thought was, Oh no. But the uniform didn’t fit quite as well on this girl because she was taller and wider than the other ones. Her lips and her nails were painted the brightest, raciest red you could imagine, but the rest of her looked thrown together, like she got dressed in a hurry and only just had time to get there. She was out of breath and laughing like she’d run all the way.

  She said, “Shit, Mary Lou, you should see your face.” Then Gossie picked me up and squeezed the breath out of me.

  We were scheduled to fly from Camp Davis to Presque Isle, Maine, and from there to Goose Bay, Labrador, to Greenland, and then to Scotland. It took us four days to get from Camp Davis to Maine because of storms, and another three to get to Labrador. Helen and I took turns at the throttle, and as we flew from base to base I made sure to take my helmet off on landing so my hair fell around my shoulders. I wanted everyone to know that I was a girl flying this plane with another girl for my copilot and a crew of eight men and one woman.

 
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