Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven


  Gossie was traveling as our radio operator. She’d joined the WAC in January after Clinton Farnham, her fiancé, was shipped out to England. It took her a while to find out I was at Camp Davis, but when she did she made up her mind to surprise me. She said they’d asked for volunteers for this trip, and before she even knew I was one of the pilots she jumped at the chance just so she could travel to Britain and maybe, just maybe, see Clinton somehow.

  Somewhere over Rhode Island, I heard Gossie’s voice in my earphones: “Sing us a song, Mary Lou. Do you have any new ones?”

  I thought of my new song—my only new song in a long time—the one I’d just sent off to Darlon C. Reynolds. I thought of the song Butch wrote just for me. I knew all the words to “The Bluesman” by heart. I carried them around with me everywhere. I thought that Butch Dawkins really was a code talker. He’d been talking to me in code for weeks now—through lyrics and music—only I didn’t know it. I wondered if I’d ever be able to talk to a man the regular way again, and this was funny after all the time I’d spent worrying that I needed to get to know Butch Dawkins better.

  Now that he was gone, I thought about him in flashes. It was never his whole face but pieces of him—his insides mostly. The things I missed about him were his words and the place in his soul where the music came from. I tried not to think of him out in the world, far from me, meeting exotic-looking women with dark hair and almond-shaped eyes and skin the color of caramel. I tried not to think of him singing them songs and telling them the hidden language of the Navajo. I tried not to think of him going to war.

  What I made myself think of was what he once said to me: “I never wrote with anyone else, girl. I never showed my songs to anyone. You’re the only one I ever did that with, and that one we wrote together is still one of my best songs.”

  I almost sang my song, Butch’s song, our song, but then I thought of the men on this plane who would listen to me singing and have something smart to say after it, and I decided I didn’t want to put any of those songs out there like that, not now. I started singing “Wild Blue Yonder,” and one by one everyone joined in.

  As I sang, I pictured myself saying good-bye to the part of me that still wore the scars from everything that had happened in my life, the part of me that was still locked away in that little black box.

  We landed on what the U.S. Navy called Bluie—their code name for Greenland—on the afternoon of June 15. Greenland had a wild beauty—deep-blue water, deep-blue sky, and ice everywhere. I’d always thought ice and snow were just one color, but the snow was white and pink and blue, and the ice was the clearest blue, the color of asters. I thought the U.S. Navy was right to name it what they did.

  We stayed overnight, which meant Gossie and me sat up late talking about everything that had happened since I left Nashville—Harley, the divorce, the WASP, Avenger Field, quitting Gorman’s, Ty, Camp Davis, Clinton Farnham, Sally’s death, Bob Keene, Jackie Cochran, joining the WAC, my crash in the B-29. I didn’t tell her about Butch because I still didn’t know what that was and I didn’t want to have to try to explain it to someone else, even Gossie, or to put words on it when it was more of a feeling.

  We fell asleep around two in the morning, and I dreamed that I was flying the B-29 to Saipan and Duke Norris was sitting beside me, telling me to take the plane into a spin and now a stall and now a dive. Suddenly Johnny Clay came walking into the cockpit, big as life, just as full of himself as ever. He looked gold from head to toe. He said, “Don’t write me, Velva Jean. I won’t get it.” And then he threw open the cockpit door and jumped.

  I shouted, “Johnny Clay Hart! Get back in here!” We were twelve thousand feet in the air. We were much too high to go jumping out of planes.

  I strained to see out the windows, to see where he’d gone, but there was nothing but empty sky. I hollered to Duke, “Did you see him? Do you see him? Where’d he go?”

  Duke’s mouth worked with worry. His eyes were sinking into his face. He said, “He’s nowhere, Velva Jean. He’s gone.”

  I said, “But he was just here.” I leaned up and toward the window as best I could with my hand still on the throttle. The sky rolled out in each direction, unmarked, uninterrupted, never-ending blue. Suddenly the plane was going into a real dive, one I couldn’t get out of. I looked over at Duke, only it wasn’t Duke in the copilot’s seat—it was Bob Keene.

  He said, “What do you know? Engine trouble. I hope we don’t have any serious mechanical issues on this flight.”

  “Johnny Clay!” I started yelling it. “Johnny Clay Hart!” I shouted it over and over again until Bob finally said, “Fifinella. Didn’t you hear what Duke said? He’s gone.”

  I woke up shaking, and it took me a long while before I stopped. I pressed my hand over my heart and felt it beating fast, then slowing a little, a little more. I prayed, Jesus, if you can hear me, please let my brother be safe. Please let him be okay. Please don’t ever let anything happen to him, even if he is a fool to go off to war and try to get himself killed. Don’t you let him do it, Lord. I’ll be good and true and I’ll make sure he’ll be good and true too, as much as anyone can, forever and ever if only you keep him safe.

  We ate our breakfast in the officer’s club, drinking coffee and eating toast and bacon. One of the officers brought in a stack of newspapers. We hadn’t paid attention to the news since we’d left Camp Davis. He said, “It’s on, boys.” He slammed the papers down on the table so that the coffee cups rattled, and then he picked up one of the papers off the top of the pile. “The invasion of France.” He threw it down on the stack and held up another. “The biggest invasion in the Pacific.”

  He threw that one down too, and Gossie reached for it. I read over her shoulder. On the front page was a map of Saipan. The headline read, “Cave Warfare in Death Valley.” Thirty thousand Japanese troops hiding in caves or burrowed in the ground, waiting for our boys, including the 6th Marine Division—Beachard’s unit—the same men that fought in Tarawa. The paper said it was too early to count, but there might be as many as fourteen thousand Americans killed.

  At the end of the table, the bombardier looked up from the paper he was reading. He said to me, “Isn’t your brother a paratrooper?”

  I had to think for a minute about what he was asking, to clear my head from images of jungles and caves and fourteen thousand dead soldiers. No, Beachard isn’t a paratrooper. Wait. Johnny Clay. Johnny Clay is a paratrooper. I said, “Yes,” but it came out funny, like a croak. My dream came back to me—the B-29, Duke Norris, my brother jumping, engine trouble, the empty blue sky.

  “101st Airborne?”

  This time I couldn’t say a word, so I just nodded.

  He passed his paper down to me. It was dated June 8, 1944.

  Two days ago, in Normandy, France, more than five thousand ships and thirteen thousand aircraft took part in the invasion of the Normandy coastline, and by the end of the day on June 6 the Allies had gained some ground. The price for the Allied forces was more than nine thousand killed or wounded. General Dwight Eisenhower was in command of the invasion, which was code-named Operation Overlord.

  At 3:00 a.m. on D-day, on the rugged waves of the English Channel, the Allies transferred to landing craft some twelve miles off the French coast. British units headed toward Caen, Canadians to a stretch west of Saint-Aubain-sur-Mer code-named Juno Beach, and U.S. troops directed themselves toward Utah and Omaha Beaches nearer a place called Cherbourg.

  The newspaper called Omaha a suicide mission. One of the headlines said, “Bloodiest Battles Are at Omaha Beach as U.S. Forces Face Strong German Resistance.” First a strong undertow carried soldiers away. After ten minutes of landing every officer and sergeant of the 116th Infantry Regiment was dead or wounded. But somehow, by 10:00 a.m., three hundred men had made it through “enemy mortar fire,” across the beach covered in bodies, and up a bluff to attack the Germans. By nighttime three thousand Americans lay dead on what they called “Bloody Omaha.”

 
; Among our boys that landed on Omaha were the members of the 101st Airborne, paratroopers trained at Camp Toccoa, Georgia. One of them, a Sergeant Mickey Gorham, said in the newspaper: “It was five minutes to one when the light snapped off and a hold in the plane was opened. Under it we could see the coast of France below—and the most hellish sight it was, for flak from the coast defenses was spouting fire and flame everywhere. We were terrified by it—until we were all madly shuffling down the hold and jumping into space. As I stood up with my harness off, I knew I was lost. Suddenly there was a rip and a tear in my chute, and I flung myself to the ground as the machine guns rattled.”

  Mickey Gorham.

  Johnny Clay wrote me once about a Mickey Gorham, back when he first got to Camp Toccoa: “This guy Mickey Gorham, from Boston, is the worst though. He was calling me ‘cracker’ till I told him exactly what I would do to him if I ever heard the word ‘cracker’ come out of his mouth again.”

  I got a sick feeling inside me because suddenly I couldn’t feel Johnny Clay in the world, and usually I had a sense of him. I closed my eyes and tried to think of him, only not just think of him—to feel him. All I felt was empty air and the hum of engines warming up in the distance, ready to fly.

  I asked to talk to the commanding officer, Colonel Bradley Burns. I stood in his office and told him about Beachard in Saipan and then I told him about Johnny Clay and how I thought he’d landed in Normandy on Omaha Beach.

  He said, “Omaha Beach?” His smile faded away. I watched it go, like it was melting off in the heat, until he sat there blinking at me. He said, “I’m afraid it’s impossible to know anything right now about anyone’s whereabouts, young lady. No one’s where they’re supposed to be. Men being picked up by this unit or that one, regardless of where they belong. Scattered to all hell. It’s a bloody mess.”

  He must have seen something in my face then because he said, “I’m sure your brother’s fine,” which was always the worst thing anyone could say to you when you were missing someone and worrying about them. “I’m sure he’ll turn up soon.” He was backtracking, trying to make it seem like maybe Johnny Clay was okay, but as I sat there, chilled from the inside out, I knew that Johnny Clay was missing and this was why I couldn’t sense him anymore. He was somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be, and I had to find out where.

  The colonel said, “It’s far too early to know anything, but I can check the preliminary reports we’ve gotten by telegraph. Let me see what I can find out.”

  “Thank you,” I said. “Do you mind if I make a telephone call while you’re doing that?”

  Outside the colonel’s office, his secretary put the call through for me and when it was connected she handed me the receiver.

  “Deal’s General Store,” a voice said. It was a lady.

  I said, “Sweet Fern, it’s Velva Jean. Have you heard from Beach or Johnny Clay?”

  She said, “Velva Jean? Where are you?” The line crackled.

  I said, “Greenland. Have you—”

  “Greenland? What on earth?”

  “Listen to me. Have you heard from Johnny Clay?”

  “Daddy Hoyt had a telegram from Linc. Him and some of the others in the Ranger Force invaded Rome on June 5 and faced the SS, Hitler’s own personal guards. Can you believe that? Lincoln Hart Jr., quietest man in the world. He’s doing good and guess who’s with him? Coyle. They joined up in a place called Anzio. I can’t tell you how much better it makes me feel that they’re together.”

  I thought about the five Sullivan brothers. I said, “I’m so glad, honey, but what about Beach? What about Johnny Clay?”

  “Beachard? Johnny Clay?”

  “Yes.”

  “I haven’t heard anything about them. Why?” I could hear the steam rising in her voice. “Velva Jean?”

  I didn’t want to worry her. She had enough to worry on. I said, “I’m just wondering where they are right now, that’s all.”

  “Surely someone on your base can find out.” There was steel in my sister’s voice, and I thought, Same old Sweet Fern. I was grateful for it.

  I said, “I’m trying.”

  “You let me know what they tell you.”

  “I will.”

  Then Sweet Fern said, “Harley Bright got himself married again. I thought you should know because I knew he wouldn’t tell you himself.”

  My ears were ringing. My stomach turned over just like I was in an A-24 dropping into a dive or a spin or a stall. I said, “Pernilla Swan.”

  “Yes.”

  The colonel’s secretary was pretending to type a letter, but I could tell she was listening. When I looked at her, she shuffled some papers around and cleared her throat and started typing faster.

  I said, “I’m not surprised.” The idea of Harley and Pernilla Swan hit me like a slap, even though I could have seen it coming, knowing him, knowing her. I tried to picture her up there in Harley’s house, my old house, sleeping in that bed, fixing the breakfast for Levi, waiting for Harley to come home from the Little White Church, listening to his sermons, rocking with him on the porch, cleaning the floors, doing the shopping, ironing his Barathea white suit, lying under Harley at night when the moon fell in through the window while the pictures of his three dead brothers and his dead fat mama watched from the wall.

  My head went foggy and I felt like I was underwater again—just like after my accident, when I woke up in the Jocassee Gorges—trying to push my way up to the surface light. I thought about the mission I was flying and about Greenland and Gossie and how I was going to be—with Helen—the second woman in the history of aviation to fly across the ocean in a bomber.

  Sweet Fern said, “You done this all on your own, and I know it ain’t been easy. Maybe I don’t know all you been through and all you’ve had to do to get there, but I want you to know that I’m proud of you.”

  I said, “I’m proud of you too.” And I was. As much as I didn’t want to be Sweet Fern, she was a rock in my life and in everyone’s life, and she was one of the reasons I was here in Greenland flying a B-17 bomber across the sea.

  I thought she’d say, “For what? What did I do?” But instead she said, “Thank you. That’s a good thing to hear sometimes.”

  Back in his office, Colonel Burns sat on a corner of his desk. He was holding a piece of paper and he said, “Captain Beachard S. Hart, 6th Marine Division, Saipan, has personally shot down thirteen Japanese planes before they could drop a single bomb.” He looked back and forth between me and the paper. “Following that, he parachuted to shore where he captured seventeen Japanese soldiers and helped destroy eight of their battleships. He seems to be very much alive.”

  “And Johnny Clay?”

  “He didn’t drop with his unit.”

  “What does that mean?”

  “He never landed in Normandy. His orders were changed last winter, but they don’t know where he was sent or who sent him.”

  I said, “Has anyone seen him? Any other units? Has he reported in anywhere?”

  “Not that we know of.”

  There was something about his tone—gentle and kind—that made me think of Darlon C. Reynolds trying to be nice to me after I sang for him at Cyclone Records. I said, “Sir, I appreciate what you’re doing, but I’d rather you talk straight. I’ve got three brothers and I was raised on honesty. I need to know what I’m dealing with here.”

  He set the paper aside. He said, “Miss Hart, I wish I could help you. Truly. But I’m afraid I don’t know. There’s no paper trail. No record of Johnny Clay Hart past the middle of November, when he was in England, a place called Upottery.”

  I remembered Johnny Clay’s letter: “Something big is getting ready to happen, but I can’t say what.... Don’t worry if you don’t hear from me for a good long while.”

  The colonel said, “No one can say what his orders were.” I could see he was telling the truth and this worried me. Where was Johnny Clay that no one, not even a colonel, could find him?

  I said,
“So he could be dead.”

  “Yes.”

  “Or he could be missing.”

  Colonel Bradley sighed, a sigh so heavy that I knew it wasn’t just about Johnny Clay. It was a sigh about this whole horrible war. “Yes,” he said.

  I was in the pilot’s seat from Greenland to Prestwick, Scotland. Helen would fly us back on the return trip. It was two thousand miles across the water. As we took off from Bluie, up through full dark clouds and pouring rain, we sailed up over the snow and the water, which was blue as a robin’s egg, and the icebergs that sat off the shore like ice mountains. I felt the rush of the wind and the engine and the throttle in my hand. I felt just like I did the first time I flew with Duke Norris.

  Up here, there was no looming mountainside to crash into. There wasn’t any sadness or loss or even death. There was no guilt over Harley, no lost daddy, no dead mama, no dead Ty or Sally, no faraway family, no broken heart, no worries, no wondering about Butch Dawkins and when I might see him again, no fear. There was only sky and sun and wind and the earth spread out beneath me.

  I could feel the .45 strapped on to my hip. There were two red buttons above the instrument panel with printed instructions to push them if you had to make a landing over enemy territory. It was hard not to look at them as I flew. I wondered if I would need them where I was going.

  Even with all I’d been through since becoming a WASP, I knew that I wouldn’t do anything else in this world but fly planes. Not right now at least. After the war I might go back to Nashville and try out for Darlon C. Reynolds again and also the Opry, or I might go to Hollywood and look up Mudge and try to be an actress myself. Maybe I would go to New York and be a dancer on the stage. Or maybe I would become a pilot for Pan Am or TWA. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but the one thing I did know was that after the war was over, I would never go back to Devil’s Kitchen or live a normal woman’s life, not even if Butch Dawkins asked me to settle down with him or Ned Tyler came back from the dead and wanted me to be his wife.

 
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