Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  If there was one thing I’d learned, it was that you were responsible for your own ship. You had to look after the engine and make sure the plane was in order and ready to be flown. You were in charge of plotting your course. When you were in the pilot’s seat, it was your hand on the throttle, no one else’s. If your oil ran out or you lost an engine or the engine caught fire and you had to crash, you were the one saving yourself. No one else could do it for you.

  We were out over the Atlantic, the icebergs fading into the horizon behind us, nothing but blue-green ocean ahead. I thought: I am taking this bomber to Scotland. And from there I will make my way to Upottery or London or France or anywhere else I need to go to find my brother and bring him home.

  I remembered something Daddy Hoyt once said about how when love visits you don’t ask how long it’s going to stay. About how you should treat it kindly and give it a good welcome. And also about how you shouldn’t spend all your time worrying about the love that leaves, because then you might overlook the love that was always there.

  When I was little, Mama used to sing a song to me: “Mama and Daddy love Velva Jean Hart, Velva Jean Hart, Velva Jean Hart . . .” going through every person in our family and singing about how much they loved me. I thought that this was the love that stayed and men like Harley and Ty and Butch Dawkins might be momentary, even if you wanted them to be forever. You could never know if they would stay for long or if maybe they would go after only a little while.

  But Johnny Clay had always been there. He was my brother and my very best friend in the world. He’d helped me learn to fly. He’d promised me just after Mama died that he would never leave me. And so I was going to find him.

  I’m coming, Johnny Clay. Wherever you are, just hang on. I’m on my way.

  I climbed higher and higher till we were over the clouds, up where the sun was shining—high above the overcast, ceiling and visibility unlimited.

  And then I began to sing.

  Beyond the Keep

  Words and music by Velva Jean Hart

  When I was just a girl child—

  before they went away—

  my mama and my daddy

  kept me safe by night and day.

  And when I was a girl grown—

  before he went away—

  I had a handsome true love

  kept me safe by night and day.

  Then I was a woman grown,

  striving to be free.

  No one else could keep me safe—

  that was up to me

  I learned that in the bright of day,

  I learned that in the dark asleep—

  I have to find my way alone

  to live beyond the keep.

  Sometimes the way is narrow,

  sometimes the way is steep,

  but you can’t walk it for me.

  I have to live beyond the keep.

  Sometimes the river’s shallow,

  sometimes the river’s deep,

  but you can’t swim it for me.

  I have to live beyond the keep.

  Sometimes the sky is clean and bright,

  sometimes the rain clouds weep,

  but you can’t shield me from the storms

  if I live beyond the keep.

  I’m flying high above the clouds.

  I’m flying swift and free.

  I’m flying with my own true heart

  toward my destiny.

  If I’m flying in the bright of day

  or dreaming in the dark asleep,

  I’m living with my own true self

  when I live beyond the keep.

  My mama used to tell me—

  before she went to Sleep—

  about angels and archangels

  with a lasting love so deep

  that I’ll feel it all around me

  when I live beyond the keep.

  If I’m flying in the bright of day

  or dreaming in the dark asleep,

  I’m living with my own true self

  when I live beyond the keep.

  Author’s Note on the WASP

  In 1942, with so many young men needed at war, the United States began training women to fly military aircraft so that male pilots could be released for combat duty overseas. These were the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP. Henry Harley “Hap” Arnold, commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, wasn’t convinced that “a slip of a girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in heavy weather,” but over 25,000 women applied. The 1,074 women who were accepted—ages eighteen to thirty-five—came from the farm, the mountains, the city, and the coast, to Houston, Texas, and later to Sweetwater, Texas, to train to be pilots. They were secretaries, students, wives, mothers, but the one thing they had in common was that they loved to fly.

  As WASP, they flew almost every type of military aircraft—fighter planes and bombers, including the mythical B-17 and the giant B-29 that terrified so many male pilots. They ferried new planes long distances from military base to military base. And they towed targets while ground and air gunners honed their shooting skills by firing on them with live ammunition. Through it all, they faced military ingratitude, sexism, harassment, and sabotage. In all, thirty-eight WASP lost their lives flying for their country. But they were considered a civilian program and not part of the military.

  The head of the WASP was Jacqueline Cochran, then the most famous and well-respected female pilot in the world, who, on May 18, 1953, became the first woman to break the sound barrier. She campaigned doggedly to earn the WASP the military status she knew they deserved. But in December 1944, stating that the changing war situation rendered the WASP unnecessary, General Arnold deactivated the program.

  Thirty-three years later, the WASP were granted military status. Then, in July 2010, sixty-five years after their service, they received the highest civilian honor given by the U.S. Congress when President Barack Obama signed a bill awarding the WASP the Congressional Gold Medal.

  On December 7, 1944, General Arnold addressed the last graduating class of WASP, saying: “You, and more than nine hundred of your sisters, have shown that you can fly wingtip to wingtip with your brothers. If ever there was any doubt in anyone’s mind that women can become skillful pilots, the WASP have dispelled that doubt. Certainly we haven’t been able to build an airplane you can’t handle. So, on this last graduation day, I salute you and all WASP. We will never forget our debt to you.”



  Jennifer Niven, Velva Jean Learns to Fly

  (Series: # )




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