Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  The problem was that anyone who wasn’t twenty-one needed a parent to sign a sheet giving them permission to join. I figured I was done in then, but that’s when the Lovelorns stepped up and walked with me to the union office and offered to sign the sheet as my landlords and unofficial Nashville guardians. Afterward I handed the money to Mr. Bob Payne, who was the secretary-treasurer and spoke so soft you almost couldn’t hear him. Then he gave me my union card, and I almost floated the whole way back to the Lovelorn, with Nori and Crow walking on either side of me. “That girl’s not even using her feet,” Crow said to Nori. “She’s going to fly all the way home.”

  Before bed that night, I said to Gossie, “That was a nice thing Crow and Nori did for me.” I was sitting on the floor, with my back to one of the chairs and the typewriter on the coffee table in front of me, typing up one of my songs. I thought I might write a song for the Lovelorns. I was far away from home and practically an orphan, and it felt good to have two kind people acting like parents.

  Gossie lay on the settee, blowing smoke rings at the ceiling. She looked at me out of the corner of her eye. “You know that Crow sang at the Opry?”

  I stopped typing. “When?”

  She blew three rings. “About twelve, fifteen years ago. You’ve heard him play, but have you ever heard him sing? He’s good. Damn good. That man can sing and play like a house afire.”

  I thought of Crow down in the kitchen making fried chicken and pot roast and chocolate cream pie. I pictured him washing dishes and stacking plates. I said, “What happened?”

  She said, “Just because you sing at the Opry once doesn’t mean you keep singing there.”

  I said, “Why not?” I couldn’t imagine a thing in this world that would keep me from singing at the Opry over and over once I got my chance.

  She blew two, three, four more rings and then she sat up and brushed the ashes off her lap. Gossie was the messiest person I knew. She said, “Oh, Mary Lou. You got so much to learn. Crow’s good, but so are a lot of people in this town. Most of it comes down to luck.”

  I said, “Johnny Clay says I’m the luckiest person he knows. He says I’m charmed.”

  Gossie stubbed out her cigarette and lit another. She didn’t blow rings this time, just took two puffs and then stubbed this one out too. “That’s a good thing, then,” she said.


  According to Granny, there were three things to do if you saw a mad dog: climb up a tree, crawl into a ditch, or stand perfectly still and hold your breath. There was no use running, she said, because a mad dog could smell you and would be on your heels in an instant. Johnny Clay and me used to take turns playing the mad dog and the prey, one of us growling by, foaming at the mouth, or crouching behind a bush, and the other trying to hurl himself at the nearest tree or ditch. I used to practice on my own too, trying to see how long I could stand still and not breathe. From what Granny said, being bit by a mad dog was the worst thing that could happen to you. She said it only took nine days to go completely mad yourself, and then you just dropped dead.

  On the afternoon of December 6, 1941, Tommie Lou was standing at the corner of Church and Fifth Streets, waiting to cross, when a mad dog wandered up and bit her right on her behind. At first, she didn’t think anything of it—the dog wasn’t drooling or growling. She just told it to shoo and then she hugged her purse to her chest and walked over to the other side of the street. Because mad dogs don’t make a habit of roaming the Nashville streets, she figured it was just a regular dog that belonged to someone who lived nearby and probably forgot to tie it up.

  But the next morning she started feeling poorly, and when Nori went upstairs to check on her and find out why she hadn’t come to work she found Tommie Lou chattering away to herself like a crazy person. Nori ran downstairs and immediately called Dr. Hewitt Clark, who had taken care of Nori’s daddy when he got sick with influenza and somehow nursed him back to health, even when half the city was dying. Dr. Hew, as we called him, was a nice old man with a kind, wrinkly face. He had his doctor’s degree from the University of Tennessee, but he was also part medicine man. He had grown up in the mountains, learning secrets from the Indians just like Daddy Hoyt.

  When he got to the café, I asked if he needed a nurse.

  He said, “I won’t know till I see how bad off she is.”

  Tommie Lou lay on her belly, strapped to her bed. I wore rubber gloves and fed her water with a spoon because she wouldn’t drink a drop although she said she was thirsty.

  “Don’t get too close to her,” Dr. Hew said. “She’ll bite you.”

  Dr. Hew showed me how to hold the spoon and feed her from a distance, but I was still scared to death of being bitten. I was worried I might turn mad too or maybe change into a werewolf. Johnny Clay had told me once about a man in Swain County who turned into a wolf with every full moon and had to be tied to a tree so he didn’t kill anyone.

  “Don’t let me bite you,” Tommie Lou kept saying over and over again. “Please don’t let me bite you.”

  Dr. Hew had been soaking a madstone in milk for twenty minutes and now he set it on the bite. Suddenly Tommie Lou began to cry, and I backed away, dripping water all over the floor.

  “It needs to sit there till it falls off,” said Dr. Hew.

  “What happens when it falls off?” I asked, suddenly wishing Gossie was there, because her arms were longer. “Please don’t let me bite you,” Tommie Lou kept saying, even though she looked like that was exactly what she wanted to do.

  “It falls off when it’s sucked out the disease.”

  We sat there in silence, watching Tommie Lou. Dr. Hew was not a man who spent time discussing things like the weather or the latest Opry broadcast.

  When the fever broke and Tommie Lou fell into a quiet sleep, Dr. Hew and I went downstairs to the café to get a drink. As soon as we walked in the door the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Something was wrong. Women were crying. Men were swearing at each other. Babies were being bounced on knees to keep them still. One old man kept cursing the “dirty Japs” over and over again.

  Nori and Crow stood behind the counter. He had his arms around her.

  I said, “What’s going on here?”

  Crow said, “The Japanese have blown up a place called Pearl Harbor. It’s in Hawaii.” He pronounced it Ha-why-a. “It happened this morning. They think hundreds, maybe thousands, of our boys was killed.”

  Dr. Hew sank onto a stool. “Dear God,” was all he said.

  Crow said, “The president don’t have a choice. We’re going to have to get in this war.”

  I blinked fast and tried to concentrate. I was breathless, like I’d been hit in the stomach or been spun very fast, yet I felt far away from everyone and even from myself, like I was separated from my own body. I could see my hands and feet way down below and feel the tightness in my throat—so tight I couldn’t swallow.

  I had heard about war from Mama, Daddy Hoyt, Granny, and Levi Bright. I had read history books and learned all the dates and names in school, and I had seen war in moving pictures like Wings and Hell’s Angels. I’d watched the newsreels and heard the reports on the radio, but this war had seemed such a far way off and so separate from America and everything or everyone I knew. I’d been worrying about it but not worrying about it for a long time. Now what would happen? And where was Jesus in all of this, and what would he do to help?

  I looked at Nori, my friend, who was Japanese, even though she’d been born here and never been to Japan once, not even to visit. I wondered how long it would be till folks started looking at her funny, just like when Harley got everyone in the mountains stirred up about outlanders, rounding them up and sending them back to where they came from.

  Tommie Lou would recover. But instead of feeling relieved and thanking the Lord for sparing her, I went upstairs to my room to wait for Gossie, feeling worse than if I’d been bit by a mad dog. Why would God spare Tommie Lou Tyson but send all those boys to their deaths?

/>   Over two thousand people died at Pearl Harbor, and by Tuesday, December 9, they were still counting the dead. I suddenly forgot all about the recording studios that weren’t calling me back and the juke joints and operas I was supposed to be going to. I even forgot about the Grand Ole Opry.

  The president said, “It will not only be a long war, it will be a hard war.” Mr. Roosevelt called it a privilege and not a sacrifice to serve the country. He was asking all able-bodied men to enlist. “We are going to win the war, and we are going to win the peace that follows.”

  One thought kept going round and round in my head: Johnny Clay. I didn’t know where on this earth my brother was, but I knew him well enough to know that he would be first in line at the nearest recruiting office. He could already be at training camp. He could be leaving soon for Europe or the Pacific. I might never see him again.

  On the night of December 9, Gossie and I sat up and talked till four in the morning. Outside the windows, I could see lights in the building across the street. Voices came up from down below and there was the sound of shouting and cheering and automobiles passing and streetcars clattering. Nashville was awake but even more than normal. It had been wide awake since the bombing.

  I sat on the floor by Gossie’s feet, with my knees tucked under my chin. Gossie was winding my hair in pin curls like I’d seen in a magazine. She said this would help direct the wave and make it less wild. I was all the time, every day of my life, trying to keep my hair from being wild. She was drinking gin, and this time I was too. I held the glass and sipped at it, and the warmth of it going down made me feel grown-up and fearless, like an Indian warrior.

  I said, “I should go home.” I handed her a bobby pin. The comic book Gossie had given me for my birthday sat on the coffee table—Flyin’ Jenny, about a young woman named Jenny Dare who was a beautiful and courageous pilot. I was right in the middle of reading about her being captured by spies after her plane went down near a place called Shark Island.

  Gossie said, “Back to Devil’s Hole?”

  I didn’t bother correcting her. “Back to Fair Mountain.”

  She said, “You’ve come too far to go back, Velva Jean.”

  Gossie was fascinated by Harley and my marriage. She all the time wanted to know when I was getting divorced. She wanted me to talk to the lawyer in Boston who helped her get a Mexican divorce so I could start figuring out a way to earn my freedom once and for all. She said the more she knew me, the less she could see me as someone’s little wife, cooking and cleaning and going to church. And the more time that got between my being here and my being there, the less I could see it too. Sometimes being Mrs. Harley Bright seemed like something that happened long ago to someone else.

  Gossie said the very best thing that ever happened to her was her divorce. The truth was I wasn’t sure how I felt about having one of my own. I didn’t know anyone that had a divorce except some woman in Civility who was run over by a car just a week after she got hers. Although they didn’t say it, I knew some people believed it was her punishment, that that’s what she got for getting divorced. I knew this wasn’t true, but divorce was still an ugly word, the kind that followed you around forever, making people look at you funny and with pity and maybe a little meanness. It was kind of like the way they looked at you when you told them your mama was dead and that your daddy’d left when you were ten. Folks never seemed to have any patience for something so unfortunate, even if it wasn’t your fault.

  Now I handed Gossie the bobby pins one by one. I took another drink, a bigger one this time. I said, “I guess I should go home.” But I didn’t want to go home, and just thinking about going put a great big lump in my throat that took up all the space.

  Gossie said, “You can’t go back.”

  I thought: She’s right. I can’t. There’s no going back now.

  December 14, 1941

  Dear Velva Jean,

  I hope you are safe and happy as a person can be right now in this world. Up here on Fair Mountain we can’t believe what’s happening. Linc and the Deal boys went down to Hamlet’s Mill to the recruiting office today. Beach showed up just in time to go with them. He’d been over at Cherokee, down by Big Witch Gap, working on the Scenic, and we hadn’t seen him since you were here last. Coyle enlisted in the navy and Sweet Fern is beside herself.

  Linc and Beach wanted to enlist as paratroopers, but they won’t take married men because it’s too dangerous, so Linc signed up for the infantry instead. Married men don’t have to enlist, but we both thought he should. We stayed up all last night talking about it.

  Linc’s worried about Russell and me, but I told him we got plenty of folks to look after us. I told him his country needs him more. They said it would be weeks before they called him. They don’t have enough training camps to hold everyone.

  We all love you and miss you, honey. I can’t wait to buy all your records when you’re ready to make them. You take good care and let me hear from you.


  P.S. Beach joined the marines. He’s going to be a medic. We haven’t heard a word from Johnny Clay.


  One week after Pearl Harbor, I stood in the recruitment office on the corner of Church and Seventh Streets blinking at the chaos. When Stump said he was planning to go down there, I asked if I could go with him. He said, “Why you want to do that, Velva Jean?”

  I said, “I don’t know. I’m going to support you.”

  He shrugged and said, “Okay, then.”

  I didn’t tell him that something was making me want to go down there but I didn’t know what. I wanted to see what was happening. I wanted to see if there was anything a girl like me could do for the cause.

  In 1934, the year after Mama died, when I was eleven going on twelve, a do-gooder man had come to Alluvial to talk to women about voting. Only four women signed up—saying later they were afraid not to and just did it to be polite—but only Granny made the trip to Hamlet’s Mill on voting day. She and I rode down on Mad Maggie. We hitched that mule up outside in the street, and then Granny took my hand and marched into the building.

  “Why you want to vote?” I asked her all the way down the mountain.

  “Because I can,” Granny said. “I reckon my vote is worth as much as anybody’s.”

  She had voted just that one time and never felt the need to do it again. On every election day that came after, when Daddy Hoyt asked if Granny didn’t want to go down the mountain with him to vote, she just shook her head. “I had my say.” And she would smile at him, smug as a cat, like she knew something he didn’t.

  Harold Lee and I stood at the edge of the room, watching. There were young boys signing up, but there were also old men and men my daddy’s age. It seemed like every man in this world was there, and I wondered if my own father would ever do something so sacrificing.

  Stump said, “What do you think? Air corps or navy?”

  I said, “Golly, Harold Lee, I don’t know.”

  He said, “Which do you think’s more romantic?” He waggled his eyebrows at me. His Adam’s apple waggled too.

  I said, “Staying right here and not getting yourself killed.” I was all of a sudden mad at him and all these other boys signing up, making their families worry. I was maddest of all at Johnny Clay, who I hadn’t heard from since he left North Carolina, just before me. For all I knew he was dead somewhere, already shot down by the Germans or the Japanese.

  Stump said, “I’m joining the navy. The next Jap that tries to bomb us will be sorry. I’ll blow him out of the sky.”

  I said, “Good luck.”

  As he walked away I read the signs on the other tables—Army Air Forces, infantry, navy, marines, paratroopers, Red Cross, WAAC. I’d never heard of this last one, but there were women in uniform on the posters and a real one standing behind the table. She waved at me, and I walked over to her.

  “Hello there.” She was tall and narrow, her silver-black hair pulled back at her neck. Her face was as smooth as
ivory and she had a warm smile. “I’m Ellen Tillman.” She held out her hand and I shook it. “Are you here to sign up?”

  “Yes, ma’am,” I said. I thought, Velva Jean, you have lost your mind.

  The posters that hung over the table said: “It’s a Woman’s War Too! Join the WAAC—Your Country Needs You Now!” and “This Is My War Too! Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, United States Army.”

  “Wonderful.” She was beaming at me. “Can I answer any questions?”

  I wanted to ask, What is the WAAC? Where did you come from? What do you do? Why are you wearing uniforms? Are they sending women to fight? Is this really our war too?

  When I didn’t say anything, she said, “By joining up you free a man to fight. The WAAC trains women to do noncombat jobs that are currently held by army soldiers. We’re the first women, other than nurses, to serve in the army.”

  “But you don’t actually go to war.”

  “Not overseas, not yet, but we’re doing important war work. Some of the women are even flying planes.”

  This sounded like something she was making up.

  Ellen Tillman tilted her head to one side. “The First Lady said this is not a time when women should be patient. ‘We are in a war and we need to fight it with all our ability and every weapon possible. Women pilots . . . are a weapon waiting to be used.’”

  I thought about flying, which seemed exciting but dangerous.

  I said, “Maybe I’ll just take some information from you for now.” Ellen Tillman handed me some papers and then I walked away fast.

  I could feel her eyes on me so I told Stump I’d wait for him outside. I went all the way out to the sidewalk before I let myself breathe again. Women fighting and flying. It was too thrilling. I thought about how confident the woman named Ellen Tillman had looked, like Carole Lombard or Flyin’ Jenny or Constance Kurridge, pilot and spy, who I used to read about in the comic pages of the newspaper. What would Harley say? Just what would he say to this? “Velva Jean’s gone and joined the war.” I laughed just thinking of it.

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