MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 11 – Fertile Valley
© 2003 Diane Sanfilippo
Chapter 11 – Fertile Valley
"Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home." This stanza to Stephen Foster’s song, "Home Sweet Home" had never held more meaning for me. Our home could not have been much more humble. Hot and cold water and an indoor toilet were about all the luxuries we had, but we had each other!
We could now make our own home, a peaceful, quiet home, except for those inevitable, but thankfully few, ‘oldest child’ outbursts. A book I read once said an oldest child should never marry another oldest child, and I definitely see the point in that statement, but of course psychology and the examination of one’s own inner self certainly had no place in the early 60’s culture. Especially not in the conservative south where ‘flower children’ were thought of as ‘beatniks and hippies’ though I certainly had never even seen one except on television.
This was the very early 60’s too, with Vietnam still an unfamiliar word in most Americans’ vocabulary. Certainly, only few knew there were a select group of American soldiers already serving as advisors, and some even dying there. In fact, even at North Georgia College, where 99% of the male graduates would be gaining a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army along with their diploma, rarely did anyone even mention Vietnam. I do not think any of us ever dreamt our generation would be fighting another war, and a fruitless one at that. A war that was being fought not by our soldiers in the field, they just died or became cruelly maimed, but by the politicians in Washington. We would not have believed it if we had been told. America won wars; we did not tuck our tails and run, or desert the people who had become so dependent on us for their very survival.
Anyway, graduation for Billy was still a year and a half away and we simply were living our life day to day, not years in advance, although we often talked about our dreams for the future. We would have two or three children and a career in the Army for Billy while I would keep our home spotless and serve nourishing meals, be a ‘room mother’ and a den mother for our boys, since we never thought we would have any girls. I knew I would also be a contributing member of the military community wherever we lived, and of course, a member of The Officers’ Wives’ Club. I wanted to be an asset to Billy and maintain a home where he could get away from his work and daily tensions. Most of all, I would always be ready to console and pamper him in the privacy of our bedroom.
We did dream, my handsome young husband and I, while lying in that small bed in our small trailer in Fertile Valley. Never did we think our dreams might be just that – dreams that would never come true.
Again, another piece of luck came our way since one of our neighbors in the valley, Joan, worked at the state employment agency in Gainesville. I followed her into work the next Monday so I could fill out an application, and with luck, even go for several interviews. By the time, we returned to our husbands that evening, I had been successful. I found a job working in the office for Wayne Feeds, the very first interview I had, and by evening, I had already begun my training.
Gainesville, Georgia was the heart of the broiler industry and there were chicken houses everywhere dotting the surrounding countryside with lights burning all night long. In the city limits of Gainesville, there was even a law stating that fried chicken was to be eaten only with your fingers, but we knew that only ‘Yankees’ ate chicken with a knife and fork! Indeed, Wayne Feeds, who supplied the chicken farmer with baby chicks, and their feed, for a percentage of the profits, was one of the most noticeable industries in Hall County.
I was very pleased as I returned home that night since I had not only found a job, but a good job in a secure industry, or so I thought. I had Billy’s car to drive to work, so transportation was not a problem, although often Joan and I would carpool to save on gas. It was not long though, with daily driving, that keeping that old car on the road soon became our biggest dilemma. That old flat-head Ford Engine had sprung a leak in the block, so we had to fill it up with sealant whenever we stopped for gas, and we wondered how long that would last.
We quickly made friends with several other married couples, and most weekends we played bridge with one or the other since that was about all we could afford in the way of entertainment. Occasionally we would attend a school function – a dance for the entire student body or a company party, and on nice days, we resumed riding and hiking in and around our beloved mountains. It was not long after we moved to the valley that Billy and I took a nostalgic trip to the copper mine. While there, he carved a big heart in one of the tall trees that had sheltered our illicit lovemaking. Inside the heart and under our initials he added MTLI (more than life itself).
"Now this is officially ‘our’ place," Billy said, "and anyone else who tries to claim it will know we were here first. But as much as I enjoyed our retreat, I think I am happier with the bed, particularly since it is so small!"
I was so much in love with my handsome Billy just looking at him gave me goose bumps! Even now, thinking about him still does.
When we went to dances, we danced in each other’s arms as if we were not about to spend the night with them wrapped around each other. We swayed to the soft music just as we had before we became a ‘married couple’, obviously still very much in love. I was just luckier than most, I could go home with and climb into bed with my ‘date’!
Occasionally right after payday, we would go to the drive-in theatre where Billy and I had our first date, and sometimes one of our unmarried friends and a date would ask to go along. Billy would delight in embarrassing whoever was with us with his amorous necking and beyond, but I drew the line at sex. I was too much of a Southern lady to want an audience for what I considered my most private moments.
Once, when Tommy doubled with us, he asked Billy not to embarrass him since this was his first date with one of the new freshman girls. Because Billy did not approve of Tommy’s date he behaved shamefully, and I went right along with him. We both liked Sara Jane, Tommy’s old girlfriend who had graduated the year before, so Billy was determined this night to thoroughly upset this little red haired freshman, who was more interested in talking about how many pairs of ‘tennie pumps’ she had than she was in watching the movie. I could not believe I had been that silly when I a freshman, not so long ago and I queried Billy. He assured me from the very first date he knew I had a brain and he was not so sure Tommy’s date possessed even the most rudimentary mechanism. He was out to make sure she never spoke to Tommy again. Horrified by the noises Billy made while he acted as if he was groping and undressing me, I asked him to tone it down a bit, but he just carried on worse than ever.
Once he even said, "Damn it, I just popped the button off my pants, and if we don’t get home soon, the seams are going to rip", and I wanted to laugh aloud, but stifled my laughter on his shoulder, while he continued to make such remarks throughout the movie.
Several times, I was halfway embarrassed myself, since I had never heard Billy go on like this. Shamelessly, every once in awhile, he would poke his head over the back seat and say something like, "You will just have to excuse us but we are married and not used to having to restrain ourselves." I guess Tommy got the message because he never asked to double with us again, and he married Sara Jane the next summer after his graduation.
Yes, we were married and we had our first home, and we both went to work to make these rather uncomfortable quarters as homey as possible. One weekend Billy came home with a gallon of aqua paint he said he found, and it was then I learned that my cunning husband could find almost anything he really needed. He set to work scraping the rust off the shower stall, primed it, and painted every possible surface a bright aqua! The color went nicely with the bright yellow curtains we had bought at Belk’s, and I dyed an old bedspread my aunt gave us with the same bright color. Adding yellow throw rugs to both bedroom and bath, an old quilt over the ugly brown sofa, our humble home became our own.
I had just received my tax refund from working in the library. Billy had a school holiday and as much as I hated it, I still had to go to work. Deciding this was the best time to go to Griffin and ask his father if he would ‘sell’ him a few ‘luxuries’ at ‘cost’, he dropped me off at work that morning with my ‘wish list’ in his pocket. An electric frying pan was on the top of the list since the little stove was not large enough to cook an entire meal, much less handle the huge chicken breasts Billy enjoyed. Even the oven heated so unevenly it was practically impossible to bake a decent batch of cookies so the frying pan and a toaster oven had quickly become, not luxuries, but necessities. Not that I was any great cook, but I was learning, and Poor Billy ate some of the worst meals in silence, chewing and chewing his overdone meat, not laughing when my gravy turned into ‘silly putty’ or my biscuits were hard enough to break windows. I sure am glad that neither of us dropped one on our toes! Gradually though I learned to serve tasty and nourishing meals, and lived by the cookbook, ‘101 Ways to Cook Hamburger and Chicken’!
I had given Billy my tax refund check so he could pay his father for the items we needed, however, I secretly hoped Gene would give them to us, and then we could have an emergency fund. I had asked Joan if I could ride home with her since I did not know what time he would be back, and I had barely had time to change my clothes before Billy pulled up beside our trailer. He was so pleased with himself! The backseat of the car was loaded with pots and pans, small appliances, glasses, dishes and a new stereo, plus several new ‘romantic’ albums. He had pawned his own stereo for cash not long after we moved into the valley, which was something he did frequently, knowing he could just drive down to Griffin and get a new one at his father’s store. Anyway, this time, just as we hoped, Gene had not asked him to pay for the items we needed, although Billy offered him the money. His father said to consider it a wedding present, and on the way out of the store Billy simply picked up a stereo and the albums without even breaking stride. He thought his father did not know he had done this, but after I began to know Gene better, I was sure he knew, but said nothing. Gene missed very little when it came to his firstborn.
Billy was particularly pleased with another item he bought in Buckhead, on his way back to Dahlonega. He had stopped at a gun shop and purchased a .22 caliber pistol with a holster that he wanted me to have for protection while he was gone to summer camp. Joan and I would be in the valley alone, and Billy insisted I needed to learn to protect myself. That was O.K., but foolishly, or so I thought, he also bought this horribly expensive (at least considering my salary), and totally useless set of miniature derringers! Cradled in a mahogany box lined in red velvet their handles were made of mother-of-pearl, but they were only single shot pistols and the tiny bullet would not have stopped a mouse. I was beyond furious! This was money we needed for groceries and other necessities, and I had not yet learned that Billy had been so showered with ‘things’ while he was growing up he almost thought money grew on trees! Unfortunately, or fortunately for him, he was about to discover that few things in his new life were free!
We had a huge fight, and without even eating supper, I went to bed crying while Billy sat on the sofa and polished his shoes. It was on that night I made one of my best discoveries - Billy could not bear to hear me cry. As I lay in the dark, cramped bedroom, sobbing into my pillow, he softly crept into the room, slipped off his clothes, and crawled into the bed beside me. I was lying with my face to the wall, and my back to Billy, but he wrapped his arms around me, and begged me not to cry anymore and to forgive him. He told me he would take the guns back or try to sell them, whatever would make me happy, and he held me while I continued to sob. I was not sobbing about the damn pistols, rather his reckless extravagance when we needed, really needed, so many other things. I had approved of the .22 pistol since we had talked about getting a gun I could handle before he left for camp, and Billy had promised he would teach me to shoot it. I was a bit frightened about staying alone – I had never been alone, and most of the wives were either leaving with their graduating husbands or going home while their husbands were in camp. However, Joan and I would have to stay in Dahlonega since we both had jobs.
Billy and I were slowly learning, but we still had so many things to work out between us, and that night was lesson number one. I had found Billy’s ‘soft spot’. I will have to admit that when I needed a little extra attention all I had to do was pretend to cry while making small sobbing sounds and immediately he would hold me, comfort me, and of course make love to me. This became a powerful weapon, these manufactured tears, and I never hesitated to use them when necessary.
It was not long after we moved into our first home Billy told me it was time for me to learn how to say two very important words – ‘I’m sorry’. I did not realize I was so stubborn I rarely, if ever, used those words, but I laughed and told him I would try, just for him.
He sat me down on the bed next to him – bad idea! Then he said gently, "Say, I’m," and he waited.
I immediately repeated the word, "I’m."
Then he said, "Now comes the hard part, say, ‘sorry’".
I looked at him and acted as if I could not say the word, and I played with him a bit, pursed my lips and uttered, "I’m – I’m – I’m sor--", as if unable to complete the sentence.
Using his hand, he formed my lips to say the dreaded word, and said, "Say it – I’m sorry! It is very important that both of us know how to say these two words. As stubborn as I am, and as determined as you are, we need to say it often if we are going to make a go of our marriage."
I looked at him, so earnest at his task and said, "Billy, I am sorry if I have every done or said anything to make you feel I do not love you, because I love you with all my heart. If you want me to have the words tattooed on my chest, I will do so, just so you know how much I really do love you. I am so sorry you do not think I can say the words, and I admit I have a bad temper and I am determined to have my way, and it is hard for me, but not to say them to you. I am not sorry I love you, and I am not sorry we had to get married, but I am sorry you do not have the same confidence in me that I have in you, and I am just as determined as you are to make our marriage work, if not more so. I would say or do almost anything to prove my love to you as you well know, and I will always say ‘I’m sorry’ when the need arises."
With a sheepish grin, he pulled me into his arms and whispered in my ear, "I’m sorry, so very sorry, I ever doubted you. I will never make that mistake again. You continue to amaze me, frustrate me, and love me, and that is all that is important – that you love me more than life itself."
My little ‘lesson’ culminated while we made love several times, since we never made love just once, not ever, that I can remember. I will have to say that was the one thing where we were completely compatible. After all, he was the teacher and I was the student, and his lessons were the first, and the last I would ever need.
It was important to him that I enjoy it as much as he did, and he always took care of my needs before his own. He would send me soaring into outer space while he completed his own journey, and then we would rest, but just for a short time, only to begin again. I loved to feel him inside of me, as this was as close as I could get to him, and his kisses were beyond description. Those alone could bring me to the edge of ecstasy. Often, as he first had when we were dating, he repeated he had never kissed anyone who could kiss like I did, and he did not know who had taught me, nor did he ever want to know. He was adamant his lips would be the last that would ever touch mine, and that was fine as far as I was concerned.
One evening while we were making love, excruciating lower abdominal pain interrupted one of those delightfully endless nights of lovemaking and sleeping curled in Billy’s arms. Helpless to stop the pain, he held me close to him, gave me aspirin, and wiped my brow with cold towels since I broke out in an enormous sweat as the pain pierced me through and through. As the pain accelerated at an alarming rate, feeling helpless he called the local doctor and asked him to come to the trailer. Thank goodness, the good doctor understood there were many remote houses throughout these foothills and hollows, and his house calls did not cost extra. He arrived within ten minutes and gave me a strong shot of a painkiller so I could get some rest. Just a few weeks afterwards, another night of pain left me crying and clutching my lower tummy, and once again, Billy called the doctor. While waiting for him to arrive, Billy sat on the side of the bed, held me close while rocking me back and forth as if I were a child, and whispered over and over, "I am so sorry", as waves of agony creased my forehead and I tried not to scream out loud.
This time the doctor asked me to come into his office in order to examine me, and Billy could not have been more solicitous or concerned; begging my forgiveness, he was convinced the abortion was behind the long nights of agony. That Saturday his fear was confirmed when the doctor found a pelvic infection and gave me a shot of penicillin and told me to return for another shot in a few days, however the next time I had a reaction and as a result a lifelong allergy to penicillin. Years later as I became more medically astute, I believe, because of the abortion, I had ‘PID’, or pelvic inflammatory disease, and of course, our frequent rate of intercourse did nothing but further inflame it.
Billy’s feeling of guilt was obvious all over his handsome face, but I did not blame him, and truthfully, if I held anyone responsible, it would have been Gene. After all, it had been his idea, his money, and I had ‘saved his name’, although he would have preferred to have our marriage annulled. In spite of everything, Billy was not his father’s son, and he was truly in love with me and took our vows to heart, so now I did not suffer alone. I knew if he could, Billy would have gladly shared my pain, or taken it on completely to spare me this misery, so now, in spite of Gene’s best efforts, I was here, in Billy’s arms.
No matter the cost I was not about to ‘cut Billy off’! I enjoyed our nightly trysts almost as much as he did. It was at these times I began to wish he could absorb me into his body so I would be one with him forever. I longed to crawl up into his heart and stay there. Ultimately, it was Billy, who crawled up into my heart, where he will stay until I draw my last breath.
To say we were both intensely in love is an understatement. We had realized, even before we moved to the valley, that we could never live without each other, and we made the most of those moonlit nights in our tiny trailer the waning days of Billy’s junior year. Soon he would be leaving for summer camp and I would be bereft with loneliness and missing him.
I knew it would kill me if he ever left me for any reason, much less another woman, since I could not bear to think he had ever made love to another, much less ever would again. Billy was even worse about my old boyfriends although he was now very aware I had been a virgin when we met. Once, when Don visited campus on his way back to his new college, Billy told me he was so relieved I was at work; that he could not have attended classes thinking Don would look for me in the valley. He envisioned Don sitting on our ugly vinyl couch with his arm around me as if I would have ever let him touch me, or anyone else for that matter! Billy rushed home from evening drill hoping I had not yet arrived, and he was waiting with open arms when I did get home. As I said before, we both were jealous and possessive, but since neither of us had any inclination to look at anyone else, there were rare few times this negative trait reared its ugly head. We both trusted and loved each other enough not to doubt the other’s fidelity.
All of the families living in the valley were in the same financial boat, although in various degrees. A few had babies, most had some support from home, but we were all living on very limited budgets. In spite of which, we made the best of our situation and enjoyed life to the fullest and we stuck together since there were so few of us. Since I worked for Wayne Feeds, I had a pass to shop at the Swift plant where I could purchase huge chicken breasts for 10 cents a pound! Two breasts filled an entire skillet. When we could afford it, we would buy enough to feed the entire valley, and while the other families would bring the side dishes, I fried chicken for all, which was much easier with my new electric frying pan. If the weather was nice we would set up card tables on the small lawn around the flagpole and picnic on fried chicken, potato salad, tossed salad, rolls, a vegetable casserole, and dessert.
Other times we would have an old-fashioned fish fry since Billy and I had permission to fish a private pond that belonged to a local service station owner who kept our old car on the road. He really took to Billy, as most people did, and we had unlimited permission to fish in his well-stocked pond. Usually, in just a very short time, we caught enough bass and bream to share with our neighbors.
Billy and the other married cadets would clean and filet the fish while the wives fried them in small batches in each tiny trailer until we had them all cooked. Then we would take our card tables’ outdoors, as we did with the chicken suppers. We did that several times in the late spring and early summer when Billy and I had enough light to go fishing after I got home from work, and occasionally we even went on the weekends. We were truly one big family, with common worries, common goals, and limited budgets, and our gatherings were the highlight of the week for most of us. Strangely, Joan and William, the only couple who had an air-conditioned trailer, never joined in the fun – rather shut themselves off from the ‘valley crowd’, and we rarely saw them after the workday was over.
Mostly on those wonderful Saturday afternoons and Sundays, we spent almost the entire day in that cramped little bed. We always used the Laundromat on Saturday, and often polished the black floors of the tiny trailer on our hands and knees then buffed it with an electric buffer. We had the shiniest floors in the valley, but soon we were lending the buffer to other families and their floors began to shine too. It was not as if it took very long, but I took pride in keeping our tiny home spotlessly clean.
When we could we ended our day at the fishpond. Although I enjoyed fishing with Billy, I absolutely refused to bait the hook with those squiggly worms, and I would not take a fish off the hook if I caught one. Inevitably, much to Billy’s disgust, I caught more fish than he did! He would wander over to the far side of the pond in search of the larger bass, and sure enough as soon as he got his hook in the water, I would hook a fish on my side of the pond. He then would have to reel his line in and come running back to take my fish off the hook. I am sure this annoyed him, but he never said anything, he just took the fish off, dropped it in the bucket if it was a ‘keeper’, put new bait on my hook, and walked back to the far side of the pond. I think I caught more because it only made sense that my hook was in the water more than his, and he spent so much time running back to me when I did catch something!
On one of our evenings of fishing, I hooked an unusually large bass! It was difficult to keep it on the line since it really fought, jumping out of the water several times trying to shake my hook, then lying in the bottom of the pond waiting for me to relax my grip when it would take off again and half empty my reel. Finally, I managed to land it, and it looked as if it could have weighed over ten pounds! Thinking the hook firmly lodged in the big fish’s gaping mouth, I would not touch it since I had seen Billy ‘finned’, and I did not want that to happen to me. However, within minutes, the fish managed to dislodge the hook and was rapidly flopping its way back into the life saving water, while I just stood there and squealed! Billy was running as fast as he could trying to beat the fish’s desperate attempt to avoid becoming our supper, but the fish beat him and it was gone by the time he reached me. From that evening on, we fished together, and as usual, I continued to catch more. Before long, I was casting a line almost as far as Billy!
He insisted that I learn to shoot the pistol and the rifle before he left for camp. As the time drew nearer, we would go out to the town’s landfill after dark, or ‘garbage dump’ as they we called it then, and there we could shoot rats. Using duct tape, Billy fastened a flashlight on top of the rifle and aligned it so the center of the beam of light would outline the target at the correct angle to hit it when the rifle fired. If it was in the light and I pulled the trigger, I hit it. He taught me to ‘lead’ the target since it was moving and I was not, and it was not long before I became an accurate shot with the rifle. Then came the pistol, and of course that was too short for a flashlight, so we would save our empty bottles and cans and on weekends we would go over to the pond where Billy taught me to shoot the pistol with reasonable accuracy.
It did not take long before he felt confident I was quite capable of defending myself, at least in maiming an attacker. He told me to shoot them in the testicles since it would not kill them, was a large target, and they never would try to go after a woman again! He was a terrific shot and never missed, but soon, I was hitting the target about 80% of the time and the more we practiced the better I became, and then we just enjoyed shooting for the challenge of it. I coveted his praises, and I would have learned to do just about anything to please him, even shoot rats!
We both were having the time of our young lives, loving and being in love, exploring new horizons, learning to ‘give’ and how to ‘take with love’. However, most of all, we were still quite absorbed, one with the other, and our love grew even stronger with each day and each night we made love in our ¾ bed to the soft croon of Johnny Mathis… "Until the Twelfth of Never and that’s a long, long time."