MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 13 – Late Summer, 1961
© 2003 Diane Sanfilippo
Chapter 13 – Late Summer - 1961
Since Joan worked for the state employment agency, William and Billy both found temporary jobs the very first day they applied. Definitely menial labor, but they were strong and healthy, and robust from summer camp. They went to work hanging from a scaffold where they were to paint a water tower in Gainesville. I am sure if I had even known he was dangling so high in the air, I would have never been able to concentrate on my own work.
Instead, I had visions of both of them working as bagboys or messengers, but certainly not hard labor, although Billy had often said if he had to, he would dig ditches rather than take money from his father again. Thinking this statement was in more false bravado and pride, than in fact, I had never thought he would actually carry it through. I had faith that Joan would have also been reluctant for William to work such a job, but perhaps she did not realize exactly what kind of work they would be doing when she sent them out to the job site for an interview. The fact that the pay was well above minimum wage certainly made the job more attractive to both of them. Had anyone who knew the pampered rich boy in high school witnessed the variety of rough jobs Billy took just to keep us together, they would never have believed he was the same person. In truth, he was not, and never would be again.
My heart could not bear the thought of Billy ever being in danger, but I was to learn he even enjoyed the risk. "Living life to the fullest" was how he described any task that put him in harm’s way, but for me it was more like living life on the edge of disaster. I worried far more than I let on to him, or to anyone else. My handsome husband was definitely a ‘thrill-seeker’, while this trait kept my heart ever on the precipice of breaking in pieces. Had I known what he was doing, my day would have consisted of a continuous slide show filtering through my mind of him falling from that scaffolding, and then lying broken and battered on the ground below. The worst part of all would be my inability to get to him. I knew if Billy were ever to die, I would want to hold him in my arms until his last breath, although now I realize I am not nearly as strong as I imagined in my youthful daydreams.
When Joan and I arrived home that evening, their car was already in their parking space. Without even saying goodnight to Joan, with the anticipation of Billy’s open arms waiting for me, I dashed for our small trailer. He looked so tired, but exhilarated to be earning money, although he did not share with me exactly what he was doing other than to say he was working for the City of Gainesville.
After supper, we both showered, one at a time much to our dismay, since the tiny shower barely held one large man, let alone anyone else. Still, with our lost days of summer camp to make up for, Billy and I went straight to our narrow bed and within minutes he was on top of me and we were ‘experimenting’ with different positions. One of Billy’s summer camp cohorts gave him a book on the 101 ways to enjoy sex, although I do not think that was the real name, and although considered pornography at the time, now it the rating would be ‘PG’! Billy considered the book a new ‘toy’ and a ‘challenge’, and he vowed to learn all 101 positions before the summer was over, although I was not nearly as enthusiastic. However, if it pleased Billy, I could pretend it pleased me, but it was not long before both of us were laughing hysterically at the impossibility of manipulating our bodies in such positions and decided that the author had been double-jointed. Finally, soaked with perspiration, and accepting the futility that most were absolutely beyond our capabilities, we resumed the old ‘tried and true’ and once again were soaring on the wings of eagles, over the clouds and into space beyond.
The accident happened his second day on the job. Painting the tower from the bottom up, Billy raised his head, to see how much work still had to be finished before quitting time, and he struck his brow, hard, on part of the scaffolding, cutting open his right eyebrow. By the time he arrived home, he had a large lump and the beginning of a bruise over his right eye, and although the cut was deep, it did not require stitches. His shirt was caked with dried blood since all head wounds tend to bleed profusely, and when I saw him I thought I was going to faint. Not from the sight of the blood, this had never bothered me, but because it was my Billy’s blood and my darling was hurt! Little did I know, at this early stage of our marriage, he was quite accident-prone, he always had been, and I would just have to get used to his many sprains, cuts, and bruises over the years of our marriage.
Once he realized what affect any of his multiple injuries, minor and otherwise, had on me, of course he pretended they were much worse than they were, and each cut or bruise became mortal. It was on this night I began taking care of him instead of vice versa, and thus began a new daily ritual.
That night, after a tender hug and a long kiss, and while my heart raced to be in his arms, I helped him change out of his bloody shirts then led him to the couch and made an ice pack for his eye. I put both shirts to soak in a plastic basin since the sinks were far too small to hold even one. While he kept ice on his eye, slowly I began to unlace his heavy jump boots. In spite of his weak protestations, I told him I wanted to do this for him, so he could just relax and enjoy the pampering since it might never happen again. With a sigh of defeat, he laid his head on the back of the couch and closed his eyes.
It was not without effort, but when I finally managed to take the boots off and removed his damp wool socks, I found his feet were red and hot to the touch, so with a cool washcloth I gently cleansed them until their color and temperature returned to normal. Billy looked as if he was sleeping, while I completed my mission to make him more comfortable, and I shook some foot powder into clean white cotton socks and pulled them over his now cool feet. Little did I realize I had begun something I would do for him until the day I could no longer reach out and touch him. From that night on, when he had been working hard, or it was hot, and he had to wear heavy boots, I made this pampering a part of our nightly routine, which he proclaimed to be not only relaxing, but also sensual.
After my ministering, he would usually be sound asleep and I would leave him to catnap while I cooked his supper. This was just one small way I could show him how very much I loved him, and appreciated how hard he worked for us. I rejoiced I had found a means to reciprocate for the days and nights he spent taking care of me, holding me while I writhed with pain after the abortion. We both were learning to take care of each other, and with every ‘lesson’, our love became stronger and stronger, until I could no longer imagine having a life before or without him. Had Gene thought we would tire of ‘playing house’, he was greatly mistaken. We both took to it with the zest reserved only for the young.
Now it was time to cook supper for my handsome wounded warrior, although I would much rather have been in his arms than in the kitchen.
With the same thought in mind, and to catch my attention, Billy, once again fully awake, took the ice from his eye, looked up at me and said, "Does it look better?", while half closing the eye to make sure it would look worse.
He wanted my attention, sympathy, and particularly sex, and he got plenty of both. From that day on, he had my number, and any disagreements or friction between us healed instantly if he had any injury, or if he had a headache or pains in his stomach, which worried me more than everything else with his history of adhesions. Anything that could possibly cause him pain was the panacea for those times when he wanted to have his way with me, and usually it worked. I knew I was being ‘played’, but since I had found the way to ‘play’ him with my pseudo sobs, then it was only fair he had his way, and I enjoyed the game almost as much as he did. While I never wanted to see him hurt or in real pain, even when he pretended, it took me awhile to be able to tell the difference, and it ripped my heart each time something really happened, and I loved him even more.
I have to admit some of my ministering came with half teasing words of sympathy, and Billy loved to hear me say, "Poor baby, come to Mama and let me take care of you."
As we lay in our narrow bed that night, physically fulfilled and exhausted, I cried in his arms, which of course got his attention. Puzzled, he soothed me and said he could not stand to see me so unhappy and was concerned that he caused my distress. I assured him if he continued to take chances and get hurt then he would just have to get used to my reacting with tears. While he tried to comfort me, I knew it should be the other way around, but the fact was his wound hurt me far worse than it did him. Between sobs, I explained how it broke my heart when he was hurt or in pain, and I just needed him to hold me tight and to never let me go. He held me so close I could feel his heartbeat next to my own while he kissed the tears off my cheeks. He promised to be more careful and I knew he certainly never injured himself on purpose, but he was truly an accident waiting to happen. While I lay in his arms that night, I felt more love for my Billy than I had ever thought possible, and my heart was bleeding as if it were a sieve.
By the next morning, both upper and lower lids of his eye were deep purple and black, and the upper lid was very swollen. I so wished that both of us could stay home from work and make love all day while I kept him from further harm. However we were off to our jobs as usual, me with my heart in my throat, and Billy playfully looking forward to another night of "great sex," as he put it.
"Please be careful, I love you so very much," I whispered as I kissed him goodbye and held him close before he went out the door to William’s car. Teasingly he told me if sex were that good with one black eye, he would have to come home with two!
Naturally, I worried all day, and it took months before I was almost sure when he was pulling my leg and when he was serious.
As the oldest child and the ‘protector’ of my siblings, much like Billy with his brothers, I had always been serious about life and was old before my time. It was Billy’s inspiring love of life that soon would teach me to take his teasing as lightly as a feather blown on the wind. With his wonderful sense of humor and mischief twinkling in his clear blue eyes, I could not help but join in on some of his pranks, but I had a much more difficult time pretending to be serious when I wanted to burst out laughing.
That evening, Joan and I arrived home first, and I closed my eyes with dread when I heard William’s car pull into their parking space. Fearing Billy had kept his promise and now had two black eyes, I was afraid to look at him, and I closed my eyes when he opened the door and shouted, "Come here woman!"
When I did open my eyes, much to my relief his left eye was fine, but the right was now almost completely swollen shut. Closing the front door behind him he pulled me into his arms while my heart beat wildly, and he held me close and whispered, "Little girl, I guess you really do love me after all."
How could he have any doubt? I loved him with all my heart, and each day I loved him just that much more. For a week, he continued to manipulate me and used his black eye to the fullest extent possible, and all I wanted was to be in his arms. We spent that entire weekend, the first since he came home from camp, in our narrow bed, reading, talking, and listening to records, watching television, making love, even eating. Since I had never seen Billy hurt or in pain, I learned, regardless how minor the injury, how very much I really loved him.
I also remembered in high school, I had broken up with a boy for getting into a fight, and for months, I could barely stand to look at him. Surely, the violence I had witnessed in my parent’s house had something to do with the disgust I felt, just as surely as all the bruised jaws and black eyes I had seen on both of my parents had left me with a pure hatred for any hostility. I could not even watch a ‘pretend’ fight on television, but with Billy all these feelings disappeared, and even a tiny bandage from a razor cut tore into my heart. This quirk in my nature became the advantage he often used when was pouting or angry or just acting like a spoiled brat. Although both of us knew exactly what he was doing, my heart had a mind of its own and I would instantly forget any supposed grievance, and give him immediate attention, and if possible, we wound up in bed.
At the same time, my sobs would have him begging and pleading with me to forgive him for whatever he had done or said, or that I thought he had done, even if it had been nothing at all. For the duration of our marriage these idiosyncrasies worked out quite well, and either one of us could precipitate an instant conclusion to all minor, and most of our major disagreements, by plucking the other’s heartstrings. After all, we were just two young people, deeply in love, testing each other’s devotion, which ultimately was so intense we rarely could stay angry for more than a few minutes.
We seldom had minor disagreements, rather angry and hurtful arguments as each of us tried to maintain control of the other. Thankfully as that summer progressed, they became far less frequent, as we both established control in the ways most important to each of us, but in a more quiet and kind manner. These golden days in the late summer of 1961 were the beginning of my lessons about how to catch more bees with honey than with vinegar, but I had a long way to go to learn it fully. Both of us had quick tempers and when angered, we would sting and hurt the other with words, and both of us wanted to have the last remark, which made for an intriguing situation. It took a long time for me to learn I could let it go, and I could admit I was wrong, and before I met Billy, I was never wrong!
I should have known he was accident-prone with all the scars to prove it, but I never seemed able to relate the scars to real suffering and pain. After all, scars are completely healed wounds, and I had not seen him when they were fresh and raw. One of the largest was on top of his head and I had not noticed it until he shaved his head for summer camp. It was crescent shaped and extended from above one ear to the other, and I could not imagine how he had managed to come so close to scalping himself since it seemed as if that was exactly what had happened. Curious I asked when I first saw the scar, and he explained that just a few years before we met, he had been chasing his little brothers through the house, and when he would catch one, he would pull them down and tickle them until they were out of breath with laughter. In the house in Griffin, there is an arched opening between the dining room and living room, and although they were not supposed to roughhouse in this formal area, they were running in circles as Billy chased and tried to tackle first one and then the other. Just as he reached that arch, he leapt into the air to grab one of the boys and literally peeled his scalp back from the top of his head! Covered in blood with a bloody towel wrapped around head when his mother arrived home, she rushed him to the emergency room where it took about forty-five stitches to sew his scalp back where it belonged, thus the huge, semi-circular scar. It was only noticeable when his head was shaved, and often during our marriage, this was the required haircut as he went through the various military courses he had set as his goals, and for practical purposes it was simply cooler and easier to take care of when he was in the field.
There was another barely noticeable vertical scar in the center of his upper lip almost to his nostrils. While on a cruise with his parents, and playing shuffleboard, he had been resting the pole with the tip against his upper lip and both hands folded over the pole. Out of nowhere, one of the pucks from another player flew towards him, striking his pole, and lacerating his lip. That cut took about seven stitches to close. Then, the summer before we met in January, he came back to school on crutches after he hit a submerged log while water skiing. He had broken and lacerated his knee, which at times, particularly when he was tired, caused him to have a slight limp. He learned to use this particular old injury quite often and to his advantage. In order to get attention and empathy from me, and especially if I was angry or hurt with him, he would pretend to limp. Of course, I would fall right into his trap and give him exactly what he wanted and, naturally, forget my grievance as he leaned on me for support, and if at home, led me to the bedroom.
The injury to his eye was the first time I had seen him hurt and I could not keep my hands off him, and he loved it. We made love several times every night for weeks, before supper, after supper, then again when we went to bed. Yes, he was definitely accident-prone. Now he had someone to take care of his various injuries, and of course, I was a willing participant. Many were the mornings he would come into the room where I was dressing or fixing breakfast with toilet paper stuck to his face, a Band Aid in his hand, asking me to bandage this tiny nick and kiss it to make it better. After I finished taking care of him, he would hold me in his arms while I repeatedly told him how very much I loved him, and I can just imagine he had a huge grin on his face. He then would wear the Band Aid all day, long after the tiny cut would have stopped bleeding, until he showered in the evening and the water loosened it enough to fall off. He went through a box of Band Aids every month, or close to it.
Fortunately the street ran both ways and he was just as solicitous of me when I accidentally cut or burned myself in the kitchen, although I certainly could not be called ‘accident-prone’. He would carefully clean the cut, bandage it, and then insist on washing the dishes until it healed which was fine with me. The only difference was I pulled the bandage off as soon as I could. The crux was that he needed a mother’s love and attention while I wanted nothing from mine, now I gave to him what his mother could or would not do, and better yet, I was his wife.
Oh how I loved him! As I traced my fingers over the scars on his stomach, his head, and his lip, with each touch our love grew stronger. It was all I could do to say good-bye to him in the mornings as we each went our separate ways, not just from the fear he might get hurt, but because I could not be with him. For someone who liked to be in control of my emotions at all times, I had certainly lost them to Billy McConnell. He had learned to play me like a hand of bridge, and the worst part was I enjoyed every moment!
While William continued to work odd jobs for the rest of the summer, Billy had to stop work for the last session of summer school. He only took one class, but that class lasted four hours in the morning and the rest of the day he spent in the library or studying until I arrived home from work. He had ‘picked up’ a small charcoal grill from his father’s store on another of our rare visits to Griffin, and often by the time I arrived home, he would have hot dogs or hamburgers ready to cook. He even learned to grill chicken breasts wrapped in foil and to make a tossed salad.
It was at this time, with me working a full day that he took over most of the household chores, like vacuuming, dusting, scrubbing the tiny bathroom, etc., not that there ever was very much to do. He insisted he was only doing his share since I was bringing home our most significant paycheck. During the school year, he did get a small check from the military, but that barely covered the dry cleaning and laundry bills for his uniforms.
Often, during hot or wet weather, he would go through two uniforms a day, wearing one in the morning and then changing during lunch into a second. It was then his check was not sufficient, but I knew I could never iron the uniforms well enough to suit the standards he had set for himself, and that was expected of the entire cadet corps. In addition, I was not too keen on the idea anyway, although I enjoyed ironing clothes for my numerous dolls when I was small. However, these were big shirts and there could not be one single crease in them except for those that were supposed to be there, and I just never trusted I could do it well enough.
Billy was most meticulous about his appearance and of course, cadets had to have spit-shined boots and shoes, knife-sharp creases in their pants, and some cadets even ironed candle wax inside the creases to keep them from breaking which necessitated that they walk stiff-legged. I remember the first time I saw this oddity. I was walking with Don, and as he laboriously kept his legs completely straight as we walked down the multitude of steps between the canteen and the mess hall I wondered aloud why he walked so peculiarly. He then explained about the wax in his creases, and from then on, I could tell by watching the cadets walk down steps which ones were serious about making the military a career. There were airborne creases in their shirts and their brass had to shine like a mirror. Even the bills of their hats were so glossy they looked like patent leather, newly shined with Vaseline, and I could use the bill of Billy’s hat like a mirror to put on lipstick. All of this took a tremendous amount of time and energy, which gave the cadets a whole lot less time to study than it did the co-eds.
I can still picture him now wearing fatigue pants, white socks, and a t-shirt sitting on that ugly brown vinyl couch, with the can of Brasso and a tin of black shoe polish open on a folding chair in front of him. With water in the top half of the tin, polishing his shoes and the bill of his hat. Rubbing circles on the brass with Brasso on an old soft rag, so immersed was he in the task; his tongue would just barely stick out the corner of his mouth as it always did when he was concentrating on something. When shining his shoes, he dipped the rag first in the polish, then on the shoe, then into the water, then back to the shoe, repeatedly until they would shine like glass. I was so proud when I realized how much work was involved in keeping up with the cadet corps standards, and Billy was more conscientious than most.
Then there was the drilling - before breakfast, before and after lunch, depending on the battle group, and before supper. Billy was exempt from only the Sunday morning drill since, living off-campus, he was no longer required to go to church, but for the rest of the drills he had to be present.
Of course, for summer school, the military aspect of the college was more relaxed, and although he was required to wear a uniform, he did not have the interruption of dust inspections, roll call, or the drills.
Summer school was intense study on one subject with an entire quarter’s work crammed into a few weeks, and I tried to keep an arm’s distance from him so he could concentrate and his hands would not wander. Usually, I left him in the living room sitting in a stiff chair using the card table as a desk since when he sat on that old broken spring couch he tended to fall asleep. I would lie on our bed and read, not even turning on the radio or television since I did not want him to be distracted, but I have always been a reader, and more than likely under any other circumstances, I would have been doing the very same thing. It is a strange feeling to miss someone when he was just in the next room, and in our tiny quarters, there was very little distance separating us, but as far as I was concerned, he might as well have been on Mars.
Since I felt it was my responsibility to control our environment and keep it conducive for study, and knew if Billy had his way, he would have been right in the bed beside me, I suffered his absence for our ultimate goal. At least I was with him far more than before we married, and then again, when I was living in Atlanta. However, had I stayed in the room with him, it would not have taken long for him to drop his book and take me in his arms. Although that is where I preferred to be I resolutely stayed still and quiet, hoping he could forget, for that moment, that I was even under the same roof, but it was difficult for both of us.
Most nights, I would find him asleep with his head on the card table, and gently wake him to take a shower if he felt as if he had studied enough. Only then, could we satisfy our longing, but if he had a test or a paper due, I hoped the shower would wake him up enough so he could continue his work. When he did have a paper to write, I would sit on the other side of the table, with my back to the door, and type the pages as he handed them to me. I am sure that his instructor was grateful, since his handwriting, when hurried, was atrocious, but I learned a lot about subjects I had no interest in whatsoever.
Now the summer was ending, it would not be long before the college notified the cadets about their next year’s assignments. The campus would be abuzz with the incoming, scared stiff freshman cadets, and the new crop of co-eds, fresh off the vine and ready to be ‘harvested’ by an upperclassman.
It seemed that Billy became more and more anxious as the time drew near to receive his assignment, and I was worried he would not get to command a company since he lived off-campus, and I was ready to accept the blame. I just did not know how he would handle a big disappointment, and I thought back to the day that I told him I was definitely pregnant. Had his reaction at that time been any less intense, I would not be so apprehensive, but I was dreading the day the notice arrived, and prepared to help him with any disappointment. Perhaps had he looked at life as I usually did, seeing the half empty glass instead of the half full, he would have been more prepared to accept the fact that his grades would be a major factor in assigning military responsibility. Surely, I thought, he could see that the company commanders had a tremendous job, although it was often easier if they had good platoon leaders. I was probably not the only one to realize his grades would suffer with the added responsibility of command of an entire company, and in truth, I half hoped it would not materialize, in spite of his dream. Perhaps this was selfish on my part, I wanted him to catch up with his class and to graduate, if not in June with the majority, the next December. Little did I realize there was already a reality that neither of us had counted on that would completely change our plans.
Between the close quarters where we could not even pass without touching, the narrow bed, and spontaneous young love there is no wonder that rare few couples escaped the ‘curse of the valley’, and we were about to find out we too had fallen victim. Actually, we had fallen for both ‘sure’ ways to become parents since ‘summer camp’ babies were frequent too, due to the separation between young newlyweds. Therefore, between summer camp, Billy’s black eye, and our cramped quarters, the inevitable had happened, although we were not to realize it for weeks to come. At the time, I was devastated and worried out of my mind how we would manage to stay together, but eventually our ‘curse’ turned into one of my life’s greatest blessings, and always will be.