MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 14 – Fall, 1961
© 2003 Diane Sanfilippo
Chapter 14 - Fall - 1961
Billy's assignment for the fall of 1961 came as a disappointment: platoon leader in E Company. Of course, I wondered if he thought he possibly could have become a Company Commander if he had not been married and living off campus.
Although E Company was this year’s Honor Company and Billy would wear the blue and white fourragere on the right shoulder of his uniform that distinguished Honor Company from the others, this did little to stem his frustration. I knew his outstanding performance at summer camp had something to do with his assignment to this specific company, and I think deep in his heart he knew he could not and would not become a company commander. He simply did not have the grades, except in Military, and a full quarter behind his class he would not graduate or receive his commission with them. Still he was disappointed and, of course, I felt I was to blame.
When I arrived home that evening, he had a most dejected look on his face and I knew, instantly, he had received his assignment. Did I dare take him in my arms and try to console him, or was he so let down he too blamed me for not getting the coveted company commander assignment with the prestige that went with it.
Perhaps he had time to sit and think before I got home because he certainly did not seem to be angry with me, rather he asked if I would be humiliated to be married to a cadet 2nd Lieutenant. My reply was I had fallen in love with a cadet platoon sergeant and I knew that whatever his duty, he would be the best of all. With that in mind, he held me in his arms, walked me back to the bedroom, and when he began undressing me, I knew we would be eating a late supper again this night. He needed me right now, and that was far more important than food. As he slowly undressed me, I thought about how the blue of the fourragere would match the blue of his eyes!
Although I was at work all day, I knew I would miss the excitement that follows the opening of the school year. I could hardly wait to see some of my friends and tell them how very happy Billy and I were living together. I felt as if now I definitely looked different – more mature as a married woman should, and I knew I had lost a lot of weight since I now could wear a size 8 petite. Billy was pleased I no longer seemed to have a tummy and he could put his hand from thumb to little finger around my arms, and almost encircle my waist with both hands.
Marriage seemed to be agreeing with both us since I had lost weight and he had gained what I lost. He had actually become taller over the summer, was now just over 6’ tall, and weighed about 185 lbs., and when we married, he was just over 5’10" and weighed 165 lbs.! He now looked more like a man than a boy, and his fine features were even more handsome on the fuller face of this man I loved more than life itself.
When the time came for the first dance of the year, a ‘mixed’ social for upperclassmen, Billy was delighted he could take his obviously not pregnant wife, or so we thought! I had not realized how much it bothered him I had become pregnant before we got married until the night of the dance.
Dressed in a black wool pleated skirt, white blouse and black cardigan; I looked so much slimmer than I had when I was living in the dorm. Before we left the valley to walk up the hill to the dance, Billy held me in his arms and firmly stated that no matter who asked, his wife would not dance with anyone but him. I assured him the same went for my husband, but he just laughed and said he did not dance well enough for anyone to want to dance with him, except for me. He complimented me on how thin I looked and asked me how much weight I had lost over the summer, which was about 20 lbs., a lot for someone just 5’3" tall and the black skirt and sweater just accentuated this loss.
Holding me in his strong arms, he said I looked more beautiful than he had ever seen me, and thought he would be the envy of every cadet on campus. Oh what a flatterer, my handsome husband was with his silver tongue! He knew how I loved to be admired by him, and I reciprocated by pointing out how much taller and filled out he had become over the summer, and told him he was more handsome than ever.
"I guess we have what I would call a mutual admiration society, so to speak," I said, but Billy had his own idea.
"No, little girl, we just love each other all the more for every day we have been together, and now our friends will be able to see for themselves that marriage can be wonderful in spite of their predictions."
That last sentence made me curious, and I asked him then who had been so overwhelmingly opposed to our marriage, other than his parents, but Billy would not say. At least he would not tell me then, but later he told me that his roommate, Bill, had thought I set him up and become pregnant on purpose, which was the furthest thing from the truth. Billy, of course, knew better and he told Bill I was too naïve to even know how to set anyone up, but Bill continued to have his doubts. It would not be until the same thing happened to him, with his own lovely little freshman, that he realized Billy had told him the truth.
When we arrived at the dance, several of my old dorm mates came up to say hello, and to tell me how good both of us looked. Others just curious to see if I was big and pregnant seemed disappointed. Our first baby would have been due in November, just about the time of Billy’s birthday, but I was obviously not about to have a baby anytime soon. Billy danced with me just as we always danced, holding me close, with his chin now resting comfortably on the top of my head. He was so tall now that I had to look up to see his face. With my head on his chest, once again I could hear the familiar rhythm of his heart beating under his shirt and I hoped that with each beat he loved me more, just as with each beat of my own heart, I loved him more. I had no desire even to look at another cadet, for the first time in my life, I had what I wanted, and I did not want or need anyone else. When I was in Billy’s arms I thought that was the closest thing to heaven on earth and I relished each slow dance and, of course, ‘our songs’.
Even when we stood around talking to our friends, Billy kept his arm possessively around me, only letting go long enough for me to go to the restroom. One of my friends commented that we made marriage look like a very happy proposition, I said I had never been happier, and even Lucia said it showed on my face. I looked at my Billy, across the room, laughing at something someone had said, my heart inflated so with love with him, I could probably have floated had I tried.
I will have to admit I felt a bit of jealously as my friends returned to campus for the beginning of their sophomore year while I drove into Gainesville to a job that was becoming more and more tiresome, having learned about all there was to learn. I was even handling the formula books now and my boss had no idea how to do it. I relished learning but now I was bored. My friends would continue their education and I so wanted to share in the excitement that always accompanies a new school year, but this time I could only do it through Billy and my old friends.
He would be in classes with co-eds and coming home to eat lunch alone while I worked an hour away. Could it be possible I was developing a jealous streak? Darn right I was! I did not even want to think about him being on campus with all the new freshman faces, but I knew he wore his wedding band all the time, so there would no point to any of them thinking about flirting with him. I also knew he would not be hanging out in the canteen since he had never done so until we met; rather he would be using any free time he had to keep up his grades and to make sure he had the best platoon on campus.
Soon though, in the late afternoon, after I arrived home from work and was preparing Billy’s supper, or over the weekend, Diane, Lucia, Bobbie or other friends would walk down to the valley to visit. Through them, I kept up with the latest gossip, couples getting together, breaking up, etc., although it certainly was not nearly as satisfying as actually being a student, and I did not know the names of the new freshmen.
However, I would have not traded places with anyone on campus if it meant I was not married to my Billy, for him I did not mind missing anything. My friends all said Billy never so much as talked to another girl, and usually not even to any of them, which helped to soothe some of the jealousy I felt now that I was no longer a student. I think the hardest time for me was when Billy had to go to the library after I got home. Soon he realized how upset I was since as usual; I was unable to contain my disappointment. He then switched around his classes so he had plenty of time to study and use the library before I got home, thus eliminating my tears and half hidden sobs that resulted when he left me alone at night.
After all, I thought, he had swept me off my feet, and I his, in that very same library. Maybe he would see someone else sitting at that very same desk where I had been sitting just a few months ago, and he might decide I was not pretty enough for him. Oh yes, more of that old lack of self-esteem seemed to haunt me. Yes, I was jealous, but happily, I learned he was even more so, although he had certainly shown he was possessive even before we married. I think the one fact that delighted him the most was that Don had transferred to a college in North Carolina with his best friend, Cecil, and that left very few cadets on campus I had dated to concern him.
His National Defense - Student Teacher’s loan had come through which fully paid for his tuition and books, and while his military check paid for the upkeep of his uniforms we did not have to worry too much about money. We had very few bills, a miniscule rent, food, of course, and our only utility was the phone bill. My salary paid for our rent, groceries, clothing, and other miscellaneous expenses. Because I did work and I did bring home a paycheck, Billy was able to continue and to fulfill his father’s dream that his oldest son graduate from college.
I would not have taken this joy away from Billy for anything in the world, and I believe I had already shown him how important his education was to me by having the abortion. After all, I had come to college to find a college-educated husband, and now I had the second part, the husband, so we were both working on the first, the diploma. The icing on the cake was I would also be an officer’s lady, and the day I pinned the gold bars of a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army on my handsome husband’s shoulders would be worth all the suffering, the tears, and the sacrifices. This was the ultimate dream we both held onto so securely.
I wanted him to be an officer in the U.S. Army as much as he wanted it, so again, just as I had during summer school, I did my very best to keep our home quiet and peaceful so he could study without interruption. I continued to read in the bedroom while he continued to use the card table for his desk. And as much as I loved to watch him while he studied, with his black-rimmed glasses framing his deep blue eyes, and the tip of his tongue barely showing at the corner of his mouth, I knew he could not study with me in the room.
He decided he studied better if he could listen to music, so I played albums with a more ‘upbeat’ sound than our preferred crooning of Johnny Mathis. Almost every night when I heard him snoring softly, I would gently wake him with a kiss so he could shower before we went to bed. Of course there was no sleep right away since we simply could not be in the same room with each other and keep our hands to ourselves, much less in the same bed!
In spite of all my warnings, and in spite of the fact that I was obviously quite fertile, I still could not get Billy to use birth control and, unknown to both of us; once again, events were beginning to spiral out of our control.
First, the broiler industry was in a deep recession. With an overabundance of chickens on the market, the price to consumers plunged to just over ten cents per pound. Since I wrote the paychecks for the salesmen, and I could see their commissions slowly eroding and some even became non-existent, I knew before my fellow employees that Wayne Feeds was not making enough money to keep up with all the farmers under contract. One by one, as soon as their chickens matured, and left up for slaughter, that account closed, and no new accounts opened at all. Feed sales in the area to farmers not under contract could not keep up with the loss of income, and it was inevitable that staff cuts would soon follow.
The first cuts were in the plant itself, which was not working to capacity. Then came cuts in the sales staff, or to those left who had not resigned as they watched their paychecks being whittled down to nothing. There was no need for sales representatives to seek out farmers to produce chickens when the market was glutted. Inevitably, the cuts came to the office staff and as the last hired, I was the first fired, or ‘laid off due to lack of work’ was the official reason, although that brought little solace to our one income family.
I have never left anywhere quietly, and I did not leave Wayne Feeds without having one of my infamous tantrums. Foolishly, my boss asked if I would work through the two weeks notice period and I just laughed through my tears, and told him I would not. Since I knew he had to pay me, whether I worked or not, why should I sit here and not be looking for another job or be at home with my husband? He then asked if I would show him how to maintain the ‘formula books’, which had become my sole responsibility, and I told him since I was not needed, he could figure it out for himself.
I had to get out of there before I became hysterical! As I left, my paycheck in my hand, he told me I would be eligible for unemployment since I was being ‘laid off due to lack of work’, not fired for inability to do my job. I just turned my back on him and walked the almost five miles into town to Joan’s office since she had driven that day. I was so angry I could have chewed nails, and my despair was unparalleled since I knew for another reason I probably would not be able to find a job, even with Joan’s assistance. The long walk helped me get the anger out of my system, but now I had another problem, the biggest problem of all, I had to tell Billy.
Although, like my boss said, I was eligible for unemployment benefits, and Joan assured me there were plenty of jobs available, that other reason dulled any enthusiasm I could muster. I believed, no, I was almost positive I was pregnant again. I could not tolerate the smell of coffee and cigarettes, and, of course, my period was almost three weeks late. A woman just knows when she is with child, and I knew.
We had not escaped the ‘curse of the valley’ after all. Billy’s ‘black eye’ caused me to make love to him without protection when I knew it was not safe, although I did tell him it was a ‘bad’ time. However, as usual, he would not take the time to use a condom. I even hated it when he did and decided I was sensitive to whatever they used for lubrication. It was not until many years later I found out I was allergic to latex. I did feel I was not the only one who threw caution to the wind, rather Billy would have to accept his share of our ‘curse’, and I never, not for one moment, thought he would ever raise the issue of another abortion. If he asked, I would refuse, regardless of the consequences. After every thing we had meant to each other these last seven months of our marriage, I could not imagine he would even ask, but I certainly did not have a solution for our dilemma.
It was with a heavy heart and utter dread that I rode home with Joan that evening knowing I had to tell Billy what happened. Would he have to drop out of school? What would we do? No one would hire me if I was pregnant, and I could not collect unemployment until after the baby was born and then I had to reapply for my old job, and if Wayne Feeds wanted to rehire me, and I refused to go back to work, I would not collect at all. Remembering the last time I told him I was pregnant, I just knew I was driving into fireworks and perhaps heartbreak and I was not far off the mark.
Billy was home, sitting on the sofa; spit polishing his shoes when we arrived in the valley. Had I a tail, I would have been dragging it between my legs, but I knew from the look on his face he knew that good news was not what I had in mind when I said we needed to talk. I did not know where to begin, so I just plunged ahead, and not unlike a first time skydiver standing in door of that open airplane door, I could not have felt more frightened. Tact was not my forte in my younger years, and how could I tactfully tell him that not only had I lost my job, but also he was going to be a father!
Let me spare details by saying he was furious, as if I had not warned him repeatedly when I thought it was a bad time of month to make love. He blew up and blamed me, and I blew up and blamed him for not heeding my warnings, and it ended when I rushed out to the car, jumped in and left the valley with gravel flying behind the wheels. I flew out of Dahlonega on those winding double lane roads, perhaps hoping I would just lose control of the car and kill the baby and myself, ending all of Billy’s problems. My thoughts were so incoherent even I could not keep up with them, but by the time I reached Cumberland, the next town, and had to slow down, I knew I had no place to go. There was nothing I could do except turn the car around, drive back to the valley, and hope by now Billy was coherent enough to sit down and talk.
When I pulled up at our small trailer, he was on the telephone with his father telling him I had left and taken the car, and the rest of the details of our miserable evening. When he saw me pull up, he abruptly ended his conversation.
I did not know what to expect when I walked back in the door with my face streaked with tears, eyes puffy and nose running. I halfway expected him to tell me to leave, not to ever come back, and to handle this problem myself. Instead, much to my shock, he cradled me gently in his arms. He told me he was sorry he had overreacted and he continued to rock me as he had through many hours of pain. He said we would work it out, even if it meant he had to drop out of school for a while, but I knew if he did drop out, he would never go back, and worst of all, he would become eligible for the draft.
We needed a miracle, and I certainly did not know where we would find one! Miracles are hard to find when you are looking for them, and Billy had been the only miracle in my life so far. Supper forgotten, since any hunger either of us had was a hunger in our hearts, we continued to hold on to each other in the darkened bedroom, and Billy expressed his fear that I had left to kill myself in the car, and I admitted the thought had crossed my mind.
Finally, with tears in his eyes, he said, "Diane, I love you more than life itself, and if anything ever happened to you, especially if I were to blame, I could not live with myself and my heart would never heal. I was just shocked and not prepared for what you had to say, and if we think this through, we will come up with some kind of solution."
As we lay there in the dark, I fell in love with Billy all over again for the third time, but I also wondered what kind of solution there could possibly be that would keep him in school! Perhaps I should have told him when I first suspected I was pregnant, but again I was hoping for a miracle, and I could understand I had hit him with a double dose of misfortune. Then again, although I had seen it coming, I just never thought I would be the next to lose my job.
About an hour later, after we had fallen asleep in each other’s arms, Gene called back and I was sure he was going to offer to pay for another abortion. Apparently, Billy, in their first conversation, had told him that was out of the question and neither of us could or would, go through that nightmare again.
Surprisingly Gene called with an offer to assist us if Billy would stay in school. He told him he would send us $125 per month, which was still a savings for him over the cost of tuition, room and board, and all the other essentials like uniforms and books. He also said he had added me to the company health insurance policy when we married and that would pay the hospital bills. I felt good that we did not have to ask him for that expense and Billy told him it was unnecessary since I was already pregnant when laid off, and my health insurance through Wayne Feeds had to cover the cost of my having the baby. Billy then told his father he wanted to talk this over with me and he would get back in touch with him later that night.
He also wondered, knowing his father, what he would expect from us in return for his generosity. Gene McConnell usually had some ulterior motive when he made a deal, and neither of us fully trusted him to have our welfare in mind. Billy and I agreed that when he called his father back, he would just come right out and ask what he wanted of us for this ‘gift’. On the other hand, was it a ‘gift’, or a loan? We might as well get all the terms straight from the very beginning so there were no surprises around that next bend of the road.
We went back into the bedroom where we could lie in each other’s arms while we discussed our options. Billy said he could get a part-time job after his last class in the afternoon and on the weekends, holidays and of course, over Christmas break. He also wanted to find a larger place to live since he did not want to bring his ‘son’ (and he knew his baby would be a boy) back to Fertile Valley. I voiced my concern over his grades although they had increasingly improved since marriage and my move to Dahlonega, but with a job, I was afraid he could not handle all of his obligations including his duties as platoon leader. This position often included spending some time at nights at the company to be there for counsel and leadership of the cadets under his command.
He did not seem to be worried about handling this awesome responsibility, but I was worried enough for both of us. He mentioned that already, since he lived off campus, he had given his platoon sergeant and his squad leaders more responsibility than under ordinary circumstances, and he thought he had a great group of potential leaders, so that part he was not worried about. He had one night a week when he was available to all the cadets in his platoon for an hour after supper, and so far, that had been working out well. Yes indeed, my handsome husband had not only grown physically in stature, but to my eyes, he was emotionally ten feet tall and still growing.
It was just after 10:00 p.m. before he called Gene back and told him of our decision. Before the discussion began, just as we decided, Billy asked his father what he expected in return for his generosity, and whether this money would be a loan or a ‘gift’. Gene told him his contribution was an investment in Billy’s future, and then he added, and that of his grandson, also expecting our baby would be another little boy. Billy then told him we would not consider any other option than to have the baby, but that we would have to find a larger place to live, and he would find a part-time job. This was not exactly what Gene wanted to hear, but he knew we were immovable in our decisions and he said he would put the first check in the mail the next day. The conversation, which we thought would become a battle, ended on a surprising note as Gene wished us the best of luck on our search for a larger apartment since he had been appalled when we showed him photos of our ‘hovel’ in the valley.
Under his breath, Billy said to me, "Well at least our "hovel" is filled with love!
Gene concluded the conversation and even told Billy if he needed more than the $125, which was exactly the amount I had brought home, to call him back, but Billy told him we would not know for sure until we found another apartment, if we could find one at all. Before he hung up, Gene said again that he would put the first check in the mail the next morning.
All of this was happening too fast and my head was spinning. Just over five hours ago I had dreaded even having to share what under ordinary circumstances would be wonderful news for a wife to give her husband, but now, with plans made we had thought impossible, we were going to be O.K. Not rich, that we never expected, but we would be able to have our baby, to find a larger apartment, or so we hoped, and best of all, Billy could stay in school! This time when we went into the bedroom, we made love with reckless abandon, because, after all, once again I was about as pregnant as I could possibly get!
I had thought the check I was given that last day was the end, but was delightfully surprised to find out I still had two weeks severance pay coming. Now we would be able to put Gene’s first check aside to pay for necessities for the baby and perhaps even some maternity clothing for me. The latter, I could borrow from my aunt, whose baby daughter, Ginny, was just two, and we could use my grandmother’s 20% discount at the department store where she worked. I also planned to make some things if I could get my mother to allow me to borrow her sewing machine, which just collected dust in her bedroom. We hoped we could get a crib at cost from the store and even borrow some baby clothes, however my mother and my aunt had both had little girls, and Billy and I would have a boy – no doubt in either of our minds. Smiling, he said he knew just the place in the river where he would throw a baby girl, but I knew better. It was just the times – when real men wanted boys first.
Not long after we made the decision to have our baby and to find a larger place to live, a car driving past The Smith House hit our little Pup who had kept me company the long six weeks while Billy was in summer camp. Billy heard the squeal of rapidly applied brakes and Pup’s final yelp. He would not let me walk up the hill with him to see if it were our dog, worrying it would upset me too much and would not be good for the baby. He was back in about twenty minutes with tears dried on his cheeks to tell me that indeed, it was our Rug Rat, and Mr. Smith had allowed him to bury him in his side yard, even assisting him to dig the tiny grave.
I cried and Billy comforted me, having shed his tears as he worked, and he had not spent nearly as much time with the little dog as I had. Billy and I were so alike in that way, both of us were very sensitive and we loved animals. We could not bear to see them killed or injured. After all, that was how we got ‘Pup’ in the first place, to keep him from asphyxiating with his littermates! Pup’s death was an unhappy ending, yet a definitive period to our days living in Fertile Valley.
With the baby coming, hopefully a larger apartment in our future, and a husband who was treating me like a china doll, I could not stay sad for too very long. However, the tiny trailer felt somehow just a bit emptier as Billy put away Pup’s dishes and leash. Pup had a bad habit that we had never been able to break, of dashing out the door whenever it opened, and usually one of us caught him, but this one time we were not quick enough and now the little dog was gone.
Both of us had a lot of work to do before we could leave the valley. Billy still wanted to find a part-time job and I needed to get ready to bring our son into the world, so it was time to get to work, contact friends and see if we could find an apartment, if any such thing existed in Dahlonega. The latter was going to be the hardest of all our tasks since rental apartments were rare in this small college town, and it was easier to find houses that professors and the staff at the Ranger School rented, but we could not afford a house and we knew it. It would take another miracle for us to find a place we could afford that had enough room for us and all the accoutrements that accompany a baby. Nevertheless, so far, a miracle had come from the place where we both least expected, so perhaps there was another, just waiting for us to find it.
Even though I felt guilty lying in bed long after Billy left for his first class, only to awaken in time to have his lunch ready when he got home, he assured me he wanted me to rest. He had no qualms whatsoever when he left me still in bed. He could not have been a more caring expectant father, and once again, he refused to allow me to do any cleaning, and reminded me to take my vitamins each evening.
We made new friends with another couple who were also expecting a baby about the same time as ours. They too played bridge and soon we became the best of friends, sharing meals, hopes, and dreams with one another. Jimmy was positive Kay would have a boy too, so that would be fun to watch the two little boys grow up together or at least for as long as we were in Dahlonega. I felt like a new me and could barely wait to begin wearing maternity clothes to ‘show off’, the result of all those wonderful nights soaring to the moon and back with my handsome husband. All my ‘pride’ over the lost weight faded from my mind, and I could hardly wait until I began to ‘show’.
Billy made an appointment to see his counselor and work out the easiest, and more important, the quickest way he could graduate. Neither of us cared what his major was since the Army would not be concerned except for certain specialties. An Infantry officer could have just about any degree. Billy’s grades continued to be sufficient for him to pass his courses, but he still had not found a job nor had we found an apartment. Supposedly good things come to those who are worthy, and we were about to realize those blessings. Just around the next bend in our river, we found the miracle that would make us the envy of all the other married students.