MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 22 – Fall - 1962
Fall has always been my favorite season. With the brilliance of the changing leaves creating a patchwork quilt of color throughout the mountains – a work of art created by a divine hand that man cannot possibly hope to replica. The slight nip in the air with a light dusting of dew in the early morning was a welcome relief after a hot Georgia summer, although here in the shadow of the mountains it was not nearly as hot as it was in Atlanta. Fall is always particularly appealing in Dahlonega, and just a few miles out of town, the hills were alive with the richness and depth of color found only in the Blue Ridge.
Sunday afternoon usually found us on another of our long drives to witness the glory of God’s creation in the glowing colors of the soon-to-be falling leaves. These meandering journeys became a time of peace for Billy and for me since our small son seemed to have a switch that instantly put him in sleep mode when he was riding, and we had many wonderful uninterrupted discussions on our extended drives. Moreover, we could afford to ride out a full tank of gas since it was not an expense that would break our budget.
Making sure we had plenty of supplies for our demanding son, we would take off in any of several directions, rarely going exactly the same way twice, so we seldom knew what might be around the next bend of the road. Billy was an adventurer and a dare devil and would take tiny roads that looked like zippers curving through the trees, and seemed to be no wider than the car. While branches slapped the windows in a futile attempt to enter our sanctuary, I was always a bit anxious, but I had learned that was part of the fun of being married to Billy McConnell – I never knew where he would take me next, but I did know he would always keep me safe.
On one of these drives our little family expanded by two. We had come to a crossroads and were debating on whether we had ever been on any of these roads, wanting to take the road less traveled. Billy was looking for a place to pull over to check the map when a small pack of dogs ran out in the road in front of our car on a blind curve, and he just narrowly missed hitting one of them by swerving and braking hard. Immediately he stopped the car fearing he had struck one, but first asked if ‘we’, meaning Michael and myself, were all right. Although shaken by the sudden swerve, Billy’s hands were steady while mine shook. Michael was sound asleep in my arms and did not even blink since I had held onto him for dear life. Once he knew his little family was safe, Billy got out of the car to check on the dogs. Finding none that seemed to be harmed he turned to get back in when two of the animals came up to greet him, while the rest ran off into the trees.
One, a large hound of dubious parentage, was particularly friendly and Billy called to him saying, "Come here big fella, and are you OK?"
The dog instantly came to him, wagging his long tail and licked his outstretched hand. Along with the big hound was a smaller, longhaired red dog, also of dubious parentage, but just as friendly. Both were thin, but not bone thin, and neither had on a collar. Billy turned to me with upraised eyebrows, and I smiled and nodded. We put both dogs in the backseat and drove up and down the road until dusk looking for a nearby home where they might belong. The road was seemingly devoid of any houses, at least none we could see, so there was nothing we could do but leave them where we found them, or take them home with us. Neither of us was willing to leave them, possibly to fend for themselves or for another driver, not as skillful, to kill them in the road or worse yet, injure them, and leave them to suffer. Both of us had missed the rug rat, and Billy had wanted to replace him ever since Michael was born saying that all little boys need a dog. I was delighted to have another dog, and in this case, two, who would be protectors as well as best friends for our young son, although I think at the time, Billy needed a dog most of all. He felt guilty for allowing Pup to run out the door, and he wanted to replace him since the road where we now lived was safe for children and animals.
We decided to call the hound ‘Fella’ since it was the first name Billy called him, and we named the little dog ‘Rusty’ since his coat was the color of rust.
Although we were not sure how our landlord would accept her new tenants, we would cross that bridge when we got to it. First, we needed to find somewhere to buy dog food, as it was obvious both were very hungry. We finally found an old country store that also served as the owner’s home, and found him sitting out on the front porch. There was a ‘closed’ sign on the door, after all this was late on a Sunday evening. Billy pulled over, leaned out the window, and asked him if he would let us buy dog food for some very hungry stray dogs we had picked up on the road about 20 miles from his store. He looked over the dogs to make sure they did not belong to anyone he knew and then sold us a large bag of Purina Dog Chow, which would keep us for at least a few days. Now we needed collars and leashes, and ‘Pup’s’ collar was far too little for even the smaller of the two.
After we arrived back in Dahlonega, while I went inside to feed Michael and to fix our supper, Billy took both dogs into the garage, brushed them with ‘Pup’s’ old brush and checked them thoroughly for ticks and fleas. He decided that baths could wait until the next afternoon, but were a necessity, especially for ‘Fella’ who had a ‘hound’ scent about him. Both were male, but they seemed to have been running together for some time without any major conflict since neither had torn ears or scars from a lot of fights. However, Billy underestimated the hunger of both dogs. While ‘Fella’ finished his food first, he then went after ‘Rusty’ with a determination seen only in the ravenous since the smaller dog was still eating. Fortunately, Billy was able to hold ‘Fella’ back before he had an out and out fight on his hands, but obviously this was not going to work out at all. He finally brought ‘Fella’ inside the apartment so ‘Rusty’ could finish his meal in the garage in peace, but we did not need fighting dogs around our baby son. Now we had a problem, but we hoped it was not an unsolvable one.
The next day Billy stopped by the library to ask Mrs. Harris if we could keep the dogs, and she agreed to our having one as long as we kept the yard cleaned of dog droppings. I knew if Billy approached her, she would agree far more quickly than had I asked because she too had fallen under his spell, and so far had been unable to deny him anything. Now we had to find a home for one of the dogs, and decide which one we would keep.
Although Rusty was a much prettier dog than ‘Fella’was, who was an all-American mutt, Billy wanted to keep the larger dog since he had approached him first and had been so very friendly. Not that Rusty was not friendly, but more attractive, and Billy thought he would probably have better luck finding a home for him than for the hound.
‘Fella’ was creamy white with tan spots, about the size of a Labrador retriever and might have had some "Lab" in him, along with another dozen or more other breeds. His ears were long and hung low like a beagle’s, his tail was much the same, and constantly wagging now he had consistent meals, and he had the kindest, biggest, brown eyes. He had already adopted Michael, the baby seemed to fascinate him, and he watched his every move. Of course, we did not leave them alone together, not at first, but obviously, he loved the baby, and he licked his tiny toes until Michael giggled and squirmed. Yes, ‘Fella’ was going to be Michael’s dog and that was all there was to that decision.
‘Rusty’ was a good dog too, also gentle and affectionate, so we needed to find a good home for him. We thought about putting a notice on the bulletin board in the Laundromat and the store, but Billy asked around campus the next day as cadets were beginning to arrive in preparation for the start of the fall quarter. Finally, he talked to another married cadet whose wife had also just had a baby, and Tommy agreed to take Rusty home and see how it worked out since soon they would be moving into a larger apartment and would have plenty of room, especially for the smaller dog. Problem solved, and in record time!
We had saved two dogs from who knows what fate awaited them, probably death on the highway, starvation, or worse, and we both felt good about it. In the bargain, we now had a wonderful pet for our son, so I do not know who came out on the best end of the deal, the dogs, or us. Michael too loved Fella’, and when I would put him outside in his playpen to enjoy the warm fall days, Fella’ would lie on the cool concrete by the playpen and no stranger dared approach without a warning growl. Several times, I had to rescue the meter reader and the man delivering our winter oil while Fella’ held them off since ‘his baby’ was outside.
One afternoon not long after we rescued the dogs, when I drove to the store to pick Billy up from work, as usual, I parked the car in front of the store, and with Michael in my arms went inside to find my handsome husband. Billy always welcomed the opportunity to show off his son. All of the customers, mostly elderly women, who insisted on having Billy wait on them, commented that Michael was a beautiful baby.
A delightful gray haired lady, with a dimple in her cheek and sparkling blue eyes who I had not met before, asked if the baby was a boy or a girl. I had Michael dressed in an outfit definitely designed for little boys – yellow overalls with a duck appliqué and a striped shirt, no flowers, ribbons or lace. However, he was a pretty baby with blond hair just beginning to fall into soft curls on the nape of his neck and I am sure she just made an honest mistake. The first time my mother saw Michael she told me I could not have a little girl any prettier than he was, and looking at his father that was understandable, although I was relieved she did not use the word ‘pretty’ around Billy. This day, the lady’s question, directed to Billy, regarding the sex of his son, upset him, although he did not show this to the customers. Instead, immediately, not even waiting for the store to close, Billy took his son from my arms and walked him right into the barbershop just two doors up from the store! I followed behind them, very upset, since I did not want my baby’s curls cut off! He was just beginning to get enough hair to brush and twirl around my finger to form the tiny soft ringlets, but Billy was adamant. His son would have NO curls, even if he had to give him a crew cut.
No one was going to mistake his boy for a little girl, no, not ever again! While I cried and Billy held Michael up on the board used for children in the barber’s chair, my son’s soft baby curls fell onto the shop floor, where I retrieved them as quickly as possible. I did have the camera in the car and was able to get it before the barber began to cut, and through tear-filled eyes, I took some snapshots of our son’s first haircut. Despite my plea that he was too young, he could not even sit up by himself yet; I wanted to have these photos so some day I could show them to Michael when he was older. Little did I know the snapshots we took during these blissful days of his first few years, particularly those with his father, would become my cherished treasures.
Mrs. Harris became an all too frequent visitor after Michael was born, and I never failed to notice that, wearing white gloves, she would brush her fingers over the furniture when she thought I was not looking. She wanted her apartment kept in good condition and I did not blame her, but I was a meticulous housekeeper so there was never any need for her concern. She adored our little boy! Having no children of her own, she would drop by just to see how he was growing, what he had done ‘new’ this week, and so on, and she had given him a nice gift when he was born. I knew I would miss Mrs. Harris and our roomy basement apartment, but I was looking forward to that day, now not too far away, when we could be independent of Gene and his ‘charity’. As far as I was concerned, it was far too costly.
With the beginning of yet another new school year, I no longer felt the envy I had the previous fall when my friends came back to school. Most had not come back at all, rather had married over the summer. Diane was living with her husband, Nicky, in our old Fertile Valley apartment, and they would soon have a baby too as they had not escaped ‘the curse of the valley’ either. In fact, Billy was ‘on call’ to take her to the hospital since Nicky did not have a car. He had been a squad leader in Billy’s company the previous year, and the catalyst behind his award for Outstanding Platoon Leader, so Billy did not mind at all having them depend on him to get to Gainesville.
Billy knew this would be short year for him since he would be finished with his last classes in December at the end of the first quarter. Although he could not graduate in cap and gown until June of 1963, sometime in December he would be commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant, and both of us were looking forward to being ‘on our own’ financially. We had worked so hard towards this goal, and had worried so when we found out we would be having a baby and me without a job, that it still seemed a dream. I knew it would only be real when I pinned those gold bars on my handsome Billy’s broad shoulders and he became an Infantry officer in the United States Army.
It had not been a simple matter for Billy to become an Infantry officer, which would seem strange to most who ever went through R.O.T.C. He always wanted to be in the Infantry – the one branch most graduating seniors put on the bottom of their list, but through the Infantry, it would be easier to get into both Ranger and Airborne Schools – his ultimate goals. Because of his math minor, much to his distress when his assignment came in it was Artillery, a branch he had never even considered or put down as one of his choices.
If allowed, he would have put Infantry for all three, but he could not, so he had put Infantry on the first line, Armor on the second line and Military Police on the third line since he had to choose one branch that was not combat arms. When he received his assignment to Artillery, he went immediately to his military advisor to protest and to find out which forms he needed to fill out to have his branch changed immediately. Assured that rarely was it changed once assigned, he put in his request anyway with an impassioned plea and with McConnell luck on his side, he had his way and soon would be wearing the crossed rifles of an Infantry officer. I told him that whoever reviewed his change of branch application probably thought he was completely insane, but if he wanted to be a ‘grunt’, while most others did not, then why not allow him the pleasure.
He was so excited when the new assignment came through he called me from campus, something he rarely did, but now he was one more step closer to fulfilling his dream, and I was one step closer to ‘my assignment’ as an Army officer’s wife. I re-read the Officer’s Wives’ Guide to make sure I had not missed anything the first two readings. Billy had his goal, and I mine – to be the best officer’s wife possible, but I had no idea how difficult this might be. I just loved my husband, more than life itself, and I was determined to become an indispensable asset to his career!