MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 23 – 2nd Lieutenant William E. McConnell
Our son continued to grow, and every day brought new changes. Billy’s grades continued to improve, even though he spent long hours working at the store. I relished my days spent with my firstborn, and I carefully noted each milestone in one of his two baby books. Michael was a bright, happy, affectionate six month old when his father finally completed the required courses to graduate, and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army on December 10, 1962.
Billy had bought his regulation, custom fitted uniforms when the Redfern Uniform Company had come to campus the previous spring to fit the graduating class of 1963, and that morning, for the first time, he put on his brand new officer’s class A greens. He looked so handsome my heart overflowed with the love I felt for him, this unbelievably magnificent man, soldier, husband and father. The effect of the uniform was almost magical, as if he had matured overnight. It must have been the way he carried himself in the uniform of an officer in the United States Army with all of the responsibilities and respect that go along with it. I just knew he no longer looked like the boy I married, rather the wonderful man he had become.
We were to meet his parents at the college administration building for the informal and brief ceremony where he would receive his gold bars. The accepted tradition was that the mother would pin on the bars, but Billy had a wife, and a wife superseded parentage. Not wanting to make things worse with Helen, I suggested to Billy rather than enrage his mother further perhaps I should share the honor with her. I would pin on one of his gold bars and his mother could pin on the other. Billy was still angry with her with her about the way she had treated his little family when we needed a temporary, emergency shelter, and he asked me if I was sure that was what I wanted, since it was my choice. Of course, I did not want to share him with anyone, and I was still hurt and angry too, but I knew that to keep the peace, at least I would be the better person by offering.
Silently I prayed that Helen would be sober and not too resentful that she had to share the honor with me, which I expected she would, and I was sure she never thought a wife would have priority over a mother. With this one single moment Billy’s ultimate goal, I did not want anything to ruin it for him. He had worked so long and so hard for this climaxing ceremony after four and a half years of study, and on top of his heavy class load, he had worked to keep his family from starving, spending long hours at the store. I could only imagine how special this moment would feel for him, but I definitely knew how it felt for me!
When I looked into his eyes, I saw a young officer, who had taken the long road but had never given up, not for a moment, and finally his dream was about to come true. Yes, I would indeed ask his mother to pin on one of his bars since it was the right thing to do, and perhaps prevent another scene. This, of course, was the last thing that I wanted to mar the day for my Billy.
He had arranged for Jimmy to be outside the building after the short ceremony so he could be the very first to salute him as a brand new officer and receive the silver dollar that was another tradition. Thus, he shared this moment with his friend, but also as a ‘good-bye’ gesture.
Two other cadets were receiving their gold bars with Billy, and I was relieved that there would be two other families at the ceremony, just as I hoped Helen would be on her best behavior. We had informed her in advance about the other families, hoping she would think twice before ‘nipping’ on her way up to Dahlonega. Unfortunately, she was beyond caring what others thought. One never knew what she would say or do, much less whether she would sneak a ‘toddy’ or two before she left Griffin, or from the tiny flask she kept in her purse. I expected this would be the case, but like Gene, Billy, and the boys, I had become accustomed to walking on eggshells when with her in public. But I would not allow her to spoil this day for my husband if there was anything at all I could do, other than give up my right as his wife to pin on at least one of his bars. This was his day, so richly deserved, and so anticipated for as long as I had known him and the first of the many goals he had set for himself. I was proud I would be a part of his special moment, but then again, I planned to be a part of all of his moments, for now and forever.
Dressed in his Sunday best, Michael looked so cute with his chubby little arms and legs, and he kept reaching for his daddy, more than likely attracted by all the shiny brass. Since I did not want the perfection of Billy’s hours of polishing smeared by our small son, I told him that I would take care of Michael until time to pin on his bars, and hoped that Gene would not mind holding him during this part of the ceremony. Billy had been so proud to pin the crossed rifles of the U.S. Army Infantry Corps on his lapels, remembering how close he had come to assignment in the Artillery.
Billy had even found a 101st Airborne Division patch and I sewed it on a little white sweater for Michael. We had photos taken of him wearing this sweater and holding his toy football, and in one of the shots, Michael looks like he is actually calling out, "Airborne," or some other command with his mouth wide open. Unable to participate in contact sports in high school, or college for that matter, because of his abdominal surgeries, Billy was determined that his son would do all the things he had been denied. I worried that his medical history would prevent him from obtaining his own goals, and that not all doors would open easily for him, but Billy was determined, and I should have known that this very characteristic would get him almost everything he wanted, after all, it had worked on me.
Now he looked so proud in his regulation green uniform with the crossed rifles, and the black stripes of an officer marking his pants legs and the sleeves of his ‘blouse’. The golden band on his hat and the golden eagle, the symbol of the U.S. Army also noted that he was an officer, and the bill was so highly polished I could see my reflection in it. Oh, he was one good-looking man and I was so proud of him. Today he seemed so much taller than his six feet; in fact, in my eyes he was ten feet tall, but then again, he usually was, and he always would be.
His parents, amazingly, were waiting for us when we arrived at the Administration Building. Gene immediately took Michael into his arms, commenting on what a healthy, and fine looking boy he was, while Helen said nothing at all. She barely even looked at him, obviously still disappointed he was not a girl. In spite of this, her behavior was uncalled for, and I knew she would never be a real ‘grandmother’ to him or to any of our other sons, and if I was certain of anything, I was sure there would be at least several healthy, happy little boys in our future.
As the ceremony began, the three cadets lined up in front of the flags of the United States, the State of Georgia, and North Georgia College, while Dr. Hoag, our friend from our first night in the valley, President of North Georgia College, made a few remarks about the intensity of the military program at the college. He talked about some of the previous graduates who had gone on to receive high honors for bravery, even the Congressional Medal of Honor, and he was referring to the judge who had been one of my sponsors. I was so proud of my handsome husband my smile reached from ear to ear while Billy stood solemnly absorbing every word. I never took my eyes off him since Gene was tending to Michael, and Billy’s own deep blue eyes bore into my green ones, sending his love from across the room. I could feel it in my heart, and I knew he felt it in his while I sent my love back to him.
Dr. Hoag concluded by reminding the soon-to-be new officers that they would be representing North Georgia College wherever they served. He then turned the program over to the Commandant of Cadets who stepped forward and rendered the oath of office, and I heard Billy’s firm strong voice above the rest as goose bumps covered my arms!
Then the Commandant asked the mothers to step forward to pin the bars on their sons, forgetting that one cadet had a wife. As suspected, Helen vehemently resented having to share any part of the honor with me, and attempting to hold me back, she turned and snarled, "He said the mothers!"
At this point, I could have been very rude and told her that as Billy’s wife it was my duty alone to pin on his bars. Instead I said, softly, "Mrs. McConnell (we never did get beyond that), it is my duty as his wife to pin on Billy’s bars, but I would be more than happy to share the honor with you."
She ignored me and again pushed me aside to make her way to the front of the room, but then Gene stepped in. With the baby in one of his big arms, he held Helen with the other, he dropped his head, and very quietly, in his most serious voice, I heard him say, "Helen if you take one more step, I will forcibly hold you back. Diane has offered to share this special occasion with you, as is her right, so either go with her and pin on one bar or you and I will just take a little walk outside."
With this, she glared at both Gene and me, but walked forward beside me since she knew that even if she caused a scene, she could not win. Too bad! I was his wife and I had made the decision to share the honor with her, not the other way around, since it was my duty and not hers! Not anymore! Billy’s heart belonged to me now and she may not be happy about it, but he would always be mine, and she would have to rely on my good will to share him with her. As we pinned on his gold bars, a photographer took photos, and then General Hoag approached each new lieutenant and shook their hand, welcoming them into the immense officer corps of the United States Army.
General Hoag then turned to me and said, "It is nice to see you again, Mrs. McConnell. My warmest congratulations to both of you (indicating Billy), particularly on this very special occasion, and I wish you the best wherever you may go." Oh yes, he had remembered our less than auspicious first meeting, and here we were today, with our infant son, still together. Obviously, we were very happy, and were now beginning our adventures as an Army family.
Jimmy was standing outside the building as we emerged, and as prearranged, he had the honor of being the first to render a proper salute to the newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant William E. McConnell. We had waited so long for this day, had scrimped, saved and done without, and finally the first of Billy’s long list of goals had been accomplished. Today Gene did treat us, and we all went to lunch at The Smith House to celebrate. There was no doubt that he too was so very proud, and I am sure, more relieved that Billy had managed to graduate in spite of his additional duties as a husband and a father.
During lunch in the always-crowded restaurant, Michael displayed his best behavior, sitting in a high chair for the first time, and Billy and his father discussed our immediate plans, while Helen sat in total silence. I do not remember seeing her take even one bite of food, except for some dessert. She never said one word to either Billy or to me, nor acknowledged her only grandchild happily banging on the wooden tray with a spoon while I fed him bites of mashed potatoes and vegetables, much to Billy’s disgust. Billy also ignored his mother and spoke only to his father while he told him that we hoped to be in our apartment in Columbus by the first of the year and would move right after Christmas.
Gene asked us to spend Christmas in Griffin, although he knew both Billy and I were most reluctant following the fiasco of the year before, and the most recent insults. He certainly could not promise this holiday would be any different. When you live with an alcoholic, life is anything but predictable, but he was insistent that Michael spend his first Christmas with him and his little uncles. Billy wanted to ‘strike a deal’ with his father for some furniture since unfurnished apartments were less expensive, so he looked at me for approval. With a nod of my head, he told his father we would come to Griffin, but if things got out of hand, we would not hesitate to leave this time since we were determined our son would enjoy his first Christmas.
We were going ‘apartment hunting’ in Columbus the week before, and in the meantime Billy wanted to continue working full-time at the store while I started packing our few belongings for the move. We would both miss our little apartment, the store, the church, the people, but most of all, the mountains! Once again we were embarking on a new adventure, following yet another unmarked path, and neither of us knew what we would find around the next bend, but we were in this together, for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death us do part.