MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 26 – Officer’s Basic
Billy and I had almost ten days together, time we had never had before, and we spent it setting up our new apartment, and exploring the Ft. Benning area before he began his Officer’s Basic classes.
We drove all over the fort from Sand Hill to the airfield, at least on the paved roads. We found many intriguing dirt roads that we hoped to have time to check out later during the summer when they were hard packed clay and not slimy mud as most were in the winter. We found a wonderful creek just off the main road to Sand Hill that seemed shallow enough for wading and had huge flat rocks for sun bathing. It reminded us of the creek near the copper mine, except here the water was the color of the red clay and made its way lazily to the river and the ocean beyond. It was far unlike the wild mountain streams we were used to with clear, rushing waters in a hurry to reach the flatlands where there they could ‘rest’, and finish their journey slowly in the languid waters of the Chattahoochee. When I thought about it, I realized this stream would mingle with those same crystal waters that were now just as mud red as the wide river. Unlike the wooded area surrounding the mountain stream, this creek was very ‘public’ with the highway crossing nearby. Of course, there was always the river, that muddy ribbon of water that ran through the fort on the far side of the airfield, and was the dividing line between Georgia and Alabama.
Billy commented it might be fun to borrow his father’s boat, and go fishing on the river, but I made him promise he would not try to water ski since I could not stand to see him hurt again, and he readily agreed. I think now he was a bit ‘gun shy’, and he had not been back on skis since he had broken his knee. We also talked about having the boys down for a visit since there was so much to see they would enjoy – the parades, the fire power shows, the jump towers, the huge planes used for Airborne training, and the Infantry museum with its plethora of weapons and other memorabilia.
Many of the areas of the fort were ‘restricted’, so we just had to imagine what we might find there, which led to our ‘guessing’ game, and the more outrageous the guess, the harder we would laugh. The ‘prize’ for the most outrageous scenario was the same for both of us since we could ‘choose’ our own ‘prize’. Without going into further detail, let us just say we both had used our imaginations for a wicked night indulging our libidos that most definitely included the other, so no one every really ‘lost’. One guess I made was that down a chain-blocked road, I thought there was a ‘prisoner of war’ camp where Army wives who did not ‘play the game’ had to stay while drilled in proper military etiquette until they were ‘reformed’ into perfect clones. Billy commented that was the one place I certainly would not ever ‘visit’ since he had often seen me reading from my ‘textbook’, ‘The Officers’ Wives’ Guide’ he had bought for me even before we were married. When it came to his turn, Billy said he thought it was a whorehouse where only officers, Colonel and above were allowed, and he won that round. With our little passenger beginning to form words, we were careful not to use any obscene language since we were sure our little ‘man’ would soon turn into a parrot and echo everything he heard, and we were not wrong.
Billy was always making up new ‘games’, and even some that included Michael who loved it when his ‘Daddy’ sang silly songs, although he did not yet understand the words. The louder Billy sang, the harder Michael laughed, and I often threatened to use earplugs! Never was there a dull moment riding in a car with my Billy, even if there was a ‘quiet’ time when Michael would be napping. Then we made our plans for our future, and for hours, we discussed the goals Billy had set for his career. We even talked about how we would be old, gray, and still singing silly songs while exploring the countryside with our twenty-four grandchildren laughing as Grandpa sang.
We made real plans, wishful plans, and silly plans, but all of them included time for making love, whether in the high Sierras on the highest peak, or on the beach in Hawaii, never thinking our ‘wishful’ dreams had much chance of coming true. However, we had fun and we were not in the apartment all day, which at times seemed to make Billy a bit anxious, so we were getting out into the fresh air, which was good for all of us. The weather was too cold and too wet to leave the car and explore, or to drive down any unpaved roads, but spring would be here before we knew it, and we could investigate more thoroughly once the dirt roads were not a morass of sticky red mud. That is all we needed to be stuck in the mud in an ‘off limits’ area!
It was a bit difficult just adjusting to life above ground, so to speak, and more often than not, I had to think about closing the blinds before cutting on the lights after dark. After we put Michael to bed we would curl up on the couch together, snuggling, while Billy watched television and I read a book, and my contentment was complete. Our apartment was the picture of warmth and happiness, and I was satisfied life would always be that way for us; wherever we were living we would create a comfortable, attractive home. Although we talked a lot and made big plans for our futures, Billy did not often bring up the subject of Airborne School since, after he showed me the towers and we watched a jump or two, I expressed horror that something awful would happen to him. After all, he was still quite accident-prone, and had just sprained his bad knee while moving our heavy bedroom furniture.
I took him out to the Martin Army Hospital Emergency Room, which was not very busy that Sunday afternoon, and it only took about an hour to see the doctor, for Billy to have an x-ray of his knee, and to walk out with him on crutches, supposedly for only a few days. Once we got home, I could not let go of him, I lay in his arms while I cried and he tried, in vain, to soothe me. He was hurt, I was the one crying, and I knew it did not make sense, but I loved him so very much.
I had nightmares about jump school, and I could just envision him plunging to his death with his parachute wrapped around him. Wisely, Billy avoided the subject, particularly while he was on crutches, and we just talked about anything but. Our cuddling always led to kissing and touching and those led to, well suffice it to say, we would turn off the television and retire to the comfort of our new queen-size bed, or to a long hot shower, and then our bed.
We also made friends with our neighbors although most were in transit, having just finished one course or another, but finally another lieutenant who was attending basic with Billy, moved into the next building to our right with his wife and their toddler son. Of course, the first thing Billy asked was if they played bridge, and to the delight of both of us, they did and we became firm friends, at least through Basic. I learned as a child that remaining ‘friends for life’ did not happen often due to the nomadic existence of a military family, but you made friends wherever you were and you learned not to cry when it was time to part. Since I led this existence from the third through the eighth grade, I was used to shaking hands and then saying goodbye, but for Billy it was more difficult. He missed Jimmy and Kay, Mr. Moore and the people who worked in the store, and he accepted it would be a rare day indeed that our paths would cross again, so it was hard for him. For me, it was just another day in the life of a military family, and eventually, career Infantry officers usually meet again at Benning since this was the Home of the Infantry.
Soon, classes began with Billy still on crutches – his knee was not healing as quickly as the doctor hoped, but further x-rays showed nothing new. The doctor concluded since it had been badly broken it just might take longer to heal. He was right, and Billy used crutches for two weeks before the pain subsided enough for him not to need them, and for two weeks, I spoiled him, loved him, and did everything I could to make him comfortable. I put ice packs on his knee for the first few days, then the heating pad, and Billy would look at me with his ‘injured puppy’ eyes and my heart would melt, just as he knew it would! He was such a cad, but oh, how I loved him!
Once again, he was a student, and spent his evenings with his head buried in a manual. I tried my best to keep Michael quiet, but our adventuresome son was not one to be ignored, and was crawling all over the apartment, pulling himself up on the furniture and by holding on he could walk from one object to another. Soon he would not need assistance, and I knew that once he walked, he would run, and then the fun would begin. Already we had put the playpen away, only to use on the few occasions if we were to drive to Griffin for the weekend.
Often I would visit our friend’s house while her husband would go down to our apartment and study with Billy, until time for both of the little boys to go to bed. As soon as Michael settled down for the night, I would get a book and sit on the sofa with my handsome husband while he either studied or polished, but we always ended our day making love.
I was long overdue coming off the pill and had an obstetrical appointment scheduled for the middle of January. If only I could stay on the pill, life would be so much simpler, and we could continue our spontaneous lovemaking without concern. However, as soon as I saw the doctor, I would once again have to warn Billy if a certain night or nights were unsafe, and then suffer through days of worry if I was late. Just as I had warned him the night we conceived Michael when I had told him it was unsafe, in fact, I was smack dab in the middle of ovulating, but as always, he told me not to worry. We both worried plenty after it was too late. I wished he could just hold me and kiss me without making love, but it was harder for him than it was for me. I felt loved and safe in his arms, and more aware of the ‘danger’, and I was the one who had to worry for both of us. That is not saying I did not love him to be one with me, thus making him a happy man, but I could have just as well curled up inside of his heart and stayed there forever.
Fortunately, the social life for Officer’s Basic wives included few activities since many of the married officers left their wives at home and lived in the B.O.Q., but this could never have happened with us. For one reason, neither of us had a family life with our parents that we wanted our son exposed to, and for another, we both were intent on being together as much as possible. It was as if neither of us felt ‘whole’ without the other, but together we could accomplish anything. Obviously, it was difficult for him to study with Michael, and sometimes with me, in the same room, but he adjusted, and by trading places with the neighbors, we usually worked it out to the satisfaction of everyone. I could sleep in my Billy’s arms every night, and he did not have to worry about where we were or what we were doing. He wanted us with him as much as I wanted to be with him, but being just a few doors away was acceptable, and sometimes necessary. There were a few nights when he was ‘out in the field’, and the bed felt so big and lonely that often if Michael awoke wet or hungry, I would change him and put him back into bed with me, thus creating a terrible habit that continued for years.
My days were spent keeping our apartment sparkling clean, diapers washed, having meals ready to eat when Billy came home, but most difficult of all, keeping up with a soon-to-be toddler son, who like his father, knew no fear. I attended the few social events for the wives who had accompanied their husbands, and I quickly learned that ‘duty’ not only applied to the officers.
Billy and I continued to struggle financially since $220/month only went so far. Hiring a babysitter was out of the question, which forced me to take Michael to the post nursery, and he hated it – I mean he REALLY hated it. I would leave him screaming, reaching out to me with his pudgy little arms, and I would cry all the way to my function. The ladies working at the nursery tried to assure me he stopped crying just as soon as I was out of sight, but I knew better. When I picked him up, just as soon as I could get away, he was still making those little sobbing sounds in his chest as if he had just stopped screaming and finally run out of tears. I knew my son was miserable and I knew I had to attend these functions in order to be the best officer’s wife I could for Billy’s career. For once, my heart broke when I had to choose between my son’s hatred of the nursery and the obligation to my husband. Surely, we could find a better way, perhaps a neighbor whose husband was in another class, and we could ‘trade’ taking the other’s child. So far, most of the wives who lived nearby either did not have children, or their functions fell on the same days, and we were sure the schedule would not change for our convenience. Often I thought about the saying, “If the Army wanted you to have a wife, they would have issued you one,” and I knew the Army was not about to accommodate a family.
Michael was, without a doubt a ‘Mommy’s Boy’, but I was the one who was with him almost every day and every night. I quickly found a private pediatrician, although our budget could barely stand his fee, but our son was not going to go to the Army doctors, even if we had to eat pineapple sandwiches every night! Even Billy agreed he did not want him treated at the post clinic, so we located Dr. Rivers through our pediatrician’s office in Gainesville. Both Billy and I liked him very much and, much to our surprise, so did Michael. Even better, Dr. Rivers liked Michael and said he was one tough little fellow, and eventually when Michael learned to talk and he needed an immunization, he would scrunch up his little eyes and say, “I’m not going to cry. I‘m going to be an Airborne Ranger!”
Not one tear fell from his eyes, and Mommy was so proud of her ‘big boy’ that whether we could afford it or not, I treated Michael to a fried shrimp lunch at The Black Angus, just down the road from our apartment. Of course, I did not want Michael to like Dr. Rivers too much because I had no idea where we would be going next, although Billy requested to stay at Ft. Benning. However, it was not long before our little boy almost looked forward to his doctor visits.
With only two more weeks of Basic, Billy received orders to Ft. Knox, Kentucky, and our friends were delighted when they received the same orders, but Billy was not happy. He wanted to stay at Benning knowing if we left it would be much more difficult to get back for Airborne and Ranger Schools. In addition, he wanted, no he needed his little family with him as much as possible. With no other option open to him, he made an appointment to meet with his sponsor, and the Infantry School’s Commandant, and hoped they might have a position for him there until he could get into the other classes. Expecting that he was being sent to Ft. Knox for good reason, I was not overly confident that Billy could get his orders changed as easily as he had changed his branch, because once orders are cut, it is very difficult to have them altered. Again, I underestimated the McConnell charm, and Billy was beaming when he came home that evening as the Commandant had obviously fallen under his spell, and found Billy a position as a tact officer at the Officer’s Candidates School. We would be staying at Ft. Benning after all. Now Billy could have the Infantry School’s blue and white ‘Follow Me’ patch sewn onto the right sleeve of his uniforms, and wear the blue Infantry tabs on his shoulders.
Of course, we celebrated that night and splurged on a drive-in movie where we watched a triple feature while Michael slept soundly in the back seat of the car. We also celebrated by making love although I was not too sure I was ‘safe’ and told Billy so, but once again, he said he did not care, and once again we made love several times before falling into an exhausted but satisfied sleep.
After Basic graduation, we bid our friend’s farewell, until we would meet again, hopefully at Ft. Benning for the Officer’s Advanced Course. Vietnam was beginning to gain more attention now, and some of Billy’s classmates were not so sure they wanted to make the Army their career, in spite of the years spent preparing for nothing but. After all, who would want to become a target for the Viet Cong, but better yet, what wife wanted her husband to go to war? Nevertheless, they all had to serve a minimum of two years to work off their R.O.T.C. (Reserve Officer’s Training Corps) contract from college, but for now, it was time for our paths to part, perhaps never to cross again.
Soon there were a few more than usual moving vans coming and going from The Camellia Garden Apartments, although most couples, unlike us, had not brought so much with them that they could not pack it all into a car. I was looking forward to meeting our new neighbors while Billy was still missing the old. He held onto the past while I looked forward to the future. The difference was that he had lived in the same small town all of his life, and had made lifelong friends, or so he thought, while my family had packed up and moved once a year, requiring me to change schools and acquaintances. I learned to make friends easily, and I rarely met a stranger I could not befriend. For Billy, even with his charisma, this was more difficult, although I knew with time, he too would learn how to say ‘farewell’ – until we meet again. Perhaps now since we knew we would stay for a while, we could find neighbors who Billy could share a ride with, and with whom I could share a babysitter, thus sparing our son the trauma of the post nursery.
Every evening when Billy came home, he would ask if anyone new had moved in, and so far, the two empty apartments in our building and the next had stayed that way. Just the two end apartments had occupants, and soon our friends in those would also move on, but I was confident we would find another couple who played Bridge, and if not I was sure I could think of a hundred and one ways to keep my handsome husband occupied!
Here, Billy was still missing our friends in Dahlonega, and now we said farewell to yet another group, but all I had to do to brighten his mood was tell him, “Darling, you still have me, and Michael and I love you more than life itself.”