MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 29 – June 1963 – Last Trip to N.G.C.
On 24 May, our son celebrated his first birthday, and obviously, inherited every one of both of his parents’ bad habits. Our little tyrant was a force all his own!
He was such a handsome little boy, and my mother once said I could not have a little girl any ‘prettier’ than Michael. He was strikingly ‘pretty’ with soft golden hair, eyes shaped like his father’s, although a mixture in color of Billy’s and my own. His little nose was almost like mine, except not quite as turned up, and he had my stubborn chin, but his father’s firm mouth. I could see Billy in him and Billy could see me, so Michael was a good combination of the two of us, as well he should be. Strangers often came up and commented how ‘pretty’ he was, even though his father kept his hair in a crew cut, and that was not exactly a word Billy was fond of hearing applied to his son, but Billy was ‘pretty’ himself, so I was never surprised, just flattered.
For his birthday party, I asked Margaret, Anne and Sheryl, Margaret’s oldest daughter, and a few children who lived nearby, over to our apartment after supper for cake and ice cream. I certainly felt it was important to include some of our childless friends, particularly Karen, who enjoyed playing with Michael and would be leaving soon and of course, Major Mac, who had ‘adopted’ him. Michael delighted in opening his gifts, and like most two-year-old children, he had more cake on him than in him! Billy snapped picture after picture, although neither of us had any idea when we could afford to have them developed!
After the children destroyed the cake and finished off the ice cream, most of us moved lawn chairs out to the backyard, and while the children played in Michael’s molded plastic wading pool, a birthday present from us, the adults visited. These were simple times with simple pleasures, but all the same, just as much enjoyable as the later ‘expensive’ birthday parties at theme parks.
It was not long afterwards I discovered I was pregnant again, and had probably become pregnant the night of our ‘romantic interlude’.
"Serves you right," I thought, and this time I was more to blame than Billy! I missed two periods, and that, along with my mood swings, was a definite sign. One period and I had not worried since when not on the pill, my schedule could be erratic, but two? I was definitely pregnant, although it was about time to go back on the pill. Since Billy was due to go to the field with his OCS platoon, and I did not want him to worry, I delayed telling him.
It was while he was gone, one afternoon in June I started to have severe cramps and to bleed heavily. I called Margaret, and right away, she came and took Michael home with her while a new neighbor, Trish, took me to Martin Army Hospital’s Emergency Room.
The Emergency Room had standing room only that evening, and there was even an elderly man, with yellow skin, who appeared lifeless, lying on gurney in the hallway. In fact, while we were still waiting, an orderly walked by and covered his head with a sheet! We sat, sat, waited, and waited while I continued to cramp and bleed. Finally, they took me in a room where the nurse put my feet in the familiar stirrups so the doctor could examine me. Not having dealt with Army medicine, I was stunned to hear the doctor say, "I can’t tell what is going on, you are bleeding too much. Go home and it will all come out in the wash!"
Did I hear correctly? Surely, I did, for soon I was ushered back to the waiting area and to Trish, who astounded, had no choice but to take me home. Margaret offered to keep Michael for the night, but I wanted him to sleep in his own little bed. That evening while I rocked back and forth in agony on the couch, my precocious son emptied a can of baby powder all over the brown tweed chair, and I could have cared less! It was not long after I put him to bed, the final excruciating, but definitely identifiable, spasms of pain pushed the tiny fetus from my womb, and with relief, the pain stopped. I quickly cleaned myself up, although the heavy bleeding continued, and flushed the toilet with all the remnants of the third child I conceived with Billy, gone forever.
I lay on the sofa crying, and I was not sure if it was grief I was feeling, for another life unfulfilled, or was it relief since we really could not afford another baby right now? Was God punishing me for our first baby or did He, in all His wisdom, understand we were barely making ends meet. I suppose I will never understand why miscarriages happen, but since it had never happened to me, alone and frightened, I allowed my youthful wisdom to prevail and simply assumed there was something terribly wrong with the fetus, which made me abort. Oh how I longed to have Billy’s arms around me that long night as I tossed and turned and cried, although half asleep from sheer exhaustion. Surely, I thought he would be so proud of me for handling this emergency with the help of friends since the Army needed him, supposedly more than I did. However, with self-pity and pain guiding my thoughts all night, I was not so sure who needed him the most.
When Billy came home from the field the next afternoon and found me lying on the couch, definitely not, where I usually would be this time of day, I told him what happened. Although he too was relieved, in a way, he was sad, and told me not to ever go through something like that again without him by my side. He simply could not believe I had not tried to reach him, and he explained that in an emergency there was nothing wrong with calling him out of the field. I told him I thought an emergency was something I could not take care of by myself, or with the help of friends, but he made me promise never again to suffer alone. He then added he should have guessed something was ‘up’ when I was so moody about Airborne School, but then again, I am not so sure even if not pregnant, I would have acted any differently.
On the other hand, when Margaret called Larry out of the field for what she considered an emergency, although I doubt I would have done so, Larry was angry. Yes, my handsome soldier, although dedicated as he was to the Army, still loved me most of all, and for that I was grateful and held the thought in my heart for the longest time.
Not long after my ordeal, I made my semi-annual visit to the OB-GYN clinic, and I could see how the term cattle call’ was born. I explained to the doctor what happened to me just a few days before, and he angrily asked me the emergency room doctor’s name, but I could not remember, I was in too much pain and too frightened. He scanned through my chart, and found that not one single note had been written about the incident, although the date was clearly stamped on an empty line. I knew whoever that doctor was, he was about to be attached to `a combat medical team and would probably never work in the E.R. again, which was fortunate for anyone else who was "bleeding too hard." After the gynecologist did a pelvic and Pap smear, he told me that I was extremely lucky and had a complete spontaneous abortion, and there was nothing left in my womb. He then gave me a prescription for the pills, and told me at least I could count on not getting pregnant for six more months. Relieved that we could enjoy our nights of passion and not worry, I left the clinic, not even asking about the consequences if I forgot to take one or two.
Now Margaret was pregnant again, and she and Larry were more than a little worried how they would support three children on his pay. Thank goodness, he was due to make 1st Lieutenant soon, which would help. The pay jump from 2nd to 1st Lieutenant was appreciable as an ‘incentive’ to keep trained officers from defecting to better paying civilian jobs, and the stability of remaining in one location. There was not much chance of Larry not staying in since his father was a retired Colonel, and Larry had always been under immense pressure to repeat his father’s career. I just hoped this time they had a son since Larry so wanted a boy, and I think the thought that this child might be a boy lessened their anxiety. There certainly was no way to tell which sex anyone would have back then since the ultrasound was a long way from being routinely used on pregnant women, if it had even been invented at all! The only way I knew was the wedding band and thread ‘trick’ my paternal grandmother used when I was pregnant with Michael, and either it worked or she guessed correctly!
One weekend in early June, we went back to Dahlonega and North Georgia College where Billy, cap and gown over his uniform, would receive his diploma with the class of 1963. This ‘diploma’ would be a piece of rolled paper since he had received the ‘real thing’ through the mail not too long after he completed his courses that previous December, and now it was framed and hanging on the wall in our bedroom.
Excited to be going back to the magical campus where we had met and fallen in love, and lived as members of the community, the trip seemed far too long. Michael now knew some of the words to his daddy’s silly songs, and both of my ‘boys’ sang loud and long as our old car tentatively began the climb up Crown Mountain.
"Well, we’re ‘home’!" Billy sighed, as we began to roll down the mountain with the campus lying below us, and beyond that, the town square and Moore’s General Store.
Our first stop was at the store, and Mr. Moore greeted us like long-lost kin, and then congratulated Billy on his airborne wings. Now if only Gene had done this! What a shame that his own father was not as proud as the man was who once employed him. We then drove around the campus, just as the cadets were lining up for lunch, and the campus had not changed a bit, except there were many new faces and only a few familiar ones.
That Saturday night Billy and I attended the Sweetheart ball while Kay, who was pregnant again, kept Michael for us. We sat with another couple who had lived in the Valley the same time we were there, but now he was in training to become a helicopter pilot. I could not get over how mature she looked and how glamorous in her cocktail dress of gold lame` that matched, almost perfectly, the gold of her hair that she had pinned up in a sleek bun. She must have looked at least ten years older than I did, and next to her, I felt like a high school student at the prom. I have to admit I was so jealous thinking Billy struck dumb by her beauty since he was so quiet. How I wished, I had not worn the pink dress, with large roses that I had worn to the O.C.S. party, and that I had time and the money to have my hair fixed, but I wore it in a ‘flip’, the same style I wore when I was a student. Certainly compared to her, I looked like a teenager, not like the wife of an officer and the mother of a two-year-old son. Billy, in his dress blue uniform, looked every inch the Airborne Infantry officer he was, and I remembered he had once said he preferred blondes, so I thought surely his silence indicated that our glamorous ex-neighbor mesmerized him.
What I did not know was that Billy honestly had nothing to say since he had never cared for her husband, who I could barely abide. He was totally self-absorbed, cold, and uncaring, and had, at least one time, hit her so hard she could not show her face for a week, or at least that is what we heard through the valley’s grapevine. Then there was another incident when he threw a garbage can from one end of their tiny, but immaculately tidy, trailer to the other and showered everything with filth. He was also cruel to his peers, and had once told Billy he looked great in anything he wore except a uniform, which was mean and uncalled for, and so very wrong. I soothed Billy’s hurt feelings that day, since he was not used to hearing he did not look good, and I told him the other cadet was just jealous since he did not look good in anything.
We both probably would have enjoyed our evening more if we had not been privy to our ex-neighbor’s frequent bragging, so we danced more than we sat, and visited other friends sitting at other tables. I could have done without seeing both of them, but vowed to work on becoming more sophisticated in my dress and mannerisms, although Billy commented that I looked perfect and he would take me over her any day, or anyone else there.
He danced with me as always, seeking the corners so he could sneak a kiss, although demerits certainly were not a problem anymore. As we danced, I felt his love for me, and words were unnecessary since we both instinctively knew how to soothe each other’s bruised or inferior feelings. That night as we left the ball, I felt I was not leaving any memories behind; rather I had taken them with me when Billy and I moved to Columbus. He was the only memory I needed, and I would always have him to remind me of the magic that had occurred that January night in this special place at that special time, even if I never saw the campus again.
The entire weekend revolved around the graduation ceremony, when Billy in cap and gown would receive that piece of paper he worked so hard to obtain, often studying while rocking our newborn son. We stayed in the old Cherokee motel and its shabbiness reminded me of that one night when we first stayed there after I left my parent’s house forever. We checked out first thing on Sunday morning and ate breakfast with Kay and Jimmy, who kept Michael again during the commencement ceremony, which meant nothing to me except when they called my handsome soldier’s name to receive his diploma.
We then went with Kay and Jimmy to The Smith House for a celebration lunch, and with both of the little boys, adorable in their new suits, we returned to campus for the parade. Jimmy would be graduating soon, but he was not on contract so would not be receiving a commission. They planned to move back to the Atlanta area and Jimmy wanted to go to work for Lockheed since the pay was good and the benefits even better. In addition, with what looked like a full-fledged war seemingly on the horizon, business would boom. We knew we would not see them much, if at all, since our trips to Atlanta were infrequent and usually short, but they had been good friends and we would always miss them.
With the parade over and our goodbye’s said to Kay and Jimmy, it was almost as if the car knew the way ‘home’ to Ft. Benning, and our warm and hospitable apartment. I asked Billy if he felt like he still belonged here, but like me, he agreed we had moved on.
"I love North Georgia College," he said, "but more because I met you here than any other reason. The military started me on the long journey to adulthood, but it was not until I had someone who I loved more than anything else in the world, and who loved me the same, for better or for worse, that I really began to grow. I do not know what would have happened to me if I had not met you, little girl. I am not even sure if I would ever have graduated since I was more interested in being in Griffin than here. No, you are what made this campus special, special enough to keep me here on the weekends, but now we both have moved on."
With this, he reached for my hand, and said, "Now why don’t you come over here so I can put my arm around you?"
Those were wonderful days, those last days of summer, 1963, but I could not help but wonder where our path would lead us when the O.C.S. classes resumed. I was just thinking once again I would lose my husband to what I was beginning to call ‘that damn Army’, when really he was only doing his duty. Like me, Billy did not know how to do anything halfway. It was all or nothing, and I should have been more understanding, but it was difficult when all I wanted was to be with him and in his arms. Like the words of one of ‘our songs’, I seemed to love him more each day, and just when I thought it impossible to love him any more, I always did. My favorite part of any day was the moment he walked in the door, whether early or late, and I continued to spoil him by removing his boots and gently washing his tired, hot feet with cool water. Yes, I knew I had started something I could never stop, but I delighted each time I was able to comfort him, even in this small way.
In return, he found many ways to comfort me, none more satisfying than simply wrapping his big arms around me and holding me close while he whispered, "Little girl, I love you more than life itself."
I just prayed this reverie would last forever, although I knew eventually he too would go to war and I would just have to cross that bridge when I came to it. For now, I too would love him more than life itself.