MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 3 - January-February, 1961
© 2003 Diane Sanfilippo
Chapter 3 – January – February, 1961
Margaret and Linda had been waiting on me to get back from my date, and pulled me into their room, which was at the head of the main stairs. They wanted to know all the details. Later, Linda said I looked like a lovesick puppy, and that is just what I was, a lovesick Diane. All I could do was look at them and stutter, "I l-l-love him!" And he asked me to wear his ring!"
They jumped up and down with squeals and giggles but I just stood there as if stunned by my own admission and I did love him; amazingly, astonishingly, I was in love with Billy McConnell, after just one date and a hundred kisses.
There was very little sleep for me that night as I lay awake and wondered if he was serious, or just having fun with a vulnerable freshman, but if that was so, then why had he told me he loved me. I had never run into anyone as ‘slick’ as Billy McConnell, and I knew he was just that, ‘slick’, but I had never felt this way about anyone, not even those boys I seriously thought I loved at one time or another. Billy was different. He was wonderful, he was handsome, and I truly did not understand why he seemed to be so crazy about plain old me. Once again, my low self-esteem rose to the surface, but now as I look back on the photos taken of me at the time, I was pretty, and when I was with Billy McConnell, I glowed; we both glowed. We were in love.
Monday morning I woke, as usual, to the sound of cadets drilling, with the company’s master sergeant shouting out the first and every other line of each cadence as the cadets echoed his every call. Sometimes the different platoon sergeants led the cadence, and I knew Billy was a platoon sergeant in F Company. I rushed to the window to see if I could find him, but one company looked the same as all the others in the early morning haze, and I did not know him well enough yet to recognize his voice above all the others.
‘Charlie, Charlie had big feet
Stretched from here to Market Street
Market Street was made of glass
Charlie fell and broke his…
I’m a knucklehead -
I’m a knucklehead
Say it again!
One, two, three, four,
‘I’m going to be an Airborne Ranger,
Live a life of peril and danger,
Hit it again
One, two, three, four,
There was a wide variety of drill calls, from humorous to serious, and even slightly profane.
Lying in my bunk I usually put my pillow over my head to shut out the voices of 1000 cadets as they marched around and around the road circling the drill field. This morning was different, I longed to see Billy and to hear his voice, and my roommate thought I had lost my mind and told me to go back to bed, but, shivering in my baby-doll pajamas, I watched and listened as the cadets continued their morning routine. In turn, as each company paused below the windows of Lewis Hall, again they shouted loudly and made ‘pig’ sounds. They thought this was funny, and hoped their shouts would wake us, since, obviously, we did not have to arise as early as they did. They may have jokingly called the co-eds ‘pigs’, but they certainly dated us, loved us, and married us! Not many co-eds graduated from North Georgia College since most of us met and married upper classmen, and were Army officers’ wives long before we would have graduated from college. Some managed to go back and finish their interrupted education during their husband’s first hardship tour, if not encumbered by babies and some even if they were, but it did not happen too often. I used to joke that the college should have issued us The Officers’ Wives’ Guide as a mandatory textbook and held a class on the subject, although later it did not seem such a bad idea. Some co-eds, who dated boys in their own class, did manage to graduate, others, if only one year separated them from their cadet, often would finish their last year and then marry, but they were the exception rather than the rule as the upper classmen had first call on the co-eds.
Each September, as the new crop of ‘ladies’ arrived for their first meal at the mess hall they were ogled and ‘checked out’ by the cadets while they stood in formation behind the building, the officers, the seniors, gathered around the door to get a better look. They were choosing the girls they wanted to meet. After supper we would have an informal get-together outside under the lights, and the upper classmen would seek out the girls they had found particularly attractive, thus the freshman girls would meet the older cadets who were not already ‘taken’.
Now back to my story.
I dressed hurriedly that Monday morning, but carefully styled my hair and put on my make-up, and skipped breakfast, as usual. It was all I could do not to run to the canteen to meet Billy, but I deliberately and slowly, along with some friends, chatting as if this was just another day, walked without the haste boiling inside of me. I had known what my answer would be before we parted on Sunday night, and I think he knew too, but once again my insecurities were working overtime and I thought all the way over to the canteen he would not even be there. Perhaps he had changed his mind and regretted asking me to take his ring in the throes of passion. Or even worse, he would be watching me from a dark corner and laugh with his friends as I searched the crowded room for him. He would tell them how ‘easy’ I had been and how we had kissed until our lips were sore, and then he would tell them I was naïve and fell for his line and really thought he loved me. This was my apprehension. I would not even tell my friends about him – not yet. The impossibility of falling in love on the first date just did not seem real in the morning light.
When we finally reached the canteen, I took a deep breath before opening the heavy solid door and convinced myself he would not be there so I would not be disappointed, but there he was, standing with friends, right in front of the door waiting for me. My heart once again turned somersaults when I saw him, and I simply walked up to him, smiled and said, "Yes." Perhaps, falling in love on the first date was real after all.
With that, he thrust his ring into my hand and told me to wait right there. He hurriedly walked to the back of the canteen into the bookstore, but returned quickly with a small box in his hand. Inside the lid, he had taken the time to write, ‘Too bad, so sad. Billy Mc!’ Now, I knew this was the box to send Alex’s ring back, and stunned I simply handed the ring to him. When I think about it now I realize how unkind and callous this was to Alex without even a note or explanation, but someone new possessed my heart and my soul, and had almost totally taken over my mind. His name was Billy McConnell!
From that moment on, there would never be a moment when he was not in my thoughts, and as much as possible I was in his arms. It was not too many days later, my class-ring arrived from Alex, also without a note, and Billy proudly wore it on his watchband. Now we were truly a couple.
I was his and he was mine, and I had absolutely no intention of letting this one get away, not ever! Even if I had a crystal ball and I could have seen our future, I would have loved Billy, regardless of the pain and the heartbreak that followed, regardless of the short time we had to love one another. Even if God, Himself, had told me the very day I met Billy, He would only allow us a certain amount of time to love one another; I would have pleaded to allow me the pleasure.
Today, I still thank Him for the time we did have together, and the memories that keep Billy forever in my heart. I thank Him daily for our children and our grandchildren, and I cannot leave this Earth to be in Billy’s arms forever until I tell our story. If our story can offer hope, restore memories, and take the reader on their own journey back to those magic years of innocence, forever lost, then I will feel my life has come full circle, and soon it will be my turn to return to that day, forever.
No longer did I cover my head with my pillow to muffle the sounds of the cadets drilling, and instead of rolling over and going back to sleep when I heard the first ‘count cadence’ command, I was instantly out of my bed. With my elbows propped on the wide granite windowsill, I sat in the desk chair, and scanned the sea of green uniformed cadets looking for my Billy. The cardboard ‘F’ wrapped in aluminum foil for maximum visibility covered the top half of the window and glistened in the morning sun like a huge reflector so all could see that one coed loved a cadet in ‘F’ Company, and our window was hard to miss – right in the front, almost dead center. I just hoped Billy was looking for me too. If only I could catch a glimpse of him as ‘F’, Company drilled past Lewis Hall.
Maybe it was my imagination but I was always so sure I saw him, and listening carefully, I hoped to hear his voice since sometimes he led the drill, and I knew he would ask me if I heard him. Wanting to answer truthfully, it did not take long before I learned to recognize him above all the others, or at least I thought so. Poor Lucia would cover her head with her pillow, roll over, and moan something under her breath, something about my being ‘love sick’, and perhaps I was, but for the first time in my life, I became a ‘morning’ person all because of this handsome cadet who had spun my world around.
Filled with longing to be with Billy, my days and nights blended into a constant desire to be in his arms, our lips touching ever so gently. This feeling was not one I had ever experienced before Billy, I had my own life, my own friends, and my own activities, but now he was all that was important. Sure, I had enjoyed being with my ‘boyfriend of the month’, as some of my friends began to call the boys I dated, and they began to consider me fickle, but no longer. Never had I wanted to be with anyone nearly as much as I wanted to be with Billy, and that meant all of the time. Often our evenings together ended in tears from having to say goodnight, with me running up the front steps to Lewis Hall and Billy standing there feeling helpless. There was no doubt in my mind he hated to be apart too, and we both plotted and planned to meet on every occasion possible.
Somehow, I managed to keep up my grades during this whirlwind courtship, although I will never know how, but poor Billy struggled with his far more advanced classes. In addition, his time-consuming military duties kept him more occupied, but somehow my A - B average remained constant. When I was not with him, I was dreaming about being with him, and when I was with him, I was dreaming about being alone with him. When we were alone, whether in the library where Mrs. Harris allowed us to use the upstairs study room, or parked somewhere on one of the myriad of deserted dirt roads that surrounded the town of Dahlonega, I was wishing we had more time to be alone. I simply could not get enough of him, and obviously, the feeling was mutual. Outside of skipping classes, which was a demerit offense for cadets, while co-eds could be ‘fined’ a dollar if the professor pushed the issue, we were together wherever and whenever we could find the time. We would meet each morning in the canteen, and he even learned how to play bridge so we could play as partners instead of him just watching. Mostly though we sat side by side and both of us played the same hand so we could, not so secretly, hold hands under the table, or just sit close enough for our shoulders to touch. Surely, the other students could hear my heart beating so rapidly I could barely breathe, just to smell him, to touch him and to have him touch me. A simple brush of shoulders was enough to overwhelm me with desire for his long, sweet kisses, and his soft touch as he caressed my face with his strong hands. We both found it so very difficult to keep our hands to ourselves as our love practically filled any room we were in together, and I began to despise the ‘no display of public affection’ rule that bound the cadets from any ‘touch’. Lost, completely lost in love, I knew my world would never be the same again. This feeling was so unlike any other I had ever felt before there was no doubt this was not just a ‘crush’. For the first time and hopefully for the last time, I was experiencing the ‘real thing’, and I could think of nothing I had rather do than be with Billy McConnell for the rest of our lives.
Most of our friends were very happy for both of us, but there were some who were not. Although thoughts of a serious relationship with Dan, another freshman, had never entered my head, at one time I had wanted to date him, and finally, right before Christmas break, he asked me to go to a dance scheduled for January. We had met, and had been friends since we met the day we took our IQ tests for college entrance the December prior to our high school graduations, and now we had several classes together. Since I had just broken up with Don, I agreed to go to the dance with him. I had always thought Dan was ‘cute’, but just a freshman, and I was looking for an ‘older’ man – a husband. During that first morning of classes, after giving my heart to Billy and hanging his ring around my neck, I dreaded having to tell Dan I could not go to the dance with him. Outside the classroom, Dan approached first to say he had decided not to join the social club that was the sponsor of the recruiting event, although e still wanted to take me out. He said he had wanted to ask me for a date since we met, and thought perhaps we could do something else like go to the movie, and then to the Dixie for a coke. There certainly was not much else for the students to do on the weekend, particularly without a car, and freshmen could not have cars. Opportunely, this made it easier to tell Dan, that although disappointed since I had always wanted to go out with him too, unexpectedly an event had intervened. Only then did I pull Billy’s ring, hanging on my gold chain, out of my sweater where I had kept it discreetly hidden, at least until I could break the date with Dan.
When he asked whose ring it was, when and how we had met, all he could say after I answered his questions was "Wow! Fast worker! Seems like just when I get up the nerve to ask you out, you have just found an upper classman boyfriend. I guess freshmen don’t stand a chance around here."
Reminding Dan that next year he would be an upper classman, we remained friends.
Another freshman friend, Ronnie, whose wife, Carol, and young son lived in Atlanta but often stayed in our dorm room on weekend visits, abruptly asked in a most contrary tone, "You aren’t really going steady with him, are you?" A marked emphasis was on the word "him."
"Of course I am," I answered, "I am not in the habit of wearing a boy’s ring for the fun of it," but he refused further comment, probably fearing backlash from an upper classman. Sadly, we were never close friends again and I never understood the cause of his intense dislike of my handsome Billy. Once, years later, Billy and I with our young son, Michael, met Ronnie, Carol and their son coming out of the Cyclorama in Atlanta. We merely acknowledged each other and neither of us tried to stop and hold a conversation. Ronnie had hard feelings towards Billy for some reason, and even years later I never knew why, in fact Billy told me he did not even know him. Perhaps Billy had been rather strict with the freshmen, but that was the way at North Georgia – if they couldn’t ‘cut it, weed ‘em out’, and believe me, many freshman cadets never returned after Christmas break. Ronnie was the first of only two people who ever voiced obvious dislike for my Billy.
The other person, my best friend’s husband, told me why he had disliked him, but much later in life, and I was appalled and disgusted since his reason was he had been, and was, in love with me! He went on to say the two of us had been so much in love we were ‘silly’, and I reveled in the memories of those ‘silly’ times and was overjoyed that others could see how much we were in love.
Billy had such a gregarious personality a room lit up when he entered, or so it seemed to me. In retrospect, perhaps that was just the glow on my face when I was with him. There was no doubt my life had lit up the night we met, and it would never be the same again.
My roommate who rarely approved of anything I did, actually liked Billy a lot and my other friends who knew him liked him even more. He was charming, and he went out of his way to be so with Lucia, but she thought, as a couple, we would never last.
We took advantage of every opportunity possible to be together, in the canteen, after classes and at night in the library, and on weekends. I asked Billy if his parents did not question him about why he did not come home anymore since he had been going home every weekend. He told me his father had called and asked if anything was wrong, and he had told him that he had met a very special girl and suddenly, everything was right.
Soon I began to feel selfish and question if perhaps Billy could not study when I was with him, so we tried to limit the nights we would meet, but we both found it even more difficult to study since all we did was daydream. It was hard for me not to be with him, but it broke my heart as he failed test after test. I wanted to make it easier for him so I tried not to be ‘demanding’, but the more I tried to give him room, the more he seemed to make time for me. Once he said when it seemed as if I did not want to be with him, he worried that I wanted to be with someone else, so it was easier for him if we were together. On the nights in the library when I worked in the reserved book section, he would slip inside the Dutch door and sit in the small room where a desk was tucked into a corner out of view from the other students and Mrs. Harris, the librarian, but I don’t think we really had her fooled, not at all.
Every afternoon, after my last class, I rushed to the library and I always found him asleep in the stacks, his head resting on his arms while he sat at one of the small desks by a back window. I knew the military regimen was more than I could keep up with – polishing, dusting, waxing floors until they shined like mirrors, inspecting, and keeping his room ready for inspection, let alone a heavy load of classes on top of it. I admired his persistence in wanting to spend every free moment he could with me, and since I worked in the library several afternoons a week, he wanted to be there when I was there. He said he was afraid some other cadet would see me, fall in love just as he had, and he would lose me, but if he was right there, he could make sure it did not happen.
We were both possessive and jealous, so I understood, I had cringed when I saw him in conversation with another co-ed, and while I conjured up all manner of scenarios, they were talking about me! Certainly, I had no reason to think, as I had done in the past that he would keep a bird in hand and a bird in the bush, but jealousy is a demanding mistress, and for me, it was more fear I would lose him, and I would be alone. If for some reason he could not stay in the library until my class was over, he always left a note for me in our ‘secret place’, and after all these years I still have a few of them, but more often than not, he was there waiting.
One of my favorite memories occurred one afternoon when my class was dismissed early. When I found Billy, sitting at the desk in the back of the stacks, he had on eyeglasses, I had never seen him wear before, and in fact, I did not know he wore them at all. I slipped up behind him, put my arms around his shoulders, and kissed the top of his head; startled he quickly pulled off the glasses as he spun around to take me in his arms. Just as quickly, I told him to put them back on since he was just as handsome with or without them, as indeed he was, and if they helped him to read, then by all means, I wanted him to wear them. Continuing to flatter him, I told him they made him look ‘older and more mature’ and softened his face as I slipped the glasses back on. Without a word, he held me closer and we kissed and kissed until once again my heart was beating so wildly I could not breathe, and his glasses fogged over by the steam of our rapid breaths.
Just as I thought my heart could not take much more, he whispered in my ear, "Little girl if I did not already love you, I would fall in love with you right now."
As I discovered each unique trait that was his and his alone, each fascinated me, and when he concentrated on something, whether it was his studies or polishing his shoes and brass, he held his tongue between his teeth, the tip barely showing out of the left corner of his lips, and I never tired of watching him. Oh! How I loved his tongue, particularly when he gently slipped it into my mouth when we kissed! His individuality made him who he was, charming and distinctive, and this made me love him even more, and I certainly had never thought much about the habits of the other boys I dated. What was wrong with me? I loved him in his glasses, I loved him without his glasses, I loved him when he was concentrating, and I loved him when he was asleep. I loved him when we were together, alone or in a crowd, and I loved him when we were apart. There was absolutely nothing I did not love about this handsome cadet, my darling Billy.
It was not long after I started wearing Billy’s ring, a friend of Don’s, seeing Billy walk away to his own class, came up to me in the hallway and said Don wanted me to meet him. At the time, I thought perhaps this was a good idea, and after seeing Don and perhaps even after kissing him again, if I still felt the same about Billy, then I would know he was truly extraordinary. After all, at one time, just last quarter, I thought I was in love with Don, but he rarely crossed my mind anymore, and I certainly never looked for him. I had just never had feelings about anyone the way I did for Billy, not ever, and I was having a difficult time dealing with the emotions, and yes, desire, whirling around inside my body, my heart, and my head. Through his friend, I arranged to meet Don at the top of a stairwell in the Academic building between classes so no one would see us.
We met, we talked, and Don said he wanted to date again and that he still loved me. We kissed and that is all it was, a kiss, and I felt none of the butterflies or bells ringing I felt when I kissed Billy. No tummy tingles nor heart palpitations, not any of the emotions that made Billy’s kisses so special, and I did not even feel what I used to feel when I kissed Don before I met Billy. In spite of Don’s protestations that what I now said I felt for Billy, was what I once said I felt for him, I told him, irrevocably, indeed I had never felt as if I were floating on air when I was with him. Finally, I said I did feel all of these things, and even more, when I was with Billy and the two of us could never get back together. Without a doubt, I loved Billy McConnell with all my heart and I told Don if Billy ever broke my heart, there would not be enough left to love anyone else ever again and I said good-bye, I thought for good. The next year Don transferred to another school in another state, following his best friend, and it was not until years later we would meet again under different circumstances, but once again, he was too late.
Although I had been cautious about time, we were still standing on the landing when the last bell for the last classes of the day rang, and everyone who came down those stairs saw us standing there together. I knew it was only a matter of time before Billy found out, and terrified he would break up with me and never see me again, I rushed back to my dorm, praying no one who saw us would tell him.
I hoped he would never find out, but that was asking too much, but at the very least, I wanted to tell him myself, and explain. Since I was not working in the library that night, I would not see him until the next morning, and since he did not often call, unless it was to set a time and place to meet, I was so nervous I almost called him. Afraid I might give myself away, I did not make the call, rather cried all night long, while Lucia gloated, thinking once again I had done something very stupid, and lost the best thing that had ever happened to me.
The next morning I woke to pouring rain, so heavy at times it sounded like a wave splashing against our window, and the cadets could not drill as the temperature had dropped to near freezing. Slivers of icy sleet struck our faces and uncovered hands as we made our way to classes that morning and the temperature continued to drop while the campus looked like a cold and lonely place without the cadets drilling. I knew Billy would not be in the canteen that morning since he had an appointment to talk to his advisor, so I would not see him until after my last class.
That day was the only time I can remember when the entire student body sat upstairs in the auditorium above the mess hall while the usual order of lunch was followed, the same as if there had been no rain. First Battle Group filed downstairs with Honor Company from the year before in the lead, followed by the co-eds, then Second Battle Group. ‘F’ Company was in the Second, so I hoped I would see Billy before I had to leave and indeed, I would have skipped lunch just to be with him.
The smell of wet wool from the cadet’s uniforms mingled with the scent of the co-eds’ ‘Charlie’ perfume permeated the small auditorium that cold, rainy day, while I sat with some friends. Frantically I hoped Billy would be able to find me in the crowded auditorium filled with green uniforms and the co-eds’ bright raincoats. How I longed to steal a moment just to ‘hold hands’. Mostly I wanted to explain the foolish mistake I made when I agreed to meet Don and ask if he could find it in his heart to forgive me.
Unexpectedly, Tommy, who was in Band Company with Don, but one of Billy’s best friends, sat down beside me and said, "Congratulations, I hear you are getting married!"
I was stunned! I tried to retain my composure, and since I had not heard I was getting married, nor had I received any such proposal, I tried in vain, with my voice quivering, to calmly ask Tommy just whom was I going to marry? He then told me Billy had heard about Don meeting me on the stairs in the Academic building, and he had looked for Don all day until he finally found him in the latrine smoking a cigarette. Tommy continued and told me Billy had pulled Don up by his tie, pinned him against the bathroom wall, and told him to stay away from ‘his girl’. He then told Don and everyone else in hearing range I was the girl he was going to marry, and he did not want to ever catch him anywhere near me again. With concern in my voice, I questioned Tommy if there had been a fight, since I had no idea how I would react if Billy had been hurt because of me, although I never thought about Don being hurt, nor did I care. All I could think about was my Billy. Tommy assured Billy had full control of the situation, and added that he sure never wanted to make him mad.
Since North Georgia had such a limited enrollment it did not take long for any unusual incident to spread like wildfire throughout the cadet corps and the co-eds, and already I began to hear whispers all around me, or was it my imagination? Before the day was over, the entire scenario, completely blown out of proportion, was all over the campus! Some stories even suggested we were already married, and I was pregnant! All suggested we were sleeping together, which was entirely untrue, at least at that point in our relationship.
Although it seemed forever, it was only a few minutes after Tommy sat down when Billy found us. Tommy quickly vacated his seat to allow Billy to sit next to me, and my heart melted at the sight of him. He did not mention the confrontation in the latrine, and I acted as if I had not heard since I did not want to talk about it in front of the entire student body when so many eyes were already watching us. We did not discuss the incident then, and Billy did not act as if anything was wrong or he was angry with me, so I was just grateful for the short time we were able to be together before lunch. As I slipped my small hand into Billy’s large one and his blue eyes penetrated my own green eyes, I felt ‘safe’ and loved, and quite alone in this huge room overflowing with uniformed cadets, and coeds in their Bobby Brooks skirts and sweaters. I looked at him with love shining in my eyes as I mouthed the words, "I love you," and he did the same and covered my hand with his other hand. Oh, how I wanted to reach up and put my arms around him, or touch his face, but I had to be satisfied with our ‘hand sandwich’, and the love that poured out of his eyes into mine. Words were no longer necessary between us; we seemed to know what the other was thinking. His eyes were telling me how much he loved me, and mine were replying, "me too". It was so hard not to put my head on his shoulder as my body shuddered with longing, but I knew it was not possible, not now, not here, but soon.
That afternoon when we met in the library and no one else was around I began by telling him I was sorry I had agreed to meet with Don, but I needed to put him completely behind me before I could be sure our love was as special as none other had ever been.
He softly put his finger to my lips and said, "s-h-h-h-h, little girl, I am just glad you got him out of the way, and I won. You might always have wondered, but now he is history. What bugs me the most is the thought of that damn drummer kissing you!"
After I assured him it would never happen again, that I never wanted to be kissed by anyone other than him, I asked if he had told Don, and the rest of the cadets in the latrine, that he was going to marry me.
With a grin on his face and a sparkle in his eyes, Billy replied, "Of course I did! We are getting married, you know."
Well, I did now!
Pulling me close to him, once again we made out in the stacks, kissing as if we had been apart, or would be apart, for weeks, and finally with his arms around me I lost myself in the warmth of him. Leaning my head against his chest, our heartbeats melded into one and I could not have been happier.
"I love you, Billy McConnell," I whispered, "I love you ever so much my darling Billy!"
"Diane," he whispered back, with his face buried in my hair, "I love you more than I ever thought possible to love anyone, and I want to keep you close to me, to take care of you, and to love you for the rest of my life."
My heart simply stopped beating with these words, and I wondered if it could survive Billy McConnell, and will it survive this telling of our story?
It was just a few nights later, while taking a shower, I accidentally dropped Billy’s high school class ring on the hard tile bathroom floor, and the glittering green stone shattered. I felt awful and did not know how I would tell Billy, but he would be sure to notice. The next morning when I saw him in the canteen before classes, I told him I had done something dreadful.
He turned pale as the blood drained from his face, but when I showed him the ring, he let out a huge breath and laughed aloud as he said, "Is that all? I thought you were going to tell me you wanted to date Don again, or someone else. That’s just a ring, darling, and I don’t care anything about that, not like I care about you – we are important, you and me, and I will trade that ring for a gold band just as soon as we can get married."
I was so relieved he had not been angry I promised him he never had to worry I would meet anyone else, not ever again, and I certainly never wanted to be with anyone but him. I promised he was the only one I truly loved or had ever loved, or would ever love again. Pleased with my promises, he echoed my words back to me, committing to me forever as if we were prematurely repeating wedding vows. As he ran his fingers over the top of my hand, he whispered over, and over, how much he loved me,
"My little girl, I love you more than life itself" and this became ‘our promise’.
That was as formal a proposal as I would ever get, and still I had not answered, but he knew. We both knew we would marry. It was just a matter of timing and consequence, but I do not think either of us thought it would be anytime in the very near future. I was perfectly content to be ‘Mac’s girl’, and to continue to enjoy my life on campus, while he seemed not quite as content since he wanted more, much more than I was ready to give, at least so soon. Emotionally our relationship had come far further, far faster than the actual time had lapsed, and I was still ‘holding out’.
Occasionally we would ‘double-date’ since Billy had a car and not many other cadets did at that time, and because of our Saturday morning classes, we would take off for Atlanta immediately following lunch. This one afternoon we left before lunch and stopped by his grandmother’s house in the West End of Atlanta so he could change out of his uniform. I remained in the car with our friends, but ‘Bubba’, Billy’s grandmother, came outside and introduced herself. Many years later, she told me Billy asked her to go meet me because I was the girl he was going to marry. We both accepted marriage was inevitable and just really needed something or someone to ‘push’ us into it, and indeed that is exactly what happened, but again I am getting ahead of myself.
One of the unique social occasions at North Georgia College was the ‘school sponsored blanket parties, so let me explain what this is all about. I had been on my first and only ‘blanket party’ the previous fall with Don so I knew all the details.
In early spring, once the weather became tolerable, one warm weekend, ‘F’ Company decided it was time for the season’s first ‘blanket party’. Now these parties were off-campus usually at a wooded picnic site or state park, and they had to be chaperoned by staff. It did not take long before a staff member and his wife volunteered since they usually had almost as much fun as the students. Couples would get together and anyone who had a car would drive while a van or bus was available for the others.
The chaperones took food for a cookout - usually hot dogs, marshmallows, chips and watermelon, and sometimes the melons were ‘spiked’ with vodka because it was not supposed to have an odor. Both Billy and I could smell a ‘spiked’ melon a mile away, a result of growing up in alcoholic homes, and neither of us was interested in eating it.
Each couple carried a blanket, maybe two depending on the weather, sometimes even a small portable radio. Allowed a certain amount of time to scatter into the woods around the recreation area and supposedly to just ‘make out’, we would spread out in different directions, and I am sure there were a few babies conceived at these ‘blanket parties’. After a couple of hours, a whistle summoned us when it was time to head back to the rec area for the cookout, and the first whistle was a warning to start getting our blankets folded and begin the walk back, the second whistle meant you only had a few minutes to get back before the third and final whistle. Any cadet who arrived after the final whistle could receive demerits, although this seldom happened, rather the couple would have to endure the teasing, and someone had to be last!
I suppose the parties started because there were so few campus activities over the weekend and there was only one theatre in town that occasionally would feature a somewhat recent film. Unfortunately, the two films most popular with the local crowd were on the marquee far too frequently. One was ‘Thunder Road’, with Robert Mitchum, and was about driving fast and running from the law with a trunk full of ‘white lightning’, known as ‘moonshine’ to others, or illegally processed liquor, a major industry in the area. The other film was ‘Climb the Highest Mountain’, an inspirational story based on a minister who had come to preach in the rough and almost inaccessible North Georgia Mountains in the late 19th century. Since this one featured the nearby mountains, churches and homes, with some of the citizens of the county used as ‘extras’, there was usually a full house of locals in the theatre when it was shown. Unfortunately, although a beautiful story, once seen, once forgotten, and I could only take so much of ‘Thunder Road’ although Billy enjoyed that one. So due to the limited recreation, both on and off campus, someone in the past came up with the idea of the ‘blanket party’ to give cadets and co-eds time to be alone where the rules about ‘display of public affection’ did not apply. Without these parties, there would have been a corps of frustrated cadets, and a dorm full of prickly co-eds.
On the day of ‘F’ Company’s party, I came as close as I had ever come to losing my virginity. Oh, Billy was so smooth, and he said all the right things, and I came very, very close to giving in, but I was so afraid if I gave in, I would lose him. My virginity was the only thing I had that was mine to give when I was ready to give it, and I was not ready that Saturday in early February. I still do not know how I managed to hold out that afternoon, but I did. We did everything but make love, and I have never felt as loved or as comfortable with anyone as I felt with Billy. It just seemed as if I had known him forever, and neither of us had wasted any time telling the other about our past ‘loves’. We had matched one another with story after story, and while I despised hearing about him with anyone else, I regaled that now he was mine. Soon we would make it until ‘death us do part’.
It is not easy to find the words to describe how I felt when in the arms of my handsome Billy, but my heart had never ached to be in anyone else’s arms. Never had I experienced feelings like these, nor did I recognize the lust since I had never even heard the word, and truly, I did not know what the outcome would be if he ever tired of me and left me alone. Already I knew I could not live without him, nor would I care about life without him loving me. I was sure it would kill me to see him with another girl, and I even hated the thought he had ever been with any other, but I knew he had since he was obviously very experienced. After we had shared the stories of our boyfriends and girlfriends from high school, he said he would ‘kill’ any boy who ever put a hand on me again, even lightheartedly. He was adamant I was ‘his’ now, and all others no longer existed for both of us, and I knew this to be true, at least for me.
Although I had assured him I had never ‘done it’, he kept trying to convince me to give in by telling me how much it would ‘prove’ my love for him. Sometimes I thought he did not even believe I was still a virgin, and that day, alone in the woods, lying on one blanket with another covering us, it was with much difficulty I kept my honor intact. We were the last to arrive after the second whistle, and we received the usual teasing, as most assumed we had been intimate, especially after the scene with Don in the latrine. We were both a bit ‘wrinkled’, but I simply did not care; I knew who I was, and what I was, and I had not surrendered - at least not yet.
The weekend of Valentines Day, the co-eds traditionally sponsored a dance in the basement of Lewis Hall, and of course, Billy and I would not have missed it. We were dancing when ‘R.K.’ cut in. He was the Brigade Sgt. Major, and the cadet most likely to be Brigade Commander the next year, and he rarely had a date since he was so serious about his studies and the military. He and Billy had been classmates at Griffin High School, and although R.K. was a year behind, he had caught up and overtaken Billy at North Georgia. They ran with different crowds, Billy with the ‘spoiled rich boys’ whose fathers owned businesses in Griffin, or were executives at banks, doctors, lawyers, etc., while R.K. was popular with his own crowd. He had come from a working class background, and I think that is why he worked so hard at North Georgia. He had a goal, and his goal was to be the best officer NGC had ever produced, and that was asking a lot since one alumnus, my sponsor and a judge in Atlanta, had won the Medal of Honor during WWII, losing an arm and a leg in the process.
Surprised R.K. had even asked me to dance, in fact everyone there was surprised, I hardly knew what to say to him since we had never spoken at all. The first words out of his mouth, he asked if I was really ‘going’ with Billy McConnell.
When I answered, "Yes." he replied "Good luck. I sure hope you don’t get hurt, but I don’t know why a cute little girl like you would waste your time on him anyway."
I will have to admit I was curious about what he meant by that statement, and guessed Billy had quite the reputation for being a womanizer while at Griffin High School. Unfortunately, I was right, and I still have his high school yearbooks to prove it, although I cannot bear, even now, to read the words written by any of his old girlfriends. He was spoiled, good-looking, considered rich, and even in high school, his grades were only marginal, although the teachers obviously were impressed with his impeccable manners and Southern charm. He had them all snowed, young and old alike!
Billy allowed R.K. to finish the dance, and that was the last time he ever allowed anyone to break in while we were dancing. I really did like R.K. though, and if he had been available, and if I had not met Billy first, I would have liked to date him, or at least try – I had always enjoyed a challenge. Many years later, when I next saw him again, I was so surprised! He had married a beautiful model, was no longer in the Army, which I thought was his passion, and he was dressed in the most stylish suit of anyone at the reunion.
He asked me to dance again that night, and when I said, "I bet you don’t even remember me."
He said, "Of course I do, you are that cute little freshman I danced with in Lewis Hall who married Billy McConnell."
The night of the dance, Billy gave me his company pin. At North Georgia since there were no fraternities or sororities at that time, the school bookstore sold ‘Company pins’ that displayed the crest of the school and attached by a tiny gold chain, a company letter with the crossed rifles of the cadet corps. Believing Valentines Day was the most appropriate time, he waited until we left the dance to ‘pin’ me, although I had been almost certain this would be my Valentine’s Day present. He had already literally given me the shirt off his back on one date since co-eds with cadet boyfriends used the cadet’s shirts for nightgowns. We also liberally sprinkled our boyfriend’s favorite aftershave onto our pillows, and our rooms reeked of Aqua Velva and Old Spice. Naturally, we never washed the shirts either as that would negate the purpose behind wearing them. Coeds with campus boyfriends also wore their ‘rank’ as a pin on our collars, thus ‘marking’ us as their property even more, and to let the underclassmen know we belonged to an upper classman. The senior officers wore pins on their collars in the shape of circles and diamonds, but the bookstore carried small gold pins with the ranks for the underclassmen. Billy had long ago bought the pin of a platoon sergeant for me to wear on my collar, which was his rank as a junior, and Don’s three stripes were retired to the bottom of my jewelry box.
We slipped away from the dance a little early and drove up to Crown Mountain, which overlooks the campus, where we parked. This was the first time since we had been going there to park that I was a bit nervous since cars filled the parking lot, and usually we were alone. Most of the cars belonged to young people who lived in Dahlonega, since there was a Valentine’s dance in the recreation hall on the mountain. The cadets called the locals ‘dirty feet’, referring to their mountain ways and supposed lack of shoes, and a very tenuous peace existed between the two factions. Although there were a few local boys attending NGC, they were mostly day students who did not share the camaraderie of the cadet corps.
Once I had been involved in a very scary incident in high school when parked with a boyfriend and another couple. Boys in a pick-up truck had come over to our car, wanting to start a fight, and as we drove off, one of them hit our windshield with a tire iron, shattering it and scaring us all half to death. Parking alone with Billy I had always felt safe, but with other cars around I was still a bit apprehensive remembering the incident in the woods near Dunwoody.
Although that night we just did a lot of heavy petting with lots of kissing - deep, long kisses while we explored each other as never before, Billy tried to talk me into making love, but this was not the place I wanted to be when I looked back to remember our ‘first time’.
Frustrated but accepting, he finally said, "Little girl, I don’t know who taught you how to kiss, and I don’t want to know, I just know he did a good job. I have never been kissed like this before!"
I don’t think I ever told him my kisses were the result of long trips on the band bus my freshman and sophomore years in high school, and several different boys.
I was wearing the sweater he hated the most since it had clusters of three tiny buttons all the way down the front, and it was difficult for his large fingers to undo them, but still he managed. I so wished I had large breasts, but heredity had dealt the cards and mine were tiny like my mother’s, and Billy called them his ‘rosebuds’. I never quite understood how we had such small breasts when both of my grandmothers had ‘floppies’ that fell to their waists!
In spite of not giving in, it was on that night I gave what was left of my heart to Billy, and I knew I would not, and could not resist his sexual aspirations much longer.
NGC traditions were far different that other colleges. They did not have a football team other than intramural – company against company – and those games got really rough sometimes, as the winner of the games would earn more ‘points’ used to determine ‘honor company’. I was quite relieved Billy did not play football due to an old injury from childhood, so I seldom even watched the games. They did have a traveling basketball team with cheerleaders, but I did not follow the sport, nor even like it, and had no idea whether they won or lost. Everything between the companies was very competitive.
Naturally, we soon developed pet names for each other, and Billy called me ‘little girl’ and ‘darling’, and I called him ‘darling’ and ‘my precious Billy’, but best of all I loved to whisper his name, as if it were a prayer, and possibly by now most of you reading this are thinking ‘how silly’. Surely though you have done the same, felt the same, and reveled in your first true love.
When Billy could not meet me in the library, he left little notes to include poems or quotes pertaining to, what else but love. I kept all of them hidden away in a safe place and I still have a few of them. My favorite poem he copied was how he wished his had been the first lips I had ever kissed, but assured me his would be the last. Another was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, ‘How Do I Love Thee’, and yet another was to become one of our ‘sayings’ – "I love you more than life itself". Still another was "I love you more today than yesterday, but I love you less today than I will tomorrow", which we shortened to ‘more than yesterday, less than tomorrow’, but our most used expression was, "I love you more than life itself", or MTLI – thus the title of my book.
Like most couples, we also had favorite songs, and my first choice was The Everly Brothers’ ‘Devoted to You’; Billy’s favorite was anything Johnny Mathis’ sang, ‘The Twelfth of Never’, ‘Chances Are’, and much later the haunting ‘Moon River’. We both loved listening to music and usually carried a radio or a portable stereo with us, since when we parked for a while we could not keep the car’s radio running.
Even now so many, many years later, whenever I hear one of those songs, tears tumble down my cheeks as I remember swaying to the music in my handsome Billy’s arms.
My Only One Forever
You are not the only one
My heart has ever known.
Yours are not the only lips
That ever kissed my own.
Yours are not the only eyes
That whispered tenderly,
And yours are not the only arms
That held me lovingly.
But no one else in all my life
Has ever meant so much,
And no one else could ever have
Your soft, enduring touch.
No one else could ever match
The magic in your eyes,
Your character and all the ways
In which you are so wise.
The others are forgotten, and
Without the least regret,
I only wish that you had been
The first I ever met.
– Author unknown
Note left in library – date unknown –
"I’m in love with you – did you know that - Love, Billy P.S. You are a brat!"
Note written is English class –
"7 February ’61 – Well I blew another one! And good – She is grading the papers in front of me and I can see already 11 out of 15 that I have missed -T.S.
Darling, I wish I could – I guess I am going to have to start caring though because my English grade is getting pretty low. All I could think of last night was you and me – 320 more days. 1 month and 2 since we had our first date – Gotta go – Love ya, Billy"
"Tonight 1800 – 1900 on the mountain. Please love me – it would sure be a waste of love if you didn’t return mine. I love you MTLI. Billy"
The weekend after the Valentine’s dance, ‘E’, and ‘F’ companies decided to have their own dance and, using the company colors, the coeds of ‘F’ company decorated the dayroom with lots of black and silver crepe paper. We also got together to make black shields with a border of silver glitter, and inside each shield, we put the names of ‘F’ Company ‘couples’, which of course included ‘Billy and Diane’. I think this was the first time Billy had really felt a part of the college social life, never having had a girlfriend on campus before, and he enjoyed this exclusive group of cadets.
The only ‘dance’ band on campus was the one Jack, a senior in Band Company had put together, and as I explained earlier, Don was their drummer. I have to admit I was a bit apprehensive about Billy and Don being in the same room for an extended period of time, and I worried Don might foolishly ask me to dance while the band took a break and a stereo took over. However, I was more worried about what Billy would do if this happened.
We finally finished our decorating and transformed the dayroom into a festive area that contrasted sharply with the usual stark military lack of décor. Linda and I spent hours on Saturday afternoon, with the help of some of the cadets, decorating, and when the lights dimmed, the glitter really sparkled. I had such a feeling of ‘belonging’ when I pasted ‘our’ shield to the wall with the others, and I think Billy had the same feeling too. We were now part of the ‘couple crowd’ on campus and both of us were having a lot more fun than we ever had before. It was an ‘elite’ group since our crowd was not a majority because less than 1/3 of the cadets could possibly be dating at any given time. Dividing the dating couples among companies, the groups became even smaller so we both felt ‘special’. He made me feel ‘special’, I made him feel ‘special’, and my happiness could not have been any more complete.
Billy arrived at Lewis Hall just in time to walk with me to his dorm and arrive at the dance along with everyone else. I had worn my favorite red hip-pleated wool skirt and borrowed a plaid blouse from my best friend, Diane, and Billy always liked anything I wore that was easily unbuttoned. As soon was we could get away, as usual, we planned on a short trip up to Crown Mountain.
Although I discovered Billy was not a great dancer, preferring to ‘slow dance’ rather than ‘fast dance’, and although I loved to jitterbug, now I preferred having Billy hold me in his arms while we ‘swayed’ to the music. When we danced, his chin grazed my forehead, so I lowered my head and rested it against his chest, both of our arms wrapped around each other except when he took my hand and held it to his lips and kissed it, and I would do the same to his. I listened, as his heart beat in time with the music, I cherished every moment of each dance, and so did he, and several times we were so ‘lost’ in our love neither of us heard the song end and we would continue dancing, alone in our own world. These were legitimate ‘displays of public affection’, and couples would vie for the darkest corners of the room, but rank always won out, so juniors and seniors had the advantage. There was also a couch in the hallway reserved for the most senior of the cadets and their dates to use for ‘necking’. Usually it was full, but Billy and I knew we could slip out and go up to Crown Mountain while most of the other couples could not.
Whenever Billy and I would sit down at our table, I could feel Don’s eyes on us, and I made sure I was overly affectionate to Billy, as if I had to try! Billy never once let go of me, if not dancing, he held my hand or kept one arm possessively around my waist as he softly drew my head down to his shoulder. It was obvious he was in his ‘jealous mode’, which I had seen before, but this time it was definitely for Don’s benefit. We both knew he was watching us, although neither of us expressed our thoughts to each other, instead we sought out the darker corners of the room as we barely moved to the rhythm of the slow 60’s love songs.
When the band took its first break, I could feel trouble coming – my worst fear for the night came true as Don walked up and asked if I would dance with him. He had made sure ‘our song’, ‘Tammy’, was playing on the stereo, and I did not know what to say or do. Without missing a beat, Billy said it for me. Rather politely, considering the bad blood between them, he looked at Don and said, "Don’t you get it yet, Diane is my girl now. I won; you lost, so get lost. I told you once we are getting married as soon as possible and we definitely have not changed our minds."
Billy’s fists opened and closed, and I watched as his soft lips became hard and drawn, his eyes narrowed, and his jaws clenched together until I could hear his teeth grinding. I was scared Don would not back down, but thank goodness, he gave me a long sad look, turned around, and did not bother us any more than night, although I continued to feel his eyes on me. Billy’s reaction was so typical of him since he seemed to know just what to say at any given time, and he was quite convincing, while I would stumble for the right words, my nervousness betrayed by my lack of speech. I could not even utter a simple, "no," but I did not want to dance with Don, not then, not ever again. My only wish was to be in Billy McConnell’s arms, with my head on his chest, listening to his heartbeat while we swayed to the music. I felt as if I were in heaven. I had never felt more loved, or more in love and I knew, with all my heart I would always feel that way when I was with my Billy.
The early 60’s were romantic times. The war in Vietnam was yet just a whisper and North Georgia College was my Camelot, where every day was just too good to be true, and Billy my Sir Lancelot. Even when it rained, the sun shone for me, and the plain brick buildings became turreted castles. There was magic on that lovely little campus lying in the valley covered with mist in the early morning, as if time passed us by, not unlike the mythical village of ‘Brigadoon’. Oh how I wish we could all have disappeared, never to appear again, or become contaminated by the ‘outside world’, or the war. Those wonderful innocent days in that romantic place, now gone forever recaptured only in my mind. So, often when days are hard, or my pain unabated, I ‘escape’ to that time and place where everything is right with the world and I am in my handsome cadet’s arms once again. Often, as my twilight years descend, my mind slips back to a place that still exists only in my memory, a long, long time ago as the phantom cadets, so many long gone, drill endlessly around the drill field, and pause, just for a second, under the windows of Lewis Hall.
‘Your mama was there when you left.
Your daddy was there when you left
One, two, three four!
One two, three four!
I don’t know but I have heard
We gonna` jump from a big iron bird!
C-130 goin` down the strip
Airborne Daddy’s gonna` take a little trip!
One, two, three, four
One two, three, four! *
* Special thanks to N.G.C. alumnus for refreshing my memory on the last two cadence calls.
It takes very little imagination to close my eyes, even now, and hear in the distance the voices of close to 1000 young men, some who were to die tragically in the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam. Clearly, I see them as they march and drill to the traditional cadences, like so many other cadets who had drilled on this very field before them. Many of these young men had long ago died in World War II, some in Korea and others in the line of duty, some with great distinction – some of the brightest and the best of the North Georgia cadet corps. I can only imagine there will be many more cadets, some yet unborn, who will eventually drill using the same routine, and the same cadences, but my ears hear only one voice, loud and clear, and all the others seem far in the distance. Often, on days when the fog swirls through the woods and comes to rest like a blanket on our lawn, I look out my window and find all those boys who never came home, still drilling in perfect formation.
Post-marked February, 21, 1961
"Dear Mama Bond,
I’m very sorry that I haven’t written sooner, but I really haven’t had any time at all. I think that I bit off more than I could chew when I took 18 hours, so I am only taking 15 hours next quarter. These include History 101, Biology 102, and Humanities. So far these are the hardest three (classes) I’ve tried, so keep your fingers crossed for me. They are all ‘reading’ courses, which makes it worse. Poor Billy is having to take 20 hours next quarter, so I don’t imagine we’ll be seeing too much of each other. Everything is still the same with us, and our plans haven’t changed (to get married). I’m really experiencing quite a new feeling, and I imagine (that) I’m the happiest girl at N.G.C.
Last week I had some pictures taken for Billy, and I should get the proofs back this week. One of my professors (Dr. Dismukes) took them. He’s a professional photographer known all over north Georgia. He charged me $3.00 for the sitting, which I haven’t paid, and the rest of the fee will be according to what I take.
This weekend Billy and I are going to a N.C.O. Club formal on Saturday night, and it depends on the weather what we do on Sunday.
It’s hard to believe, but this quarter is just about over. Time has just flown by this year. Helen & Homer should be getting my mid-term grades next week and I have no earthly idea what they’ll be. At the present, I’m up in English, down in Spanish, (and) I still have an A in math, but it’s not as high, and I don’t know for how long since it gets harder every day.
Lucia’s grandmother died Sunday, so I’m without a roommate until Weds. Night. I felt so sorry for her, but she really did take it well. We still get along fine, and she’s crazy about Billy. They’re so funny when they start fussing at each other, which is all the time.
It’s raining in buckets full up here, and it has been since Friday. Last week was so pretty that I didn’t think there would be any more winter, but all weekend it was terrible. I hope we have pretty weather for the formal.
Well, it’s about time for taps, and I still have some studying to do. Take care of yourself and write soon.
P.S. Billy also sends his love. Give Helen and Homer all my love."
More notes left in the library from Billy
"I’m still in love with you more than ever – did you know that? Love Billy
P.S. You are still a brat!
"When will you return my love? But I hate to admit that the longer you make me wait, the more special it will be! Did you know that no one has ever made me wait so long! You have set the record…. But we will have the rest of our lives for you to love me and for me to love you.
I Love you MTLI! Billy
"I will pick you up right after lunch and we will go to Atlanta for dinner and a movie. How long will I have to ‘woo’ you to win your love?
I still love you MTLI! Billy
On the bottom of the note above was this classic and beautiful love poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth, and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use.
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love then with a love I seemed to lose
With my love say I unto you – I love the with the breath
Smiles, tears, of all my life! - And if God choose
I shall love thee better after death."