MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 30 – Late Summer – 1963
Soon after we returned from Dahlonega, Billy’s friend and roommate from summer camp, Bill, and his wife, ‘Snookie’, moved into the vacant apartment next door to us. Bill, a University of Tennessee graduate assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division (Indianhead) stationed at Sand Hill.
Within days ‘Snookie’, and I became friends too, often sharing our suppers when our husbands were in the field. Although they did not play bridge, we enjoyed each other’s company and cooked outside on the grill when both Bill and Billy were home at the same time, which was not as often as we would have liked since our soldier husbands frequently worked late hours. Bill was not an airborne soldier and unlike Billy, he never felt the desire to become one. He was not very happy about riding in helicopters either, and in fact, he was most reluctant when the officers in the Division were ‘encouraged’ to become Airborne.
Encouragement in the Army is not the same as it is in civilian life; rather it is an ‘order’, not specifically written, but always obeyed. That is if the officer wanted a decent efficiency report. Poor Bill, I wonder what he would have done if he knew what was in store for him in the very near future!
Occasionally, when both men were home, one, or the other of us would cook for everyone, although Billy thought Snookie had to be the world’s worst cook. Had he not been so fond of Bill, and not wanting to hurt his feelings, he would never have struggled through a meal he would not have eaten at home. I certainly had more sympathy for her lack of cooking skills since they were practically newlyweds, and like most new brides, she had a lot to learn, but she tried hard and had made positive improvement when we finally parted company.
Trish, who had taken me to the emergency room and her husband Rusty were our ‘card playing’ friends. They lived in the next building, but in the apartment on the end, nearest to our own, and their beautiful little girl with golden ringlets, Elizabeth, became a new friend for Michael. Elizabeth’s delicate femininity made Billy long for a daughter; something he thought could never happen to us, but this little ‘doll’ in her frilly frocks mesmerized him.
With several friends to spend time with when our husbands were gone, I was not nearly as lonely as I had been. Margaret continued to be my ‘best friend’, although Billy was even less fond of Larry than he had been when they first met. He found him overbearing and egotistical, but they continued to carpool to work so either Margaret or I would have a car. Larry still never missed an opportunity to remind Billy he had ‘date of rank’ on him, and that irritated Billy no end, especially since Larry had been forced to apply for a direct commission after serving as an enlisted man after graduation from the Citadel. Since he had failed Chemistry, Billy’s major, Larry had missed summer camp and been forced to attend summer school instead, thus he could not receive his commission with his class since summer camp is perceived to be similar to basic training for the enlisted ranks. Billy certainly had failed his share of classes, but he had been able to complete summer camp and receive his commission upon the completion of his required courses. The two simply had nothing in common, other than a shared love for the Army.
In no time at all, Billy gained more confidence and skill in his role as a ‘tact’ officer, while I became more secure teaching classes to the officer candidate’s wives. This newfound self-assurance reflected in my decision to try harder not to nag Billy about working such long hours and just love him with all the love I had in me when he was home. Whether it was maturity, acceptance, capitulation, or whatever, I just knew my adversity to his long hours had not brought any changes, so perhaps it was time to put the issue to rest, and accept his dedication to duty. I was proud of his ability to ‘lead’ and knew these skills would follow him throughout his career, and would be an important factor in his self-confidence. But, most of all, I did not want our home to become a battleground like the houses both of us left behind, and after all, Vietnam was becoming a hot issue, and it was a sure bet that everyone at The Infantry School would wind up there sooner or later. While I could, I was determined to love him with all my heart and all my soul, and not allow insignificant matters develop into arguments just because I could not have him with me all the time. Yes, I finally had to admit I shared Billy with an unforgiving mistress – the United States Army, and in spite of my jealousy, I was very proud of his accomplishments in his chosen profession.
One night while Billy was in the field for the umpteenth time, I made up my mind then, and there, I would not try to come between him and his career, rather I would try my best to be an asset and an enhancement while assisting him in reaching his goals. Now I knew I had myself to fight in this battle since often I was my own worse enemy, but I was going to try – and try hard!
I knew one issue that disturbed Billy was that his son had become such a Mommy’s boy, but what could he expect? He rarely saw him during the week since he was gone before Michael woke up and not home by the time he went to bed. However, my little man was my constant companion, for better or for worse, although often I wished mothers had been born with eyes in the back of their heads! Michael was as quick as a fox and as nosy as a bear, as adorable as a fawn, and he never met a stranger, but he was also the ‘leader of the pack’, and often led his playmates into one misadventure after another. If I could not have his father to love, then I would dote on our son, which I did, and he was spoiled, but I was never completely lonely, or alone.
So far, there were not any major Army Divisions in Vietnam, but mostly advisors whose job it was to ‘pacify’ the villages, teach the South Vietnamese Army how to use the more advanced American weapons, and primarily, encourage their desire to live in a ‘free and democratic’ country. In our Infantry circle though, we all knew our soldiers, mostly Green Beret Special Forces and Rangers, were beginning to die there as the communist Viet Cong put a price on the head of every advisor. The American public, particularly the liberal radicals, had never taken kindly to losing soldiers in another part of the world when it was not our battle, but we knew it would not be long before entire Divisions would be pulling out of their home forts and moving to Vietnam.
Bill was upset that he spent most of his days riding in helicopters and training for a new concept in Army warfare. The newly formed 11th Air Assault Division, which later in the war would distinguish itself in many battles and suffer high casualties, would change the face of war forever. Unlike Billy, who would have given anything for an assignment to a combat division, especially an Airborne one, Bill was content to keep his feet on terra firma, and was not at all happy with the change from foot soldier to air cavalry – the nickname that had caught on for this new concept in warfare. He knew the entire theory behind this division was to helicopter troops into a combat area, and he did not want to be in any kind of machine that left the ground, much less one that picked him up, flew him into battle, and then left him there. Like so many others, he had no choice, and silently, except to his family and close friends, accepted his assignment since he still had most of his two years to complete his obligation to the Army, but unlike Billy, he was not going to make it his career.
All indications were that all around the country, units were training to fight in the jungle. The Army even had new fatigue uniforms called ‘jungle fatigues’ that were designed to provide the soldiers camouflage, and there was plenty of jungle in Vietnam! There was also an abundance of malaria, dengue fever, and dysentery to sap the strength of our combat forces, and I knew that eventually Billy would be there too. While I still had him with me, I would love him for all I was worth, and when he finally left, I wanted him to want to come home to me, and a serene home. For now, I would just bide my time and try my very best to behave and not go off on tirades when he failed to call if he was going to be late, or came home long after supper was uneatable. I knew when I married him that he wanted to make the Army his career, so now it was up to me to do my part.
With yet another group of officer candidates to mentor and to train Billy always underestimated the importance of this job. These soldiers, some very young, some not so young, would all go on to serve with combat divisions and their early actions as leaders would reflect back on the training they were receiving now.
Before we knew it, 90 days were up and it was time for the first party and then the first cut, which eliminated the less than ideal candidates from the O.C.S. program. This was hard for Billy since he tried to see the potential in each one – at least for a while.
A couple of times, when I had picked him up at work when the carpool with Larry did not work out for one reason or another, or Billy had to work late, I would notice this really, really good looking candidate. Finally, one afternoon when Billy came out of the building just as the candidate entered, I asked Billy his name. Not thinking anything about it, he told me his name was ‘Kelly’ using no first name since this was not done between the tact officer and his candidates. He told me Kelly was ‘teetering on the edge’ of flunking out due to his grades, but he thought he had leadership potential, so was still debating whether he would ‘cut’ him or continue to counsel him to try harder in his classes. He said Kelly was born with leadership skills, and if properly channeled he would make a fine officer someday, but what he thought Kelly needed more than anything was a family to slow him down a bit and to keep him out of Phoenix City!
Finally, the day came for the 90-day celebration and parade, and that evening there was a dinner dance marking the halfway point in the candidate’s training. As usual, for the parades, the officer’s wives and the candidate’s wives wore their finest, to include hats and white gloves. Everyone had an ‘assigned’ seat according to their husband’s date of rank and position, and as usual Margaret and I sat together and performed the role of proper little officer’s ladies to provide the example for the candidates’ wives. It was that seemingly inauspicious morning I cooked up a great big surprise for Lt. McConnell!
Often when we would ‘talk’ and try to work out any problems we might be having, and were being ‘honest’ with each other about our feelings, Billy once told me I was not ‘spontaneous’ enough. He elaborated further and said that sex was more fun when there were little surprises. He concluded if sex was more fun, then marriage was more fun. He concluded by saying that I needed to ‘let go’ and ‘surprise’ him sometimes, like being in bed nude when he arrived home from work, or being ‘more inventive’ in our lovemaking, although my protestations in regards to spontaneity with a two year old son fell on deaf ears.
Well this day I decided to ‘surprise’ him, and using all my brainpower I thought of just the thing to do so he would no longer say I was not ‘spontaneous’, and I would do it right on the parade ground, without embarrassing myself in the process. I had a surprise for him that would knock his socks off right in front of everyone - his C.O., the Battalion X.O. and C.O. and any other distinguished guests. I was going to make sure he never complained that I was not ‘spontaneous’ again!
As soon as the parade was over, all of the officers and their wives were standing around under the large trees that surrounded the perfectly manicured parade field, which Billy told me that once, for punishment, candidates had to trim with fingernail scissors. After properly greeting everyone, I walked Billy away from the crowd. It was time for me to show him I could be ‘spontaneous’ – even more so than he ever expected.
I knew he liked the blue suit I had on with a small pillbox hat, similar to those Jackie Kennedy made popular, and when he came to stand by me, he said in his soft Southern drawl, "You look beautiful today, Mrs. McConnell."
Never had I expected, or could I have imagined such a fine opportunity for my surprise, but Billy opened the door, walked right in this time I was ready, more than ready since I had been planning this for weeks.
I motioned with my gloved forefinger for him to lean closer to me since he was so tall I could not just whisper in his ear without him bending over. When he did, softly, so no one else could hear I said, "Thank you Lieutenant McConnell, and I just want you to know I don’t have on any underwear either!"
He almost lost it! I mean he turned all shades of red and choked on whatever words he was trying to form.
"What do you mean?" he asked, again softly although I could tell this was difficult, and I replied, "Well you always say I am not spontaneous, so I thought I would give you a little surprise today and show you I am ready, willing, and able to be just as spontaneous as you want me to be."
Still red in the face, his bright blue eyes as wide as saucers, he almost stammered as he spoke again and said, "Well it’s a damn good thing I am wearing my class ‘A’ uniform with a blouse to cover my appendage because I am getting a hard on that won’t go away until I get you home! And while I certainly appreciate your imagination, I can’t think about anything else right now except that garter belt holding up your hose with no panties underneath!"
I quickly reminded him he would have to wait until I got home from the beauty parlor, and that was even more fun. I will have to say he never again, not even once, asked me to be more ‘spontaneous’, and he certainly never again said I was ‘unimaginative’ because he did not want to find out what I just might think of next. What I do remember was from that day on, at each parade or other function when he had not been at home with me when I dressed, he would raise one eyebrow as if to say, "Are you being naughty today?"
I would smile like someone who has just managed to get away with cheating on a test, and he never knew, for sure, exactly what I was wearing, but even better, what I was NOT wearing, at least until we got home. He enjoyed our game, as he called it, and it definitely added more excitement to our marriage.
Later, he told me, that on the way home Larry asked him what we had so secretly been talking about after the parade, and why he had turned so red, but Billy, not one to be rude, just told him it was a private joke, and would have to remain so. Larry did not give up easily, but I am positive Billy never shared our ‘secret’ that day, or any other day, nor did I share it with Margaret who bordered on being a prude.
He had always had a delightful habit of winking just at me when he was drilling, or when passing in review at parades, starting at North Georgia College. Now while he did not march with his platoon, rather stood with the other officers as the O.C.S. Company did the marching, if he could catch my eye, he would wink, and he told me that every wink meant, "I love you."
Only once Margaret caught him, and she asked me if Billy had just winked at me. I assured her he probably just had something in his eye and was blinking trying to get it out, and she must have believed me since she never asked again. I never shared all our secrets, and never would, until now, and then again, for my own humility, I choose not to share them all since there are some things better left between husband and wife.
This day though Billy would have to wait and wonder if I were telling the truth since Margaret and I had both made our usual appointments to have our hair fixed at the Officer’s Club beauty parlor for the dinner dance. Our appointments were just half an hour apart so the men could drive home in our car while Margaret and I took their car. Not unexpectedly, since it sometimes happened when dignitaries are delayed or other matters come up, the parade ran late, and when we arrived at the shop, we were told only one of us could have our hair done since they had other appointments and could not work both of us in.
I knew Margaret and Larry had more available funds than we did, and she could afford to pay to have her hair done off post. However, with no other choice but to depend on being able to ‘charge’ it to our Officer’s Club card I did not offer to give up my appointment, which had been the latest scheduled. She was livid, although I could not fathom why since she knew our situation, but she stomped out of the beauty parlor, and I thought I had lost her as a friend for good. However, that would come many years later for a far more serious reason, which had nothing to do with anything I did, but that is not a part of this story.
I truthfully had no other option since we simply did not have any extra money at that moment, and we still had to pay our share of the babysitter later that night. The dinner dance was a ‘command’ obligation, and I knew that eventually she would realize my predicament, besides we were half an hour late for ‘her’ appointment and not for mine. Before we made our appointments, I mentioned to her we would be cutting it close to get there at that time, but she seemed to think we had all the time in the world, and in fact I had tried several times to get her to leave the parade field telling her we were already late. Margaret often thought because she was an officer’s wife she had a right to be late and not suffer consequences, but as a Lieutenant’s wife on a post the size of Ft. Benning we were the lower of the lowest echelon, and this had not yet registered with her, and I doubt it ever did. It was not entirely either of our faults, and after I warned her we were already late, we left as quickly as politely possible. These things happen in the military, and Margaret was having a hard time dealing with some of the unwritten ‘rules’, and I thought surely her pregnancy also had something to do with her unreasonable anger.
She also thought if she needed him, Larry could just drop what he was doing and rush home, and she often called him just because one of the children had been cranky and she could not handle her. On the other hand, I rarely, if ever, called Billy, not even for an emergency, like the miscarriage. If I thought I could handle it without him, since I knew if an officer could not ‘control’ his wife, he had very little career possibilities, I did so. I also realized I was an extension of my husband, and someone was always watching. It would have broken my heart if Billy received counseling over my behavior as Larry most certainly had over Margaret’s, several times.
We still shared a babysitter that night as this was helpful to all of us, and we had made the arrangements weeks ago, although Billy carried Michael down to their apartment since I was not ready to face Margaret. I did not see her until she and Larry walked into the party, late as usual, and she stared daggers through me, but her hair looked lovely. By this time, she was wearing maternity clothes, thus announcing to the world she was pregnant, so I hoped that by avoiding direct contact for now, her hard feelings would blow over soon. We sat with another officer and his wife, and as usual, the candidates bought drink after drink for both of us, which I usually just allowed to sit there until the ice melted, but this time, perhaps feeling sad about Margaret, I drank most of them and since I did, so did Billy!
Neither of us were drinkers, nor could we hold our alcohol. We danced and ate, and at one point in the evening, I saw Billy holding General Norton ‘hostage’ against the wall, probably trying to get into Ranger School. Not too many days later, General Norton told one of the other officers assigned to the school he wished he had the strength of conviction Lieutenant McConnell had when he had been a brand new Lieutenant, and he expected that young man would go far.
Once again, as we danced, my handsome soldier held me in his arms, with my head tucked beneath his chin, my cheek resting on his chest, and I listened to the beat of his heart, and was as close to heaven as one can be while on this earth. I savored these moments, as they did not happen often enough for me. A dance once a month would not be too many since it was in Billy’s strong arms I felt as if my most fervent dreams had come true. It was not that he never held me in his arms at home, but this was different, everyone could see how much we loved each other, and not one candidate dared to break in. It was no secret Lieutenant Mac did not like his wife to dance with anyone else, and now just before cuts, was not the time to irritate him.
Not long after dinner was over and all the toasts had been offered, and awards announced, the senior officers left so the junior officers and the candidates could party without the rigidity of protocol, or simply because they had to go to so many of these functions, they wanted to go home! It was then the candidates conspired to get both Billy and I thoroughly drunk, and they were quite successful.
By the end of the evening, neither of us was sober enough to drive. Margaret and Larry had left long ago when she protested she was not feeling well. One of the older candidates decided he would drive us home in our car and have another candidate follow in another car to bring him back to post. However, for some reason I still do not comprehend, in my altered state of mind, I insisted I wanted to go with ‘Kelly’, and never even thought, or cared, if Billy heard my drunken plea. Thank goodness, Kris had a good head on his shoulders and he kept Kelly from taking advantage of my drunken obsession, which he seemed prepared to do. Wherever he wanted to go, I did not know or care, I just wanted to go with him. Finally, Kris picked me up and managed to get me safely in the car with my equally drunk husband, and avoided what would have been a major scandal, or the end of our ‘happy’ marriage. When we got to our apartment, my head had cleared enough for Kris to walk with me down to Margaret’s to pick up Michael, leaving the other candidate with Billy who was not feeling too well. While I was paying the babysitter, Kris took our sleepy little boy in his arms and carried him safely back to our apartment. Who knows? I might have even gotten lost on the way back. I was that drunk.
When we made it back to the apartment, Billy was nowhere in sight! I called his name and an unfamiliar voice answered from the bathroom. "He is in here, Ma’am, and every time he throws up, I just say ‘Yes sir’"!
Billy was deathly ill, and I knew that before too long I was going to be sick too. With only one bathroom, I just hoped he would hurry up and finish emptying the alcohol out of his stomach and go to bed, since my nausea was about to erupt, and I could not hold out much longer! Finally, and not a moment too soon, Kris and the other candidate helped Billy to the bedroom where they took off only his shoes, and after they left, I took off his shirt and trousers. He never moved. Then after undressing myself, I became violently ill, and thought surely I was throwing up the lining to my stomach, but oh how good that cold bathroom floor felt as I kneeled, and then laid in front of the toilet.
"Never again," I promised myself, "Never again!"
Finally, with a completely empty stomach, I fell into bed next to my unconscious husband with the room spinning around me, so in spite of my spontaneity Billy was certainly not able to fulfill his lustful desire from the parade ground, at least not that night. Now the next night was an entirely different matter, and I never did tell him if I was really wearing underwear or not! His imagination was broad enough to fathom what he wanted it to, so I just left him to wonder.
Both of us were severely hung over the next morning, but our son was intolerant of parents with hangovers, so I left Billy sleeping and got up with Michael. Just feeding my son his breakfast made me feel ill and I rushed to the bathroom again, just in time. About an hour later, Billy got out of bed, took three aspirin, and took over Michael, while sending me back to bed for a while, but he never said a word about my pleas to leave with Kelly. Had he been too drunk to hear? I certainly hoped so! This had been the first time ever I had been even remotely attracted to anyone since I met Billy, and I was as surprised at myself as anyone over my fascination of this good looking young candidate, but I knew too, I was already ‘over it’.
On Monday, the results came out, and Kelly did not make the cut. Billy had never before told me who did or did not survive the slash of his pen, and I never asked, but he made sure to tell me Kelly was gone, so I knew somehow, he found out about my momentary loss of sanity, but he never said a word. The next time I saw Kelly he had transferred to the Military Police Corps and was on guard duty at the front gate. He saluted our car as it came through, and I swear there was a barely discernible wink at me! I cannot explain the isolated attraction I felt for him, other than being lonely so much of the time, and starved for more attention from my husband. Since I had decided not to protest about his long hours anymore, perhaps this was how my unhappiness manifested itself, but never again was I even remotely attracted to another candidate! Nor was I even fleetingly attracted to anyone else since my handsome husband was all I ever wanted, and then some. Even when he was in the field, I could always dream of being in his arms until the abrupt onset of daylight woke me from my reverie. It was during one of the overnight exercises I began to fall asleep imagining I was in his arms, and my vivid sense of him made this illusion seem so very real I could actually feel his arms around me, and dreaming was better than not having him at all. I knew I could never live without him, that I would rather die too than to never feel his strong arms around me again, and I loved him far more than life itself.