MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 31 – November – 1963
On November 20, Billy would be 23, and I would be ‘legal’, or 21 in December. We decided we would celebrate both of our birthdays by attending the annual Infantry School Christmas Ball, which was open to all the officers and their wives assigned to the Infantry School. This function was not a ‘command performance’ as most of those associated with the O.C.S. School, and was probably the most formal dinner dance of the year. Since it was not a ‘must attend’ celebration, there was a ‘larger than usual’ fee for the dinner and the dance, although the menu was superb. Our attendance would be instrumental in furthering Billy’s career goals since few lieutenants would be present at a function not mandatory. Most would be heading for their respective family’s homes for the Christmas holiday, including Margaret and Larry who would be taking their brand new son to visit with her mother in Charleston.
We both preferred to stay in our cozy little apartment as long as possible, never knowing what surprises awaited us in both Griffin and Atlanta, and Major Mac would be alone over the holiday since she always volunteered for duty so the married nurses with children could be with their families. She was excited she would at least be able to share most of our holiday with us and put up a Christmas tree just for Michael, although we had our own tree. She even offered to baby sit for us on the night of the ball, thus eliminating this additional expense. This time, too, we would not be sharing a sitter with anyone else, so the entire fee would be on us, and I think Major Mac was well aware of how difficult this would be for us to manage. With Margaret, we had always gone through an agency to find our sitters, both bonded and insured, since there simply was an extremely short supply of teenage girls in the apartments, if any, and most of those were in school during our daytime functions. I did not remember ever seeing a child over the age of 10 or 11, so the agency received all of our business.
Our attendance would make it appear we were ‘into’ the upper echelon ‘social scene’, and I was even more excited since it meant I could shop for a new winter gown. This was a very formal dance and the only new outfits I had were semi-formal short cocktail dresses, which had been appropriate for the O.C.S. parties, but I needed a ball gown for the dinner dance, and I had not bought one since I left my parent’s house. All of my long gowns were leftovers from high school, and were hardly appropriate for an officer’s wife, and the nicest of these ruined in the flooding of our basement apartment in Dahlonega. Hoop skirts were ‘out’ for anyone over the age of 18, and the gowns I did have required one.
While Billy stayed home with Michael one Saturday afternoon in early November, I drove to Davison’s Department Store in downtown Columbus, to look for the ‘perfect’ gown. I expected to spend the better part of the afternoon searching for suitable attire, but the moment I entered the formalwear department, I saw it! There it was, on a mannequin, the gown I dreamed of finding, and I could not believe, for even one moment, that I could possibly find it this easily, as if it were waiting just for me. The bodice was rich deep red velvet, almost burgundy, with a sweetheart neckline, and the short puffed sleeves emphasized the richness of the velvet, while a full ivory moiré skirt flared out from a sash of the same elegant material.
As beautiful as it was, I did not allow myself to hope I could find it in my size since usually the mannequins were dressed in only the smallest of sizes – those most unlikely to sell. I also realized that even if they did have my size, the price would probably be far more than we could afford, but I still could not resist asking a saleslady for assistance. She told me she did not recall seeing the dress in stock, and thought that the gown on the mannequin was the only one. With disappointment written all over my face, I turned to look through the other gowns, but the saleslady was persistent and after she looked me over, she asked what size I wore. With this information, she insisted on checking the size of the dress on display.
I was prepared to be disappointed since my waist seemed far larger than the impossibly tiny waist on the mannequin, and the dress looked quite small, probably a size 4 or at the most a size 6. Much to my delight, after examination, the saleslady said the gown was a size 8 petite! Now if the gown were well made and not inexpensive, then it would fit, but if it was less expensive, then it would not, but I had to try it on to find out since I dared not ask the price, not yet. She further explained the reason it looked so small was that the manager, who had put the dress on the mannequin, had carefully pleated the velvet so it would not crush when she tied the sash. As the saleslady was removing it from display, I could see it very well might just fit me perfectly.
I had lost all of my baby weight, and was once again wearing my next-to-smallest size, so a ten would have been perfect, but this was an eight, so it would be close. Even better, it was a ‘petite’, which meant it should not require any hemming, or other alterations, although I had planned to take it to Atlanta over Thanksgiving and have my grandmother do it properly. The saleslady led me back to her largest dressing room reserved for brides where there was a raised circle, covered in carpet in the center of the large room, with mirrors all around so she could see herself from every angle.
Excitedly I slipped off my skirt and sweater, and I had thought it would be simpler to find a dress if I wore my long strapless bra from high school and college days. Fortunately, without too much effort, Billy had been able to fasten it even in the smallest hooks, although I will have to admit I had to hold my breath. This dress though, did not need a strapless bra because of the sleeves, but I had worn it, with only a little discomfort, and my waist measured about 24", not tiny compared to Scarlett O’Hara, but still small and Billy could put his hands all the way around it.
I could see there was layer upon layer of ivory net petticoats attached to the underskirt, which made the skirt flare, but it was still suitable for an officer’s wife.
As I stood on the gray-carpeted platform, the saleslady slipped the dress over my head and as if a fairy godmother had waved a magic wand, I became Cinderella. Before me, in the mirror, stood this young girl wearing a most magnificent gown, and as the saleslady tied the moiré sash around my waist, I could not believe how well the dress fit, or how different I looked in it, as if transformed for the ball. Even though my hair was curled in my ‘everyday style, and not in a bouffant French twist, the style I wore for formal or semi-formal functions, I knew I would be the belle of the ball! While I admired myself in the long mirrors, suddenly reality set in, and I remembered I had not checked the price tag!
I did not want the saleslady to see my disappointment if I could not afford the dress, so I asked her if she would see if there was anything similar in dark blue or green velvet. I really was not interested in any other dress, but this was the only excuse I could think of to get her out of the dressing room while I faced what I was certain would be disappointment over the price. As soon as she left on her errand, slowly, with shaking hands, I picked up the tag hanging from under the arm, closed my eyes, and then opened them quickly. Ready to be devastated, knowing we would never be able to afford it, I was shocked and delighted to find it was well within the price range Billy suggested, and of course, we had months to pay for it on our ‘revolving credit’. I also knew I could call my grandmother, have her talk to the saleslady, and charge it to her account, saving us 20%, but it was about time I quit depending on her to help us. I knew she would not mind since we had been most prompt in repaying our debts to her, but this time I wanted to buy my own dress. Since it did not even require hemming, I did not have to tell my grandmother about it at all, at least not until we had the snapshots developed that Major Mac agreed to take before we left for the ball.
When the saleslady returned with a solid green velvet dress she had found in my size, I told her I had decided to take this one after all, so she helped me pull it back over my head and take it off. I did not even want to try on another dress since none could be as perfect as this one!
After she took my charge card, which had a zero balance, she put a clear plastic bag around the dress and tied it at the bottom so the hem would not get dirty if I happened to allow it hit the ground. She told me I was lucky I had shopped early for Christmas, and although the dresses would go on sale shortly before the holidays, the selection would be poor. In addition, she assured me, I would be the only one at the ball with this dress since there was not another even similar, and one of the few petite dresses they had in stock. I simply could not believe my good fortune; it was as if the dress had been waiting for me to find it!
From the dress department I went to the shoe department and found a pair of red velvet shoes with just a small heel. I did not like to wear too high a heel to dances since they hurt my feet, and made me too tall to tuck my head under my handsome lieutenant’s chin. I loved the feel of his chin resting on top of my head, and especially listening to his heartbeat as we hugged to the music. There were also some ivory moiré shoes, but the heel was much higher and I knew they would soil more easily than the other pair, so I settled on the red velvet.
I had already made an appointment to have my hair done on the day of the ball since the Officers’ Club salon was small, and the hairdressers could take only so many clients. Almost every field grade wife would be having her hair done that day too, so I made my appointment early since it was simply, first come, first served, although I am sure rank had its privileges. Actually, I booked my appointment the first week of October! You might believe I was a little bit excited about my first ‘dress’ ball as an officer’s ‘lady’, far more excited than I had ever been for any other dance, even with Billy.
Both of my ‘men’ were asleep on the sofa in front of the television when I arrived home, but Billy opened his eyes and mumbled, "Back already?"
He knew that meant I must have found a dress, and then he spotted the bag with my perfect gown inside. Gently he laid Michael on the couch and rose to have a look. I gave him the charge ticket first and he was pleased with the cost, and then he asked if I would ‘model’ the dress for him. Excitedly I went into the bedroom, slipped out of my shoes and clothes and carefully removing the dress from the bag, I gently pulled it over my head and easily zipped it. As best as I could I pinned my hair into a makeshift French twist and walked into the living room.
Billy’s face reflected how much he liked the dress and all he could say was, "Wow! Although I don’t mean to, sometimes I forget to tell you how really pretty you are! All the other officers will be green with envy."
Maybe the officers would be green with envy, but their wives would be too, and not over me or even this beautiful gown, but my handsome husband, who did not realize how handsome he really was, particularly in his dress blue uniform. I suspected all eyes would turn as we entered the ballroom, me in my perfect ball gown on the arm of the most handsome lieutenant assigned to The Infantry School, and more than likely one of half a dozen in attendance! My day had been successful. My husband was as happy about my selection as I was, and the price was not exorbitant. We could have it paid off by early spring and, besides, the entire military had just received a big pay raise, which had loosened our tight budget just a bit.
As the time for the dance approached I became more and more excited, and the date fell between Billy’s birthday and mine so instead of going out to eat and to the drive-in, as we usually did for almost any special occasion, we would have a double celebration and splurge on champagne and lobster tails. Although never asked for identification when served drinks numerous times at the Officer’s Club, soon I would be of ‘legal’ age. Not only could I now legitimately have a drink during a function, but also I would actually be able to purchase a bottle in the Class VI store! Not that Billy and I drank, or even kept alcohol in the house, but I thought that one of the first things I would do when I turned 21 would be to go to the Class VI Store and purchase my first bottle of champagne, for New Year’s Eve, just because I could!
Often, while Billy was at work, I took the dress out of the closet, safe in its heavy clear plastic bag and just looked at it. I could just imagine how I would look the night of the ball with rhinestones sparkling on my earlobes, and around my neck. Deep in my jewelry box, forgotten for years, I found a small, delicate rhinestone tiara that I would ask the hairdresser to place discreetly in my hair. Billy’s dress blue uniform was all ready - cleaned, pressed, and encased in its own plastic bag, I confirmed our reservations, and we were all set to attend the ball. What a handsome couple we would make on that most special of nights! It was if all my dreams would come true, and we would be dancing in a fairytale.
On Billy’s 23rd birthday, we celebrated by having a few friends in for soft drinks, chips and dip, small sandwiches, and of course a birthday cake and ice cream. I worked all day preparing for his party, but for Billy it was just another workday. Everyone we asked over came with a small gift, although all of us were in the same financial boat. Billy certainly had not expected anything, in fact, I had requested they not do so, but they did anyway, as I would, had the circumstances been reversed. We all had a good time and I showed my dress to my friends, and they too were in awe of this magnificent ball gown. I kept the reasonable price a secret, and it certainly looked as if it cost far more than it did. I could not see how they even purchased the material for that amount of money! However, all of our friends were leaving soon for the holidays, and none was attending the Christmas Ball.
Not long after Billy’s birthday, on a dismal, rainy morning, I was sitting on the couch folding the diapers we had taken to the Laundromat to dry the night before. I had the television on and hoped to find a program to amuse our son, who was not a ‘stay inside’ child, but he was happily, for the moment, playing on the floor with his cars and trucks. I was watching coverage of President and Mrs. Kennedy as they arrived at Love Field in Dallas on the second leg of their campaign trip to Texas, which was Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson’s home state. The people of that great state were not particularly friendly to our liberal, Irish Catholic Bostonian, Ivy League President, although everyone adored Jackie.
There were flashbacks to earlier that morning in Houston, I believe, it was a breakfast where the President had given a short speech, but then the cameras went back ‘live’ to Dallas and the President was walking along a low fence at the airport shaking hands with the citizens of Texas who were there to greet him. All seemed thrilled to shake his hand and thrust their babies in his direction – so much for the Texans not being overly warm to our Commander-in-Chief. Mrs. Kennedy looked elegant, as usual, in what was described as a pink boucle` suit with a matching pillbox hat, and she was carrying a large bouquet of red roses. She smiled at everyone and the cameras, although it had not been long since their newborn son, Patrick, had died after a premature birth. She was a beautiful woman, and he, so handsome and charismatic, much like my own husband, and a World War II ‘hero’.
The entire official party, which included Texas Governor and Mrs. John Connelly, Vice-President and Mrs. Johnson, departed the field in convertible limousines with the tops down so the people who had been gathering since early morning along the motorcade route could get a good look at our popular young President and his delicately charming First Lady. It was exciting for me too to get a good look at President and Mrs. Kennedy, or ‘Jack’ and ‘Jackie’, their informal names used by nearly everyone.
As the motorcade made its way slowly down the main street in Dallas en route to The Trade Center where the President would be giving another speech, the citizens of Dallas were cheering them all the way. There were no ugly demonstrations, just excited ordinary people. Many had brought their children and perched them on their shoulders, so they could get a glimpse of this handsome young couple who now occupied the White House in Washington, D.C. This same young president had not long ago led us to the brink of a nuclear showdown with the Soviets, but had come out on top after many anxious days. I had not been old enough to vote for President Kennedy in his first successful bid for the Presidency, but I certainly intended to vote for him this time since he was a friend to the military.
Just as Mrs. Connelly leaned forward to say something to the President, and later I heard she had said, "Well, Mr. President, you cannot say that Texas does not love you." Or something to that effect, suddenly, out of nowhere, shots rang out. Governor Connelly fell forward and the President seemed to reach for Jackie as he first lunged backwards and then slumped sideways in the limousine. I watched in stunned horror while Jackie actually crawled onto the back of the long car! Later many speculated she was trying to retrieve part of the President’s brain blown out of the back of his head, while most thought she was just trying to get out of the car to safety. A Secret Service agent crawled onto the trunk and managed to push her back inside and down onto the floor beside her mortally wounded, and obviously unconscious, husband. It was apparent the assassin had also wounded Governor Connelly as he was leaning against his wife, Nelly, seemingly barely conscious. The limousine suddenly sped up en route to the nearest hospital, and a stunned nation sat in front of their television sets or radios and waited for the announcement all of us dreaded we would hear.
At Parkland Hospital, while waiting for the official word, the reporters continued to pan inside the limousine where massive amounts of blood were coagulating on the leather seats, and Jackie’s red roses, now covered in her husband’s blood, were lying on the floor. Within an hour or less, a spokesperson came outside the emergency room entrance, and to a shocked and stunned nation, advised that our young President was dead, shot in the head by an assassin’s bullet!
This could not be happening in the United States of America! I had just witnessed history, but the kind I would rather not. Nevertheless, like everyone, mesmerized by the tragedy, I kept my eyes glued to the television set. Who would ever believe this horrible day in Dallas was only a precursor to the vivid scenes of death that would tell the story of those killed and/or wounded in Vietnam. There was nothing more shocking than to see our beloved Commander-in-Chief, a P.T. boat captain during the war, a husband and a son, the father of two young children, murdered right before our eyes. As I watched the scene over, and over again, it seemed like a bad nightmare or a tragic movie, and all I could think about was Jackie, so young and so beautiful, and now a widow. Never did I think that in just a few short years there would be many more young widows, and children who would never remember their fathers. It just did not seem possible.
Suddenly the ringing of the telephone brought me out of my daze and Billy was on the other end of the line saying he had been allowed one call to let me know the fort was ‘shut down’. No one could enter or leave, and all active duty personnel were on ‘alert’ due to the assassination of President Kennedy. He did not know when he would be able to get home again, and he closed with "I love you, darling, and I will see you as soon as I can."
I sat on the couch, holding our precious son while fat tears rolled down my cheeks, and I never even bothered to wipe them. I could not take my eyes off the television as more horrible images continued to roll across the screen all afternoon and night, until at last, the plane carrying the President’s body arrived at Andrew’s Air Force Base outside of our nation’s capitol. Jackie still wore the pink ‘boucle’ suit now soaked in her husband’s blood, and when asked if she wanted to change, she sadly shook her head, saying, "Let them see what they have done," and I wondered who was ‘they’?
How could she manage to get through the next few days? A young widow with two little children, who had just buried her newborn son, and now had to bury her husband. The entire world would be watching as she endured the cameras and questions, and as she grieved for her handsome young husband all the time realizing the admiration of her would never end, and the tragedy in Dallas only intensified the strength of this delicately lovely young woman. She even managed to plan a birthday party for their son, although I do not know how, but some people just have an inner strength that takes them through such sorrow in grace and dignity, but I certainly never wanted to be one of them! I would fall apart if anything ever happened to my Billy! Look how I felt when he hurt himself - I could never be brave, defiant, and dignified – I would be a vengeful, hysterical mess!
Of course, the Christmas Ball would not take place now, nor any other functions other than those to honor our slain President, and all flags flew at half-mast as the nation plunged into a 30-day period of mourning. It seemed as if the lights had gone out of our lives and all was dark and gray.
Each day I watched the ceremonies as Mrs. Kennedy was the epitome of valor and decorum, and my heart broke as young John Kennedy, Jr., saluted from the steps of the church, while the honor guard loaded his father’s casket onto the horse-drawn caisson. By then Billy was home and watched with me while the young widow walked behind the caisson and the rider less black horse with boots tucked backwards in the stirrups. She walked with her head held high, and walking beside her were the two surviving Kennedy brothers, ‘Bobby’ and Ted. Dignitaries and royalty from around the world walked behind the young widow in her black suit and black hat, the veil covering her grief ravaged face, while back at the White House, there was a birthday party for John, Jr.
Our Nation grieved for two more days before our president, brought to his final resting place lit by an eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery, became forever a martyr. Later the bodies of the two deceased Kennedy infants joined their father. While we watched, I held my husband more closely than ever, as if I were to let go he too would disappear forever, and I knew it would take us all a long, long time to recover, as a nation, from this meaningless tragedy.
The nightmares began again the night of the funeral and unlike the nightmares where I could not get in touch with Billy while I stayed at my parent’s house, this time I saw him lying in a pool of blood. Desperately I tried to get to him but my legs were like lead and I could not lift them, and when I tried to crawl, the ground turned to broken glass that cut into me with each movement forward, but still I crawled. I would wake with sweat pouring from my forehead, reach over, and assure myself Billy was breathing, and then try to fall back to sleep while I held him in my arms. I think all of us were holding our husbands and our children just a bit closer, realizing now that death could knock on anyone’s door at any time.
The next Saturday, when Billy could stay with Michael, I drove back downtown to Davison’s, and in tears, returned the dress. My beautiful, perfect ball gown that I now had nowhere to go to wear it, so it was an unnecessary expense. I cried on the way home. I cried for Mrs. Kennedy, her children, and for our nation, and I cried for my perfect dress and the ball that never was.
Who knew where we would be the next Christmas, or if Billy would be in Vietnam? Our new President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, in spite of President Kennedy’s plan to bring our young men home by Christmas, now vowed to send American soldiers, in force, to fight and stop communism in South Vietnam. Indeed, this holiday was a sad time for our country, our soldiers, and their families whose futures were now so uncertain. Who would have ever guessed the conflict would last so long and so many of our boys would lose their lives in this bloody, futile effort? Who would have guessed a black wall would become the memorial to all those who died, too young, for nothing at all? America won wars, and Billy was so sure this one would be over with quickly, but like everyone else, he simply misjudged the will of our ‘enemy’.
Christmas came and went with our nation still in mourning, but Billy and I did our duty and went to see both his family and mine, although we did not spend much time at either place. Neither of us felt much like celebrating Christmas, but our young son was excited about Santa Claus, although he would have nothing to do with him, and we forced ourselves to be in jolly spirits for his sake. We put up a tree and wrapped presents but felt as if none of our lives would ever be the same again. Still, our son deserved a Christmas filled with twinkling lights and brightly wrapped presents, and we were determined he would remember the holiday as a happy time.
Often at night when the house is still and silent, in the twinkling lights of our Christmas tree, I can vaguely see a young soldier, dressed in blue. In his arms is a young woman, dressed in red velvet and ivory moiré, rhinestones twinkling on her ears and around her neck, dancing with her head on his heart, to unheard music at the ball that never was.