MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 35 – Home At Last! - 1964
It was not quite lunchtime when we arrived at the car dealership where Gene told us to go. Since it was conveniently located on the southwest side of town, we did not have to contend with the everyday traffic through the center of the growing city. Billy had one of his father’s business cards, and Gene had written a short personal note on the back of it, and instructed Billy to make sure the manager waited on us personally. Gene knew him as both a friend and a business acquaintance, and he and Helen had been on several cruises with the manager and his wife. When we arrived at the dealership and greeted by a salesman, before we could even step out of the car, Billy asked for the manager and showed the salesman his father’s card. With a disappointed look on his face since he knew he had lost this sale, we were ushered inside the showroom, and within minutes, a slightly rotund, balding gentleman about Gene’s age greeted us.
With enthusiastic handshakes all around, he invited us to follow him into his office to talk about a car, how much money we had to spend, trade-in on our old unreliable black and white Chevy, etc. It seemed as if he knew Gene very well, and enthusiastically he said he was more than happy to do business with his son. Since we had no other options, Billy was perfectly honest and told him we wanted a two-door sedan so there would be no back doors for little boys to play with and open. We definitely wanted a new car with a new car warranty, and he asked if he gave military discounts, as some car dealers, especially around large military facilities, normally would do. Billy finally told him exactly how much money we had to spend, and not a dime more, and hoped he would take his father’s personal check. The manager grinned and told us he would give us not only a military discount, although this was not usually an option in a big city with just a small military population, but he would also give us a discount because Gene was such a good customer. We had no way of knowing, but Gene bought all of his service and personal vehicles from this man, and that was a lot of business when it included the large repair and delivery trucks. Without any haggling, he assured us he had just the car we were looking for, a 1964 Chevrolet Biscayne and all we needed to do was select the color since he had several on the lot.
After we followed him outside, Michael in his daddy’s arms, it did not take five minutes for Billy and I to select the car both of us instantly preferred since blue was the color we both favored. This car was a deep, almost aqua blue with black-wall tires, which helped us keep the price in our range, and meant that replacing tires would not be as expensive either. The major drawback was that it did not have air-conditioning, which was still a luxury in automobiles in 1964, but it did have a good radio and we knew we would enjoy that on our trips back and forth from Columbus to Griffin. The manager assured us if we did not have to take the car that day, he could have an air-conditioner installed and send Gene the bill, but we both decided it was not worth pushing our good luck. He gave us a great price for our old Chevy that had taken us on so many journeys together, far better than either of us expected, and we assured him the car came with many good memories attached.
“Unfortunately memories do not sell a car,” he said, “but after a bit of work, it will make a nice car for a teenager, and you can make more memories in your new car.”
There was no doubt in my mind we were certain to make many memories, and this vehicle would be carrying several more little McConnell boys before we were ready to trade it in. We certainly could not put a price on the welcome relief just to know we would have a dependable vehicle, one that would start every time it was needed, and the new-car smell was exciting for both of us since this was the first, of what we hoped would be many, brand new cars.
While I followed Michael around the main showroom and let him run off some of his pent-up energy, Billy went into the manager’s office to conclude the deal. Not surprisingly, the price of the car came to the exact amount of Gene’s check. Since the dealer knew Gene so well, he allowed Billy to endorse the check over to him instead of us having to go to the trouble of looking for an open bank, or making the short trip over to Ft. McPherson where we could cash the check at their credit union. I knew we received a big break just by looking at the price sticker on the car, which was about $450 more than we were able to pay. However, as long as I had known Gene, he always owned a brand new Chevrolet station wagon that Helen drove back and forth to work, and was the family car, while he drove a new top of the line sedan. With three active little boys who played a myriad of sports, I am sure the station wagon was a necessity, and soon perhaps it would be for us too, or at least I hoped so.
With all the papers signed, the check endorsed, and the new car parked beside our old one, Billy began to transfer our belongings from the old to the new, and he marveled at the size of the trunk, which was about twice the size we had in the old car. We could pack a lot into this car and being an Army family, and certainly, with more little boys, we just might have to do that before too long. A lot of baby paraphernalia could fit into that trunk, and on the wide back seat, but neither of us realized that in less than a year from now, our trail would take us across the United States to the West Coast, and we would greatly appreciate the spacious interior. We were young and we had many adventures ahead of us, but this time we would be driving a brand-new car!
Billy was so excited about the car he wanted to show it off to my aunt and uncle, and of course, the downtown expressway to their house took us right past The Varsity, just in time for a late lunch! I was more anxious to get back to Columbus and have Michael back in his own bed and his normal routine, but he was a flexible toddler, whom my aunt and uncle doted on. I agreed that since we were this close why not make a short detour, and we had not seen them since Easter. There was no doubt how much my family loved Billy and our son, except of course for my father, who when sober, liked him a lot, but when he was drinking he was frightened of him since he knew Billy’s tolerance for drunks was nil. When I had a man in my life, I never had any trouble with my father. It was just when I was alone he thought he could victimize me, but now I had Billy and I felt safer than I had ever had in my entire life, and my father knew he had better not mess with any of us!
We arrived at my aunt’s house just as my cousins were coming home from school, so Billy happily gave everyone a ride in the new car, although it was somewhat of a tight squeeze with all of the things we had accumulated in Griffin. Of course, my aunt told Billy how sorry she was to hear about his mother, but Billy just told her it was “no big deal” and he was glad this week was over and he could take his little family home and get back to work. Helen truly had killed the last of the little bit of love he had for her, and he really would never miss her, not even once, and her name was rarely mentioned at all.
Michael and Ginny went out to her swing-set to play while Billy and I visited with Helen and waited for Homer to get home from work. When he arrived, of course Billy had to take him for a ride too, and even though my uncle drove a deluxe navy blue Ford Crown Victoria, he genuinely was happy for us, and our reliable and safe transportation.
We were invited to stay for supper, but we still had plenty of daylight left to get back to our cozy apartment, so we declined saying we had a late lunch and needed to get back since Billy had to unpack the car, and get ready to go back to work on Monday. He only had one more day of leave plus the weekend, and I knew he needed time to polish his shoes, his brass, and more so, just to just relax after this exceedingly stressful week. These past few days had been long and hard on all of us, and I do not know who was the most anxious to get back to our routine and our small, but homey apartment. This time when my uncle tried to give Billy some money, Billy refused it, knowing we had some extra cash, but Homer put a twenty-dollar bill into Michael’s diaper bag and I did not even know it until we got home and unpacked. That was typical of my kind and understanding uncle’s generosity, and I have missed him very much throughout the years since his death.
On our way back to Columbus, we passed the site of the soon-to-be Atlanta Raceway. Billy was curious to see how far the construction had come, so he followed the new entrance road since it was Thursday evening and the workers had all gone home for the night. We were actually able to drive right out onto the racetrack surface, and it was then Billy told me, as an adolescent, he had dreamed of becoming a racecar driver. I had never heard this specific ‘dream’ before, and then he added how much he longed to own a fast sports car. His father would never buy one for him out of fear he would kill himself, and I told him I was glad his father had not bought one for him because I agreed with Gene; he just might kill himself as accident-prone as he was. Billy threw back his head and laughed, and said he had cheated death so many times that God had no use for him.
Then, as if a dark cloud suddenly hid the sun, he pulled over, stopped the car, and holding me close, he said, “Baby, I don’t think I am destined to become an old man, but it will be Vietnam that gets me, not a sports car.”
I was horrified! I told him I could not imagine life without him, that he was my sun, my stars, and my moon, and I loved him ‘more than life itself’.
Gently, he put his finger to my lips, and said, “I know you do, little girl, and I cannot stand the thought of you with someone else, but somehow I just don’t think we are destined to complete this journey together. We love each other too much, and we are too happy for it to last forever. I do not want you to be alone though, and our children need a secure home with two parents, so promise me again, if anything ever does happen to me, you will never allow either of our parents to raise our children. Promise me that you will take care of them, and never stand for them to see the violence we have seen from the alcohol, and the suffering from the benign neglect. I wish my little brothers had never seen it, but it’s too late for them now, and I was not old enough to take them away, but you can protect our children. Please promise me you will take good care of them, always be with them, and if need be, find a good man to love them and to love you. I will be in heaven watching you always, and I will be insanely jealous, but I will never leave you, not really, and that I can promise you. Now you promise me you will do what is best for our children and for you.”
All I could do that late Saturday afternoon in July of 1964 was hold on to him and cry, while I continued to tell him I could not live without him. I knew both of our emotions were on edge, and it had been a long, long week, but to acknowledge that I would ever have to live without my handsome husband, my one true love, I could not do that. Billy continued to insist I promise to always be there for our children (we only had one child, why would he say children?), and not allow them to be victims of our parents. He said he would not continue our journey until I did promise, so reluctantly and tearfully I did as he asked; although I was none too sure I could ever do so. He held me close then, and told me over, and over how much he loved me, and how proud he had been of the way I had been the ‘woman’ of the family this week, while tears continued to pour down my cheeks.
Then he looked at me as if we had never had this conversation, and said, “Smile little girl, I am still here, and for now I am not going anywhere. I love you more than I ever thought I would love anyone, we have a new car, a healthy, handsome son, I am now a 1st Lieutenant, and for the first time we can buy ice cream and coke!”
How could I resist his charm? Perhaps because of the premature death of his mother he was having these dreadful thoughts, or perhaps because we were beginning to hear of more United States casualties in Vietnam. I never knew what brought about his ‘premonition’ of pending doom, and there was no doubt in my mind our love would just get better and stronger, although, as usual, I could not imagine loving him more than I did right then and right there. We had our entire lives before us, and I knew Billy was doing well in the Army, receiving excellent efficiency reports, and it seemed as if he was born to this life, as I had been. We were just getting started! Oh, what a grand future we had! This was the thought that I carried with me as we drove back onto the highway, through Griffin without stopping, and on to Columbus.
We did stop at a Dairy Queen on the outskirts of town for a quick supper, and when we pulled into the parking lot in front of our little apartment; the sun was resting on the top of the pines to the west. Billy decided not to try to take everything inside until the next day, which was fine with me since I was too tired to deal with it. We just unloaded Michael’s necessities – the diaper pail and the diaper bag, the cooler with all the perishables, and our new suitcase, another item Billy thought his father would not miss, with all of our clothing inside. Billy locked the car, and having left nothing inside to tempt a thief, he picked up the suitcase and the diaper pail while I took the diaper bag, and Michael ran ahead of both of us, glad to be home to sleep in his own little bed. Although we heavily padded the playpen with quilts and a heavy bedspread, I am sure it was not as comfortable as the crib mattress, so I hoped Michael would have missed it enough to stay in his own bed, at least for a few nights, and allow us both to catch up on some much-needed sleep.
Our apartment felt so welcoming. It was a beautiful July night, and a warm, but not hot, breeze had replaced the heat of the day. It was a perfect night to leave the front door open, while Billy carefully latched the screen to keep our wandering toddler safely inside. This precaution came because one Sunday morning when Billy and I had been sleeping soundly and the phone rang, it was Margaret. Our adventuresome, not quite two-year-old was down at her house having breakfast! He had pushed a chair up to the screen door and opened the latch, which was far above his head otherwise. Now Billy had added two extra latches, one below and one above the original, but we had our hands full with this little one. As I feared from the tales, I heard from Bubba about my handsome husband, he had been most mischievous too, and in this case, the apple did not fall too far from the tree! Bubba used to call Billy her sweet little bad boy, and if she ever ‘forgave’ us, I knew Michael would surely inherit the title soon!
The next morning while Billy finished unloading the car, and while I was washing our clothing and the new linens, several of our friends came over to say how sorry they were to hear about Billy’s mother. Almost rudely, he ignored their expressions of sympathy, and then took them out to see our new car. We were one of the few young families who had a brand-new vehicle, and it stuck out like a sore thumb in a parking lot filled with older cars! Billy was so proud! You would have thought he had finally fulfilled his lifelong dream of a sports car, but this too would come later, at a cost far too high to bear.