MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 36 –Life Goes On
Whoever came up with the words ‘terrible twos’ must have had a little one just like our Michael who was the personification of the colloquialism. He continued to slip out of his bed into our bed after he knew his daddy was asleep, and he continued to wet the bed thoroughly so I would have to wake Billy up in order to change the sheets. Naturally, I washed sheets almost every day, and our share of the big clothesline rarely went without use, but Billy had fresh sheets, smelling of sunshine, almost every night. When he was in the field, he said other than me, he missed his clean sheets the most, and he ‘dreamed’ of our bed with fresh off the line linens! He seemed to enjoy them so that I began to wash them every day, even if Michael had not had an accident, at least when Billy was home, and that was most of the time now. He had settled well into a normal routine, and he knew when this class graduated, he would receive another position since the ‘slot’ for a tact officer was for a 2nd Lieutenant. Hopefully there would be a position open for him at the O.C.S. School Headquarters since he wanted to stay at Benning, at least until he could get into Ranger School. He had made several queries of his senior officers, and while no one promised him anything, they said it looked ‘hopeful’, so with that to go on, he worked as hard as ever to keep up a good impression, and to keep his name in the forefront if a position should come open.
As the heat of the summer continued unabated, the ‘queasy’ feeling that had begun in Griffin lingered, I had absolutely no appetite, and now my second period was late. Naively I thought that perhaps all the turmoil of Helen’s death, the funeral, and the aftermath had taken its toll on me emotionally, and I knew that alone could cause a miscarriage, so perhaps mine had just made me skip a period. I had not shared this with Billy yet since I wanted to be positive before I told him, but surely, in the spring, I was almost certain now, there would be another little McConnell boy to love. Perhaps this one would not be as mischievous as Michael was but then again, he could be worse! I just knew I would need eyes in the back of my head to keep up with two of them!
In the evening after Billy came home, we would sit out back in our folding yard chairs with our neighbors, usually Major Mac, Bill and Snookie, and every now and then Trish and Rusty would join us while Michael and Elizabeth went ‘swimming’ in his tiny plastic pool. We would sit, talk, drink, mostly soft drinks, and watch the two toddlers, so alike in coloring, as they delighted in splashing around in the warm, shallow water. Elizabeth had a tiny two-piece bathing suit with ruffles all across the bottom, and with her bouncy blonde ringlets, she completely charmed Billy. I thought what a wonderful miracle it would be if he could have a daughter of his own, although I realized the odds was not in our favor. I never filled the little pool more than ½ full, and all afternoon the sun warmed the water so by the time the two little ones were ready for their swim, it would be as warm as their bath. They would have a great time splashing any adult who ventured too close, and I have a delightful snapshot of Michael just after getting out of his pool, with his diaper hanging at half-mast and his little white behind hanging out! I never realized what memories I was capturing with those snapshots until I needed them to remember events, and then I wished I had taken more.
Now that Billy was 1st Lieutenant, and with the nice pay raise that the Army hoped would be incentive for young officers to stay beyond their mandatory two-year tour, we had a bit more breathing room. Not surprisingly very little changed since Billy always managed to find a way to spend every cent we had in the bank. The raise from 1st Lieutenant to Captain was not such a large amount, since by then the officer would have made up his mind to make the Army his career, and have too much time invested to opt out. Since Billy had always wanted to be a ‘career’ officer, he hoped to get a Regular Army commission as soon as he made Captain, had graduated from Airborne and Ranger Schools, and accrued some ‘command time’. For now, he was still a Reserve Officer, but he had big dreams, and we would often lay in the bed after making love, and talk about our future. How he would get into Ranger School soon was foremost on his mind, and he hoped once he graduated he would receive orders to join a combat division where he could accrue his ‘command time’, although I feared that would come in Vietnam. Then he knew he could apply for his R.A. commission, and more than likely be approved. He also talked about going to Flight School, but I tried my best to discourage him, and reminded him he had his branch changed since he wanted to be a ‘grunt’, and nothing else.
He talked excitedly about the new concept of using the helicopter to transport entire battalions into battle. These noisy machines could make an incredible difference in the time it took to get reinforcements to a beleaguered unit, or the wounded to a field hospital. He thought the wounded would have a much better chance of survival via the four-bladed birds. I sure hoped the last was true; just in case my own husband suffered wounds, and there was no doubt he would be going to Vietnam, eventually.
As much as Bill complained about the emergence of a helicopter supported division, Billy would have given anything to take his place, since he felt sure Bill would beat him to Vietnam, and I did not think anyone who was on active duty now would escape this ‘little war’ as it was being called. The more I read and watched on television, the more I wondered if the Vietnamese themselves really wanted us there, or if Washington was up to its old tricks. However, I was an Army officer’s wife, and I would never have thought to question our Commander-in-Chief, although I thought he was a redneck lout, particularly after he bared his midsection following gallbladder surgery and picked his poor dogs up by their ears! Oh well, it was not my decision to make, and all I could do was pray this ‘little war’ would not make a widow out of me! There was sure to be an entire new generation of war widows and fatherless children, but God knew I could not live without my precious Billy, and surely, He would never take him from me now. If ever love was pure, ours certainly was.
Oh how Billy enjoyed his first brand new car! Even more so, since we now had completely dependable transportation. The inside was roomy and comfortable with big wide front and back seats, and throughout the waning days of summer we often went to the drive-in theatre on Saturday night for ‘all-nighters’ while Michael slept soundly stretched out on the back seat. Billy particularly liked the James Bond films, and I knew he could just picture himself leading the romantic, adventuresome life of the film’s hero.
One night on the way home, I turned to my handsome husband and said, “Do you ever regret marrying me?”
His first question was why I asked, so I continued, “Well, I was just thinking that without the obligations of a family, you could do so much more with your career, or even join the foreign service, or some other organization where you could be more like James Bond.”
He glanced over at me, took his right hand off the steering wheel, and slipped his arm around my shoulders. He drew me close to him, then in his most loving voice, said, “My darling little girl, don’t you know yet that my family is the best and most important thing that has ever happened to me? That you and Michael are my life, and I would not give up either of you for any adventure, much less the unrealistic world of James Bond! You are far more precious to me than an entire truckload of beautiful, long-legged blondes with huge breasts and small brains. I have exactly what I want now, and I am very happy. Of course, I could be richer so I could give my family more material things, but I learned from growing up in my own family that material things are just that - things, and things do not bring love and a feeling of contentment and belonging. You cannot imagine how much I enjoy my ride home from work every evening, knowing you and my son will be waiting for me, and there will be a good, hot meal on the stove. I’ve never had that, and now that I do, there is nothing in this world that could tempt me to give it up.”
I snuggled up as close as I could safely get into the crook of Billy’s arm, and picked up his hand and held it to my lips. I cannot remember any moment I had ever been happier, or felt more secure that we had made the right choices after all. Despite the negative comments from family and friends about how long our marriage would last, and after the years of getting to know each other with its difficulties, but with more happiness, we had finally made it. For once, I felt he loved me as much as I loved him, if not more, if that was possible. After that night, I never had another doubt about our future. Why did the Good Lord so bless me to put us both in the same place on that most wonderful of nights where I found the ‘perfect’ boy who had turned into this ‘perfect’ man with ‘movie star’ good looks, who loved me? Never one to accept good fortune at face value, I wondered if there ever would be a ‘price to pay’ for all our happiness? I felt certainly not, since God had given us to each other, and having grown up in houses full of secrets, alcohol and lies, He knew we would understand each other and make our home one that reflected the warmth and love we had been denied in our youth. The only black cloud on our horizon was, of course, Vietnam, which was slowly becoming a household word, particularly among the military community. It would only be a matter of time before my handsome soldier had to perform his duty to his country and fight in a war that no one seemed to understand, but surely, God would never allow anything to happen to him, not when we had finally found complete happiness after so many years of misery before we met.
Now there was no doubt, we would again be parents sometime in late winter, and the date given me at the Martin Army Hospital O.B. clinic was February 14th, 1965 – Valentine’s Day! What a perfect gift to give my handsome husband on this holiday we had always enjoyed celebrating, at least with a card, but usually a small gift too. After all, it was on February 14, 1961 that Billy had first given me his company pin, and it was on that weekend I had given him the gift that he wanted above all others – myself.
Again, we played the name game, but rather jokingly, since it was a bit early to be serious, and remembering my miscarriage, I just did not want to let anyone know, until I safely reached the 2nd trimester. I had almost not told Billy, but he finally recognized the familiar pattern when I gave up coffee and fried foods, and could not even walk into the grill at the P.X., where the smell of grease permeated the walls. At first, he was stunned, but then I jogged his memory about how I had told him repeatedly, just as I had when we conceived Michael and the last time too, that I was not ‘safe’. I reminded him he had even asked the morning of his mother’s funeral if we had made a baby the night before, and I had answered, “Perhaps.” Actually, we had made the baby several weeks before then, but neither of us was aware of it.
Billy realized he was more to blame than I was since, as he put it, “You had enough sense to know it was the wrong time, and you did tell me, but, darling (which in his Southern drawl left off the ‘g’), I am just too much in love with you to resist!”
Actually it was not just love, but lust, since my young husband still kept at least 1/3 of his brains below his waist, at least when he was in bed with me. However, we would manage – we had before and we would now
Just like Fertile Valley, it must have been in the water that ran to these small apartments since so many of our friends were expecting babies while others, like Margaret, had infants. If you drove through the sprawling complex of the look-alike white and red brick buildings on a nice day, you would see every playground filled with little ones, three and under, and it seemed as if every other woman was pregnant. Yes! It had to be in the water! On the other hand, was it the passion of long summer nights and a full moon, plus an unending supply of hot water? Whichever, it was a fact now, and we would welcome this little one just as we had his big brother. It was Michael who I did not think would take it very well!
True to his word, instead of going to Griffin to pick up the boat, Billy made reservations for the first week in September at the Holiday Inn on the beach in Panama City. Since he was able to get a ‘military discount’ and an ‘out of season discount’, we could afford a room with a balcony overlooking the ocean. In addition, we would receive a book of coupons with the room for discounts on meals and other recreation in the area. This was quite simple then – nothing like the huge water and theme parks today, just ‘Putt-Putt Golf’, food, and the pier.
I love the beach, and always lived on or near it most of my childhood. Naturally, with my father a Navy officer, and my mother a beach lover, when they could they would rent a house as close to the water as possible. When my father first reported to active duty during the Korean War, we moved to The Isle of Palms, a tiny island three islands away from mainland Charleston, S.C. We lived in the upper half of a duplex house right across the street from the beach, and from our front-screened porch, we could see over the dunes to the ocean beyond. I was already a good swimmer having lessons at the Y.W.C.A. in Atlanta, and I often spent hot summer days at the Chastain Park pool, that was until the polio epidemic closed many of the public pools. On the childhood paradise that was the Isle of Palms of the early 50’s, I spent much of my time in the water, digging tunnels into the dunes, making ‘drip’ castles, or otherwise playing in the sand and swinging on vines in the marshes. I learned to walk barefoot on the hot sand in spite of the sand spurs, and soon my feet were so tough, when I stepped on one, I would just reach down, pull it out, and continue on my way.
When our parents finally concluded that tunneling into the dunes to make caves and forts was too dangerous, we altered our engineering and dug huge, elaborate holes into the sand, which we would then cover with palmetto branches creating our forts and clubhouses in that manner which seemed to appease our parents. We went crabbing on the weekends in a tiny inlet next to the bridge to Sullivan’s Island, and I could remember how cruel I thought it was to drop the still squirming crustacean into the boiling pot of water. However, I sure did not think it cruel when I savored the fresh crabmeat, but most of all I loved the fried shrimp!
The house we rented when my father’s small fleet of minesweepers went into dry dock in Norfolk, Virginia, backed up to the Chesapeake Bay. There I spent long hours watching my younger brothers as we all played in the warm shallow water of the tidal pools, catching small fish, then letting them go, and watching our old dog, Shag, dig enormous holes in the sand going after sand crabs – a trick he had first learned on The Isle of Palms. More often than not, he came howling out of his hole with a crab on the end of his nose! Even that pain did not stop him, and he kept on digging, just as he kept on chasing cars even after a minor brush with the newspaper boy’s jeep. Even in Yorktown, we were close enough to the water to smell the salt air, and it was not a long journey to the beach under the pier. Disappointingly, the water and sand there was not fresh and clean as it had been on the island or the bay. However, the sea captivated me from the first time I ever saw it.
I have always loved the smell of the marshes and the ocean, and with that first breath of air blowing in from the sea, my heart would swell with excitement, and I could not wait for the first glimpse of the water. Since Michael had never seen the ocean, I was excited about sharing this wonder and my love of the sea with my ever inquisitive, adorable son, and I just knew he would love it as much as his daddy and I did. Billy made reservations for three nights, Friday through Sunday and he took leave for the long weekend. He had received extra TDY pay for Airborne School, and this plus what we had left from the return of Helen’s bottles was financing our vacation, the first we had ever taken together, and I could not have been more excited!
The closer we got to the gulf, the more excited I became and long before we could see the water, I picked up the scent of the sea and felt like a child again myself.
“Billy, Michael,” I cried, “Can you smell it? It’s the ocean!”
Of course, Billy said he did, but Michael did not have any idea what an ocean looked like, much less what it smelled like. My first glimpse of the sea for the first time in about nine years was so exciting I could not wait to get into the water and ride the waves! Michael had a very different view of the vastness of the ‘pool’ that never ended as we drove westward along the beach road to our motel, and I could tell while he was impressed, he was not sure he liked it at all!
With the season over, Panama City Beach was almost empty now that the college students had begun classes over a week ago, and the public schools had started the first of the week. It would be nice to have the beach to ourselves, well almost, and not have the kids there with their loud music and tiny bikinis, at least not while I had to wear a maternity bathing suit that made me look like a great big bubble! My stomach had swelled much more rapidly during this pregnancy, but friends said it was because the muscles had stretched from giving birth to Michael, and I was pleased we would not have to share the beach with cute young girls with their large breasts, flat stomachs, and long legs! Not with my handsome husband by my side, and he may have been married, but he was not blind, by any means!
Tired from the long drive, we checked into our room with the promised balcony overlooking the ocean, and I rushed to open the sliding doors and breathed in the warm, salty air feeling as if I had come ‘home’. Another benefit of the refreshing air soon hit our little man. Overly excited to be going to the beach, he had not slept one minute in the car, but was now fast asleep on one of the queen-sized beds, but not my handsome husband. He wanted to make love with the stars shining through the window and the sound of the waves splashing on the shore. I say ‘splashing’, not ‘crashing’, because Panama City Beach is on the Gulf Coast and there were rarely many large waves here except during a storm. So with the lights out, the balcony doors open to catch the ocean breeze, the moonlight, and the smells and sounds of the sea, we made love several times before that abyss of fulfillment opened up and both us spiraled into it and fell into a deep, contented sleep.
When we woke up the next morning, Michael was not in his bed, and at first, I panicked, but then I saw him sitting on the balcony playing with his cars and trucks, and quietly waiting on us to wake up. He had not once tried to get into our bed, probably because he was in the same room with us, but now I knew he would be soaked and hungry. After we all dressed, we went down to the dining room, which seemed deserted, for a quick breakfast. The owner himself waited on us, having lain off much of his staff during the slow season, and before long, Billy had invited him to join us and have a cup of coffee. They both chatted amicably about the area, as Billy fondly recalled staying here many times with his parents, mostly when Westinghouse had their conventions in this same motel. Then it was crowded, raucous and noisy, so Billy told him how much we were going to enjoy the relative peace, although he was sure the owner preferred a full house.
“Not necessarily,” replied the proprietor, “My wife and I feel like we are on vacation once the season is over and we have certainly earned the rest.”
Billy then told him he had graduated from Airborne School just four months previously, and was waiting to get into Ranger School, and it turned out the owner was a former WWII paratrooper and had jumped into France on D-Day with the 82nd Airborne. Then they were off and running, talking endlessly about the Army, and particularly about jumping out of airplanes! By the time we finished breakfast Billy had made a friend, which was usual for him, and the owner gave us two of the books filled with coupons for discounts. Although we would not be here long enough to use even half of them, I knew my husband well enough to know he was going to try to take advantage of this windfall.
Following breakfast, we went back to the room to change into our bathing suits, and I was so excited I hoped Michael would be the same, but when we got outside; our son was far more interested in the swimming pool than in the ocean. In fact, he did not like the ocean at all. It was far too vast, and I guess if you look at it from a toddler’s perspective, and they do appreciate boundaries, it is entirely different from an adult’s view. However, I just had to get wet, and not with water that tasted like chlorine! The sea was calling me and extra buoyancy created by my billowing maternity bathing suit made floating on my back even simpler, and I had forgotten how much I enjoyed just drifting on top of the water watching the clouds in the sky. Billy did not float as well as I did, since he was hard and lean from his airborne conditioning, and Michael wanted nothing to do with the water at all. He ran from the waves, and did not want them to touch his feet, but Billy scooped him up and took him kicking and screaming into the warm water. The ocean, in fact, was warmer than the pool, but Michael did not like it, not in the least bit.
I asked Billy, “Where did he come from?” since we both loved the ocean so much, how could our son not enjoy it too! Finally, I realized Billy’s method was not working, so I took Michael from him and stood with him on the sand while the water gently lapped around his feet, and finally he began giggle, and said it tickled! Slowly I walked him into the water while Billy swam out from the shore, and slowly Michael adjusted to the gentle waves and the movement of the ocean. I took him no further than waist deep since I did not want to frighten him again by a wave splashing water onto his face. After a few minutes, he had enough and wanted to go back to the sand to play with his cars and trucks, but this was a beginning. While Billy swam, I showed Michael all the tricks I had learned about building ‘drip castles’ and making roads and tunnels for his vehicles. I showed him how to make a ‘garage’ by putting wet sand over my foot and gently pulling it out, and before long, he was laughing. We dug a hole in the sand that filled with water and Michael used that as his ‘bathtub’, so with patience and looking at the ocean from his point of view, I gradually relieved his fear, at least I hoped so.
Billy came in from his swim and told me he would play with Michael while I took a swim, but I warned him not to frighten him by taking him into deep water since this was his first time at the beach and he needed to have some time to get used to it. I had hoped there would be some other children for him to play with, but we had the beach practically to ourselves. There were a few surf fishermen but none was so close we had to worry about their hooks. As far as I could see, we were the only family enjoying the surf, sand, and sun.
Billy was a good swimmer, but I was the stronger swimmer of the two of us, and had been swimming in the ocean almost every day from the time I was eight years old until my father left sea duty for a position at The Pentagon in Washington, D.C. when I was almost twelve. Moreover, let’s face it – pregnant women can stay afloat longer than a hard muscled man can. I swam out as far as I felt was safe, although the owner had told us there was no cross current, riptide, or undertow on this beach, but I did not want to get too far out in case I became tired. When the muscles in my arms started to ache from exercise they were no longer used to, I swam back to water just deep enough to cover my shoulders, and laid back to float, just like our baby was floating in the sea of my embryonic fluid. There I relaxed just looking up at the blue sky, and the thick white clouds. I thought about our new baby and wondered what life had in store for us next, or should I say, what the Army had in store for us. I guess to be in a military family, one has to like surprises, and often, sudden surprises, but I just hoped we could have this baby before we had to relocate.
Before long, Billy joined me with complete confidence that Michael would not venture into the water on his own since he was content playing with his cars and trucks in the sand. As we swam side-by-side, he told me he did not realize I was such a strong swimmer, but I reminded him of my years living on the ocean, and he admitted he should have guessed it. We swam for about half an hour, keeping one eye on our son playing happily on the beach, and then swam into shore. The sun told us it was almost lunchtime, so Billy carried Michael, while I carried his toys; and we went back to the room to shower and dress for lunch.
Each day followed the same pattern. We would eat breakfast, and the manager always joined us with his cup of coffee to talk ‘war stories’ with Billy, and then we went back to the room and changed into our bathing suits. About two hours stay on the beach was enough for our young son, so back to the room we would go where we repeated the first day’s schedule – showered and dressed for lunch. Lunch was a sandwich at one of the local shops that was still open, and then after lunch, we all took a nap. Michael had not napped in months, but the sun and sand wore him out, as it did his father and me, and we all slept for at least an hour or more. After our rest, bathing suits dry, we went back to the beach where Billy and I took another long swim while Michael played in the sand. Amazingly Michael’s little turned up nose was beginning to freckle by the second afternoon. Since he seemed to have my very fair complexion, I watched that he did not burn and only allowed him to go without a shirt and hat for about half an hour at a time. I had already burned that first morning, and Billy was pink and then tan, but I knew by the end of our stay, Michael and I would probably have peeling skin.
In the evening, after supper at the motel, and once in an ocean-side restaurant, where we almost had the entire room to ourselves, we would walk along the sidewalk that paralleled the beach and then out onto the pier. One night we watched a fisherman fighting to land a shark, but after half an hour while it seemed as if the shark was winning, we walked up to the miniature golf course and played two rounds before walking back to the pier. By then the fisherman was on the beach, having finally landed the shark, and much to our shock, he took out a handgun and shot it in the head! Now I have no love of sharks, in fact, I had been badly frightened off the Isle of Palms when I thought a shark was in the water with me, when instead, there were two porpoise, but I still was not too happy for my small son to see the brutality of the raw kill. It was not a big shark, but still could have taken the leg off a grown man or killed a child with little effort, and I felt the ocean was a safer place with one less. It was just that I did not expect the method of ending the predator’s life, nor did I want Michael to see anyone shoot anything with a gun! We had guns around the house, but Billy made sure they were always unloaded, and Michael had his toy guns. I guess I just did not want reality to sink in so quickly for my ‘baby’, but eventually he would learn that guns kill! As we left, the fisherman was removing the shark’s teeth for a souvenir.
Instead of walking back to the sidewalk, we took off our shoes to walk on the edge of the surf. While Michael sleepily laid his head on his daddy’s broad shoulder, we walked back to the motel hand-in-hand, and more than ready for another night’s restful sleep after making love with the stars and the ocean right outside of our window.
I decided that heaven had to be just like this – an ocean, a light breeze, moon and stars and the aroma of the tide as it ebbed and flowed, and left its intricate patterns on the new sand. Most of all I knew that in Billy’s arms, I was as close to heaven, as I would ever be, at least, I hoped, for a long, long time.
Monday came all too soon, and even though the checkout deadline was noon, the owner told us not to rush; that he had no one to take the room after we left. After a quick breakfast, we put on our bathing suits for one last swim, which I hoped to stretch out as long as possible, although I knew Billy wanted to get back to Columbus before suppertime since he had to get a uniform ready for ‘back to work’ on Tuesday. As we packed, I told him I hoped we would always be as happy as we had been this weekend, and he assured me we would be happier since next year we would have two little boys to enjoy the beach with us. I know that in the back of his mind he was hoping the next one was not frightened of the water!
Back in Columbus, we settled into our normal routine, but more relaxed. Billy was quite tan and Michael and I, just as I predicted, were peeling. Billy worked extra hard in anticipation of the O.C.S. graduation, and Margaret and Larry received orders for the Panama Canal and would be leaving not long after our baby was due. Trish and Rusty, with their adorable Elizabeth, continued to live in the next apartment building, and Bill and Snookie, who was now pregnant, right next door, and then Major ‘Mac’. We had become a ‘family’ unit and continued to interact with each in turn, but we all knew that soon, far too soon, we would all part for who knew where.
Since it was Trish and Rusty we played bridge with, Michael and Elizabeth became ‘best friends’, although I was not too fond of Rusty since I felt he treated Trish rather harshly. I never once saw Trish stand up to him; rather she just let him have his way, as if there was no other means to live with him. I even suspected he slapped her on one occasion, but I did not witness it so I was never sure, but even Billy noticed their relationship was far different from our own.
One night, coming home from their apartment after a long night playing bridge, Billy looked at me tenderly and said, “You know, darling, I sure am glad you aren’t a ‘pushover’ like Trish, but sometimes I do wish you were a little less determined.”
I suppose this was his kind way of saying that I was as stubborn as a mule and insistent on having my way. I thought long and hard about Billy’s statement, and I knew he said it quite lightheartedly, but still I felt there was room for change. Finally, for no other reason than pleasing him, I decided I could catch more bees with honey than vinegar, and promised him, and myself, that I would try to be more understanding, although both of us knew I would never be a ‘pushover’.
Later that fall my mother brought my younger sister to Ft. Benning to see a urology specialist as her urethra was too narrow and she needed a minor surgical procedure to prevent her incessant urinary tract infections. Mother stayed with us, and of course, she could not help but notice that once again, for the fourth time, I was pregnant. We had not told the families yet since I wanted to get past my third month, which was when I miscarried the last baby, although I knew before she came I would never be able to hide my condition since my tummy was already round and firm. There was no doubt in my mind she would be happy she was the first to ‘know’.
She was not overwhelmingly excited about the prospect of becoming a grandmother again, but when Billy came home, with a laugh she asked him please to stop throwing his pants on my side of the bed! Actually, we all had a good laugh about her comment, since it did seem as if we were remarkably sexually compatible and probably capable of having dozens of children!
I had finally decided to tackle potty-training Michael when we got back from the funeral and try as I may, he just would not use the potty. He continued to want to wear his diapers out to play, and I knew this was because he did not want to disrupt his play to come home. I had become frustrated and reluctantly accepted I would just have to cope with having two in diapers since my strong willed son seemed to be winning this battle. Naturally my mother commented on the fact that he was not trained, nor did I seem to be trying to train him, but I told her I had been getting nowhere with his training and resigned myself to two in diapers. Challenged, she went to work on him, and amazingly, in one weekend, she achieved what I had been trying to do for months! By the time she left, my determined little boy was completely potty-trained; he never wanted to wear diapers again since “diapers are for babies.” He even stopped wetting the bed at night; instead, he would climb out of his crib and come into our bedroom, wake me up and ask to go potty. I was amazed to say the least, and when I explained this remarkable occurrence to Michael’s pediatrician, he told me that children are always more compliant about impressing someone they seldom see than their own parents. Whatever the explanation, I was deeply grateful for her assistance, and decided I would make sure I had her around when it was time to train our next one, unless of course we were too far away.
My sister did well after her surgery, and three days later they were both gone almost as soon as they had arrived, leaving us with a ‘dry’ son. I could not have been more pleased, even though my mother had already trained four children, including my own two brothers; she had not had a son as stubborn as Michael. She also told me for some reason little girls were easier to train, and I was out of diapers not long after I first walked before I was a year old! I knew too that I had been a ‘difficult’ and ‘stubborn’ child, but obviously wearing diapers was not something I enjoyed. I knew having the privilege of training a little girl was one thing I would never find out, being destined to turn out McConnell boys, not that I would not love them, but it would be nice to have a little girl to dress in pink lacy dresses, to take to dancing school, and to curl her hair. Oh well, might as well get that thought right out of my mind – not a chance in a million we could have a girl.
One evening in late fall Billy came home almost as excited as I had ever seen him! After all his finagling, and all his pleas to anyone who would listen, he was offered a slot in Ranger School, but the one drawback was that he would not graduate until after the new baby was due. Initially my temper boiled to the surface, but this time as I remembered my promise to myself, I was able to control it.
Calmly, without shaking, although my knees wanted to do just that, I told him, “Well, honey, I will just have to depend on our friends and neighbors if I go into labor.”
He had to be in a state of shock by my lack of anger since he knew he was probably stepping on a land mine, but for the first time I ever remember, he was speechless. He just stood there, looked at me, and seemed glued to the spot while I returned to the kitchen and his dinner that was on the stove. Still astounded, he followed me, and stood behind me while I stirred the gravy, he put his arms around me and pulled me toward his chest, but I could not and would turn around since tears were streaming down my face, and I was determined not to show my disappointment. I also knew how very much he wanted to go to Ranger School, and I was not going to ruin this moment for him, and stomp on his dream. Women had babies all the time without their husbands by their side, particularly military wives, and I knew I could do this just as well as anyone.
He assured me that Sgt. Tuttle at Headquarters Company, where Billy was now assistant S-3, or operations officer, wanted me to call him if I needed anything at all. We had only met once, so I was doubtful if I would feel comfortable calling a comparative stranger, although I knew he considered Billy another ‘son’. It was not until after the baby was born I discovered Billy had asked him to send me one yellow rose for every ounce the baby weighed, and then it was not until even later did I realize the extent of Sgt. Tuttle’s devotion for Billy, which extended to his family. Although at this point, I had plenty of neighbors and friends to call on, and besides, if this baby was late, like Michael, Billy would be home wearing the coveted black and gold crescent of a Ranger on the left shoulder of his uniforms, before he made his appearance.
Billy could barely contain his excitement as the time for his class to begin neared, and once again, he shaved all the hair off his head. Since he had made it through airborne school without injury, I did not worry as much this time, although I was well aware this school concentrated heavily on ‘hand-to-hand’ combat the first session. Billy was just over 6’ tall, strong and well muscled, and I felt he could hold his own with just about anyone, and he was so excited I was not going to dampen his spirits with any negative thoughts. No, this time I would not rain on his parade, rather I would be the first one to cheer him on as he tackled one of the most demanding courses the Army offers. Even I knew there was something special about being a Ranger, and once a Ranger, always a Ranger.
We both knew after Ranger School, it would be time for us to leave Ft. Benning and the Student Brigade, time for Billy to get on with his career, so he asked me where I would like to go next. “Hawaii first, then Europe, then Japan”, I said, but he laughed and said he would put those duty stations down in that order, but for me not to count on getting any of those assignments. I knew his chances for any one of them was very slim, but I could dream, so I might as well ask – like the Good Book says, “Ask and ye shall receive.”
Deep inside, I felt sure I would be going nowhere, rather Billy would be going alone to Vietnam, but why not ask for the moon and hope for a star. I doubt if I would have been nearly as enthusiastic had I known where our path would take us next.