MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 37 – Billy’s 24th Birthday
Summer gradually faded into fall and fall into winter, which was a barely perceptible change in this part of Georgia. Unlike Dahlonega, we had no snow in Columbus, and one season blended into the other without any fanfare, nor the intense coloring of the leaves. In other words, fall was boring here, and at this time of year, as in the early spring, I yearned for the beauty of our beloved mountains, and all of the hidden surprises that were waiting for us around each bend in the road. Of course, we had to get out the winter clothing, and our son, who did not like wearing any clothes, wore corduroy overalls and long sleeve knit shirt. I dressed him as well as we could afford, and thanks to the P.X., he had more clothes than his father and I did. Naturally, everything Michael wore I ‘matched’ perfectly, although I was still having a hard time teaching his father that navy was not black, and khaki was not brown, but he was beginning to learn.
My mother had been almost fanatic about ‘matching’, and when I was about twelve years old the responsibility for washing and ironing my own clothes, and those of my younger brothers, fell into my hands since my mother detested that particular chore more than most. She had trained me very young by making sure ‘Santa’ brought me a tiny ironing board and a small, but real, electric iron for my doll’s clothing. So every Saturday, I washed all of our clothes – stretching the boy’s jeans on metal stretchers inside each leg, and at least they did not need ironing. While the jeans dried, I ironed their shirts, and then carefully hung them, without one single wrinkle or crease, over each pair of pants. This way when they dressed for school each morning all they had to do was pull down one hanger and their outfits matched perfectly. Although at the time I resented this, and many other chores, that filled my Saturdays, now I realized it had been good training for this ‘color blind’ husband of mine! Oh, he was not really ‘color blind’ except when it came to his clothes, and no one had ever taken the time and taught him how to put together a coordinating outfit.
Since Michael, who not only did not like wearing clothes, but also did not like to wear shoes, could no longer go barefoot, which the doctor said was good for his pronation, he was wearing his expensive Stride-rite high tops daily, but he no longer fussed while I dressed him, or tried to squirm away. I do not think I could have fought him had he not been willing to get dressed since I seemed to be tired all of the time, and I did not remember feeling so constantly worn out when pregnant with Michael.
When I discussed this with the doctor at the O.B. clinic, his explanation was that with the first child an expectant mother has only her husband to care for, thus more opportunities to rest, but with a second child, especially when the first is as active as our small son, the mother’s-to-be remain exhausted. He continued, and told me not to expect this overwhelming tiredness to change significantly until the new baby was at least six or more months old, particularly if I was going to nurse. He went into further detail and explained that some firstborns, object to the shared spotlight and often revert to talking ‘baby talk’, wetting their pants, and especially becoming very possessive of their Mommy. Some even harmed the new baby, with every intention of ridding their household of this ‘intruder’ who was taking away from their time with their doting parents.
I prayed none of this would happen, and I tried to include Michael in all the preparations. As I washed all of the tiny gowns and stretch suits he had worn, I told him that soon he would have a new baby brother who would wear these tiny clothes. I explained that the new baby would be small and helpless, like Lawrence (Margaret’s baby), and he would have to be a big boy and help me care for the baby.
He acted as if he understood, and then one day when he was too quiet, I found him trying to put on some of the tiny clothes. When I asked why he wanted to wear baby clothes since he was such a big boy, he informed me these were his clothes and we did not need a baby! Oh boy! I knew then we would have to watch him like a hawk, and he was not going to be easy to handle. I suppose most of this was my own fault since he had been my little shadow ever since he began to walk, and had consumed all of my time and attention when his daddy was at work, or in the field, and he went almost everywhere I went, but soon this would have to stop.
As predicted, with this pregnancy, my energy level remained on zero, and in all likelihood, the doctor was correct since I was attempting to keep up with a determined, little boy in the midst of his ‘terrible twos’.
I guess whatever was in our water was in Trish’s water too since she learned she was now pregnant, and she was feeling much the same way even in her very early stage. She even looked tired with dark circles under her eyes and often I would tell her to go take a nap, and I would keep Elizabeth for the afternoon. Actually, I found that two children close to the same age are a lot less demanding than one since they entertain each other, so I enjoyed having Elizabeth, with her bouncy blonde ringlets, and I was certain this was as close as I would ever get to a little girl. Several times, Trish returned the favor, and it was a pleasure just to read or doze off without Michael wanting my constant attention. We both admitted that the two of them together were a lot less work than one since they played so well and did not demand an adult’s attention, and this respite was sheer pleasure for both of us.
Although I am sure he was I did not remember Michael being quite as dependent on me until we told him about the new baby, but once again, he wanted to sit in my lap, not next to me, while I read to him, and he even asked for a bottle! Of course, the former I handled easily, at least for the time being, but the latter was out of the question. I tried to keep these minor difficulties from Billy since he was already worried enough about leaving me alone during my last trimester, but often, Michael was just as demanding of his daddy’s time.
I refused to allow this overwhelming tiredness affect my relations with my husband, especially in the bedroom. Regardless of how unattractive and uncomfortable I sometimes felt, I knew how important our nightly trysts were to Billy, and I made sure I saved what little energy I did have just for him. Naturally, fearing he might observe the svelte young wives with their flat abdomens and tiny waists, then find his own wife grossly lacking, in spite of the fact this was his baby, I made sure I was always available for his favorite pastime - sex. The changes in my body seemed to come more rapidly this time and already I was showing, as my belly quickly became round and firm! In the back of my mind was the constant hope this baby would not weigh much more than Michael since his birth had left me unable to walk properly for weeks, and I could not afford to be as sore this time! I heard through wives’ chatter at the clinic that with the birth of the second baby, the soreness from the episiotomy was negligible since there was mostly scar tissue from the first, so I was looking forward to not having to deal with the burning pain and a newborn, not to mention a jealous not-quite-three-year-old!
In spite of my chronic fatigue, for Billy’s 24th birthday I even planned a ‘surprise party’, and invited the neighbors for ‘after supper’ ice cream and cake. So he would not suspect anything, I waited until the day of his birthday, a working day for him, to buy the extra soft drinks, chips and dip, and I left Michael with Trish while I made a quick trip to the commissary. No longer could I take Michael with me since the destruction of the newly stacked tomato soup pyramid had been just the first of his many misadventures, and often I would quickly flee the scene without anyone having seen who had opened the box of cereal and dumped it all over the floor. To avoid his favorite trick of taking items off the shelves and putting them into the basket when I was not looking, required I walk down the very center of the narrow aisles, an arm’s length away from the shelves. If at any time I ventured too close to the bright boxes, or when there were several shoppers abreast in one lane, when I reached the register and began to unload my cart, I would find a dozen or more items in my basket I had not put there! Shopping with Michael required a squad of Marines, and I did not know where to find one, so I left him with a neighbor whenever I could, and Billy began stopping by the drive-through window to purchase necessities like milk and bread. The manager glared at me whenever I found it absolutely necessary to take him with me, and now it had become almost impossible to keep him inside the cart without a tantrum that could be heard all the way to Atlanta! It was just so much easier to leave him with Trish, and she did the same with Elizabeth when she went shopping, although the little girl with blonde ringlets did not possess the terrible temper that had a firm grip on my son!
They always played well together, and they always shared, but we had to keep our eyes on them since both had a bad habit of ‘sharing’ baby aspirin. Michael, the protagonist, would crawl up onto the toilet, into the sink and open the medicine cabinet; he would take out the baby aspirin and then, as we taught him, he would share them with Elizabeth. After a couple of trips to the emergency room, we began keeping Ipecac syrup at home and would give them a teaspoon when we thought they had gotten into something that might harm them, since aspirin was not the only thing they ‘shared’. We also tried the raw egg method of breaking their habit but Michael fought like a tiger and it was practically impossible to get any of the awful mixture into him, but the Ipecac we could ‘doctor’ with sugar and food coloring and he took it without fuss. I had just never realized how difficult a child could be until my own son came on the scene! Not that he did not inherit this honestly, since both of his parents had their own tempers to contend with, and both threw their own tantrums, although Billy had outgrown his, and I was still working on it.
That afternoon, after I finished my shopping, just as soon as I returned home I fed Michael his lunch, and while he watched cartoons on television, I made a ‘rainbow angel food cake’ from scratch with whipped cream frosting tinted a pale blue, Billy’s favorite color. I had bought rainbow sherbet and vanilla ice cream, hoping to please everyone, and our guests were due to arrive somewhere between 19:00 hours and 19:30 hours (military time for 7:00 to 7:30 pm). By 17:30 (5:30 pm), I had a beautifully frosted cake sitting on top of the washer, and was ready to prepare Billy’s favorite supper, country-fried steak with cream gravy, mashed potatoes, and LeSeuer peas, but this meal is better when prepared to eat right away. I waited and waited for him to come home, or at least to call, but finally, with our guests due to arrive in about an hour, I went ahead and prepared the meal, and fed Michael, but my appetite was just as absent as my husband.
By 7:00 p.m., I began to worry when Billy still had not come home or called, and our guests were due to arrive any minute. Quickly I bathed Michael, dressed him in his pajamas so I would not have to ignore our guests to do this later, and as the first of our neighbors knocked on the door, I still had not heard from Billy. Now I was worried, but the idea of calling him at work never dawned on me, simply because it was such a faux pas to do so! By the time the last of our guests arrived, and still no Billy, I cut the cake and passed it around with the ice cream and sherbet, but I am sure the worry I felt was clearly written all over my face. I could not imagine what had held him up since he no longer had the responsibilities of a tact officer; rather he was writing a training manual with Sergeant Tuttle as part of his duties as Assistant O-3 at Headquarters Company, and he had never come home any later than 5:30 since his transfer.
Around 9:00, my guests began to leave since most had sleepy children to put to bed, and finally with Michael asleep in his crib, I cleaned up the remnants of the ‘surprise’ party that had been more of a surprise for me than for Billy. With all the dishes washed, the cold and uneatable cube steaks thrown in the garbage, I dozed on the sofa from sheer exhaustion, and it must have been after 11:00 that I heard, coming over the hill towards the apartment, the obviously inebriated voice of my beloved.
He was singing at the top of his lungs, “I want to be an Airborne Ranger.”
I started to go outside to make sure he came to the right apartment, but it was cold, so I peered out the front blinds just in time to see that he carried something large in front of him, which probably kept him from knocking himself out when he walked straight into the largest pine tree on the lawn! Whatever it was in his arms absorbed the blow, but he dropped it when he slumped to the ground and for once, I did not care if he was hurt! He deserved to have a goose egg on his head, and if the tree had not put one there, I just might!
Finally, he half crawled to the front door, where I was waiting, and this time the entire fury of all the anger I had been holding back came roaring out of me, and I was enraged! He was far too drunk to recognize the fury that practically seeped out of my pores, and I am sure if he had been sober enough to notice, he would have run the other way! I think this was the only time I had ever been quite that angry with him, at least since he bought those damn derringers with my tax refund check right after we got married, as if what was mine was now his to do with as he pleased. He was a mess! The front of his uniform was sticky with what looked like chocolate frosting, so it must have a cake in his arms when he met head on with the immovable object.
“Where the hell have you been?” I asked while my anger punctuated every syllable.
Barely sober enough to answer me, the gist of his reply was, “Well, since I will be going to Ranger School right after Thanksgiving, the fellows at work gave me a surprise birthday and ‘farewell’ party all in one, and boy was I surprised!”
Determined to have the last word whether he remembered or not, I replied, “Well I too was surprised since you did not bother to pick up a telephone, and I had made your favorite supper, and invited neighbors over for ice cream and cake!”
He just looked at me with had to be the dumbest look I had ever seen on his handsome face, and I knew I was wasting my breath fussing at him since he would never remember a word I was saying by morning, and frankly I was too angry to even think of the words I wanted to say. All I could do was pick up the handiest object within reach that would not hurt him, and this time he had ‘rainbow’ angel food cake all over his face! With this final indignity, he simply slumped to the rug and passed out, and all I could do was clean him off, take off his boots, and cover him up before I went to bed, alone. This was the first time when we had been in the same house together I had ever gone to bed alone. I finally cried myself to sleep, wanting to urge him to join me in our warm bed, but I had too much pride to try to roust him, although I doubted if I could.
The next morning, he could not have been more apologetic, and he begged my forgiveness after I repeated his ‘sin’ of the previous evening, since as I suspected he did not even remember how he had gotten home. I supposed that someone had driven him home since I had our car and he had been riding with another officer who worked in the headquarters, but I never asked, and he never remembered. He promised me on bended knee he would never, ever forget to call me when he was even five minutes late, but I knew I could not hold him to this since sometimes when he was in the field, he could not get to a phone, and exercises often ran later than scheduled. However, he sure had better remember if he was within a mile of a telephone!
About then, the phone rang and it was Sgt. Tuttle inquiring if Billy had made it to the apartment, and with icicles hanging from every word, I said, “barely.” I almost hung up the phone right then, and I did not go into detail with him about my own surprise party, but instead handed the phone to Billy since I decided they were cohorts, and had committed this ‘crime’ together. Billy told him he did not remember anything past being at work and the party. He did not remember getting into the car, walking into the tree, or the fact that I had smashed what was left of his ‘rainbow’ cake in his face! He just said he knew he had ‘come to’ on the floor of our apartment stiff and sticky, with the worst headache of his life, and he was heading to the shower to clean up, and then spend the rest of the weekend doing ‘damage control’.
When he hung up the phone and started towards the bathroom, I said, “Not so fast, buster, you have a cake to clean up under a pine tree!” I then told him what had happened, and he sheepishly took a trash bag and paper towels out to the tree to clean up the mess he had left on the lawn. I had sent Michael over to play with Elizabeth since I did not want him to hear us arguing, but Billy just sat there and took it, nodding his head in agreement with everything I said. He knew he had been wrong, very wrong, and that I had every reason to be upset, but most of all, when he did not receive sympathy for the expected goose egg in the middle of his forehead that was now a deep purple, he knew he was in trouble!
Worn out from ranting and raving, and red in the face, I burst into tears, and then Billy held me in his arms while he whispered over, and over again, “I’m sorry, I’m so very sorry, I will never do anything like this again. I hate it when you cry because of something I have done. Please don’t cry. You are going to make me cry too!”
“You should cry since you upset your pregnant wife like this, how did I know you were not dead or lying on the side of the road injured and bleeding?”
Once again he assured me nothing was going to happen to him that he was a tough bird to kill since he should have been dead thrice over, and he assured me he would never die and leave me around for another man to love. He then begged me to take a shower with him, and like the fool I was, finding his charm irresistible, I agreed, and of course afterwards we made love and all was forgiven, but not forgotten. Oh how he could work me! With a look, he melted my heart, and with a smile, he could break it in two. Even after almost four years of marriage, I loved him more than ever, and he insisted he loved me more too, particularly when I was annoyed with him since I was even more beautiful when I was angry or pregnant. Now, since I was both, he could not resist loving me even more. He never laughed at me when my temper flared, rather he held me securely in his arms, as if physically containing me would keep my anger in bounds, and it usually worked.
After we made love, he told me to wait right there on the bed, he had a surprise for me, and he went out to the living room. He came back with a black velvet box that contained a sterling silver charm bracelet with tiny soldiers with parachutes on their backs, and the emblems of each level of airborne training. He had bought this for me for my birthday, but since he would be in Ranger School then he wanted to make up for missing his party, so he gave it to me now. He then took another tiny tissue wrapped package out of his shirt pocket, and said his fellow officers and NCOs from Headquarters had sent this to me as a ‘farewell’ gift, and when I opened the tissue, I could not keep a straight face! There was a tiny charm of a tuxedo-clad man leaning on a lamp pole, obviously inebriated! I guess they could not find a pine tree or a man in uniform!
As I laughed and cried at the same time, Billy held me in his arms, and kissing me from my forehead down to my lips, he said, “Darling, please stay just the way you are, and always forgive me when I do something stupid, but I will try to be really good from now on. Always remember, no matter what I do or no matter what happens in the future, I will always love you more than life itself. And, darling, I sure am glad you made my doghouse large enough for two!”
Yes, and I loved him ‘more than life itself’, and I always would. It seemed as if the angrier I was with him, the more I loved him after we made up, and the making up was so much fun!
Still trying to make amends, later that afternoon Billy called everyone who had come to his party and apologized, explaining about the surprise party at headquarters. Naturally, he used his God given charm, and left no one with hurt feelings, most of all me, and now I was able to cry about the purple goose egg in the middle of his forehead. It would be a week before he could look into a mirror and not remember his 24th birthday!
That night we celebrated a day late by going to a triple feature at the drive-in, and with Michael asleep in the backseat, we made out as if we were teenagers, steaming up the windows of the car until no one could see in, while we could not see out. Billy said this had definitely been a birthday to remember! All I could think about was by his next birthday he would probably be in Vietnam.
On Monday, Billy received the best of his birthday presents, orders to Hawaii! We could not believe our good fortune! Of course, Hawaii had been our first choice, but we never thought we would actually get to go there, and at Uncle Sam’s expense! Billy’s assignment was as a platoon leader in ‘C’ Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, a unit with an outstanding history and long established traditions. We both were so excited we could barely contain ourselves, but what neither of us knew was that the 25th Division was ‘beefing’ up and training to deploy to Vietnam, so innocently we celebrated our choice assignment. As a platoon leader, if he was not assigned as company executive officer, he would experience the required ‘command time’ for the coveted Regular Army commission, and I had a feeling it would not be long before his company commander would realize Billy’s leadership skills were better utilized in a platoon leader’s slot. After all, he had been ‘Outstanding Platoon Leader’ his senior year at North Georgia.
The next day, he requested ‘surface transport’, using the yet-to-be-born infant as our excuse for not wanting to fly, although we knew this wish was beyond the realm of possibility. Amazingly, within days he received orders to be in Los Angeles, California in mid April. We would be leaving for paradise aboard the ‘Lurline’, a luxury liner that was the ‘bus-line’ back and forth from the mainland to Hawaii. Now I just had to have this baby on time or not so late so we would miss our ship! We were ecstatic our lives were seemingly going along so well. How much luckier could we get?
The next day brought even more good news, as if we had suddenly found our pot of gold, when we found out our friends and neighbors, Trish and Rusty, were going to Hawaii about the same time we were to leave, although they would be going by air. Rusty’s assignment was the 2nd Battalion of the 14th Brigade, so we could possibly be neighbors again. They promised to find temporary quarters for us when they arrived since we would be only about five days behind them. Then, if there were no available quarters on post, we would look for an apartment or houses that were close to each other, hopefully on or near the beach, which again would be too good to be true. Both Rusty and Billy vowed they would find us those houses, but I was especially happy Michael and Elizabeth could continue to be ‘play’ friends while both went through the transition from only child to sibling.
We debated about taking our furniture, but the Army’s weight allowance for overseas travel would not allow us the luxury, so about all we could take would be the baby furniture and the washing machine, which would be essential with a newborn. Again, fate intervened, and our neighbors on the other side of our apartment, Bill and Snookie, asked if they could buy our furniture and just move into our apartment when we left since their baby was due not long after our little one was born. When we realized that in three apartments side by side, there were three pregnant wives, we knew it had to be the water! Major Mac joked and said she was going to boil her water!
Now we would have extra money for the long drive across country, although the Army would pay our travel expenses after Billy reported to his unit, and then again, we could request advance travel pay. We elected not to do so since we were afraid we would spend the money we would need to make a deposit on an apartment or house if we could not find quarters on post. The Army Quartermaster warehouse would loan us furniture whether we lived on or off post, so the offer from Bill and Snookie was gratefully accepted, and I was going to make sure the apartment was spotless before they moved in. This would occupy my lonely nights while Billy was in Ranger School, and I decided to strip the floors of all the layers of paste wax that had built up over the years and begun to crack. This would be hard work, and it would take me a long time to do it right, but Billy did not want me to do this and promised he would over Christmas. My possessive streak made me want him all to myself over the holiday since he would get a break in his Ranger training between the Benning and the mountain phase, and I did not want this time spent scraping wax off the floors!