MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 39 – Ranger School
In spite of the disastrous holiday, Billy was in good spirits as we headed back to Columbus and boisterously he and Michael sang their songs until I was ready to ride on the roof! There was no listening to the radio with my handsome husband behind the wheel as he continued to entertain our delighted toddler. Billy always insisted I sit right next to him in the car saying he did not like any distance between us. If he wanted to reach out and touch me, he wanted me to be there, and I wanted the same – the feeling I could reach out and he would be there, at all times.
When Michael fell asleep about 45 minutes into the trip home, Billy put his hand on my stomach where our yet-to-be-born ‘son’ was kicking so hard I was most uncomfortable. When I sat or lay down, this baby became more active as if to put me on notice of events to come. I often wondered how I would handle two little boys as inquisitive and willful as Michael, but soon I would definitely find out. This little one would be a Valentine’s baby, due on February 14, but by adding the two weeks Michael had been late, the due date was more like the first day of March, a Billy would be home from Ranger School by then. He was due to graduate the end of February and planned to take two weeks leave before going back to work at Headquarters Company.
According to the date we had to arrive at the port of San Pedro outside of Los Angeles, we would be packing up and leaving within weeks after the baby was born, and I just prayed this overwhelming tiredness would disappear with the birth of our child, although I had a feeling it would just get worse. Billy was both anxious to go to Ranger School and even more anxious to arrive in Hawaii and join the prestigious 25th Infantry Division, 14th Brigade and 1st Battalion whose battle flags were numerous and its history rich with tradition. We knew, without a doubt, the entire 25th would be going to Vietnam eventually, as more and more Americans were becoming involved. It was widely known that the newly formed 11th Air Assault Division would be deploying soon. Snooky had just given birth to a baby boy, and was most upset about Bill leaving at any time, with no guarantee he would come back, at least in one piece. The Vietcong especially targeted officers since a unit without leaders is a confused unit, so the odds of our lieutenant husbands returning unscathed were slim. I just could not think about it, not right now, not with the new baby on the way!
Sunday, as Billy packed his duffel bags, I sat on the edge of the bed and cried, not aloud, but silently with the tears running down my face leaving a salty taste in my mouth. I did not fuss as I had about Airborne School, but I still had a tremendous fear something terrible would happen to him, like falling off a cliff in the mountains or snakebite in the Florida swamp. It just never occurred to me this was the dead of winter, even in north Florida. Billy had been relatively accident-free for quite some time, so he was overdue and the training at Ranger School would be tempting the fates. He often held me close and promised he would take no chances, he wanted to know his new son, and he never wanted to leave me for some other man to marry. I told him I could never love another man and would never remarry, but he reminded me of my promises to him about raising our children and about making sure that they had a daddy who would love them.
“I don’t care if you love him, just as long as he loves you and my boys.” Billy said, with false bravado, but I knew, and he knew that never again would either of us find what we had now – it was just too perfect.
Had I thought about it, I might have said too perfect to last, but my half-full glass continued to calm me while I thought bad things only happened to other people. However, I knew life without Billy McConnell would be a life without sunshine, and I simply could not bear to think about losing him. Nor could I imagine any man who would want the shell left behind after Billy took all of my heart with him. I had to have faith that God knew how very much I needed my handsome soldier, and He would send his angels to cushion any fall, otherwise I might have gone mad! However, I had to hold myself together, for Billy and our son, and I knew these nine weeks would be the training for the ultimate anxiety when the time came for him to leave for Vietnam. It all boiled down to whether I had the ‘stuff’ to be an officer’s lady, and I was determined to show Billy I did, and he did not have to worry about us, rather concentrate on the mission before him. The last thing I wanted was for him to agonize about his ‘little family’, and I just wanted him home in one piece!
Sunday night we had our last shower together, at least for a while, and we made love off and on for most of the night. When either of us would awaken we would reach for the other and before long, we were making love again. As I lay in the bed by my darling Billy, I dreaded the coming sunrise, and for once wished I could push it back into the horizon and keep it from ever coming up again. Of course, I could not and after fixing Billy a big breakfast, with Michael in the backseat, I drove him out to The Ranger School at Sand Hill. He kissed and hugged his little boy and told him to take care of his mommy, that he was the ‘man’ of the house now. Then he held me as closely as I ever remember him holding me, as if by letting go, one of us would float away. Big tears welled up in my eyes and ran down my face soaking Billy’s shirt pocket, but I could not help but cry since we had never been apart for this long. Soon we were the only ones left in the parking lot as each wife or family member drove away, and I knew I could not delay any longer. The time had come for me to do the same, and this had to be one of the hardest things I had ever had to do. As I drove away, I watched him in the rear-view mirror until I could not see him anymore, and he stood there motionless until the car was out of sight.
Ranger training was just over nine weeks long, with the first phase taking place at Sand Hill, not that far away, but Ranger candidates were not allowed to call home or to leave the area, nor were we allowed to visit. During the first phase, physical conditioning was stressed and the candidates exercised, and worked out in ‘the pit’ from sun up to sun down, mostly to build up their stamina for the other two phases, plus a Ranger needed to know how to handle an enemy ‘hand-to-hand’. Billy was in good physical shape and had maintained the stamina he gained during Airborne School, but so were the other candidates, and most were West Point graduates.
I could have worried day and night and when my son was not keeping me on my toes, I did worry, and I did cry. Oh how I missed his delightful roar as he walked in the front door, and said, “Where are you, woman?” As I marked another day off the calendar that hung in the kitchen, I could not believe he had been gone for just two days!
I started to work on the floors the very night Billy reported to Ranger School, and through my tears, I soaked towels in hot water and placed them on the floor until it turned white and the old wax softened. Then I took a paint scraper and scraped up the thick gunk, dropping it onto a piece of newspaper. It was hard to believe how thick the wax deposit was, but we had not taken it up when we moved in, just waxed over the old, and then shined the dark floors with an electric buffer. Our floors had always been as polished as Billy’s spit-shined shoes and we took a great deal of pride in keeping our home spotless. I had to promise Billy I would not move anything heavy and I could not have done so anyway since I was already becoming alarmingly large. It was still difficult to tell I was pregnant from behind, but when I turned around, my stomach was huge since I was carrying this baby all out front, unlike Michael when I had been huge all over. I was not due for another 2 ½ months, but I could lay a hand of bridge on top of my tummy and sit a cup of coffee there, if the baby was still, which was not often. Terrified by the thought of giving birth to a baby that weighed more than Michael did, I could not see how this one could weigh any less.
During my lonely days and even lonelier nights, I spent my time being Michael’s Mommy – reading and playing with my son since the weather was too cool for the little ones to go to the playground. At least the days were not sweltering while Billy worked out in the sun as he did in airborne school, and they were not too cold either. In fact, it was perfect weather for the Ranger candidates, and I prayed it would stay this way for the entire three weeks! It was a relief when afternoon arrived and I could sit Michael in front of the television while I either worked on the floors or wrote a long letter to Billy, and I was going to make sure not one day would go by without writing to him. Often I would wonder what I would say, but as if by magic, as soon as I picked up my pen, the words flowed from the tip, and my letters were never depressing, rather filled with all the positive thoughts I could muster, as well as anything cute Michael had said or done. Billy’s class was fortunate since they had just over a two-week break at Christmas, and he would be home with us, but of course, we would have to go to Griffin, at least for a few days. Then there was the wedding, which I was dreading more than I could put into words, and I knew if I was dreading it, Billy detested the thought!
Gene had finally called and apologized for any embarrassment he might be creating by his premature marriage, but Billy told him he was not the one who he should apologize to, rather to me and to the boys. I had thought the phone call would erupt into another shouting match, but Billy controlled his anger since he knew how it upset me and he finally agreed to be his father’s best man, but he did not agree to like it, or his new step-mother-to-be!
He would be home around December 19, missing my 22nd birthday by three days, but he promised we would go out to the club for the Friday night seafood buffet to make up for his absence. I did not care about missing my birthday, I just wanted him home, whenever, and however he could get here!
We decided not to leave for Griffin until Christmas Eve day, although that meant lugging all of Michael’s ‘Santa Claus’ toys in the trunk, hoping he did not see them. Gene had said he would have the boy’s toys assembled at the store and he wanted us to come straight there when we got to Griffin to choose some gifts for Michael. We really needed a twin bed since the baby would require the crib once we got to Hawaii, at least just as soon as he grew out of the bassinet. If this baby were as large as Michael was, and there was no reason to think he might not be, it would not be very long. Gene told us to be sure to pick out a nice bed and mattress for Michael, although I did not want anything fancy or heavy to take to Hawaii. He was trying to make it up to us for his hasty remarriage and his absence on Thanksgiving, but he could not make up for that day and the anxiety he caused his family, and Billy may have forgiven him, but he would never forget!
The three weeks Billy was gone seemed like a lifetime, but I stayed more than busy cleaning out drawers and after Michael was in bed, scraping wax off the floors. We had never been apart this long, without a phone call or brief weekend together, and each night was longer than the night before. I continued to write to him every day just as I had when he was in summer camp, and he wrote to me as often as possible, but I knew the physical training would leave him exhausted, and all he would want to do at the end of the day was to crawl into his cot. What I did not know was that he was having problems with his right shoulder dislocating, which was making his training even more difficult. He would not go to the doctor thinking, probably correctly, they would remove him from the program, so he learned how to pop it back in place when it happened and remain silent about the pain. Had I known about this, I would have spent my days and nights in agony, worrying about my love, my life, my darling Billy.
I could not help but reminisce as I went through our meager possessions and the more I reminisced, the more I thought about how much I loved him and how bleak my life had been before we met. Carefully I placed ‘treasures’ in one box, which I marked with that single word and with each item placed inside there was a memory attached. There were the notes he left me in the library when we first began dating, the black, and silver ‘F’ Company shield with our names in the center, his company pin, his class ring with the shattered stone, and the insignia from his R.O.T.C. uniforms. There were his yearbooks and mine, the photo taken when he was awarded ‘Outstanding Platoon Leader’ his senior year, and another of us taken at the N.C.O. Ball right after I moved to the valley, and his letters and mine from summer camp. Of course I had to read each, and every one before adding them to the box, but I knew someday I would burn these as they were simply too intimate for anyone else to read, especially our children! I added Michael’s little blue suit with the zipper in front that I had put on him to bring him home from the hospital, the envelope with the golden curls from his first haircut, and a pair of tiny brown and white oxford shoes. Yes, this box was indeed full of treasures and memories and I would make sure it was packed and unpacked by no one but me.
Michael seemed not to miss his father as much as I had thought he would, but he was at the stage where he was definitely a ‘Mommy’s boy’. One night while I was cleaning out yet another drawer, I came across some handheld ‘bridge games’ with little tabs that could be moved to uncover and cover the ‘cards’. Some of these tabs had fallen out of the games, so Michael picked one up to examine this never before seen object. I asked him to give it to Mommy so I could put it back where it belonged, but he was determined I was not to have it. When I insisted, he suddenly popped it into his mouth and swallowed! Oh my God! It was 10:00 p.m., my husband was gone, I was too pregnant, and my son had just swallowed a foreign object. I called the Martin Army Hospital Emergency Room and they insisted I bring him right out to make sure he had ingested the tab and not aspirated it into his lungs, which would make him a very sick little boy indeed. With no other choice, I put his jacket on over his pajamas and not even bothering to put on makeup, I bundled my willful little boy into his car seat for the short trip to the emergency room, which he thought was a great adventure!
When we arrived, fortunately we found the waiting room almost empty, so Michael received immediate attention. The doctor on duty ordered an x-ray to make sure the tiny tab was in his stomach, not his lungs, so I walked him down to radiology where the technician picked him up and placed him on the cold table. He then told Michael he was going to take his picture so he had to be very, very still and my little ham smiled at the technician and said, ‘cheese’! I thought the young man would fall on the floor he laughed so hard, but finally he composed himself and was able to take the x-ray.
Indeed, the tab was in Michael’s tummy and the doctor told me to watch his stools for the next few days. Right! I knew he would just pass it and I was not about to try to retrieve it. However, we had survived our first crisis and I felt like I could handle almost anything now. Back home I tucked my now quite sleepy toddler into his crib and I fell into my own lonely bed more emotionally exhausted than physically.
“Oh Billy, I miss you so!” I thought to myself as I grabbed his pillow and held it close to my face. It still smelled of him and I decided right then not to wash his pillowcase until the day before he came home. Just as we did not wash our boyfriend’s shirts at North Georgia after they had given them to us. Washing the pillowcase would take away the scent of the man I loved, more than life itself.