MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 45 – Our Journey, 1st Stop, Griffin
Early, on Good Friday morning, the manager of the apartments was knocking on our front door for our final inspection. She looked around the apartment that soon, with all its furnishings, would belong to Bill and Snookie, then smiled, and said she had written our check before she left the office since she knew our apartment would be spotless. We felt rich! Now we had two checks, one, our security, and damage deposit and one month’s rent and the other from Bill for the furniture we were leaving behind.
After the manager left, we hastily ate a bowl of cereal with Michael, then while I nursed Margie, Billy began taking the suitcases out to the car. We did not have much in the way of clothing, so we took almost everything we owned with us, except for the few items we shipped with our limited household goods allowance.
Delivery of household goods was anything but predictable, but since we were going by ship, surely they would probably arrive in Hawaii before us. We would be on the road for a long time, so we would need most of our clothing, and no doubt, we would still have to stop and wash along the way. Billy had allowed plenty of time for us to enjoy the trip, but also he wanted to make it as easy on me as possible, and if I became tired, we could always stop early. He was so excited about the long journey ahead of us, and he could hardly wait to share the beautiful country west of the Mississippi with me. For the sake of our very active almost three-year-old son, and the tiny baby girl, not to mention their still very tired mommy, he promised to stop each day for a leisurely lunch and a playtime for Michael. Billy was adamant he would not drive after dark so we would not miss any of the sights, and we all could have a good night’s rest.
We had gone repeatedly over the list of the infant paraphernalia we would need, and made sure we packed a bag of toys to help keep Michael entertained, or so we hoped. It would be hard on this very active child to remain cooped up in the car all day, but we decided to find a place for him to run and play after eating lunch, hopefully to rid him of some of his pent up energy. We also did not want him to sleep all day since then he would be up all night, and we would need that time to rest. If everything worked out according to our plans, then we would have a most pleasurable journey, but all it would take was just one extra rainy day, and we would have to rethink our schedule. Fortunately, we had plenty of time, just in case things did not go as smoothly as we planned, but for Billy’s sake, I hoped this would be the trip he dreamed about in Ranger School, or even better. However, we both realized that traveling with children was anything but predictable.
We had said good-bye to our friends, most preparing to move on to their next post too, and I knew surely, most of us would meet again, and of course, we knew Trish and Rusty would be waiting for us in Hawaii. I almost cried as we said good-bye to Major Mac, this kind neighbor who so loved our son, and I knew soon she would retire and move back to her beloved Vermont, so it was highly unlikely we would ever meet again. Margaret and Larry, with their three children, were on their way to Panama, Bill and Snookie would probably not have too long to enjoy their new apartment before he left for Vietnam, and now everyone else who lived in our court were strangers.
As we walked out of our small apartment and Billy turned the key over to Bill, I could not help but feel a bit sentimental about all the good times we had while living here. We had loved, laughed, fought, made up, and conceived our daughter in this comfortable apartment. Our son had taken his first steps here, and had become a very independent and determined ‘little man’ instead of the baby he had been when we first arrived. We had made friends here, played bridge, and shared our low budget meals with newcomers, and a part of me would always remain in this small apartment, just as it remained in Dahlonega. After the tear-filled farewells, with one last look backwards, we climbed into our new car, pulled out of the parking lot for the last time, and pointed our vehicle towards paradise!
Again, we arrived in Griffin just about lunchtime, and, as usual, Billy drove straight to the store. Naturally, he wanted to show off our new daughter, and to say good-bye to Whitey, who had known him since he was just a boy. Gene came out of his office to greet us, and swinging Michael up into his arms; he then told Billy he had reserved a nice room for us at the motel where we would all be eating supper! This was the first, and only time I had ever seen Billy speechless, and the hurt look on his face broke my heart.
He did not know what to say, at least for a moment or two, but then his handsome features darkened as he faced his father and asked, “What do you mean a motel room? What is wrong with my old room where we always stay?” he asked incredulously.
Gene seemed to age visibly as he explained to Billy that his old room now belonged to Dickie since Stuart had moved in with the two younger boys. Ruth had added a double bed to the boy’s large bedroom, and a sliding louvered wall, which made this area private when Ruth’s daughter and son-in-law came for a visit. He continued, obviously parroting Ruth’s words, and said there simply was not enough room for our growing family in the house anymore. Ruth also was not used to having a crying baby keep her awake, and according to Gene, this plan would be more convenient for all concerned. I silently wondered why Dickie could not move to the empty double bed for this one last night, but I knew I should keep quiet and let Billy do the talking since this was his father, and his childhood home that was being denied him.
He was beyond furious and irately said, “Perhaps we should just go on to Atlanta, where we are welcome, after we go by the house to say good-bye to the boys.”
Gene beseeched him to stay the night and to have supper at our favorite restaurant with the family, to include Ruth and Stuart, but Billy could not look at his father. I could tell he was between rage and tears as he now realized he had lost his boyhood home, at least as long as ‘that woman’, as he called Ruth, was in charge there. Looking as if someone had slammed a door in his face, he said since we had not had lunch, we would go get something to eat and to think about it. He then took Michael from Gene’s arms, turned his back on his father, and without another word, turned to leave the store. Gene followed and told him all he had to do was check into the motel since he had already paid for the room and anything else we needed. Then the rest of the family would meet us there for supper.
Glaring daggers, Billy spun around, faced his father and asked, “You mean I cannot even go by my house and see my brothers before supper? What are we supposed to do, sit in a motel all afternoon?”
Gene carefully measured his words and said he would call Ruth and see what time would be convenient for her, although we knew the boys were out of school for Easter break. From the look on Billy’s face, it was time for me to butt in, and I took his arm and said, “Let’s go eat some lunch and then we can come back, and while I watch Michael, you can talk to your father.”
His answer was more a snarl, not to me, but to Gene, “I think I have heard all I need to hear.”
With those last words, he put his arms around my waist, as if to guide me, and once again began to walk rapidly out of the store. This time Gene did not follow.
Whitey intercepted us on our way out, and he tried to explain to Billy that unlike his mother, Ruth was a formidable foe and in complete control of both Gene and the house. He told us that to cross Ruth was not like crossing any other person, and Gene dared not do so, not even for his favorite son, or he would find himself locked out of his own house.
“Not even when he may never see me again?” Billy queried. You know, Whitey, I will be going to Vietnam from Hawaii, and I don’t know if I will come back, ever.”
Tears welling up in his eyes, Whitey asked if Gene knew about this, and Billy explained he had not had an opportunity to tell him. We had not been back to Griffin since Christmas, and the only time we had seen Gene, he was with Ruth. He also explained it had not been that long ago he had learned that the 25th Division was training in preparation for deployment, and this could come at any time. I had not known this either, and a shiver rolled up my spine as paradise suddenly lost its allure, at least for me. I looked up at my handsome lieutenant and thought to myself that I could not live without him, and if his heart ever stopped beating, then surely my own would too. As if he could read my thoughts, Billy put his arm around my shoulders. Whitey walked us to the car, all the while asking Billy to be patient with Gene since it was obvious he had stepped from the frying pan into the fire, but for the moment, Billy could have cared less.
Lunch at the local Dairy Queen, usually a cause for celebration, was a somber affair this gray afternoon in Griffin, not because of a lack of sun, but because of Billy’s dark mood. Not a good beginning for our journey, which was supposed to be the adventure of our lives, but I knew it was time for me to be quiet and to allow him to think this situation through without my interference, although I was feeling anything but calm at the moment.
I fed Margie some applesauce out of the jar while we waited for our order. On the road, we would stop for lunch and go inside, and had bought an electric baby dish we could plug into any outlet so we could heat her food. Billy thought we could request to sit next to an outlet, or ask the waitress if she would heat the dish. This would work well, and I could feed Margie her lunch while we waited for our own, and that would hold her while we ate. Once back in the car, while Billy ran and played with Michael, I would nurse her, and after our men joined us, she should be sound asleep in her car bed. Then I could rest, enjoy the scenery, or play games with Michael while it was his ‘turn’ to sit in the front seat with his mommy and daddy.
This day was the first time I had ever seen Billy not ravenous for Dairy Queen Brazier Burgers; instead, he seemed to eat as if on automatic pilot while not tasting anything at all. Finally, not being able to stand the silence any longer, I looked at my husband’s glum face and said, “Darling, it’s not your father’s fault. Let’s go check into the motel after lunch if you don’t want to go back to the store and you can call him to see if we can go by the house to see the boys.”
Billy leaned over, kissed my forehead, and said, “Honey, I just don’t think I can talk to him right now, and what if it is not O.K. for us to go see the boys? What then? Do we just sit in the motel and wait until Ruth says its time for supper and they meet us there? I want to hug and to hold my brothers, I want to tell them good-bye and to play with them one last time, because who knows when and if I will ever get to see them again, at least for what could be several years. I want to pat old Fella on the head and let our son say goodbye to his uncles and his dog, and I want to drive down through the neighborhood just one more time. By the time, we get back from Hawaii, or I get back from Vietnam, the boys will be half-grown. I want to roughhouse with them and wrestle on the floor, and I know ‘that woman’ will not allow us this pleasure in what is now ‘her house’. How can she be so hateful?”
Indeed, I knew he was right, she had absolutely forbidden Gene and Billy from talking ‘business’ together at the house since she had heard their talks usually wound up in a shouting match, but we had not been back to visit since their marriage so had not had to cross that bridge. However, Gene knew he had orders to go to the store if they wanted to talk, and he had relayed this information to Billy. No, there would be no wrestling or fooling around anymore, not in her house.
“Maybe we can just go by there if you stay outside with the boys, and I can stay at the motel with Margie,” I offered.
“NO! If we all are not welcome in her house, I won’t go there at all.”
I knew this was his final statement and all I could do to soothe his hurt feelings was to tell him how much I loved and needed him, and he took my hand, saying softly, “I love you too little girl. I don’t know what I would do if I did not have you and our children since it now appears I no longer have a home here.”
Following lunch, Billy pulled into the same small park where I had waited for him to see his doctor, just over three months ago, and here I could nurse Margie in relative privacy. Michael was able to run around and play on the swings and jungle gym, but Billy could not bring himself to enjoy the playground with his son – he was too upset.
He did open the car door and kept one eye on Michael and one on the baby and me, and while he watched our tiny daughter nurse hungrily, his features softened from the hardened look he had on his face since we had left the store. “She is perfect, isn’t she?” he said to no one in particular as he stroked the soft down that covered her head.
When she finished, Billy burped her and changed her diaper in her car bed, firmly lodged behind my seat, for convenience. Cars in the 1960’s did not have the tall neck supports as they do now, or seatbelts, so all I had to do was turn around and tend to my daughter while Billy continued to drive. He then rounded up our small son and drove to the motel, picked up the key to our room, and the glum look once again darkened his perfect features. He did not mention calling Gene at the store again to see if he could go by the house to see the boys, and I dared not suggest it.
Instead, he unloaded just what we needed for that afternoon, still undecided whether we would stay or go on to Atlanta. I knew he had to see his brothers, so we would probably stay, but by not taking the luggage inside, he allowed himself the option of leaving if that was what he decided to do. Once again, I settled the baby down in her new car bed and Michael sat in front of the television watching cartoons, which I hoped would lull him into a rare nap. Billy and I sat together on one of the big beds, and he wrapped his strong arms around me while I stroked his sad face trying to soothe away the hurt any way I could since I could not use sex, which always worked so well. Not only was it too soon after Margie’s birth and I was still bleeding, but Michael was awake and did not show any signs of tiring. Finally, after an hour of soft murmurs of love we both dozed, keeping one ear open for Michael, who finally woke us by jumping on the bed, and asking for a toy that was still in the car.
After retrieving Michael’s truck, Billy decided to call his father. “I feel like telling him we are in Atlanta,” he said, “but I have to see my brothers.”
He was not on the telephone for any longer than five minutes, and after he hung up, he said Ruth had agreed we could go to the house about 4 pm since she decided to hire a babysitter for Michael, Stuart, and Margie while we ate supper. Now it was my turn to be incensed since I knew I could not and would not leave my newborn with a stranger. Not only was I nursing her, she was just too young not to be with her mother. Now I would have to face Ruth and tell her she simply would have to change her plans. I also wanted our son with us too this last supper with his uncles, but if she was leaving Stuart at home, I could say very little, but I would NOT leave my newborn daughter. She was such a good baby, and I knew if her little tummy was full she would sleep right through supper, so I would feed her and nurse her before we left for the restaurant, and Billy was in agreement that indeed we would not leave our newborn behind.
The day was not conducive to playing outside since the yard was wet, and now that the sun had fled, the weather matched Billy’s mood. There was a fine mist in the air with the promise of rain before dark. We drove up the familiar driveway and the house seemed to explode with little boys running to the car, anxious to see their big brother. Michael tumbled from the back to the front seat, barely missing stepping on his sister, he was so happy to see his uncles. Billy stepped out and all three hugged him at the same time, but then seeing me with their new niece in my arms, they ran over to my side of the car to take a peek at the first girl in the McConnell family. She was a rarity indeed, and her tiny, perfect features at once mesmerized them. I allowed Dickie, the oldest, to carry her into the house and his chest swelled up like a peacock! Behind me, I heard David and Charles plotting with Michael to beat up Stuart, a full two years older, but Billy heard that too and told them not to make any more trouble than we already had by just being here. Ruth greeted us coldly and continued about her business, never once breaking pace to sit and visit. Billy was on his best behavior with the boys and they sat on the floor and quietly talked and hugged while he asked them about school, sports, and girls. Like their big brother before them, they all had girlfriends, and I knew after the McConnell boys, Griffin would never be the same.
David and Charles told Billy they got into a lot of trouble when Stuart’s goldfish died, as if goldfish did not just up and die for no reason at all. Billy asked them if they had anything to do with it, and both professed innocence, but with looks on their faces that implied anything but!
“Clorox,” David said, “Goldfish do not like Clorox.”
Billy roared! He laughed until I thought he would turn blue, but this one sentence by his second youngest brother had broken his glum mood, and I hoped he could maintain this state of cheerfulness through, what I suspected, would be a long evening. I loved it when he laughed, and I could not help but laugh with him! All of his photos show him so very serious although I have one of him laughing at an O.C.S. event, but he is looking downward, and the bill of his hat shadows his handsome face, but that is the only one I have. How I do wish I had more.
Gene arrived home promptly at 6 pm – the only time I had ever seen him come home this early - and the babysitter arrived precisely at 6:15 pm. I had not yet had an opportunity to tell Ruth I would not be leaving Margie since she had not even spoken to me, but while the boys changed their clothes, she introduced the babysitter to Michael and to me. Then she asked if I had any instructions or bottles to leave for the baby, and that was when Billy had enough.
“We do not leave our newborn daughter with anyone, not yet. Besides Diane is nursing her and we have no bottles.”
Ruth’s curt answer was that she did not intend to have her supper ruined by a wailing infant, and I knew it was time for me to step in again because now Billy was once again furious with that all too familiar look on his face. I promised Ruth I would feed Margie her fruit and cereal before we left, then nurse her on the way to the restaurant. I assured her she would sleep the entire meal and was a good baby and rarely cried unless hungry. I also promised if she did cry then I would take her to the room so the rest of the family could finish supper in peace. Billy just had to add that if I went to the room he would go with me.
Ruth still was not satisfied since she had not had her way, but she knew we were adamant about not leaving our baby, so she had to accept my plan, but she did not have to like it. Billy was not happy about leaving Michael since he and Stuart got along like oil and water, and Michael enjoyed being with his uncles so much. Who knew when we would all see each other again, but if Stuart stayed home, then Michael would have to stay too as a compromise. Later, I found out that both David and Charles promised Michael a quarter if he would beat up Stuart while his mother was gone, and like a true McConnell, Michael conceded to their bribe and did not put up a fuss when we left, as if he was looking forward to his ‘mission’.
We rode in separate cars, with Billy and I leaving a bit ahead so he could change into his uniform and I could put on a more suitable dress. In addition, I wanted to nurse Margie on the way, and Billy was still adamant I not nurse in front of anyone else, to include his brothers. To appease him, I had agreed and we promised the boys they could ride back to the house with us after our meal.
Supper was a quiet affair, not one of the usual raucous McConnell family gatherings. The boys were on their best behavior, wearing their Sunday suits; Billy was abnormally quiet while Gene tried his best to break the ice, and Ruth just glowered. True to my word, Margie slept the entire meal and woke just as dessert arrived. She did not wake with a ‘howl’, rather soft whimpers and a stretch, and Gene insisted on holding her although Ruth stared daggers through him, but this one treat she could not deny him. The baby quickly became quiet in the strong arms of her grandfather, and Billy talked a little bit about his new assignment and some of the tradition and history of the 25th Division, emphasizing the role of the 14th Infantry Brigade. Finally, right in the middle of dessert, timed perfectly, he told everyone about the pending deployment of the entire division for Vietnam. He said he wanted the children and me to remain in Hawaii while he was over there since it was closer, and he could be with his family easier when his R&R leave came up, particularly if we were unable to find quarters on post and had to rent on the economy, which he thought very likely. I had not heard him say for sure he wanted us to stay in Hawaii, but if this was his wish, that is where I would be, as close as I could get to him since I could not be in Vietnam. If possible, I would have liked to shrink so he could carry me in his pocket, because if he were to die or be badly wounded. I wanted to be right there with my precious Billy to hold him in my arms, and to kiss him as he drew his last breath, or to ease his pain as I had done for the past four years.
I also knew what Billy was leading up to when he said he wished for the children and me to remain in Hawaii, and after an appropriate pause, he added, “Anyway, it’s not as if she has a decent home to come to in Georgia.”
“Zap!” I thought to myself, as Ruth’s once lovely face now turned to stone, and her features suddenly became grotesque. I have always thought what is in a person’s heart is found reflected in their eyes, the windows to the soul, and Ruth’s eyes were now as hard and as cold as her black heart.
Gene’s lined face seemed almost pasty white as the conversation continued, but the boys became animated about their big brother killing Viet Cong. Billy told them he hoped he would not have to kill anyone. However, he explained, he had some of the best training the Army had to offer and if ordered to do so, or he was protecting his men, or himself, he would kill. He and I both knew he would have to kill, and I just hoped it would not change him. The subject was becoming a bit grim, and Billy had not seen his brothers since he finished Ranger training, so I told him to tell them about his adventures in the mountains and in the swamps, and happily Billy took up the challenge.
Gene continued to stare straight ahead holding his newborn granddaughter, and as soon as Billy finished his story, Gene turned to him and asked again, when he would be leaving for Vietnam. Billy assured his father that no one knew when the division would leave, and it could be months, although no one would know for sure until it actually happened.
Now Gene knew this could possibly be the last time he would ever see his favorite son alive again, and I could see the thought of this uncertainly was about to kill him. He continued to hold Margie although Ruth tried to encourage him to eat his dessert, but he shook her hand off his coat sleeve and did not take another bite as if he could not swallow. I think it was the guilt in his throat choking him. Now Ruth had to put her two cents into the conversation and said that plenty of soldiers would be going over there and the chances of anything happening to Billy were very slim. All this said as if she knew what she was talking about just because her son-in-law was in the Army too. However, he was in the Medical Service Corps, and not an Airborne Ranger Infantry officer, and she had no idea what was going on over there, or the danger that existed for the young platoon leaders. She was just trying to cheer up Gene who remained quiet and almost motionless for the rest of the meal. Supper ended on this somber note, but Billy knew he would not have another opportunity to say good-bye to his brothers, perhaps for the last time, and he wanted them to know how very much he loved all of them, and how much we would miss them.
By the time, we got back to the house there was more of a light rain than a mist falling, but Ruth had not invited us inside. Since the boys were in the car with us, Billy and I gave them big hugs and kisses and both David and Charles began to cry. They were big boys to cry, and I had not seen them cry like this at their mother’s funeral, but this was different, their tears were for their beloved big brother who was going far away from them for the first time, and then to war. No longer could they spend weeks with us during the summer, at least not for a long time, if ever.
Unable to face the grotesque face of this horrible woman who now ruled the McConnell house, which was no longer a home to me, I stayed in the car with the baby; not wanting to expose her to the damp, while Billy went inside to get Michael. Gene walked inside with Billy, and then within moments they both came out again, Michael in Gene’s arms. Billy held out his arms for his now sleepy son and Gene gave Michael a hug and a kiss before he handed him to his father and told him to be a good boy and to help his mother take care of his little sister. Billy put his hand out to shake hands with his own father, and I sat and watched the three generations of McConnell men with tears in my eyes. How sad, I thought, on this last night in his hometown, Billy could not stay in his childhood room; rather he had to take his family to a cold impersonal motel. Gene took Billy’s hand, and then tried to hug him, but Billy turned his back and walked to the car with our son, his little head covered with the hood from his red jacket.
As we backed down the driveway, Gene just stood there in the rain, tears streaming down his face and for once, I truly felt sorry for him. When I told Billy his father was crying, he replied coldly, “Too bad, he brought this woman into his life and now he is paying for it. I just feel sorry for my brothers.”
I have never forgotten, and I can still see him today, standing there in the glare of our headlights, looking so defeated and so sad, his tears combining with the rain to run down his face onto his fine wool coat. I had never seen him cry before, but this would not be the last time, not by any means.
Billy continued to stare straight ahead, and he reached over our now sleeping daughter to hold my hand, while Michael chattered all the way to the motel. He showed us his shiny new quarters, one in each hand that David and Charles had given him for beating up Stuart and making him cry, not once but twice! Of one thing, I was quite sure; Stuart would be delighted he would not have to see Michael again, at least not for a long time!
Back in the room, emotionally and physically exhausted I slept soundly although Billy seemed restless, not snoring away as usual. The next morning, I asked him if he would like to go down to the store to talk to his father without Ruth around, but he was adamant that he had nothing else to say to him. Reminding him that his father had not known until last night he would certainly be leaving for Vietnam before the year was over he still refused. Instead, pulling me into his arms and burying his face in my hair, he said, “Let’s go home.”
Quietly I asked, “Billy, my darling, where is home?”
He did not hesitate, rather replied, “For today, Helen, and Homer’s house, from Monday on wherever my little family, you and the children, are living, that is our home.”
How had it come to this? Now neither of us had a place to call home except for the home we made for ourselves. Although I had never felt Griffin was ‘home’ except for the short time when Gram and Poppa were living there, I knew that the large white house filled with laughing little boys had once very much meant ‘home’ to Billy. Helen had hated me and resented my giving birth to yet another “nasty little ol’ boy.” Ruth hated both Billy and me, and our children, and only tolerated David and Charles because she had to for Gene’s sake. From this day forward, home would be wherever the Army sent us, and where our hearts were, and for Billy, this meant with his own little family, Michael, Margie, and me. I wanted so to comfort my grieving husband, but not knowing what to say, I just held him closely as he held me, while we whispered how much we loved one another, “more than life itself”, we both said, almost in unison.