MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 47 – Our Journey – Memphis by Suppertime
Monday morning was bright and sunny; a wonderful day for travel and Billy was the first out of bed when Margie began making the new baby sounds indicating she was preparing to waken the household. He repeated the previous morning’s routine of changing and feeding his daughter, then brought her into the bedroom for me to nurse.
With a cheery note to his voice I had not heard since Griffin, he said, “Wake up, sleepy head, it’s a beautiful day to begin our great adventure.”
He told me he had been so anxious to get started he had barely slept, and I worried he might be too drowsy to drive, but he was full of energy and ready to go. Since the birth of our daughter had been exactly three weeks ago today, I would not be able to help with the driving, and I worried about him falling asleep, needlessly, since pure adrenaline had him bright eyed and anxious to get on the road. This beautiful morning, he was as happy as I had ever seen him except perhaps when his children were born, and he was going on and on about all the wonders he would show me west of the Mississippi.
I had only been west just once when my mother took me to meet my father’s ship in Seattle during WWII, but I was far too young to remember. After my father returned to active duty during the Korean War, his little fleet of minesweepers remained on the East Coast, so all we did was travel back and forth between Navy bases from South Carolina to Virginia.
In spite of my traveled youth, I do not know who was more excited, Billy because he knew he would be taking me places I had never been, or me since I would be seeing sights I had only read about in books. The only disappointment had been when I discovered going through Louisiana would be out of our way since I had been enthralled by the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow tale of ‘Evangeline’ and Gabriel, the doomed lovers, and had read all of the books by James Street. Of course, I had heard and read so much about New Orleans this city was high on my list of ‘must visit’, but our journey was taking us further north this time. To quell my disappointment Billy assured me with a thirty-year Army career, without doubt, we would see everything on my list, and then some.
I just wished I were feeling better and had more energy!
After I finished nursing the baby, I changed her into a tiny stretch suit that covered her fat little feet, and with our yawning son in tow, we went into the kitchen to eat some breakfast. With Billy so anxious to get on the road, we again had a quick bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice, which would hold us until lunchtime. My aunt offered both of us a cup of coffee, but seldom did either of us drink the bitter beverage, rather preferred our caffeine in the form of Coca-Cola. Naturally, Billy finished eating long before Michael and I did, and by the time we were finished, he had the suitcases all packed except for the items we would need that morning. He also had anchored the car bed firmly in one-half of the back seat, and now he began to rush us to get dressed and ready to go! He took Michael to the bathroom and helped him brush his teeth while I put on some makeup to cover the pallor and dark circles that still lingered under my eyes.
Compared to Billy who looked so healthy from the time spent outdoors in Ranger School, I was as white as an old-fashioned Southern belle, who spent her life avoiding the sun under bonnets and parasols. If I could only get a little color back in my face, I could avoid wearing makeup, but in the car all day, I would not tan anywhere except my right arm while it rested on the edge of the window. We would be quite a pair - Billy with his left arm tan, and me with my right! Too bad we could not exchange places just long enough to tan both arms!
Within twenty minutes, we were all in the car and ready to begin our great adventure. After a quick hug and kiss for the children and me, my aunt lingered by Billy’s door. It was not until later she told me while she knew she would see the children and me again, she had a strange premonition she would never see Billy. Surely, the thought of Vietnam played a part in this unusual manifestation, but then again, was it just that? We will never know.
Finally, as we pulled out of the driveway, I felt filled with both longing for the familiar, yet looking forward to the next bend in the river. How could I not be? After all, due west was California and an ocean cruise to paradise!
Michael waved out the back window until we turned the corner, and then out of sight. It was only moments before Billy started singing with his son, and while I rested my head against the back of the seat I thought how fortunate I was to have such a handsome husband and two beautiful, healthy children. God had indeed been good to me. Just the fact that our marriage seemed to become stronger every day and especially so since Billy’s mother died, was a miracle. With such an auspicious beginning, we had made this work, not without effort, but I loved him even more intensely than I had just last week, and I knew without a doubt our love would continue to grow. After all, we only had each other and our children, so how could we miss!
When we finally left Georgia and saw the ‘Welcome to Alabama’ sign, I felt a bit nostalgic, but not so that I wanted to turn back. Billy’s enthusiasm was even more heightened as we left the state of his birth, and I had begun to sing along with my ‘boys’ while Margie slept soundly throughout the ruckus! What a good baby she was! We were not in Alabama long, and it was approaching lunchtime when we crossed into Tennessee so Billy began to look for a place to eat. Although the area looked much like the hills of North Georgia with only an occasional lonely farmhouse along the seemingly deserted highway, Billy spotted a small handmade sign that advertised some caverns ahead.
Since the mileage on the sign was not far off the main road, he thought we might find a refreshment stand there where we could at least get a sandwich and use the restrooms. A bit nervously, I watched the odometer and the gas gauge that was sinking rapidly as Billy turned off onto the narrow two-lane unpaved road. Obviously, these caverns were not in any of the more popular travel guides because when the narrow dirt road ended, there was only a small wooden Department of Forestry sign that indicated a winding path through the woods. My adventuresome husband was not one to shy away from an adversary as meager as a short hike, and when he got out of the car with Michael, I slowly followed him down the path while Michael ran ahead. It was probably a good thing he was getting rid of some of his pent-up energy, but all I could wonder was how much further we had to walk! Finally we arrived at a dead end with a bluff covering the entrance to the caverns and I realized this was not what either Billy or I anticipated. When living in Virginia, I had been to Luray Caverns as a child, so I suppose I was expecting lights, stairs, and a guide, with a gift shop, lunchroom, and restrooms, but there was not a single soul around.
Curious Billy took Michael’s hand and approached the gaping mouth of the cavern, but I stood outside, not wanting to take a misstep with the baby in my arms. In only moments, my boys were back and Billy said to explore here one would need special gear to include repelling equipment and large flashlights, so we turned around and walked, a bit less enthusiastically, back to the car. Leaving the narrow dirt road to the caverns, we turned once again onto the state highway, which also was only two-lanes wide, but paved and better maintained. We just hoped to find civilization soon! We were hungry, and I had to go to the bathroom, badly! The gas gauge was now sitting just above empty, but still Margie uttered not a sound even though her lunch hour had come and gone.
Billy consulted the map and assured me that just over the small mountain we were climbing, we would find a town in the valley where he thought we would find at least a country store or a service station where we could use the facilities and buy peanut butter crackers and soda to hold us until supper. I had not even looked at the huge Atlas my uncle had given us since I was such a poor navigator I could not even fold a map properly!
Sure enough at the bottom of the mountain, we found a store where the owner and customers were friendly and complimentary of our small son and our baby. As I watched my handsome soldier charm them all, once again I thought how very much I loved him. Billy sometimes said he could ‘hear’ me thinking about him, and this day he turned around with a smile and put his arms around my waist. The store had some wrapped homemade ham sandwiches, which I knew would suit Billy just fine, so he bought half a dozen of them and several cokes, a carton of milk for Michael and a bag of chips. Back in the car, while Michael and Billy ate their sandwiches, I fed Margie a jar of fruit that she hastily emptied. Then taking turns, we refreshed ourselves in the tidy restrooms and were once again on the road. No longer than the time it took the small town to fall out of sight, Billy and Michael began to sing their silly songs again while I ate my sandwich and nursed Margie.
“She’ll be comin’ round the mountain when she comes,” my boys sang.
Until I took the first bite, I had not realized how hungry I was. I was famished! While Michael, in between verses, only ate one of the sandwiches, without the crust, Billy had eaten three, and when I finished my first I asked him if he wanted the last one, willing to give it to him even though I was still hungry. Although I offered him half, he insisted I eat it since nursing drained me of nutrients, and just then, over a ham sandwich, I wanted him to stop the car so I could kiss him! He had always been thoughtful and caring, but now since the birth of this tiny girl, he made me feel like a queen, and his face reflected the fact he was as deeply in love with me as I was with him. Imagine, a ham sandwich creating such strong emotions!
Billy had used some of his per diem money to buy film for the movie camera he had ‘borrowed’ from his father, and often, on clear, straight roads, he would drive with one hand on the steering wheel and the other with the camera lens pointed out the window. He said he wanted a permanent record of this trip so we could relive our adventure when were old and gray.
We crossed the Memphis city limits just before dark and found the Holiday Inn with no trouble at all, since it was just one block off the highway, overlooking the great river. We could see the lights of the bridge that would carry us into Arkansas as we turned off the highway towards downtown Memphis and the hotel, but it was already too dark to see the river – a wide ribbon of black that split the two states. We would have to wait until morning to see this river made famous by so many renowned authors, to include Samuel Clements, i.e. Mark Twain, whose tales of his adventures on the Mississippi so fascinated many a youth yearning for adventure.
Since this Holiday Inn was more a hotel than a motel with its own parking garage and valet parking, Billy had the help of a bellhop to take our belongings to the large room that overlooked the river. Unfortunately, it was now completely dark and only the lights of the bridge were visible. Just as soon as we were settled, Billy plugged in Margie’s heated dish and while I fed her, he washed Michael’s and his face and hands, then after I inspected my boy’s clothes I decided both were clean enough to go to supper. With the full compliment of cereal and fruit available, Margie ate eagerly as usual, and Billy bathed her in the bathroom sink while I washed my face and reapplied my makeup. By the time he had her dressed I felt half-human again. Michael’s bath could wait until we had eaten since it was now after 7:00 p.m., and once again, we were all ravenous.
While Billy watched the news and the weather report, and Michael played with his cars I nursed the sweet-smelling baby, all dressed in a clean nightgown, and wrapped in a soft pink blanket.
We were downstairs waiting for a booth about an hour after we checked in. Not bad for all we had accomplished, but Billy and I had teamwork down to a fine art, and teamwork is what would make this trip with a baby much easier on both of us. We knew what we had to do before we could have supper, so without words, we tackled our tasks, and finished quickly.
Once settled in the riverboat themed restaurant, Michael wanted a hamburger, but not finding one on the children’s supper menu, Billy ordered fried shrimp for both of them knowing full well he could finish his and any Michael did not eat, plus more. I still had not regained an appetite for fried foods, so I ordered a small tenderloin filet, and there was not a drop of food left on any of our plates. Resisting dessert while we ordered Michael some ice cream, chocolate of course, Billy and I talked about our adventure to the caverns and the nice people at the old country store. Today had been a good day, not a drop of rain, and we had reached our planned destination only a little bit later than expected. Almost at the same time, we commented that if the rest of the trip went as smoothly as this day, it would not be as difficult as we feared.
We had discovered, what Billy called the ‘magic pill’, that it was a good idea to stop at lunchtime and even later in the afternoon to allow Michael to run off some of his almost three year old energy. Riding in a car all day can be boring for a child, and this little boy was a powerhouse and he needed to run! With his tummy full like his baby sister, he was one tired little fellow now, and half-asleep as he curled up next to me in the soft round booth. Billy certainly did not want him to fall asleep yet, so he carried him upstairs on his back and bounced him around until he laughed. Then he put him in a warm tub dressed him in his pajamas and tucked him into one of the double beds, and in no time at all he was fast asleep even with the lights on.
Billy then looked at me with longing and asked if I was ‘up’ for a long shower, and although he knew there could be no sex following, I agreed, and I did my best to relieve his lust. In the time that it took me to put some rollers in my hair so I would not look like a wicked witch in the morning, Billy was fast asleep in our bed, snoring softly, and it did not take five minutes before I joined him in dreamland.