MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 49 – Albuquerque, New Mexico
By this third morning, our routine was well established and by 10:00 a.m., we were back on the road driving westward, racing the sun, which would probably catch us while we stopped for lunch. We did not even try to outrun the sun while we enjoyed the ever-changing tapestry, as the oilfields of Oklahoma became the barren nothingness of the Texas panhandle.
Once we crossed into the big state of Texas, greeted by a large billboard with a cowboy tipping his even larger hat, I got the idea everything in Texas was humongous. Then I realized that even though we would spend almost the entire day traveling through this flat, arid land, this was by far the smallest part of this vast state. It now dawned on me how very large the states become once you leave Oklahoma. From a map, although they are definitely large when compared to our Southern states, it was difficult to realize the vast scope of the Southwest. This was an entirely new panorama for me, not only in the arid dry soil seemingly without a blade of grass, although cattle were grazing on something, but in mile after mile of barbed wire. I remembered there had been scores of range wars begun when farmers began to fence in their crops and sometimes the only water source for miles from the grazing cattle using the sharp edged wire, but until now, I had not realized the difficulties for both ranchers and farmers. Billy showed me the water wells dug deep into the ground for the cattle, and until we got up close, at first I had a hard time telling the difference in the oil and the water pumps. Yes, oil, cattle, barbwire, dry, and BIG seemed to describe Texas perfectly. It seemed such a waste of almost an entire day as we crossed the top of Texas!
When I expressed my feelings to Billy, he said, “Just you wait, little girl, on the other side of this day’s drive, you will find the real treasure of the Southwest, and it isn’t gold!”
Oh what a boring drive, I thought, as mile after mile after mile all there was to see was flat prairie with tufts of rough looking grass. Although I tried to sleep to pass the time more quickly, that was easier said than done while Billy sang every song about the West he could think of, and Michael proclaimed his favorite to be ‘Darling Clementine’.
Soon he knew all of the words, and even now when I am riding in the car, I can lean my head back and from far away I hear my boys with their Southern accents singing, “Oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’ Clementine, You are lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry Clementine.”
The oil wells seemed far more spread out than those we left in Oklahoma, but then again, there was a lot more land to put them on, and by now, they too were boring without the steel rigging I thought was a necessary part of a well. Billy told me the rigging was used for drilling and once a well was ‘capped’, the rigging was removed to move on to another site to drill for still more oil. Someone was getting rich, although living in this brown landscape without the green of the trees; I would have to be very, very rich to stay here!
Without a doubt, I was rich, although my treasure was a marriage filled with love, laughter, and our healthy children, and I would not have traded places with anyone in the entire world – never would I have left my Billy for all the oil in Texas!
The fact that there was no speed limit told us the road was straight, flat and not heavily traveled and we met few other cars that morning. The worst of the traffic hazards were the tumbleweeds that somehow escaped from the barbwire lining the highway, and would turn up in front of the car as quickly as a shooting star in the night sky. We saw the large masses of matted grass caught all along the wire and it amused me to think they were just waiting for a brisk hot breeze to free them from their prison so they could terrorize motorists. It was my job to look out for these tumbling dervishes, but sometimes they seemed to come out of nowhere as if riding on the back of Satan himself! It was a long time before I saw Texas below the panhandle and decided that perhaps the devil did not live here after all!
Michael too was bored, and tired quickly of looking at cattle, so once again, even though traveling at a frightening speed, Billy broke into song, and taught Michael several new tunes to add to their repertoire. Once again the car was filled with their voices and laughter, and when Billy did not know the lyrics, he made them up, which was even more fun for Michael. Finally, out of sheer boredom, I had to join in and try to think of ‘western’ songs Billy did not know, but Michael was not nearly as appreciative of my efforts as he was the silly lyrics that came from his daddy’s fertile mind and his instantaneous sense of humor.
Traveling with the windows down since there was no air conditioning in our car, I am sure any other car passing by that heard this racket wondered what radio station we were tuned to. The time passed by more quickly as we both thought of more and more songs while Margie slept peacefully, although I was amazed she could sleep with all the noise we were making. I wished I could read to Michael since we had packed at least a dozen of The Little Golden Books for our curious son, but my tolerance to car travel was still limited to watching the road in front of us, and I could not even lower my head to look at the map. In just that short of a time, without my eyes on the horizon, I would become disoriented and carsick, just as I had as a child. For the offspring of a Navy officer who was constantly traveling, this was not an attractive attribute, and my parents resorted to Dramamine, which simply made me go to sleep, but I could not take Dramamine and nurse a baby. Had they allowed me to ride in the front seat where I could look straight ahead I doubt if I would have become nearly as ill, but the Dramamine also served a dual purpose and kept me from fighting with my younger brother. When we began this journey I hoped I had outgrown this disgusting trait, but I was still just as carsick as ever, and I could not even lean over the seat to change Margie’s diapers unless Billy pulled over to the side of the road. He teased me about how seasick he thought I would be, and although excited about my first ocean cruise, I feared he might be right, and I certainly did not want to spend the entire voyage confined to my stateroom, but without the benefit of Dramamine, I would just have to tough it out.
Around noon, our main concern was finding civilization, food, and gasoline! We kept seeing signs saying ‘Amarillo’ so many miles, but the miles seemed to become longer instead of shorter as we all became more anxious to use the bathroom. Finally, Billy had to pull over while he and Michael used the side of the road, but my situation was far more difficult since there were no surrounding woods, bushes, or trees where I could hide and relieve the pressure on my bladder. For me, it was hold it, and hold it, and hold it some more, although I had become adept at this while traveling with my father who never stopped for anything until we were out of gas. Finally, as I was beginning to become desperate and thought I might have to use one of the no longer usable paper diapers, we saw on the horizon the outline of a town; not a big town but a town, and a town meant people, and people meant food, and food meant a bathroom!
Now Amarillo, Texas in the mid 1960’s was nothing much more than a ‘watering hole’, but it did have several service stations and a diner where we were able to satisfy all of our creature comforts and fill up the car with gas.
We must have been a motley crew as we rushed inside the diner, and before we could take a seat, all headed straight for the restrooms, Billy with Michael and me carrying the baby in her plastic infant seat. Miles later as I thought about the desperation that surely was etched on our faces, I was certain the employees of this little diner were quite used to red-faced tourists rushing inside to use the facilities before they sat down to order. At least no one looked at us strangely, as we met again outside the restrooms, relieved, refreshed, and hungry.
The waitress behind the counter told us just to find ourselves a seat from the many booths that lined the walls of the diner, but Michael, of course, wanted to sit at the counter. Billy knew I was not ready for a hard stool yet, so he found a booth near the door, and while Michael stood up on the seat, he and I sat down. All I wanted right now was a glass of cold water, and Billy said he just wanted a coke, a Texas-sized glass of coke, but of course, we had to eat some lunch since it would be dusk again before we reached our destination. After a few minutes while Billy and I glanced over the menu, a waitress approached carrying with her a booster seat for our son who was now using the bench as a trampoline. We knew we desperately needed to find somewhere after lunch where I could nurse the baby in private and let Michael run off some of his pent-up energy.
When Billy asked the waitress if she could heat Margie’s fruit and cereal while we waited for our order, she replied “Sure nuf sugah,” in an accent I had not heard before, and I thought I had heard them all.
Billy just smiled at her and handed her the dish in which I had already prepared the baby’s lunch while I glared at her audacity calling my husband “sugar”!
He smiled again when he realized my eyes were shooting daggers at her back as she walked away, and he said with a grin as big as Texas, “Well, at least I didn’t ‘sugar’ her back!”
When the waitress returned, Billy ordered a hot dog with a glass of milk for Michael, two hamburgers and a large coke for himself and said he hoped they were Texas size, to which she replied again, “Sure nuf’ sugah”!
Billy then looked at me half-afraid I was going to say something to her, but also wanting me to order. I had looked over the menu and with my appetite half ruined by the seemingly flirtatious waitress, the heat, and the miles of flat road, I finally ordered a club sandwich and a coke.
Within just a few minutes, she returned with the baby’s heated dish, and handing it to me, she said, “Sugah, you sure do have a pretty baby girl.”
With that statement, I realized she called everyone “sugar” and was not flirting with my husband! All of a sudden I was hungry again and looking forward to that club sandwich.
To say that something is ‘Texas-size’ was an understatement in this diner, and for once Billy simply could not finish the two hamburgers, which must have contained half a pound of ground beef each on the largest sesame seed bun I had ever seen. Michael’s hot dog was even larger than the kosher hotdogs we bought in the commissary, and my club sandwich consisted of six slices of bread filled to overflowing with ham, bacon, tomatoes, lettuce, and two types of cheese and slathered with gobs of creamy mayonnaise. Oh, it was delicious but by the time I had finished half of it, I knew I could not eat anymore. The waitress kept refilling glass after glass of coke for both Billy and me, commenting that it was a hot, dusty ride to and from Amarillo with not much in between.
She suggested, “Sugah” that if we did not have a cooler we should buy one before we started out again, just in case we had car trouble and were stuck for hours in the blazing sun of the hot Texas afternoon, and that sounded like the best idea I had heard all day. Billy had packed the new cooler we had ‘borrowed’ from Gene while cleaning the house, so all we needed was something to fill it.
After we paid our bill and used the restrooms again, we drove to a much smaller version of Mr. Moore’s General Store where we bought ice, cokes, candy bars, peanut butter crackers, and other snacks and put the uneaten half of my sandwich on top of the beverages where it could stay dry and cool.
It was on this dusty street in Amarillo where we saw our first real live cowboy. While he was not exactly the glamorous figure pictured on the television programs or the movies, but a dirty, unshaven, and mostly toothless figure of a man, he wore a real cowboy hat, boots, and spurs, and even more exciting for Michael, he was riding a real live horse! He was the real thing, not a Hollywood rendition, but a working cowboy who smelled worse than he looked with calloused hands and skin that looked rock hard from the harshness of the sun and the winter winds. He certainly did not look anything like I expected, but then again I did not know what to expect since I knew Roy Rogers was more fiction than fact, and certainly far too clean to be a working cowboy. Michael’s little eyes followed the grungy man as he entered the store and walked around some before he finally purchased cigarettes and soda, and he seemed accustomed to little boys staring.
He just smiled at Michael, tipped his huge hat, and said, “Howdy,” as if that was exactly what he was supposed to say, although I have to admit I was waiting on the “partner.”
Amazingly, Michael was temporarily speechless, but finally he asked him, “Where is your gun?”
I am sure he had also heard this question asked before, and he was ready with an answer. “Well son, you see I got rid of all the bad guys before you came this way so I don’t have to wear no gun no more, and I like it a whole lot better without ‘em.”
This time Michael was completely at a loss for words, and his big blue eyes became even bigger as he looked up at the man but could not think of anything else to say. By now Billy had paid the cashier and loaded the chest with ice and our supplies, but Michael was most reluctant to get back in the car since he wanted to see the cowboy. Finally, the bow-legged man in his dusty chaps and boots came out of the store while Billy was debating on how to get Michael in the car without a tantrum, but when the cowboy mounted his horse, Michael ran for the car! I found it interesting that he was terrified of the horse, probably because it was so much larger than the ponies he had ridden, but like any little boy would; he stood on the seat looking out the rear window until the rugged wrangler was out of sight.
There was not a Texaco station anywhere, so Billy had to use some of our hoarded cash to fill our car with gas, but when there is no other choice, there is no other choice. Michael got out of the car with his father since the horse was now well out of sight, and while the attendant filled our gas tank, Billy let him run around since our car was the only one in the station that seemed capable of starting. Even though it was just early April, Michael was sweating and dusty when he got back into the car. I took a paper towel from the roll we purchased at the store, used some of the water already collecting in the bottom of the cooler, and wiped his red face, cooling him off, while I cleaned the worst of the dust off him. His little face glowed from his brief jaunt in the sun since his fair skin was quick to redden, although I hoped he would have better success getting a tan than I did once we reached Hawaii.
As we left Amarillo in the dust, I nursed my now hungry and fussy baby while Michael actually settled down for a nap in the backseat, a rare occasion, but the heat and the sun had worn him out. While the children slept, Billy and I talked about our trip so far, and the adventures he planned for us during the next few days.
Then he got very quiet, held my hand while I moved over closer to him, then he spoke softly, “Darling, I just want you to know if anything happens to me in Vietnam, you have made me very happy. What more could a man ask for than a pretty little wife, a healthy handsome son, and a beautiful baby girl. I have it all now thanks to you and for that I will always grateful”
There were tears in my eyes as I moved even closer to him, as close as I could, and told him I had never been happier and all because of him. I tried to assure him I just knew nothing could ever happen to him since God would never take him away from us. We all needed him too much, especially me.
“Billy, my darling Billy, I love you so much I can’t think about you leaving us, not now. I will have to take this one day at a time until the day comes that you do leave. But darling, my darling Billy, even with the children, life would be meaningless for me without your strong arms to hold me, your soft lips to kiss me, our blissful long showers, not to mention when you carry me to the moon in your arms. I love you so much I can’t even find the words, and I just hope you can feel what I feel.”
“Oh, baby, I do feel what you feel. You feel what I felt when you said not one word when I left for Ranger School leaving you so pregnant and so alone. You feel what I felt when you did not say one word when I told you I was not due to graduate until after the baby’s due date, but most of all, I feel what you feel since you are now a woman, not a little girl, although you will always be my little girl. And when you let me make love to you that night when I was on the way to Florida is when I knew for sure, exactly how much you do love me, and I had been waiting for that a long, long time.”
I could not believe he had been waiting on me when all along I thought I had been waiting on him! There were no more words to say since he now knew the vast extent of my love for him, so I laid my head on his strong shoulder and said, “I have been waiting on you too, so I guess that means we are both there now.”
With the road flat and straight ahead, he put his arm around me and I curled up next to him on the seat with my head on his shoulder, never giving another thought to something awful ever happening to any of us. Awful things happened to other people. Life was so perfect now, how could it ever be otherwise? Oh, I had thought about him going to Vietnam and I had my fears, but at that time, I did not realize the longevity of a 1st Lieutenant was less than three months before he was either wounded or killed. However, my Billy was invincible, I just knew it, and if he came home wounded, I would nurse him back to health, and I would never leave his side until I had him home again. No one could be so loved and die. We would grow old together, raise these two children, and probably more, watch them grow up and have children of their own, but we would always be together, and some day we would sit in our rocking chairs and talk about our first grand adventure. With those happy thoughts, I dozed in the mid afternoon warmth, as the sun finally overtook our speeding automobile and began to pass us in the western sky.
“Honey, honey, wake up! Look up ahead of us.” Billy’s excited voice woke me from a deep slumber where I had been dreaming about all of us aboard a large ocean liner.
We had left the panhandle of Texas behind us and with the sun now directly in our eyes, Billy pointed out the outline of distant mesas. “Welcome to Arizona”, the sign read as we flew by as if trying to catch the sun to bring it back so we could better see the magnificent spectacles on the horizon. I had certainly seen photos of mesas before, but the real thing is not to be believed, and certainly far more exciting than any photo. It was as if a huge giant lived beneath the earth and in order to make more room used his fingers to push these monoliths through the desert floor and into the sky. Amazed that the color of the earth and the mesas themselves was the same color of the red Georgia clay, I watched excitedly as we rode closer and closer, and the closer we got the larger they became.
“Aren’t they wonderful?” Billy asked; excited to be showing me, once again, something I had never seen before. Yes, they were indeed wonderful.
Finally, among the mesas we saw a sign pointing to an Indian reservation and a village. The sign said this was the only year round inhabited mesa village, so Billy just naturally had to follow the arrow. As we approached where the Indians lived, suddenly the area became shabby and touristy with signs proclaiming “handmade blankets,” another “real Indian-made jewelry,” and yet another, “Have your picture taken with a real live Indian.” However, these were not the Indians of the Hollywood westerns either. There were no strikingly handsome braves with skin oiled and bronzed, riding bareback on fast horses, nor were there any feathered headdresses in sight. These Indians looked old, and poor, and malnourished, and for the life of me, I could not see how they could possibly eke a living out of the sandy red desert.
We parked beneath the mesa in the area designated, picked up our camera, and with Michael clinging to my hand while Billy carried the baby, we approached the path to the top. The first thing we saw was the sign proclaiming it cost $20 to take a camera, so Billy reluctantly returned ours to the car and locked it in the glove compartment. Then we saw admission was $10.00 per person, children three and up $5.00. Well, we had to make a decision. Was it worth $20.00 to walk up that dusty trail with a small boy and carrying an infant? We decided we might never have this opportunity again and Billy took $20.00 from our cash reserve and handed it over to the old, toothless, Indian woman in the ticket booth. She insisted that Michael was over three, but we assured her his third birthday was not until May, and Billy had to do some talking to convince her she was wrong.
Finally, we began our ascent, and it was not long before I was huffing and puffing, and my stitches were burning. All signs proclaimed this was the only continuously occupied mesa, but if occupied, it was by only by a few. We saw less than half a dozen clay houses with smoke coming from the outside ovens, but there were no children playing in the red dust, or any other signs of family living. Certainly, the tiny village had continuous occupants, but Billy and I decided that these Indians must draw straws to decide who had to come live there for a certain amount of time since the small clay huts seemed to be the only attraction to this lone mesa. We walked around for about half an hour mostly enjoying the views of the desert floor from our high perch, and marveled at the number of mesas that dotted the landscape all around us. There was not much to take a photo of anyway, so Billy was not disappointed about having to leave the camera in the car. We both were expecting something magnificent for $20! Instead, a few Indians had ripped us off, but then again the white man had been ripping them off for centuries! It was a good laugh on us, I thought as we started back down the narrow dusty path. At least, I hoped, this taught Billy not to follow every arrow he came to on our great adventure.
On the way back down while Michael ran ahead of us, Billy commented that at least we had climbed a mesa and seen the village even if it was not much of a village. Regretting the loss of the $20, I assured him it had been worth it just to feel as if, for once, I was standing on the roof of the world. With this, he grinned and I could tell he no longer resented spending the money. I had learned well how to handle my handsome husband’s disappointments, even if I had to manipulate the truth a bit, but I would never allow him to think that for one moment I had not appreciated his efforts to please me. While the Indians watched us pull out of the parking lot, just two more tourist ‘suckers’ who had fallen for their highway signs, Michael waved out of the back window, but there was no response. They indeed led a sad, seemingly impoverished life, and if this was their only means to support themselves, then I did not mind we had been ‘duped’.
As we drove westward towards Albuquerque and our motel, the setting sun presented a slide show to rival the Aurora Borealis, the colors more intense than any I had ever seen as they reflected off the red sandstone mesas and the desert floor. In a very different way, this was indeed a beautiful land.
We arrived at the motel just as the lights flickered on outside, and were relieved to find a clean, air-conditioned room on the ground floor just as we requested. We followed our routine with dinner for Margie, wonderfully refreshing showers and baths, and then with her sleeping soundly in her infant seat, we made our way to the dining room. We stopped in the lobby just long enough to pick up some tourist brochures to take back to the room to plan our next day.
Before leaving home, we had decided to spend some time exploring the Great American West on the way to Los Angeles, and now it was time to diverge from the westward highway and head north to Denver, then over the mountains to the Great Salt Lake. Billy wished we had the time to go up to Yellowstone, and that was still a possibility, although we knew we might have to choose between The Grand Canyon and driving further north and off our course.
While we waited for our dinner, Billy tried to keep Michael entertained and awake, since the long climb and arid climate had worn him out in spite of his long afternoon nap. We browsed through the brochures and thought that several attractions would be worth a side trip, depending on how far off our path they would take us, so we decided to try to work out an agenda for the next two or three days just as soon we got back to the room and our Atlas. It was the most current Atlas available, thus supposedly reliable, but Billy wanted to pick up a couple of Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico maps when we passed through the lobby again. Unlike today, maps were free and numerous.
Our meal must have been good, but not spectacular like the Oklahoma City steaks, since I simply have no idea what any of us ate that night, and I remember the best and the worst of our meals. Michael was more than ready for bed by the time we got back to the room although it was only about 8:00 p.m., so Billy and I stretched out on the other large bed with the brochures and maps. There was still plenty of time to get to San Pedro to turn the car in, but we did want to allow some time to explore the California coast since Billy had never seen that either. He finally decided to turn northwards through Taos, The Red River Valley, and Colorado Springs where we could see the newly built Air Force Academy and Pike’s Peak, then he turned out the light and we both fell deeply asleep. Even Billy’s snoring when he was extra tired did not bother me this night, rather I felt comforted by the sound and his arms around me, and my last thoughts were on our days ahead. What wonders would we see next?