MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 55 – Lost in L.A.
Leaving Needles in our rearview mirror, although seemingly in a pocket of far off mountains, the headlights shown on what was nothing but bleak desert, endless, flat, miles of sand.
Although Billy was speeding along about 60 mph, I felt as if the car was standing still since there was nothing to see, not even trees outside the window that at least gave one a sense of motion. It appeared as if we were gerbils running around and around a treadmill while going nowhere, but Billy pulled me close to him, and said, “Little girl, don’t worry, I am not at all tired, and you will be seeing the lights of LA in just over an hour! I promise!”
What neither of us realized was the vastness of the LA area since when we left Atlanta, it was still fairly contained and just begun to sprawl into the surrounding suburbs, not too big, not too small, but like Goldilocks said about Baby Bear’s bed, it was just right.
The map in the Atlas showed small towns surrounding L.A., but we never realized each blended into another until they all became one massive city. Try as I may, I could not keep my eyes open, and with the children, both sound asleep within fifteen minutes of leaving Needles, I curled up next to my handsome lieutenant. With his right arm firmly around me, I turned and placed my right arm around him and rested my head against his chest. I thought surely I would ‘feel’ it if he began to nod, and the worse that could happen would be that the car would go off the road and get stuck in the sand since there certainly were no trees just widely spaced telephone and power poles. Powerless, I fell as sound asleep as the children, even with the radio fading in and out from LA stations.
I was jolted awake by the sound of traffic, a lot of traffic, traveling at a high rate of speed, and even my ‘would-be race car driver’ found himself left in their wake. Billy had turned onto the first interstate highway that either of us had ever seen and found it was eight lanes across, four going south, four going north, and everyone was speeding. Here it was 1:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning and there were more cars on the road than Atlanta at rush hour. At least we were moving, just too fast and in the wrong lane with no idea how we would get over to the far right as we flew past our exit. It took twenty minutes before Billy could get over to the far lane, where he took the next exit ramp, hoping to get back on the highway and find the one we missed.
We had no idea where we were by then, but seemingly there was no way to get back on the highway from this exit, so we found ourselves driving in a rather depressed area where all the shops had bars on the windows and gates covering the closed doorways. There was not a soul in sight, not driving; not walking, not anywhere, and all the shops were dark behind their fortifications. Where on Earth were we?
There did not seem to be anyone awake or any open service stations where we could stop and ask directions, so all Billy could do was pull over to the curb and pore over the LA map. He told me he thought we were in an area called ‘Watts’, and of course neither of us had ever heard of it, and not long after we were safely settled in Hawaii we watched in horror the riot that decimated the area where we had been lost just weeks before.
However, now we had a dilemma, how were we to get back on the highway and make our way to San Pedro? Billy finally closed the map and drove over the highway we had just exited. He turned left after we crossed the bridge, then left again, then right until we were driving on a road that ran parallel to the highway, but still going south towards Mexico, although we needed to head back north and then west to the ocean.
Finally, Billy saw a sign for El Toro Marine Base, and he took that road since he was certain there would be a guard post with a sentry, who possibly could get us back on the right track. As we pulled up to the gate, the Marine on duty saluted sharply when he noticed the officer’s bumper sticker, and Billy pulled over to the parking area across the road from the guardhouse, got out of the car, and approached the sentry. After the young Marine saluted him again, I watched as Billy disappeared into the guardhouse where obviously there was another Marine on duty, and I thought surely three heads were better than one, and it would take that and more to get us out of our predicament! Ten minutes later Billy came out of the guard’s hut carrying a piece of paper in his hand and quickly crossed the street to our car. At first, he sounded disappointed when he told me neither of the Marines were from this area and had no idea how to get to San Pedro, but when he told them we needed to find a motel near the terminal, they did know how to get there and wrote down directions for him. The Marine sitting inside had also asked Billy if we would like to stay in the guest quarters, and he could call and ask if there were any rooms available. Billy told him he wanted to reach our destination before the Monday morning ‘rush hour’ since it had to be much worse than what we had just come through.
“Sir”, the young marine had told him, “it is rush hour all the time here in the L.A. area.”
I laughed when Billy told me what the sentry had said and we both definitely agreed with the Marine. While the sentry held back the light traffic, Billy turned the car around and headed back out the gate, and all of a sudden I felt lost again, not realizing how safety, for me, was anyone in a military uniform.
The Marine had taken great care to write down how many blocks and when to turn left or right, so as I meticulously read the directions and counted the blocks, Billy maneuvered the car until finally we saw a sign pointing to the terminal. What a relief! However, we did not know that we were on the southern side of a toll bridge that separated Terminal Island from San Pedro, but soon we had finally reached our goal. Now we had to find a motel with a vacancy, and not long after we crossed the bridge, Billy saw a blinking sign announcing ‘San Pedro Motel’ with the ‘vacancy’ sign lit up beneath the name. This definitely was not a ‘chain’, but obviously a privately owned business, and with nothing else in sight, and for sheer convenience, he pulled into the parking lot and went inside to register. He knew if I thought the room was dirty, had an odd odor, or even if there were one single hair on the bathroom floor he would have to find another motel since I would not allow my children to stay in a filthy room - particularly not a practically newborn baby! Even though I knew he had to be exhausted since it was now after 3:00 a.m., we just might have to ride around until we found another cleaner place we could afford.
Michael stirred when the overhead light came on as Billy got back into the car and asked if we were ‘there yet’. He had key with him, which was a good sign, and I did not want him to have to drive any further. Disappointedly there had been no ground floor rooms available, but I told him not to worry about bringing anything upstairs now except the diaper bag and the car bed; he could unload after he had some sleep if we decided to stay here. Exhausted, once we reached the room, we did not even bother to remove our clothing, just took off our shoes, pulled the covers back, and after going to the bathroom, went right to sleep.
Now we had reached our destination and were in no hurry to go anywhere, when Margie began to make those soft baby sounds that meant if she was not fed soon, she would awaken everyone, I got up, fed, changed and nursed her while my boys continued to sleep.
Not wanting to be too critical when we first came into the room since I knew Billy had driven about as far as he could; I had not inspected the room closely. Now as I looked around I thought that if we could find another place nearby we could afford, I certainly would not mind moving since we would be here for five days, and this was definitely not a Holiday Inn. Although the room was not so much dirty as just well worn and very small, I still felt we could do better for the length of time we would be staying, and I thought it would be nice to have a pool where Michael could play and we could cool off. Neither of us had inspected the neighborhood, but at that early hour of the morning, I thought even the bars, usually found in abundance near a port, would have been closed, but we could look around whenever Billy felt rested. I knew he had to leave the car at Terminal Island for transport in three days, and then wherever we were we would have to stay, so our motel needed to be close to the island, which was also the pier where the Lurline would berth. We would have no other option but to take a taxi to the ship, so we could not go too far from the pier. We also had to stay within walking distance from a store where we could buy juice, cereal and doughnuts for breakfast, and a restaurant where we could eat supper. However, most of all, we would need a Laundromat, which I am sure Billy, in a semi-comatose state, had not thought about when he checked in. With that thought and with Margie’s little tummy full, I put her back in her car bed and lay down on the bed.
Still sound asleep Billy rolled over, put his arms around me, and pulled me close to him, and I knew even if we could not find another motel, I would always feel safe with my handsome husband to take care of us.
Michael was the first awake and I was shocked to see, by my watch, that it was almost noon! My first sleepy thought was that I had not turned my watch back as we crossed into another time zone, but I knew I had done so diligently during the entire trip at the same time Billy set the clock in the car.
Soon Billy groaned, rolled over and when I told him what time it was, he bolted upright and said he needed to feed his family. Although still half asleep, I ran a bathtub of warm water for our rather rumpled little boy, while I plugged in Margie’s dish to prepare her lunch.
Billy slowly pulled himself out of the bed and the first words out of his mouth were, “You were right, we should have stayed in Needles. Last night was a nightmare and I wish I had not put you through that because I am too stubborn to listen to reason.”
I assured him now it was over I was fine, the children were resilient, but I was more worried about him and hoped that after a shower and shave he would feel much better. Assuring me that was just what he needed, he got up, bathed and dressed Michael and then ran a shower for himself while I nursed Margie. Then while I showered and changed, once again he looked over the Atlas and decided while we would not check out today since it was already too late for that, we could drive around after we ate our lunch and see if we could find a nicer motel. I doubted if we would find one any closer or more convenient to Terminal Island since I could barely see the port looking out the front window, but agreed we should look. When I asked Billy how much this room had cost, he did not have a clue since he had been too tired to ask when he checked in.
We were in for quite a shock when we looked at the room rates posted on the back of the front door and realized we probably would not find anything nicer that we could afford since this room was by far the most expensive we had found; even more expensive than Flagstaff. Maybe we could find one less costly, but this was not much of a room, and I could only imagine what one that cost less would look like.
“Guess we are paying for convenience.” Billy said, and he was right. The owner of this motel had a corner on the market, and he knew he could charge almost any rate since there were no rooms any closer to the terminal.
After we were all once again presentable, Billy opened the door to the most oppressive heat I have ever felt! It almost knocked me backwards, and the sky was completely yellowish gray with the sun covered by layers of dirty clouds. I had never heard the word before, but as we found out when we watched the evening news, we were caught in an ‘inversion front’ when there is not enough of a breeze to push the smog over the mountains and it just settles in the LA valley. We did not have air-conditioning in our car, and until now had not felt the need, but this was an entirely different matter. The humidity was so thick you could cut it with a knife, and even though we were right on the bay, there were none of the wonderful smells of the sea I had always enjoyed, and obviously no beaches either.
Billy pulled up to the office to see if the manager would give us an extended stay, military rate, just to check out our options before we looked elsewhere. He came out grinning a bit, and told me the manager had been glad to work with us and lowered the rate on the room to a weekly rate with rebate for two days, and a military discount since he depended on the military for the majority of his business. Who else would stay in this place except those who had no choice? He had told Billy where to find a grocery store, a diner, and the local ‘fast food’ restaurants that seemed to be prolific in LA, and there was a Laundromat nearby. Even with this bit of good news, Billy still wanted to look around before he paid our ‘rent’ in advance, which was one of the requisites for the discounted ‘rental’ rate.
We ate a hasty lunch and drove up the coast highway for about half an hour, but the smog was so thick we could not even see the ocean. Once we reached Malibu, we turned around and drove back realizing rates there would be way beyond our budget, and it was a long drive for a taxi to the terminal.
We needed to find a store and purchase a few more things for the trip, and Billy said he would go down to El Toro on Tuesday and stock up on enough baby food for our voyage since our supply was getting low. He suggested we not take the children out in this heat anymore than we had to, and I knew although I did not want him out of my sight, it was a far safer plan to keep them indoors. Even if we had found a motel with a pool, it was too hot for even that luxury.
When we got back to the motel, he parked by the office once again, went inside, and paid for our five-day stay in advance, and then after he unloaded the car; drained from the heat, we all settled down for a nap.
Out of habit more than anything Billy clicked on the television, which had far more channels than any we had ever seen before, and while he was flipping the dial, he found an old black and white war movie called ‘Darby’s Rangers’. He was thrilled! This was the story of the formation of a group of Rangers who used their repelling skills to attack a German stronghold on D-Day, with the loss of many lives. Their actions saved a lot of other lives, and the modern-day Ranger School used many of the same principles for training, as did the original depicted in this movie.
While I settled Michael down by reading to him, Billy propped himself up in our bed with his eyes glued to the screen. Little did I know that the same station would be running the same movie every day for the length of our stay! By the time our five days were over and we were ready to board the ship, I could almost recite the dialogue from the entire film! My Ranger just HAD to watch it almost every single day!
Michael finally dozed off, so I curled up with a book next to Billy, and finally I fell asleep and thought that surely he would do the same. However he watched every single second of the film although by the time I woke up to Margie’s cry, he was sound asleep and it was getting dark outside. That little girl was going to make us stick to her schedule, like it or not! We certainly could not complain though since she was completely predictable, and we almost knew what time it was by her sense of hunger.
Since Michael too was still sleeping, again I did not want to wake either of them, so I nursed and changed the baby, then left her cooing and smiling on the bed next to me while I picked up the massive L.A. telephone book to see if I could locate my great uncles, Kendall and Charles Bond. I had no problem finding Kendall, but there must have been two-dozen Charles Bonds in the book, so I would have to rely on my Great Uncle Kendall to give me the phone number where I could reach his older brother. As I dialed the number, I wondered what I would say to the relative that I had never met, or at least that I never remembered meeting. I should not have worried though since when Rosemary, Kendall’s lovely wife, answered the telephone and I told her who I was, she immediately asked if we would be in town long enough to come out for supper. I told her our plans and that we had five days in the area before our ship departed, and she insisted that we come for supper the next night. What a welcome change home cooked food would be! Great Uncle Kendall then got on the phone and after a kind greeting; he gave me very specific directions to their home in Rosemead. He added that he was anxious to see me again since he had not seen me since I was a baby, and that he could not believe that I was old enough to be married and have two children of my own. With a promise to ‘catch up’ on family news the next night, and after he gave me my Charles’s phone number, we hung up. I then dialed the number for my Great Uncle Charles, and his wife answered the phone. I had heard that Charles had a ‘drinking problem’, but figured that he would be on his best behavior since he had never even met me. Ruth, his second wife, greeted me enthusiastically and called Charles to the telephone. We talked for a while and I told him why we were in L.A., and for how long, and told him about my family. He said that Disney had just opened a new amusement park in Anaheim, near Long Beach, not all that long ago, and that he thought that Michael sounded about the right age to enjoy it. He asked if we had a nice place to stay and I assured him that it was ‘convenient’ and not all that bad, but he wanted us to come over to his apartment and he would take us to Disneyland! Wow! Two phone calls and I had a dinner and an exciting day planned with family! I hoped that Billy would be pleased since I had responded to both invitations without consulting him, but he knew before we left that I wanted to get in touch with my family in California.
It was almost suppertime when Michael and Billy woke up, and when we opened the door to the room, again the heat almost drove us back inside! Billy decided that since we did not have air-conditioning in the car, it would be better for the baby if I stayed in the room, and he would take Michael and go get us all something to eat. Still a bit overwhelmed from the anxiety of the night before, I reluctantly agreed since the air-conditioned room was too tempting to leave. We may have been from the south, but we were not accustomed to heat like this, particularly at this time of day, and not even a breeze coming from the ocean. How very strange!
Billy and Michael were only gone about thirty minutes before returning with hamburgers and fries, of course, with milk for Michael and cokes for the two of us. I noticed that Billy kept checking his watch although we had nowhere to go and nothing to do or see this evening, or so I thought. We had just barely finished our burgers when Billy ran a bath for Michael while I bathed Margie in the sink, in an attempt to get them back on schedule. She already loved her bath time and would coo and smile while I splashed her with the warm water. Michael wanted to watch some program on television and gave Billy a hard time about taking a bath, but Billy, rather than argue with him, simply picked him up, undressed him and put him in the tub. When I asked Billy why Michael could not finish watching his program, he just smiled and said, “Because, it’s almost time”.
“Time for what?” I asked, not understanding what it was time for and assumed it was another movie Billy wanted to watch, but I was in for quite a surprise.
With both children dressed in their pajamas, and Margie nursing hungrily while I sat propped up against the headboard of one of the beds, Billy sat down beside me and laid his head on my shoulder, and with that lost puppy look in his eyes, he exclaimed, “It’s time. You know she is six weeks old tonight, and I have even given you the extra hours for the change in time zone.”
He was right! Margie had been born six weeks ago tonight plus about four hours time difference between Georgia and California, and now there was no doubt what Billy’s rush had been all about, and I wondered if he had been planning this rendezvous all day. As soon as Margie drained the last breast, Billy picked her up, burped her, checked her diaper, and put her in her car bed. Then turning to Michael he said, “Son, I think it is time for you to go to bed, I need to talk to your mother.”
“Right!” I thought. Now this would be interesting. How on earth could we possibly make love with our very curious almost three year old son right in the same small room with us, and there was no other place to go! I thought that I actually might get a reprieve since Michael had never gone to bed before 9 p.m. any night during our trip. However, this night I got a big surprise. Billy promised to read him two stories if he would go to sleep, and Michael was actually fell sound asleep before Billy finished reading the second book. The heat from today and the long drive from the day before must have worn him out too, and it was way past his bedtime in Georgia. I supposed that it would be awhile until we all adjusted to the time change, and it would be even more difficult when we reached Hawaii, but with five days in LA, and then five more aboard the ship, it would be more a gradual change than if we had taken air transport. But now my husband had a mission, and he wanted to make love to me, and I had no further reason to deny him since I was no longer bleeding, just still terribly sore, but I knew that Billy would take great care not to hurt me.
Oh, I wanted him too, more than I ever imagined, but I was still frightened that it would be terribly painful and that I would leave Billy unfulfilled after having such a large baby. Certainly, I could never be the same, and I was afraid that he would feel the difference, but again I was wrong. Slowly and tenderly Billy undressed me, except for my nursing bra, which never came off unless I was in the shower, but before he took off his own clothes he turned out all lights except the bathroom light, and we crawled under the crisp, clean sheets and began to explore. He could not have been any gentler as he slowly pulled me to him, and my heart started to race like it always had when he held me in his arms. I loved to touch his face and to trace each scars, and I did that now while slowly and calmly he explored me with his hands to make sure that I would not wince with pain. Even if I had felt pain, I would never have let him know, because once again I was where I belonged, and longed to be, being loved and loving my husband, my precious Billy. Finally after he was certain that he would not hurt me, our bodies met and blended into one another and within an hour I had been to the moon and back twice, and he even more numerous times. We kissed, exploring each other’s mouths like we always did, absorbing each other’s every breath, and this time it was even more special since it had been so long. Soon, I knew that he would be leaving for Vietnam and I wondered if each time we made love from now until he actually deployed, it would be with an urgency that left us both breathless. I imagined that it would only get better, and that both of us would become more desperate as the time came for him to leave. All I could think about was how empty my bed would be without him, and how my body would long for his, and then I thought of the very real possibility that he might never come home again, and I began to cry.
With my first tears, Billy at once thought that he had hurt me and he slowly withdrew, but when I explained my rather inappropriate tears, he just held me closer and whispered in my ear, “Darling little girl, I may be gone from you physically, but I will always be in your heart and in your head. You will always feel me with you, whether in bed, or any other time. I promise you, I will never leave you alone. Just close your eyes and I will be there.”
I knew he meant that, and of course, I promised the same to him. Not even war could take him away from me - we were so much a part of each other that our hearts would always beat as one. When I told him my fear of losing him forever, he promised that with me to come home to, he certainly was not going to let any VC kill him. He tried to reassure me saying that he had some of the best training for survival that the army had to offer, and that he would be home again, of that, he was certain. I wished that I had his bravado and I prayed that God would keep him safe, but I just knew that my world without him in it, even for a year, would lose all of its color. The sun would no longer shine, the flowers bloom, or the birds sing, not until I was in my Billy’s arms again. Life without him would not be a life worth living, even with the children because even they were the product of our love for each another.
I drifted off to sleep in his arms, in that small room in San Pedro, and I knew that there would never be any other place that I would rather be than with Billy, wherever, whenever. I would always love him ‘more than life itself’.