MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 59 – More Heat and Darby’s Rangers
I knew that the next two days were going to be difficult ones closed up in a small motel room with a very active little boy, which was not exactly my idea of fun, particularly after all the activities he had enjoyed the past few days. Like it or not, that was our only option.
Billy and I decided that for sanity’s sake, we might go out for our evening, depending on the weather, which had not changed a bit except for the heat, and each day seemed even hotter than the day before.
Friday morning we all slept late, exhausted after our long day at Disneyland. I thought that as tired as we were at our youthful age, then Uncle Charles must be practically comatose today! Although I had to use the bathroom, I lay in the bed until I could not stand it a moment longer, afraid that my movements would waken the children, but finally I had no choice, and I quickly tiptoed into the bathroom and closed the door. Before I got back into bed, I decided to see if some miracle had occurred overnight and we had a pleasant day, which would be our luck since now we were without a car and stranded. Slowly and quietly I opened the door, but the heat almost physically drove me back inside as if a fist had struck me in the chest, and quickly I returned to our air-conditioned lair. This was awful! I could not wait to board the ship and enjoy the sea breeze that I hoped would accompany us all the way to Hawaii. Balmy skies, calm sea, and a golden sun overhead – yes, that would be delightful after the five days in this hell.
No sooner had I crawled back into bed beside my sleeping husband, Margie began to make those little sounds that all babies make when they are first waking up. I hoped this was a false alarm and that she would go back to sleep, but it was almost 10:00 a.m., two full hours past her normal waking time. Within ten minutes or so, I knew that further sleep was futile as she began to wail at the top of her lungs, and like her brother, she had a fine set of lungs.
Once again, I slipped out of the bed to change and feed her before she woke my boys, even though I felt as if I had just gotten to sleep. Obviously able to withstand both heat and fatigue far better than I, Billy had been quite amorous the night before, and it must have been after 2:00 a.m. when we both finally closed our eyes with me tucked into his protective and loving arms.
Was it possible after four years of marriage and two children I still found my handsome husband, and his sweet words, irresistible? Of course the answer was ‘yes’, and the more adventures we shared the closer we had become, and the more in love, and we were both quite different from the kids we had been when we first got married. Oh, I felt quite ‘grown-up’ with two babies, although, in fact, I was only twenty-two years old, but childhood had eluded me, so I was a bit ahead in the maturity department, and so was Billy. Our responsibilities during our earlier years had prepared us well for the frightening duties of being parents, but we had just taken it in stride as each baby was born, as if this was the natural order of things. How fortunate we had been to have first, a handsome, healthy boy, and now a beautiful, healthy baby girl. The only thing that I could even begin to ask for was for Billy not to have to go to Vietnam of course, but again that was the natural order of things, at least for an Army officer in 1965.
As I watched him sleep, I thought back to those first years when we had been adjusting to being a ‘team’, instead of singular entities, and I remembered how hard some days had been for both of us. We had certainly followed an interesting path, sometimes rocky, sometimes smooth, to get to where we were now, and each day had been better than the one before. I prayed that we had a long path to travel until the end of our days, and if I loved him more each day until we were old and gray, I knew that life could only get better. However, it was hard to visualize it being much better than this.
Oh, how I loved my Billy, and just looking at him made my heart ache with longing to be in his arms, and even when we were apart, all I had to do was think about him and my heart felt so full that it could explode. Since we first kissed, I thought that this was just about as intense as anything could get, but each moment together, and even apart, it just became more and more passionate. I thought about the times we quarreled, and while it was not often, just like everything else we did, those quarrels were intense too, but they had become almost non-existent since that day that I vowed not to try to control everything. Yes indeed, you could definitely catch more bees with honey than with vinegar!
Margie was soaked and soiled, but within minutes, I had changed her diaper, rinsed it out in the toilet, and had her in her infant seat ready for her cereal and peaches. This would only be her second time tasting peaches, since I had limited her to rice cereal, applesauce, and bananas, and boy did our little Georgia Peach love peaches! In anticipation of the tiny spoon getting near, she would hold her little mouth open as far as she could and with each bite, her tiny tongue would work its way in and out to capture every morsel. I hoped that she would continue to be such a good eater and not develop her father and brother’s dislike of almost everything green, or yellow or orange, if it was not Jello!
However, Michael had eaten everything that I fed him when he was in infant too, although then he did not have a choice, and I could remember how he sprayed me with pureed spinach and green beans! Now, watching his father, he had begun to emulate his dislike of vegetables and to make matters worse, he would not even eat salad! Oh well, he ate most fruits, and he certainly did not look like he was starving; in fact neither father nor son were emaciated. Billy had never been in such good shape, thanks to Ranger School, and his muscles were rock hard and his stomach flat. How I wished that my situation was the same, but after all, I had just had a baby. Just give me a few months in the Hawaiian sun and surf I promised myself, and I would be back in shape too, if I was not pregnant again!
After I finished feeding Margie her cereal, I changed her into a clean pink stretch suit that smelled like Ivory Snow, the only soap I would ever use to wash anything that touched my babies’ soft skin. The depth of color reflected the newness of the outfit, which made her already pink cheeks glow with inner warmth. Yes, she was a pretty baby, and ever so alert as she watched my every move with her pure blue eyes. Often I would wonder whom my children would look like as they grew up, but I was in no hurry to find out, and wanted to savor and extend each year of their childhood, especially their days as infants since it seemed to fly by so quickly.
I sat in the one comfortable chair to nurse, and lost in my thoughts did not realize that Billy was watching us. “Madonna and child,” I heard as he spoke softly, “and I will never tire of watching you nurse our baby. I just wish now that I had been more encouraging when you tried to nurse Michael. Do you think that she will go back to sleep now?”
“Madonna, my foot!” I exclaimed. “I know exactly what you have in mind Billy McConnell! Just in case you have not noticed, it is broad daylight, not that it ever stopped you before Michael became our roommate, and he will be waking up any second!” I nodded my head towards our still sleeping son.
Billy gave a deep sigh as he threw back the sheet and climbed out of the bed. Wasting no time, he pulled on his pants, again looked at me longingly, and with a wink said, “Well, if you are going to reject and deny your loving husband, perhaps I can ply you with fresh donuts and juice.”
When Billy got back to the room, dripping with perspiration, he proclaimed that it was even hotter outside than ever, and that he doubted if we would be able to take the children out at all. I thought that perhaps by midday, all of us would need a break from this small room, and particularly our active son, who was just now beginning to stir. I could not imagine him being content to sit in a room all day long, but I was mistaken. Disneyland must have worn Michael out more so than we thought, and he seemed content to play with his cars, watch cartoons sitting in Billy’s lap, while I quite contentedly sat propped up on the bed reading a book. Sometimes when father and son became a bit bored, there would be the usual ‘wrestling match’ and horseplay on the other bed, but if I looked up when they became a bit too loud, Billy would pull Michael into his lap or otherwise distract him. When Margie was not sleeping, she would lie on the bed, with either Billy or me tickling her little tummy and feet, or just ‘talking’ to her while she happily cooed and gurgled in her usual good nature. Michael seemed to take this attention to his baby sister in stride as long as one of us was either reading or playing with him, but he would not tolerate it for long if both of us were ogling over the baby.
By lunchtime, Billy was truly not looking forward to another hike up the block for burgers so we decided that a ‘vending machine’ lunch would not hurt any of us for one day. After all, there is little difference in peanut butter crackers and a peanut butter sandwich. Ready by then for a little exercise, Michael accompanied Billy to the vending machines, proudly proclaiming, on their return, that he had put the money in and chosen his own crackers – not that there was a great deal of variety. At least his father had maintained enough control and not allowed him to choose Oreos! Billy told me that he had encouraged Michael to skip or run, not walk, since he thought that might give him enough exercise so that he would take a short nap. Again, I knew it was not sleep that Billy was looking forward to, and I shot him a willing glance when he proclaimed that we all would be taking a nap after our ‘picnic’.
Following our hasty and not very nourishing lunch, Billy cut the lights down while I nursed Margie to sleep, and he sat on Michael’s bed with him cuddled in his lap while he read yet another little golden book. Gently placing our tiny daughter on her soft pallet on the floor, I glanced over at my ‘boys’ and both were asleep. Billy, with Michael in his lap, was resting his head on the headboard of the bed and softly snoring. I hated to waken him since he had to be tired, but I knew he would be more than a little bit disappointed if I did not. I softly touched him on his arm, and winking at me, he slipped Michael onto the bed and covered him with the bedspread. When he cut off the light between the beds, it was almost as dark as nighttime in the room with the heavy insulated drapes pulled closed against the heat.
“Do you know what I am going to do to you, little girl?” he asked, as he slowly started undressing first himself, and then turned to me. “I am going to make love to you like you have never been loved before, but, for now, we just will just have to wait until I get you to the beach in Hawaii.”
As we slipped between the sheets, spreading a clean towel under us, I told him that I had no idea of making love on a public beach!
“Oh, I assure you I will find a very private beach, just like I found the Copper Mine,” he replied, and there was no doubt in my mind that if it was possible, he would do just that.
He told me about his recurring dream, since receiving orders for Hawaii, where he would take me out to a moonlit beach, deserted and silent except for the crash of the waves, and we would make love on the warm sand until daybreak. Not wanting to throw ice water on his passion and this moment, I just murmured something about what a nice dream, but truly felt that this was one dream he would never see! There was still too much of the naïve little Southern girl in me to take such a chance, and I knew that if the time ever came, I would be tense listening for interlopers, as I had that first night he had made love to me in his parent’s house. However, today, for this one bright and shining moment, with the children safely asleep, Billy carefully and tenderly took me to the moon and back before we both fell asleep in each other’s arms, sated with our love.
The next thing that I remember is waking up to the now quite familiar prologue to ‘Darby’s Rangers’, and sleepily observed Michael on the floor with his cars and Billy sitting cross-legged on Michael’s bed, his eyes glued to the small television screen while Margie was kicking and cooing on the bed beside him. Stretching and yawning, I turned over to go back to sleep, but thought that perhaps I might not want to sleep that night if I did, so I pulled myself out from under the sheets and went to the dressing room to wash my face hoping to clear the fog from my brain and the sleep from my eyes.
“Isn’t this great?” Billy proclaimed as I came back into the bedroom where I gave him a quick kiss. Lingering kisses led to cuddling and cuddling led to necking, and necking, well this was just not the appropriate time, although Michael was quite used to seeing his daddy and his mommy kissing and hugging each other. I think that every child should see that their parents love each other since what Billy and I saw in our homes was anything but, and most of all children need to feel secure, and what more secure feeling could there possibly be than to know that your parents are happy, love one another, and you too. I missed that part of childhood since my own parents, although deeply in love with each other, seemingly unable to live without each other, had an extremely possessive, jealous, and sick relationship. Once drunk, all any man had to do was look at my mother and he was spoiling for a fight, and unfortunately I had been witness to too many of those, and detested violence as a result. I was adamant that our children would never see violence in our home, or any home we were staying in, and Billy and I had never stayed in my parent’s house. What I wanted my children to see was that kissing and hugging was what a family should do. I hoped that perhaps my son would become as affectionate a man as his father and some day make another woman as happy as his mother, but just not quite as young. Almost every day marriage to Billy McConnell was like a honeymoon, and I hoped that our capacity to love would rub off on all of our children!
“Isn’t what great?” I asked, knowing that he was talking about finding a station running what was now his favorite movie every day of this one week.
“The timing,” he said, “that of any movie that they could run, the one week that we are here in California, stuck inside with heat too unbearable to enjoy being out, they run this movie!” He smiled as big as the outdoors, and turned back to the screen, content with our afternoon agenda.
By then I could definitely recite parts of the movie, but just said, “Yes, Darling, I am so glad that it is not a love story because I don’t know what I would have done with you then!”
He laughed, winked, and said, “Oh, but I do!”
Picking up the baby, I checked her diaper, which was quite dry and took her to the bed with me since Michael had a habit of running and jumping on his bed to wrestle with his father, and I did not want her in his way. She followed me with her big blue eyes, and I commented to Billy that she was going to be a heartbreaker.
“Like her mother,” he said without taking his eyes from the screen.
Was I a heartbreaker? I had never thought of myself that way, but then again I guess that I did break Alex’s heart when Billy so rudely, without a note from me, sent his ring back, and then again where Don was concerned. Certain I had made the right decisions, I glanced at my handsome husband and promised never to break his heart, if he would promise the same.
Turning his face towards me, he put out his hand to take mine and said, “Oh, darling, how could you think that I would ever want to be without you and our children? We are a family now, just the four of us, and life is just about as great as it can get, although I wouldn’t mind a bit more money to spend on all of you.”
I gave him one of my ‘promising’ smiles, and we sat that way for more than an hour, holding hands between the beds while he concentrated on his movie with an occasional word to Michael when he became too loud playing with his cars and trucks, and I concentrated on our daughter and my book.
‘Darby’s Rangers’ ended at 6:00 p.m. on the dot, and we debated on walking down to the diner, which was about two blocks from the motel, finally deciding that Michael, above all, needed the exercise that we could encourage on our way to the diner and back to our room. I had stayed in my robe all day so while I dressed, Billy freshened up Michael and changed Margie’s diaper. I packed her dinner in her diaper bag and with Michael holding his hand, Billy opened the door of our now ‘cozy nest’. The heat hit us in the face and I almost changed my mind, but I knew that all of us needed to a breath of air, fresh or not.
I could not help but wonder how anyone could possibly live in a place where the sun never shone, the sky was yellow with ‘smog’, and the heat was unrelenting. I saw no glamour in ‘Hollywood’ since it was not very far away. ‘Cinema City’ was under the same inversion that we were experiencing in San Pedro and maybe even worse since we were closer to the water, if that made any difference. We had seen the lights of Hollywood the night that we made our way to Uncle Kendall’s home in Rosemead, but neither of us had the slightest bit of interest in driving down Hollywood Boulevard. It was just another city, and from what we had seen, a pretty miserable place to live if you ever wanted to go outdoors.
Michael skipped along the sidewalk singing his son about stepping on a crack and breaking Mommy’s back, never once letting go of Billy’s hand, as we had told him that while we were in a strange place, he needed to be holding hands with one of us. We planned to keep this rule in effect on the voyage; at least we hoped to do so. Billy carried Margie in his other arm while I was having a hard time keeping up just carrying my purse and the diaper bag, which was heavy considering the jars of baby food and the electric dish. We could see the lights of the diner blinking long before we reached it, and for me this was one of the longest walks I had ever taken, and it had to be the heat and my overwhelming exhaustion from the day before at Disneyland. I was still having a hard time getting rid of the ‘after birth brain fog’, and at times it seemed as if I was off in a distance and not in touch with all around me, and of course this heat had not helped.
We arrived at the diner, all of us damp from perspiration, and the air-conditioning inside almost gave me a chill, but it felt so good after our miserably hot walk. Seated in a booth, we checked over the menu only to find that the prices were outrageous for a diner, but we had no other choice, and I think that it operated on the premise of being the only game in town. For us it was the only place to eat within walking distance of the motel, so we had no alternative. Much to his amazement, Billy found ‘country fried steak smothered in onion gravy’ on the menu, and while he was not overly fond of onions, he decided to try his favorite dish, California style, while I was happy with the first ‘chef’s salad’ I had ever ordered. Michael wanted a hotdog, and since neither of us wanted to deal with a scene, allowed him to have one, but ordered a dish of fresh fruit to go with it, and told him that there would be no dessert if he did not finish his fruit first. It was difficult keeping my family on a healthy diet while traveling, but as an Army wife, I knew that I might as well get used to it, since this would not be our first or last trip together, but surely the longest in duration. In the months that followed, I looked back on our trip and thought that God must have had some influence at the Pentagon since we had our every wish fulfilled; I now had those memories to keep me company every night after the children were in bed.
At least the portions were huge, and Michael’s hotdog far more than he could eat, so Billy helped him out by eating about 1/3 of it for him, but Michael did eat all his fruit without any fuss since he always looked forward to his ice cream.
Billy’s ‘blue plate special’ came served on what was more a platter than a plate, but he polished it off, except for most of the onions, which he pushed aside. “Sure doesn’t taste like Southern gravy,” he commented. “Since when is country fried steak gravy brown?”
” When it is not cream gravy,” I assured him, “but it sure must not be too bad, or you must be awfully hungry.”
“Well I have to eat something,” he replied with a wink, “after all I have to keep in shape for my wife!”
He had ordered fruit for his side dish since he had enjoyed the fruit from the night we ate in the seafood restaurant in Long Beach, but tonight there was no fresh pineapple, just the standard ‘canned’ pineapple that we used to make our traditional ‘pineapple sandwiches’ when we moved. It amazed me that he could have such an appetite when we had laid around all day, but then I remembered our afternoon of exercise and grinned.
“Private joke?” Billy asked, and I explained to him what I had just been thinking. “Well, I hope you are up for more exercise tonight, because I sure need it after all this dinner!” he replied with gusto, and I wondered when he was ever not ready, willing, and able! Certainly not since I had met him.
We all followed our suppers with hot fudge sundaes, although that was about the last thing that I needed if I wanted to lose my ‘baby fat’, but I convinced myself that I required the calcium for the baby, even though I was taking the tablets to supplement my dislike of milk. I knew that with all of Margie’s milk coming from me, I should try to eat at least some calcium rich foods. I justified my sundae by telling myself that the calcium in the ice cream would help replenish my system, besides, I had just had a salad, albeit one filled with cheeses and meats and dripping with Thousand Island dressing, but still a salad. My uncanny ability to rationalize almost any situation really had to work overtime on that one though, but I finally gave in to my craving and asked Billy to order one for me too! There were two cravings I could rarely resist - chocolate and my handsome husband!
The one thing that I had noticed here was that the waiters and waitresses barely even glanced at the children unlike others on our trip who had engaged our vivacious son with his thick Southern accent in long conversations just to hear him talk. Others had cooed over the baby and one waitress had even offered to hold her while I went to the restroom, but here it was as if they did not exist.
Yes, this was a different style of life than I had become accustomed to in the ‘sleepy South’, and I wondered what life would be like in Hawaii. That, I was sure, would depend on whether we would be able to find quarters on post, or lived on the economy, but the two lives were sure to vary. An Army post is a ‘closed community’ all its own, like a little city in the midst of wherever it is located, with all the conveniences within a short distance of each other; while living on the ‘economy’, or off post in civilian language, would put us out of touch with Billy’s colleagues who were fortunate enough to have quarters. Billy had his heart set on a beach house, but I had no such grand illusions, assuming that we would never be able to afford one on a 1st Lieutenant’s pay. However, Billy reminded me that we would receive a ‘cost of living’ increase since everything on the island was very expensive, but I was not counting on it covering all our expenses.
I felt sure that houses near the post would be even more expensive, but really, I wanted to live close enough that I could get to Billy, or he could get to me in an emergency. As in Columbus, the landlords would know exactly how much a soldier received for quarter’s allowance, and they would charge every cent of that or more. We had to scrimp and watch every nickel living in Georgia, so I knew we would have an even more difficult time making ends meet in Hawaii. Billy even wanted me to stay in Hawaii, particularly if we lived off post, when he left for Vietnam.
I knew that since Hawaii would be the closest I could get to him after he left, I would want to stay too, at least until his R&R two week leave midway through his ‘combat’ tour. Hawaii was the most popular meeting place for many of the officers, who were serving as advisors, and their wives, since the Army maintained guest quarters at the small post right on the beach in Honolulu at Fort Shafter. Billy rationalized that if I was already there, it would be less expensive than airfare, and I had not tried to change his mind since mostly I wanted to be as near to my Billy as possible.
Oh well, we would work all that out when the time came. We had a five-day voyage to look forward to, and then when we got there we could worry about finding a new home! With any luck at all, perhaps Rusty would have already found something for us.
The night had not become any cooler as we made our way back to the motel, our appetites satisfied for this day at least. Billy did not slow his long steps for the benefit of his small son, rather encouraged Michael to skip to keep up since it took more energy to skip than to walk. This was not much exercise for our energetic son. By now, the weariness of the day before had worn off, and he was once again full of energy. By the time we reached our room, he was wet with perspiration and out of breath from skipping, but smiling and wanting to ‘play’ some more. Taking off their shoes, my ‘boys’ wrestled and tumbled about on Michael’s bed in typical McConnell fashion, ending with a pillow fight and a ‘tickling’ war. Both were laughing and hugging while proclaiming each the ‘winner’. Then Billy finally managed to untangle himself from the sheets, and while he helped Michael take his bath, their horseplay continued in the bathroom. Michael came into the bedroom completely dry and wrapped in a large white towel, while Billy was soaked from head to toe.
“Looks like I have been bathing a dog, doesn’t it?” he asked, and I had to agree with him. “Oh, there’s my dog, he ran away while I was mopping up the floor,” Billy roared, and grabbed his son again, picked him up and tossed him on the big bed that I had just finished straightening. While Billy tickled Michael’s belly with his day’s growth of beard Michael’s laughter became quite loud.
“O.K. fellows,” I said, “I hate to break up your play, but its time to settle down and be quiet since I am getting ready to nurse the baby.”
Billy seemed even more disappointed than Michael that their ‘play time’ was over, and he looked at me with a exaggerated pout and a wink since this too was for Michael’s benefit, and of course his son then tried to imitate the look on his father’s face.
“This is what you look like when you get mad,” Billy said to Michael, and stuck his bottom lip out as far as it would go, and Michael just laughed and tried harder to mirror his father’s image.
“Shhh,” I whispered as Margie’s little eyelids began to get heavy and her nursing became intermittent rather than frantic. Hearing this, Billy settled first himself, then Michael down, dressed him in his pajamas and tucked him under the covers. After I carried our infant daughter to her make-do bed for the night, I read the first of Michael’s nightly two Little Golden books while Billy got out of his soaked t-shirt and pants, and then Billy read the last to him while I checked on Margie. She had instantly settled down into a deep sleep just as soon as Billy calmed Michael down, and now in her baby innocence she was twitching her little lips as she slept. I wondered if she dreamt she was nursing, or if babies even had dreams, but she had never needed a pacifier or attempted to suck her finger, unlike her big brother who still liked to suck his first finger when he was tired.
Now Michael sat in the crook of his father’s crossed legs, his finger in his mouth while he twisted the satin lining of the motel’s blanket since Billy had no hair to twirl. By the time Billy finished the book, Michael’s head was beginning to nod, so while Billy cut out the lights, I went over and lay down by Michael until he was fast asleep. By then Billy had the shower running full blast, and I knew I was being called by another ‘master’, but if I was to be a ‘slave’ to my babies and my husband, I was enjoying every second of my servitude, and as usual, the best was saved for last. Our long, hot showers had once again become a ritual and a pre-empt to making love, and it was with open arms and heart that I joined Billy while the steam filled the tiny room and fogged the mirrors, as we had our foreplay under the rush of hot water.
There was no place I felt any safer than in Billy’s arms, and I knew I would never be afraid again as long as I could look forward to this moment. Hot showers, my handsome husband, and long nights of making love, sleeping for hours, and then making love again, this was what life was all about, and I could not imagine how I would survive the six months we would have to be apart before he could get his R&R leave from Vietnam. Shivers ran up my spine when I thought about my darling going to war, or worst of all when I imagined him wounded and I could not get to him, but for now, I would love him for all I was worth until the time came for us to part. I just hoped that it was later and not sooner.
Curled in his arms, I listened to his soft snore, which used to keep me awake when we were first married, and I now realized that I had difficulty getting to sleep without the sound of my husband in the bed beside me. I knew I loved my children as much, if not more, than my mother had loved me, but I loved my husband first.
As Billy would tell Michael, “I knew your Mother first.” I knew him first, and it was if I had been waiting just for him to take me away from the turmoil of the house and the family where I grew up, and as if he had been waiting for me to do the same for him. He was ‘mine’ now, and I would never let him go, not ever! No, not this man I loved more than life itself.