MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 64 – Paradise and More
It took very little time to find our few pieces of luggage partially because we did not have the matched sets like the other passengers, just bits and pieces that we had picked up here and there, or already had before we were married. While Chuck and Billy handled the luggage, Michael stayed close to my side as if awed by the entire day. With Billy in the front seat with his new commanding officer, the children and I in the back, Chuck wanted to show us downtown Honolulu, so we turned right out of the port instead of turning left towards the North Shore.
I was surprised to see that the roads leading into and out of the city were four lanes, although with relatively little traffic, yet it was a bit early for ‘rush hour’ although I was sure it was nothing compared to the mainland. Chuck pointed our the huge Moana Loa shopping mall on the left and said that there was a Sears, a J.C. Penney’s, and other mainland stores there, which was nice to know in case we needed items for our new home that we could not find in the P.X. Other than the palm trees and the ocean just barely in sight behind the high-rise luxury hotels, Honolulu seemed almost like any other big city, with the exception that people were more casually dressed. It took only a few minutes before we were able to recognize the tourists since the men were dressed in the most outrageous, garish, Polynesian printed shirts while the ladies would be wearing a traditional Hawaiian, loose fitting, ‘muumuu’ with high heel sandals and tons of jewelry. The dresses, while they appeared to be wonderfully comfortable, made everyone look pregnant, but the loose folds of fabric would suit me to a‘t’ while I was working on getting my pre-pregnancy figure back. Frankly, I could not wait to get some of my own to wear around the house since they looked cool which was the original purpose behind the design.
The fact that we did not see many Hawaiians, but a large number of Japanese, did seem strange, at first, but I had read James Michener’s ‘Hawaii’ before we left Columbus, so knew the history behind the potpourri of races on the island. Soon, Chuck pulled into a parking space facing the ocean just off the main road, which we learned was called
‘Kam Highway’ or officially ‘King Kamehameha Highway’, named after Hawaii’s most famous king.
“Well, there is the famous Wakiki Beach!” Chuck said, as we all got out of the car and walked down towards the water. I could not believe that this postage stamp-sized tract of sand was the beach I had read so much about in books and travel brochures! Where were the huge waves? Before I could even mention the fact, Chuck told us that there was a lack of surf here because there was a huge stone shark barrier built just below the surface so that the tourists were not surprised by these predatory monsters.
“Not good for business,” he said, “If tourists start disappearing or losing arms and legs from sharks.”
The beach was not very crowded, but Chuck explained that almost anyone who wanted to try surfing or sailing had to go over to one of the natural beaches on the North Shore, like Wiamea Bay and Sunset Beach, or to Kaneohe Bay to our west, or windward, in the language of those who lived here. Curious about the sharks, I asked if there really was something to be worried about, and he told us that sometimes the shark sightings were so common during certain seasons that the Marines had a helicopter that flew over all the beaches. When a shark was near the beaches, they sounded a loud horn and hung a huge sign over the side of the chopper reading ‘SHARK’. That was all, just ‘SHARK’, but that usually was enough to clear the water of the more intelligent tourists and of course the natives, because several surfers had been lost to these ever trolling, hungry carnivores.
Billy then mentioned that we would like to live on the water if we could not find quarters; Chuck assured us that there were no quarters available since he had checked that out first when he heard that we were coming, but he noted that living on the beach was very expensive, just as I had expected. Most of the soldiers that could not live on post, lived in Wahiawa, which was the closest town to Schofield Barracks, but Billy was insistent that he was going to try to find a beach house first.
Chuck had found out that Rusty and Trish, who were now in Wahiawa in temporary housing, had been our neighbors at Ft. Benning, so he had arranged for us to stay in the same temporary apartments until we could find something more suitable. Housing was scarce and expensive on an island that had no place to grow but up, and beach property the most sought after with multi-million dollar mansions in and around the Honolulu area, mostly sited near Diamond Head. Well we had only wished that we could find something on the beach, no matter how humble, but I did not have my heart set on it as much as Billy did, and I knew that if he could find a house on the beach, wherever it was, he would rent it, regardless of the condition.
As we turned around in the parking lot at Waikiki Beach, Chuck pointed out any buildings that might be of interest. Just past the terminal, we saw Pearl Harbor to our left, or at least the Shore Patrol on duty at the main gate, but this was one of the first places on our list of ‘things to see’. North of Pearl Harbor on the right side of the highway was the large Army Hospital that served all services on the island, although Chuck said that the clinics at Schofield would meet most of our needs, and that others who lived further out, when having to be in the hospital, used the local one at Wahiawa. Traffic was a bit thicker now since most offices were closing for the day, and civilian and military alike came streaming out of the bases along the waterfront to go to either their quarters or to their homes. I did not think that I would want to come down here with the children by myself and hoped that we could find almost everything that we needed on post, although Chuck told us that the P.X. at Pearl carried a much larger supply of almost everything than the one at Schofield. The ride to the Barracks was unremarkable, but I did notice that houses seemed built practically on top of each other, and that backyards adjoined backyard, and all were very small – just about large enough for a clothesline, and that was it! What would I do for a play space for my energetic son?
About half an hour later, we turned left into Schofield Barracks, and I found myself impressed by the size of the post, and particularly the low-slung houses with slatted windows and large porches to catch the breeze. The grounds were impressively planted with all types of tropical plants and palm trees, and the grass on the lawns and parade fields were thick and lush. This was a beautiful place to live and to raise a family, and I hoped that quarters would become available soon.
I had enjoyed living on base the one time that we did when my father was on active duty and teaching at The Navy Mine Warfare School in Yorktown, Virginia. Each post or base is its own little city with theatres, swimming pools, commissary, officers and NCO clubs, churches, nursery, schools, etc., and it was not often that we had to leave post to go shopping except for some special occasion, like ‘Back to School’, and other holiday sales. Everyone knew everyone and my best friend Sharon and I used to sneak into the commissary, where her father was the officer in command, and he would give us a bag full of choice cherries or other fruit or candy, more to get rid of us. We went roller-skating on the tennis courts just across the street and behind ‘Officer’s Circle’, we rode our bikes without fear of traffic, and went to the theatre where admission was seven cents! Yes, I would enjoy that kind of life again, especially for the children, if we were going to be here for any length of time. I knew though, that when the 25th Division left for Vietnam, most of the families would go back to the mainland, and I hoped then that with so many empty quarters that we could possibly stay on post, but I was getting ahead of myself.
Chuck and Bunny’s rambling wood house was almost across the street from the beautiful low-slung stucco covered Officer’s Club. It was an old house, but well maintained, and the lawn was thick and green with sidewalks parallel to the road, which had a canopy of tree branches. This was an ideal playground for children to play safely, and, as on all Army posts, the speed limit was very low and very much observed. I refused to let my heart become set on finding quarters since Chuck had already said that there was none available, although he had put our name on the very long waiting list. We knew that we could always be ‘bumped’ by a senior officer, so the chances were slim to none that we would ever live here.
I was so tired my legs still felt like rubber, and I almost collapsed on their overstuffed sofa after Chuck introduced us to his wife, Bunny, and his two sons. Soon after exchanging greetings where Bunny was particularly attentive to our baby girl, she went into the kitchen to put the final touches on the meal she had prepared. Michael and Chuck’s oldest son were close to the same age, so they hit it off immediately, and soon were happily playing cars on the living room rug. Billy dug through the diaper bag and found the baby’s dish, and took it into the kitchen to prepare Margie’s supper. We would have an uninterrupted meal if we fed her first, and since I was overdue nursing, my breasts ached and were beginning to leak, but so far, she had not uttered a sound other than to coo and smile especially when Chuck made over her. She already seemed to be far more responsive to men than women, but she was going to be a heartbreaker, and I knew that before she settled down, like her mother, she would leave many a broken heart in her wake. I offered to help Bunny in the kitchen, but she refused by telling me to take care of the baby, and while I fed rice cereal and fruit to a obviously hungry little girl we talked about Army life and life in general. It never failed to fascinate me how Margie’s little mouth opened like a baby bird in anticipation of the spoon nearing her lips, and unlike Michael, I did not have to scoop and scoop the food off her chin back into her tiny mouth a dozen times. She had this eating thing down pat, and was not about to lose a drop! When I finished I asked Bunny where I could nurse in private, and she was surprised that I was nursing.
“This will be difficult when we have functions, won’t it?” she asked, and I explained to her that it would be more difficult than she could possibly imagine since Margie would not take anything from a bottle except for juice!
“Well”, she said, “I would imagine that you could take her most places, except for formal functions at the club, and then you could just leave her here and come nurse her when its time.”
I thanked her for her very generous offer and her understanding, and followed her as she led me to their bedroom. As she quietly closed the door, I told her that I would probably be taking her up on her offer if we had any official functions, and she then told me the ‘Punchbowl Ceremony’ was coming up soon.
This was a ‘mandatory’ attendance reception since it was traditional, and celebrated the battalion’s victory during the Boxer Rebellion in China. The commanding officer had been given a magnificent silver punchbowl by the officials of Peking, and during this function, each officer, going by highest rank, down, drank from the bowl amid rounds of toasts, the last to the ladies, and then each officer would join his ‘lady’ and give her the last swallow of the punch. It all sounded wonderfully time-honored, and I knew that I would have to find a new formal gown since I doubted if I would lose my ‘baby fat’ before the function, and my breasts had quadrupled in size since I had to wear a thick pad not to leak on my clothing. Thank goodness, we had seen a Sears’s store!
By the time, I rejoined the others I no longer even remembered the Punchbowl Ceremony, another of the annoying traits that I had developed with my after-birth fog since usually my memory was exceptional. Chuck and Billy were engaged in conversation as if they had been life-long friends, but I knew, and Billy knew, that above all, Chuck was his commanding officer. I think that both realized during this first evening that they would not have any problems working together. Chuck was a West Point graduate with the usual high ideals, expectations, and military leadership skills found among most of these officers, the ‘top of the heap’ in the Army, or ‘the long gray line’. Chuck had also heard about the reputation of the North Georgia College officers, and Billy was going to make sure that he upheld the status of his alma mater. So many times, I had heard that the best a Battalion Commander could ask for was a West Point officer as Company Commander and a North Georgia officer as a Platoon Leader; such was the reputation of the small group of officers who graduated from NGC. Funny, now that I think about it, I never heard mention of the reputations of officers from the other three prestigious, all male, Southern military schools, The Citadel, Texas A&M, and The Virginia Military Institute, which I am sure have also turned out their share of fine officers. Then again, maybe the story put whichever school the listener represented in the North Georgia position, and I am sure it is quite a subjective, personal opinion at its best. In the long run, it is the caliber of the man along with his background and training. However, I knew that Chuck would be hard pressed to find anyone that was more dedicated a soldier than was my handsome husband, and I knew that I would often find myself fighting resentment of the time that Billy spent on duty. I always had and always will, since I am a woman who likes to have my man with me. I do not share well, not with any rival, to include the United States Army.
As Bunny called us to dinner, my main concern was not how Billy and Chuck would function together as a team, but more immediate of how and if Billy would eat what Bunny had prepared. Since we had never met, she could not possibly know of Billy’s peculiarities about food, so I held my breath as we sat down to the table and the covered dishes because I knew that no matter how much Billy wanted to impress his new commanding officer, he still would not eat certain foods. We bowed our heads while Chuck said a blessing and gave thanks that we had arrived safely, and then he picked up the first dish, uncovered it, and began dishing it onto his plate. I doubt if anyone at the table realized that I was holding my breath as each dish was uncovered, but thankfully, and for the life of me I do not remember what we ate, Billy did not find but one dish objectionable, and he simply passed it on to me. All of the little boys, who had been playing together quietly, were very well-behaved at the table, and I thought that perhaps those five nights on the ship, and all the restaurant meals on the way to the west coast had been good practice for Michael, who looked like he was about to fall asleep at the table. The meal must have passed uneventfully or I would have remembered otherwise, and before long, we were standing on the front steps of the quarters and thanking Bunny for her hospitality while Chuck went to get the car to take us to our temporary quarters in Wahiawa. He had also arranged for another officer in the company who lived in Wahiawa to give Billy a ride into Schofield until our Billy could pick up the car.
I was so tired that I did not think that I would care where we stayed that night, but was not quite expecting the bleak motel-looking building where Chuck stopped, almost identical, but older, than the one in San Pedro. To make matters worse, our unit was on the second floor with very steep, rickety metal stairs to climb, and I could not imagine doing so while carrying Margie, or even allowing Michael to climb them without holding an adult’s hand. There was a bright side though since Trish and Rusty were staying here too; so familiar faces would help my rapidly declining enthusiasm for paradise. Perhaps too I was just exhausted, and although during the voyage, the clocks kept up with the changing time zones, I seemed to have a bit of a ‘jet lag’ too. The warm night air seemed to have revived Michael and he was excited to see Elizabeth, and of course was too young to realize how unusual this meeting was in his father’s chosen profession. Rusty helped Billy and Chuck carry our luggage up the steps while I stayed downstairs and visited with Trish who was very pregnant by now. Feeling as tired as I did, I wanted Billy to carry our daughter up while I held onto Michael’s hand, but for the moment those stairs might as well have been the steps to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. I simply could not climb them.
Chuck said his good-byes and Billy followed Rusty into their apartment to find me. I knew he had to be tired too, so we only visited about ten more minutes before saying good night. Since this was a weekend, before we went upstairs, Billy and Rusty made a ‘date’ to go house hunting first thing in the morning, leaving Trish, the children and me behind. That was typical Rusty though, because if Billy had been making the arrangements and he had his car, then he would have included all of us. Truly, this time it was of no matter since I was too tired anyway, and glad that the next day was Sunday and I could sleep-in, well as long as the children allowed me. Upstairs, was, of course, identical to Trish’s rooms, no more bleak, no more worn, but at this point, all that mattered to me was a clean bed and hot water! This night, we performed our duties just as we did when we were on the road, and while I bathed Margie in the tiny kitchen sink, Billy bathed Michael in the bathtub.
After settling the children down for the night, Billy slowly undressed me as if I were incapable of doing it for myself, and I doubt if I was, I was that tired. He was not going to miss taking our first shower together for five days regardless of the hour, or our weariness, and with my legs still feeling as if I were aboard ship, we bathed each other as we always had. Since our showers were always a preamble to making love, I knew that he would not hear the word ‘no’ tonight; neither would I have denied him, even though I was almost catatonic. Certainly, there would be no refusals coming from my lips, simply because I never knew how long I would have him with me, and I could only imagine that after six months in Vietnam, he would be ravenous for my body! We were never apart any longer than the last six weeks of his Ranger training, and even though we had that one night while they passed through Benning on their way to Florida, it had seemed like six months. There was no place that I felt happier or safer than in my darling Billy’s arms, and if he wanted to be with me, I could even overcome my overwhelming tiredness for his love. I loved him that much, and even more.
The days in our rather squalid rooms in Wahiawa passed slowly, and I remember very little of the time except the sheer boredom. There was no place for the children to play except a dangerous blacktop parking lot, so Trish and I took turns having Elizabeth and Michael in our apartments so that the other could have a rare afternoon nap, or read a book, or just have a few moments to rest. Since Trish was such a tiny girl, her pregnancy seemed further along than she really was, and she was huge. I could not help but feel sorry for her, and I did not know how she would be able to hold much more baby, although she still had a couple of months to go. We both needed the respite that the other could provide by keeping the two children together, and fortunately they picked up where they had left off at Benning and still played together as if they had never been separated.
During the time we lived in Wahiawa, we met Russ, the other lieutenant in ‘C’ Company, who was giving Billy a ride to Schofield, and his wife, Linda. They did not have children together yet, but Russ had three sons from a previous marriage, although they were not living with him. Linda was much younger than Russ who had been a N.C.O. before going to O.C.S. and earning his commission. She was a tiny Southern girl from South Carolina, quiet and very polite, so we had a lot in common and made friends instantly. She particularly loved playing with the baby, although Michael had his share of attention too, and often we would go over to their quarters to share a meal, or just to pass time where Michael could play outside in the sunshine and grass. They had rented a cute little house in Wahiawa with a small patch of grassy yard where Michael could run off some of his energy, which now appeared to be enormous after the weeks of being so cooped up – first in the car, then the motel room in San Pedro, the ship, and now the small apartment. The houses in the town seemed rather flimsy, made of wood with no insulation or air-conditioning, but so far, I had not felt the need for it except at our temporary quarters surrounded by black asphalt. Yards were very small, even smaller than the houses, with the price of land at a premium. Also with the build up of troops at the post, it was difficult to find any place to live at all, so most took what they could find and did not bother to stray far from Schofield. I do not remember if there was a rule about the maximum distance an officer could live from post, but there would be exercises when the troops would practice deployment, and within a certain amount of time all had to be ready to board trucks headed out to Pearl Harbor where the ships would we waiting.
Of course, I did not know about this yet, but that might have been a factor in deciding the circumference from the post where Billy and Rusty had to concentrate on finding a house. I wondered too what would happen if they found only one house, and I doubted if Rusty would offer it to Billy first, and then look further, but so far they had not found anything at all. Reluctantly, they had decided not to try to look at the beach area since the rents in Wahiawa were at the very limit of our quarter’s allowance, and as usual, the locals knew exactly what the officers made, and how much they could charge. Trish and I both were beginning to weary of the cramped living conditions at the temporary quarters, and she definitely needed a settled ‘home’ before the baby was born so with our blessings, the men went searching as often as possible. At this point, neither Trish nor I cared what they found, or where, we just wanted to be able to make our nests a home again, and that certainly was impossible in such a temporary situation. I just could not imagine that we would have to stay here, and neither could Billy since he wanted his family where our son could enjoy being outside, and where he did not have to worry all day that one or all of us would fall down those rickety stairs. He only wanted the best for his family, and he tried hard to go house hunting each evening when he got home, but the first days of adjusting to his new position was a challenge, although he was well prepared for this assignment, and had been looking forward to a position of leadership since we left North Georgia. Unfortunately, Russ had decided that he did not want to step backwards from acting Executive Officer, but Billy had date of rank on him, so Russ transferred to Headquarters Company, leaving C. Company with just two functioning officers, Billy and Chuck. I had no idea what dreadful ramifications would come of what I now consider a selfish act, but I did know that Billy would be spending long hours at the barracks, although Chuck would not have asked of him what he, himself, was not prepared to do. If anything, Chuck spent many more hours there, but then again he lived within walking distance.
I had no idea that circumstances had just begun to spiral out of control and lead to tragedy, and even if I had, I am not sure what I could have done, but I certainly would have done something! Anything to avoid what would soon become my worst nightmare!
Next Chapter coming soon...