MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 70 – The Punchbowl Ceremony
With Billy working late almost every night, we both had forgotten about The Punch Bowl Ceremony, the annual affair that Bunny told me about that first night in paradise. Somewhere in the brain fog that enveloped me, I lost the urgency and importance of preparing for that most auspicious of nights.
I did remember that Bunny told me the ceremony was a lovely affair, marking the date of triumph during the Boxer Rebellion for the 1/14th, much regimented and performed exactly the same way every year. As the ladies stood at one end of the ballroom, the officers marched in according to date of rank, with the general officers coming first, of course, and the junior officer was the last to enter the room. Each officer received a cup of the punch, I have no idea exactly what this concoction consisted of, and I am not sure that it was any specific recipe, although that too was probably part of the tradition. Anyway, specific officers in a specific order, concluding with the most junior in rank, gave specific toasts with the last toast ‘to the ladies’. At this point in the ceremony, the officers would join their ladies and share the last sip of the punch with her.
I had heard all the history involved in this ceremony from Bunny, and I was really looking forward to this ‘night out’, which would be a rare treat indeed since arriving in Hawaii. Other than visiting with other officers and playing cards or eating with our landlords at their Quonset Hut, the only other ‘night out’ that I remember was our first and last trip to the drive-in theatre near Pearl Harbor when ‘Goldfinger’ was playing. Instead of being the pleasant and romantic experience that usually accompanied our nights at the drive-in, children asleep in the backseat, me cuddled in Billy’s arms, that night we battled mosquitoes as big as bumblebees! We could not close the windows since it was too warm outside, and if we kept them open, they would have eaten us alive. Michael began to cry, then Margie, refusing to be outdone by her big brother, joined in, and instead of kissing, Billy and I were busy keeping mosquitoes off the children, and in-between, we were slapping ourselves silly. Although we did stay through the entire movie, only because Billy was determined to do so, before the second film began we finally conceded defeat and left for the beach where the mosquitoes were less aggressive, and far fewer. Oh, we had some, and one of the reasons I had not wanted to make love on the beach, but certainly, they were not bad enough to use that as my primary excuse.
However, that night at Pearl Harbor, they were awful, and all of us had welts for days. Wondering why the difference, Billy explained that it must be because of our constant breeze, plus the stillness of the water in the harbor, compared to the restless surf at the beach. Whatever the reason, we both decided that the only time to try that again was in the winter when we could put up the windows, we hoped. That is, of course, if it was not raining, since winter was the rainy season.
Oh well, we tried, and Billy enjoyed the musical score of the film so much that he bought the album at the P.X. the next payday. He played it over, and over, and I think that he had a secret desire to be like James Bond, with the excitement, danger, and of course, the women with their long legs and large busts. However, soon I came to despise the score when my wounds were still raw, so I gave the album to my cousin.
Other weekends we would spend time with Russ and Linda, playing cards or cooking out on the lanai, and once the Chief Warrant Officer and his wife who had just moved into the house directly behind our own invited us to play bridge with them. Had we known that he was a ‘Master’ bridge player, we might have had second thoughts since Billy and I never took our game seriously and played strictly for pleasure. We were not poor players, but certainly not in the Chief’s league, but play we did, and fortunately did not embarrass ourselves too badly.
It helped when we made a ‘connection’, which shows how small the world within the military can be. The Chief’s wife was the mother of Nicky, who had been in Billy’s company at North Georgia College, and who had married Diane, one of my best friends there. We talked about Nicky and Diane and found out, much to our distress, that Nicky had quit school to support his family and they were living in Atlanta where he was working. At least he was not in Vietnam or on the way there, and for that, I knew Diane was grateful. I just wish that they could have found some way for Nicky to graduate, but sometimes things just do not work out. Had we not had financial assistance from Gene and from Billy’s benefactor, Mr. Moore, Billy would have had to quit school too when I was laid off the same time I was certain that I was pregnant with Michael. As meager as it was, I would always be grateful to Gene for helping keep Billy in school, even if his deep pockets had now been firmly sewn shut by Ruth.
Now we had to find a way to attend the Punchbowl Ceremony, and only someone who realizes what it means when the military says that an affair is ‘mandatory’, knows that we had no choice but to come up with appropriate clothing and a baby-sitter for that one night. Naturally, none of my formal clothing fit since my nursing breasts were far larger than normal, and Billy had not tried on his dress whites since we attended the last dance of his senior year at North Georgia. I knew that he had grown into a man from the boy that I had married and was at least two inches taller, about 40 pounds heavier, and all muscle from his training and the extensive field exercises.
With trepidation mounting, one evening he tried on the uniform, and it was so small that he could not even get his arms into the sleeves of the blouse, and the pants were even worse! We simply did not have the money to purchase a new dress white uniform which was THE uniform required for the ceremony, so I opened some seams hoping to find enough fabric to meet his needs. This was not one of the custom-made uniforms he had ordered right before he went on active duty, but one that he had bought while still in college and had tailored to fit, and there was not ½ inch of fabric in any of the seams that I cautiously opened. Knowing that this was a job far beyond my limited skill, I asked Billy to take it to a tailor on the post to see if it was possible to do anything with it.
Frankly, I had serious doubts if anyone, even the most skilled tailor, could make this uniform fit my handsome husband. Billy came home that evening with the uniform in pieces and stated that I had been right, that there was not nearly enough material in the seams to let out enough to fit him again - ever. While at the tailor’s shop, he had inquired about the price of a new uniform realizing that I would agree this was a necessary expenditure since the Army dress white uniform would be required uniform for all formal events at this tropical post. Although with the pending deployment, I realized he would only wear it this once. The tailor told him that even if he started right now, he could not possibly have the uniform ready by the event since they were working overtime to handle the requests, and had made their own initial order for dress whites several weeks past. He kindly suggested that he try to find a uniform that he could borrow from another officer who was not in the 1/14th.
Rusty came to mind first, but Trish said that he had never owned dress whites, never having needed them. Then another neighbor came to mind, but he was two inches shorter than Billy and not nearly as muscular.
We had a crisis brewing so Billy went to Chuck to see if he knew of anyone who might have a uniform he could borrow, and while Chuck inquired around post, he had no luck either. Billy asked Chuck what he should do since he only had two choices – skip the ceremony, or wear his ‘suntans’, which was the day dress uniform for officers back then, although the Army eventually phased them out. This was Billy’s favorite uniform and his was new, having just bought it when he received his orders to Hawaii, but at the time, as now, we did not have the money to buy both suntans and dress whites, so he chose to buy the one that he thought he would wear the most often. Actually, he rarely wore that uniform either, since fatigues were the ‘uniform of the day’ almost every day.
Chuck went to Col. Proctor and talked to him about Billy’s dilemma, and Col. Proctor had everyone in the battalion looking for a dress white uniform that would fit him. However, the colonel’s final order was that Billy could wear his suntans if he could not find dress whites, since not attending the ceremony was not an option for either of us.
After turning his uniform problem over to Chuck, who turned it over to Col. Proctor, we now had to find time to drive down to Honolulu with hopes that I could find a dress suitable to wear that did not need extensive alterations. I would have thought that since the military presence was so prominent on the island that it would just take a trip to Ala Moana and Sears to find an appropriate dress, although I could not remember seeing any formal gowns on our infrequent trips to the store.
Saturday afternoon, two weeks before the ceremony, we packed our small children and bags of snacks into the Chevrolet and drove down to Ala Moana, thinking that we would be home well before suppertime. The shopping center was crowded with weekend shoppers and we had a difficult time finding a parking space, but finally we were in Sears, only to discover, much to my horror, that they did not carry any formalwear at all. I had no knowledge of the stores in Honolulu, so I asked the saleslady if she knew where I might find a formal gown. Like Billy, my choice of dress was not an option either requiring a long gown and white gloves. She was absolutely no assistance at all but just told us to go downtown and look in the big department stores, all of which, if I remember, consisted of two very high price stores. By now dusk was descending, and Billy had no knowledge of the streets in Honolulu at all, so all he could do was drive downtown to the major thoroughfare, again the same ‘Kam’ Highway that circled the island, and hope that we could find the stores.
To make a long story short, the first store we found, like Sears, although far more expensive and mostly clothing, had no formalwear either, so off we went to find the other store, but this time we had directions. Unfortunately Billy could not find a parking space anywhere near the other store, so reluctantly he let me out of the car nearby while he circled the block with our now hungry and fussy children. I knew that this store was my last option or I would be spending long, long hours in front of the sewing machine IF I could even find suitable fabric to make a dress!
Right away as I entered the store, I knew that it was too expensive for our pocketbook, but I also knew that these very expensive stores had the best sales, so I hoped I would be successful in my quest and find a clearance rack of dresses I could afford! They did have a small formalwear department, but as I gently looked through the gowns in the size that I thought I would require, a tiny oriental saleslady approached and asked if she could assist me. Since none of the gowns had price tags on them, I knew that I was far out of our league here, but she was kind and listened quietly to my long explanation, which included the most we could afford to pay and the kind of gown that I had in mind.
“I have just the thing,” she said, and turning on her heels disappeared behind the curtains to the dressing area. “Come back here”, she called to me as she poked her head around the curtain, and I tentatively followed her into a dressing room that was as large as our bedroom, and far more elegant.
She had gathered several gowns in all colors on a rack in the corner of the room and assured me that all of these dresses had been marked down and now were on final clearance. Not knowing exactly what ‘final clearance’ meant, I looked through the dresses that she had removed from their plastic bags. There was a lovely aqua dress of billowing chiffon, which was my favorite, but it was far too large, even in my nursing bra, and the pale blue dress, which I did not particularly like anyway, was too small, and had narrow shoulder straps, which would not do at all since I could not remove my bra. The last dress was a pink silk gown, elegant and plain with princess seams and extensive pink pearl beading on the bodice and onto one shoulder. Although I had hoped for a fabric like the chiffon, one that would flow as I danced, at this point, I would take whatever I could find that fit! The saleslady slipped the gown over my head, pulling it down over the bulky pads in my nursing bra, and all at once, I felt like a fairy princess again instead of a nursing mother using sanitary pads cut in half to prevent leakage. The dress was a perfect fit!
It did not even require hemming, which I could have done myself, and I already had a pair of pale pink satin shoes! “This dress is very inexpensive,” she promised, as I turned around looking at myself in the mirrored walls, transformed by this elegant silken gown. Her promise came true when the final cost of this fashionable dress was less than $25.00, and I knew that the material alone would be twice that expensive.
“See,” she said in a delicate oriental manner, “if we need something very badly, and we look hard and long enough, we find just what we are looking for. These dresses should have gone back into storage today, but someone knew that you would be coming.”
After I thanked the tiny lady profusely, and paid for the gown, she placed it inside one of the plastic bags that I had only seen used for bridal gowns and thought that even the bag was worth more than I had paid. So with the dress folded gently over one arm I hurried out of the store and was dismayed to find that it was completely dark. Billy had told me to stand in front of the store where he could see me, so I waited for what seemed to be half an hour before I saw our car turn the corner going in the direction that would take Billy to the opposite side of the street. Quickly I crossed, and since I knew that Billy would be looking at the store, I practically stepped out in front of the car to flag him down.
“Honey, I almost ran you down!” Billy said as I quickly opened the passenger door of the car.
“Oh, but you didn’t, and I found the most wonderful dress, for the most wonderful price!” I gushed as I reached into the back seat to place the gown on one of the hooks above the window.
“Maybe we should put it in the trunk,” Billy continued, “Michael’s hands are sticky with Cracker Jacks.”
I laughed and promised him that the dress was safe in its heavy plastic bag and said that everyone had to be starving. He agreed, stating that he was hungry enough to eat a bear, and while I could not promise bear meat, I did promise lots of hot dogs and French fries just as soon as we got home to our A-frame house on Sunset Beach, and for once, I really missed The Varsity!
Well, now I had a dress, although we had far more difficulty finding one than we anticipated, but also paid far less money for a far lovelier gown than I expected. Now, with my dress problem behind us, we still had the uniform crisis, although there was no doubt in my mind that even in suntans, Billy would be the most handsome officer at the ceremony. I slid over close to him as we headed north on the Kam Highway towards Schofield and then our home on the beach, and he put his arm around me as he always did, and I rested my head against his strong shoulder. In this way, with the children sleeping in the back seat, we ended our adventure, and I hoped that we would not have one quite like it for some time, although I might have hoped differently if I had only known.
The day of the ceremony finally arrived, and that afternoon, I had an appointment at the beauty parlor for the first time since reaching Hawaii. With two small children, a puppy, little money, a hungry husband who had to have fresh uniforms, and a home to take care of, the last thing that was on my mind was going to the beauty parlor. Wasted time and money, I called it, but still I wanted to look nice when Billy came home so I usually kept my hair in curlers most of the day, and when he walked in the door I managed to look halfway decent. My hair was just long enough to put up in a French twist with lots of teasing, but this time I asked the hairdresser to free some tendrils of hair to soften the effect around my face, and I was pleased with the result. Sprayed heavily with lacquer, my new hairdo was not even moving with the car window rolled down on the way home. I thought that my hair looked nicer than it had in a long time although definitely not fixed in an everyday style, but that was what I wanted – something special for our first formal affair in a long, long time, or so it seemed.
With the soft pink silk gown on, and pale pink pearl earrings that matched the beading on the dress floating on my already aching earlobes, I felt like a fairytale princess, except fairytale princesses did not pack diaper bags to carry with them! I made mention of the fact when I came into the living room where Billy was waiting, and later he told me that when I walked into the room dressed in my formal finery, he felt like he could not breathe, that I looked like Cinderella on her way to the ball. Chuck and Bunny arranged with their sitter to keep Michael and Margie since all four would be sleeping most of the night, we hoped, but I knew that three little boys could think of three times the mischief of one. Fed and dry, Margie would be no trouble at all, and I did not really think that I would have to leave the dance to nurse her, but she would be just across the street if it became necessary. Billy was still fuming since he had not found a white uniform and he mumbled under his breath about how humiliated I would be to be seen with him, but I assured him that other than stark naked, he could wear most anything and I would be proud to be with him, and to be his wife. As an afterthought, I added that his nakedness was my privilege alone!
We arrived at Chuck and Bunny’s quarters early enough for me to nurse Margie and put her to bed in their baby’s playpen, and to freshen up my makeup, dab some perfume behind my ears, the nape of my neck and my wrists, although I would be wearing long gloves. On our walk over to the club, Chuck continued to assure Billy that it was far better that he attend in the wrong uniform than to not show up at all, and that Col. Proctor was well aware of his extensive quest. In spite of Chuck’s reassurances, Billy was still unhappy about standing out because he did not have the proper uniform, and never had anything remotely this traumatic happened to him before this night, at least according to Billy. He was accustomed to having the best in uniforms and truly one of us should have thought about a white dress uniform as soon as he had received orders for Hawaii, and he did order his tropical suntans. However, with Ranger School, a new baby, the fact that it was the dead of winter, and the expense of two new uniforms, this simply never entered our minds. Actually, we had never had a formal affair in the summer that required the white dress uniform, which was one reason Billy had not even tried his on since college. Chuck continued to tell him that it was understood that we had not been here long enough to become properly oriented, and that given our remote island location, the uniforms were hard to find and most all were tailored for the individual officers. Not to mention the fact that there was so little free time since training had accelerated just about the time Billy signed into C Company. I thought that he looked wonderful, and I knew that soon I would be in his arms dancing for the first time in a long time, and I was excited about the entire affair. He was my handsome soldier, no matter what, and I loved him more for his inclination to obey orders than had he refused to attend, and I was proud to walk into the club on his arm, and quite content that he stayed by my side the entire evening.
The Officer’s Club at Schofield Barracks was a one-story building that seemed to go on forever. The front was very plain but the ballroom had dozens of French doors that opened out on a large lanai and was quite elegant in a subdued manner. Tonight it became a glittering kaleidoscope of officer’s ladies in long gowns of every hue and color, and the officers themselves decked out in their tropic finery. My gown was just right for the occasion and I felt very comfortable and even pretty, but I could tell that Billy felt out of place. Russ and Linda quickly found us, and while Chuck and Bunny, living on post, knew more of the other couples, mingled through the crowd, the four of us stayed together throughout the evening.
The night was a whirl of pomp and military ceremony, precise and rehearsed, glittering gowns, white uniforms, some covered with medals gained throughout long careers, and a wonderful orchestra. Billy was grateful that he was not, by any means, the most junior of the officers so he did not have to give the final toast. This feeling of being ‘different’ was quite new to him, and my heart ached as I wished that this beautiful night could be the same for him too. Without a doubt, white uniform or no white uniform, Billy was by far the most handsome officer there, and I was so very proud to be his wife. I looked deep into his eyes and mouthed, “I love you,” like we had done since we first met, he did the same, and I doubt if I had ever loved him more than I did at that moment. I do not think that I ever let go of his hand the entire evening except during the ceremony when all the officers had to leave their ladies, and when he left, I felt so alone, as a cool breeze from the open doors caused me to shiver.
This evening too was perhaps the last celebration of the Punchbowl ceremony for years to come, since during wartime the punchbowl was carefully stored awaiting the battalion’s return to Hawaii, peace, and Schofield Barracks. For all we knew this would also be the last formal event for most of us, and we all suspected that surely the entire 25th Division would be leaving for Vietnam before the first of the year. I just hoped that we would be able to have Christmas together, our first peaceful Christmas with our own little family, but little did I know, and if I had, what could I have done differently?
As the ceremony was soon to begin, all the officers took leave of their ladies and left to line up according to rank in rooms on either side of the club, and all knew where they were to be in line, so within minutes the ceremony began. Sounding like an entire brigade, the officers of the proud 1/14th marched into the main ballroom, and at that moment, I was grateful that Billy’s uniform was not white since I could find him and keep my eyes on him alone. Oh how handsome my lieutenant looked, and my heart raced knowing that soon I would be in his arms dancing. Sometimes I still had to pinch myself to believe that this fine specimen of a man was really mine, and mine alone, and this night was no exception. I could see that he was looking for me, and I wondered if he could feel the love that I was sending across the ballroom, and when he found me, our eyes locked, and with his usual wink, I knew he was sending me his love too. As the ceremony and toasts ended, the officers all filled their cups again and brought them to their ladies, but I was not interested in tasting the punch nearly as much as I was interested in dancing in my sweet Billy’s arms.
“Here you go, pretty lady,” Billy said when he joined me, and I took the silver cup that had just moments ago touched his lips and sipped the obviously intoxicating liquid. “It’s not too bad,” he said, “but I have tasted better.”
He was right, it was not too bad, but nothing exceptional and I handed the cup back to him so that he could finish the punch and return the cup to the silver trays that the waiters were now carrying around the room to collect the precious heirlooms. For an instant, I wondered if ever there was a missing cup. Surely, with the solemnity of the occasion, and what it meant to the battalion, no one could ever desecrate such a treasure.
The orchestra was just beginning to play something soft and slow when Billy rejoined me, and we immediately headed for the dance floor. I wish that I could remember more about that night so long ago, and the history behind the ceremony, but all that was important to me I remember well, and that was my Billy. As the orchestra played ‘Moon River’, he held me tightly in his arms while we swayed in time to the hauntingly lovely refrain, his head bent so that our faces could meet, he whispered in my ear that I was the prettiest lady in the room, although I knew that was far from the truth. However, as long as he thought so, that was all that mattered to me.
When he cupped my chin in his strong rough hand, and lifted my head so our lips met, I knew that my heart simply could not hold any more love for my handsome lieutenant, and as he softly kissed me, he again whispered in my ear, “I love you, Mrs. McConnell, more than life itself.”
Lips quivering, and barely able to contain my tears, I replied, “And I love you too, Lieutenant McConnell, even more than life itself.” Oh, how I wished this moment could go on forever and ever while we danced in the beautiful club, a tropical breeze wafting through the open doors, while all the love in our hearts showed in our eyes as he held me as if no one else was in the room.
Many of the wives were clinging to their husbands and most knew this might be their last dance before they left for war, and had I known it would be our last dance forever, I would have wished it even more. In Billy’s arms I was safe and happy, and most of all, loved, just as much as I loved him, which was immeasurable. Never again have I heard the soft melody that I could not close my eyes and feel, ever so gently Billy’s chin resting on my head, my head on his chest where I could feel his heartbeat as we danced our last dance. If wishes come true, this is the way I will spend eternity forever in my Billy’s strong arms.
The magic of the night followed us home, and all the anxiety Billy had been feeling about his lack of a white uniform was gone as we gently put our children to sleep in their own beds and we met in the living room. Billy put Johnny Mathis on the stereo, and as he slowly undressed me and the silk gown fell to the floor around my feet, I began to undress him, and we whispered familiar love words to one another. Once again, we made love on the white carpet in the living room with the moon shining through the top window, and once again, we climbed beyond the moon to the stars and back again, over, and over, and over. After our desires were fully satisfied we slowly climbed the stairs to our bedroom, hand in hand, where, in our new bed, we fell asleep in each other’s arms listening to the roar of the surf on Sunset Beach.
A perfect ending to a perfect night, I thought as I murmured, “Oh, Billy, my darling Billy, I love you so very much”, but he was already asleep. I did not have to tell him how much I loved him anymore, although I frequently did. He knew, and I knew, and it was with this last thought I closed my eyes wrapped in the secure cocoon of his strong arms.