MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 71 – Labor Day Cookout and the Tsunami
Sunday was another wonderful day that Billy and I spent playing with our children, the dog, and each other as we frolicked in the surf, which was beginning to show signs of fall in it’s ferocity.
It was during the winter that the surf was taller than our house, we had heard, and this day, with the Labor Day holiday just around the corner, we could understand the truth in that statement. Other than the surf, the day was much the same as any other with frothy white clouds moving slowly across a pure blue sky like sailboats on a lake, and in the coral protected inlet the azure water was as clear as ever. While Margie napped and Michael played with his cars on the rocks, Billy and I used our snorkels, fins and masks as we gently paddled through the reef to watch an endless display of colorful neon fish as they dashed first one way and then the other to avoid contact.
I just hoped that the weather on Saturday of the Labor Day weekend would be as nice since we had asked Russ, Linda, Bunny, Chuck and their boys, and another officer in C Company, a bachelor, whose name escapes my memory, to come out for a cookout and a swim. We had planned to have a lot of get-togethers at our home since we were the only ones living anywhere near the beach, but weekends were often the only time we had together, and I guarded these scant days as if they were sacred and I could not bring myself to share Billy with anyone.
It was long past time for us to entertain, and since Labor Day fell at the first of the month, we would have enough money to buy hot dogs and hamburgers for all. This long weekend would also be the last three-day weekend for a long time, if there were anymore, and the training would accelerate once the holiday was over.
All of C Company would soon be in the field on Oahu while the platoons went through their annual training tests, or ATTs as the Army called them. Billy knew he had to take at least two platoons through their maneuvers, but hopefully, it would be only two, and still that would be 48 hours plus without sleep. The shortage of officers was crucial now that the time was nearing for deployment, and so far, there had not been any major influx, but hopefully soon, since the pressure of running C Company was all on the backs of Chuck and Billy. The other officer in the company was a hopeless alcoholic and on quarters arrest most of the time, and he certainly was not dependable enough for the ATTs. Billy knew he just might have to take an additional rifle platoon, as well as his own rifle platoon and the weapons platoon, and then he would be gone for 72 hours. Yes, it was time to play before the serious work began.
Billy had just received two letters that had bent, but not broken his spirit. One was his application to flight school, which I had not known about, but denial due to his medical history of adhesions did not surprise me. The second was his request for a Regular Army commission, also denied until he could accrue some command time, and this would probably not happen until he made captain in a few short months.
Promotions had accelerated as Vietnam caught fire, although Billy’s next promotion would probably come while he was over there. There was nothing he wanted more, than to lead men in battle, and he was hoping to command his own company before his tour was over, although nothing was certain. In fact, the longevity of a Lieutenant in Vietnam, before either killed or wounded, was now about 3 months, and this fact was doing nothing to soothe me, although Billy would often say try and say that he was too mean to die.
Also, the fact that I was again pregnant was not good news either since I would be alone with two babies and a rambunctious Michael. I had not had a period since Margie’s birth, but that sometimes happens to nursing mothers, and in days, not so long ago, nursing was the only birth control available. You can look at any family tree from the past and see the multitude of births, one about every two years, which is proof that it just does not work very well, and I just had this feeling. Billy did not know what to think when I told him, but he was half-elated and half-worried, and completely sure that we could not afford another baby.
Mostly he was worried that I would be alone since neither of our families could be depended on for support or assistance, and was adamant that I stay in Hawaii since this would be as close I could get to him. We finally planned that I would stay until he received orders for stateside, and then I could go ahead and find a place to live at our next post. I had it all figured out as usual, but I was just not figuring on what actually happened. In fact, it never once entered my mind.
Saturday, the first day of the Labor Day weekend, arrived overcast, the first time that I had not seen the sun upon awakening since arriving in Hawaii. Surely, I thought, the sun would be out soon, but there were low dark clouds ominously racing through the gray sky, and it looked like it would begin raining buckets at any time. Hawaii had cast its spell on me though and ever the optimist I felt sure that soon our lovely beach would be basking under clear blue skies and white fluffy clouds, however this had not happened as our guests began to arrive. Still, those ominous clouds had not shed their heavy load either, so we still could walk down to the beach. All of us dressed for swimming, but only Billy and Russ dared the cold choppy water which was more gray than aqua, reflecting the clouds hanging low overhead.
The rest of us, accompanied by the children playing in the sand, stayed on the shore and watched as the two of them, both in the best shape of their lives, dove into the breaking waves and begin swimming towards Kailua Point to the south of us, not that they would have ever made it that far. In fact, to my horror, as I stood still in one place on the sand, I could see that although both were swimming for all they were worth, they were not moving an inch! Was it possible they were in the middle of the riptide that often ran in these waters? We had heard about this dangerous tide, but had not seen it happen, and today, of all days, the first time this season it showed its deadly tentacles, I just had a feeling that Billy and Russ were trying to swim right in the middle of it!
I did not want to say anything to the others, particularly Linda, who seemed so delicate, frail, and young, although I believe that she was no younger than I was, it just seemed so. She and Russ were practically newlyweds, this her first marriage and his second, and he was considerably older and of course more experienced. Linda just had the appearance of a lost lamb, but soon I was to find out that she was much stronger than she appeared.
Surely, I thought, Billy will figure out that he is not moving as I watched him glance towards shore despite his increasingly strong efforts to make headway in the water, and I was right. Later, he told me that he had turned to Russ and informed him that he thought that they were in the riptide since they obviously were not making headway, and that they should swim out to sea and down the beach until they were safely out of the undertow and then they could get to shore. It seemed like a lifetime to me as I watched them struggle, but finally, simultaneously, they turned and swam out to sea, then headed north up the beach until they turned and headed to shore. I ran towards Billy as he came out of the water gasping for breath, and I knew then that I had been right about the tide. When I reached him he bent over, both hands on his knees as if he could not take another step.
“Billy, Billy, Are you O.K.?” I asked breathlessly, as if I had been swimming every stroke with them, but he could not speak he was so exhausted. Russ was lying on the sand equally exhausted, but still Linda was unaware of their brush with tragedy, or the fact that they had been helplessly swimming nowhere. I was shocked to realize that no one else, not even Chuck had realized the danger so narrowly averted.
“Getting old,” Russ said when Linda asked why he was so tired, and it was then that I knew he tried to protect her from the hurtful things in life, and I wondered how she would cope while Russ was in Vietnam. Surely, he could not convince her that the enemy was using rubber bullets!
After Linda and Russ joined the others, Billy finally stood up, held me his arms, and with tears in his voice, whispered, “I didn’t know if we were going to make it for awhile there, and all I could think about was leaving you pregnant with a third child. I thought about the children that I would never hold or play with again. I love you so, all of you, my little family, and could not bear to think of not holding you in my arms ever again.”
I assured him that he was the one who had been in danger, and how helpless I had felt on the shore, unable to do anything, but just pray that he would remember how to get out of the undertow, yet terrified that it took him so long to realize what was happening. Holding him tight, I told him how very much I loved him and how I could not live life without him, but once again, he reminded me of my promise to him, and for our children.
After Billy caught his breath and was able to talk without effort, we made our way up to the house so that he and Russ could shower off the sand and surf off while I fixed the hamburger patties for Billy to put on the grill. Bunny and Linda helped prepare the tomatoes, onions, and lettuce for the hamburgers and Chuck set about starting a fire so it would be hot by the time Billy finished his shower. It did not take him long, and by the time we had finished with the preparation, he joined us wearing his weekend costume of a white t-shirt and fatigue pants, clean white socks without shoes since we did not plan to leave the house again that afternoon. The coals were glowing red in the small grill on the lanai, and soon the aroma of searing meat filled the house. The boys all wanted hot dogs, and Billy grilled those first so that Bunny and I could get them settled before we ate.
I was feeding Margie and had to excuse myself to nurse, which I did in her tiny nursery on the ground floor. Although she was still sleeping by our bed upstairs, I had fixed a room downstairs for her when I no longer could nurse anymore. If I was pregnant, I knew that it would not be healthy for the developing child if I continued to nurse her, but I was putting it off as long as possible as if denial on my part would make it not real. I enjoyed my time with our daughter, and I felt more bonded to her than I had to Michael, perhaps because of the closeness that nursing brings, not that I loved him any less. He would always be ‘Mommy’s boy’, even when grown as I thought of our son, tow-headed, freckle-faced, and mischievous, with his father’s sparkling eyes, although not quite as blue. Yes, our son was quite a young man now, but always my baby.
The evening passed uneventfully and since we had elected to use paper plates and cups there was not even much cleaning up to do after our guests left for their homes. It had been a nice party, with just the six of us. I remained the only one aware of the narrow escape on the beach, and Billy did not want me to say anything to anyone else about it. I think that he was partially embarrassed that he had gotten himself and his guest trapped in the tide to begin with, but mostly that he had not realized before they were already exhausted that they were in trouble. It was only the superb conditioning that long days and nights in the field rendered that enabled Billy and Russ to escape from their trap, but as young men often do, they thought that it would never happen to them. Bad things happen to other people, and I have to admit that with a glass half-full I believed the same. In the most tragic of circumstances I was soon to find out differently though, and my outlook on life would be forever changed.
That night, with the children in bed, Billy and I lay on the rug again watching the moon since the clouds had blown out to sea, and talked about our future as we often did. I told Billy then that I was now almost positive I was pregnant, and he, another eternal optimist, was now pleased that we would be adding another ‘perfect baby’ to our family tree.
“Wouldn’t it be great if you could time having the baby when I was back home on R&R?” he said, but I knew from experience that rarely is anything as important as labor and delivery timed for convenience, and that indeed I would probably find myself alone, away from Billy and all family, when this next baby was born.
“Can you imagine how neat it will be to be able to say ‘I was born in Hawaii’”, my handsome husband queried, still unable to think of the impossible logistics of our situation. When I remained quiet, he once again asked, “Wouldn’t that be neat?” but still I could not think of anything to say. “Are you that unhappy about another baby?” he asked, but that was not the issue at all, and I wondered why he did not see it.
“Billy I am just worried, that’s all,” I finally said. “Worried about you going to Vietnam, worried about who will take care of the children when I have the next baby, worried about how I will get to the hospital, just worried.” I continued as my voice started to break with unshed tears from the near tragedy on the beach that day.
“Oh honey, I will be fine,” he assured me, while he held me and rocked me like a baby. “I know you are still upset about the incident today, but all’s well that end’s well, and you are safe in my arms now, which means that I did not drown. And don’t worry about things before they happen,” he continued to try to reassure me as he echoed his previous sentiment, “I am too mean to die, and too well trained. Vietnam will be a cakewalk after Ranger School.”
This was still early in the conflict and daily images of our soldiers killing and dying was not live and in color on televisions all over America from this little ‘brush war’, so only those who had lost someone knew what it was all about. Entire units of American soldiers had just begun to arrive, and more arrived daily, but still it all seemed so far away. We knew that Bill had to be over there since the 1st Air Cavalry, with all the fanfare and publicity accompanying this unit, heralded as the new way to fight a war, had arrived in force, and I wondered how Snookie was coping. Surely she would have gone back home to Tennessee, and now only Major Mac remained in the apartments that had been our home for so long. We also knew that the officer that Billy replaced in C. Company had volunteered to be a door gunner from a helicopter in Vietnam since the battalion had been sending gunners over since about 1963. Killed, not long after his arrival there, that was the closest that the war had touched us, but not personally, since we never knew him. However, the division was no longer sending officers to serve as door gunners since they were so short themselves, and as the training increased, we knew that it would not be long before the wives of the 25th Division would be left alone, and this time the mourning would become personal. Little did I realize that before it was all over so many of Billy’s classmates would be wounded or lose their lives, and that there would be an entire new generation of young widows, fatherless children, and lost young men who could no longer cope with life after war.
That night as my handsome, smooth-talking husband, who could charm a snake out of a tree, finally soothed me, we made love incessantly on the soft white carpet while the moon glowed like a thousand candles through the front windows. After all, what did it matter now, the damage was done, and I had three whole days with Billy not having to report in, and I was going to savor every single moment. If I could have, I would have never slept but just watched him sleep like the nights in the valley before we had children to wake us. It seemed, that during the past year, we had worked out all our previous control issues, and although I had mellowed with motherhood, I had accepted that it was O.K. if I let Billy win one or two of our arguments. With this adjustment on my part, and his growing maturity we rarely ever had conflicts where a ‘winner’ had to be decided. We had made it through the rough part, the storms after newlywed bliss, through our major financial woes, although we were never out of the woods, and finally through problems with our families. We had grown as our son was born, and through Billy’s quest for his degree, and more importantly, his commission, and then the Airborne and Ranger Schools. Finally our daughter was born, the trip, although a major undertaking, was a huge success, our voyage was smooth, after the first day, and now we lived in paradise in a house on Sunset Beach. Yes, I felt that we had finally made it, just when Billy would be leaving me again, but I seldom thought that perhaps God had been too good to us, and that soon I just might have to suffer the consequences.
We spent Sunday and Monday alternately playing with the children, body surfing, since the rough weather had passed, and culminated our long weekend with a long drive around the island on Monday afternoon. We drove once again up to the Pali Overlook, down to Honolulu, and then up and around Diamond Head. We drove past the beach and the Air Force base in Kailua and then once again found the abandoned WWII airfield on the north shore just before we reached our little home on Sunset Beach.
We had thought about going up to Wiamea Falls, but Billy wanted me to learn to drive his little car, and although it made me nervous, I said nothing. He said that I might have to drive it in case of an emergency, or if the Chevrolet was in the shop, but he was surprised at the ease of my handling the gears. If I had ever told him, he had forgotten that I had learned to drive in a 5-speed Simca that belonged to my father’s current place of business, so I had long ago learned to handle the manual gearshift. Although I could not think of when I would want or need to drive the Austin-Healey, I pleased Billy by showing him that I could handle the little car in an emergency. The seat was so low that I felt as if I was sitting on the ground and it was definitely a man’s car since I could not adjust the seat to see clearly over the steering wheel. No, I did not like this car, and I never would, but he wanted me to learn, so I did, and he was happy, and that was the most important thing. I remember thinking that the little car felt more like a coffin than an automobile, and the thought again sent shivers up my spine. Was I coming down with something? This shivering had gotten out of control, but I felt as if someone was walking on my grave. I let it pass thinking that my emotions over the close call on Saturday, and the nearness of Billy leaving for Vietnam was bothering me, never mind my present state of pending motherhood.
When Tuesday came and Billy left for work that morning, we both agreed the weekend had been very successful, even the dark clouds had not ruined the party, and never again did we talk about the riptide. We just knew that when the water was choppy, and it would become more so during the winter months, we would not venture in, but remain on the shore and watch the surfers who would arrive in droves for the winter waves.
It was during this week that we had our first tsunami warning, although I had heard about previous drills, and that is what I thought was happening at first. It was my landlord who had driven out to secure the Quonset hut, knocking on my door, who told me to take the children and the dog and head for Wahiawa. She did not want me to panic, she said, since we had plenty of time, although the police were now blocking off the highway to the beach so that residents could use both lanes leaving. I called Linda and asked if she would like visitors, even Pele`, and good-natured as always, she told us to come on up. While I packed a few things, just for the day, since the warning did not necessarily alarm me, there was a frantic knocking on the glass doors. There stood one of our surfer friends and his pregnant wife with their little puppy, and he asked me if I could take them with me to Wahiawa since his only transportation was a motorcycle, and he did not want her to ride it now, and of course with the puppy it would be impossible. I let them inside, then called Linda again about my additional passengers, and I could have gone on to Schofield, but as I knew she would, Linda told me to come on and that when I got there I could call Billy so that he would not worry if he had heard the warning. I doubted if he had heard since he was supposed to be firing at the range today, but I could leave a message at C. Company with the clerk, just in case.
Anyway we were a ragtag group that headed inland, and found, much to our surprise, that there were more people trying to get down to the beach than were trying to leave! The police had set up a roadblock so that no one could get there, but ‘sightseers’ who had never seen a tsunami created a bottleneck in the traffic for miles! I had never seen a tsunami either but it was not something that I wanted to experience up close and personal, but then again I had some sense, while obviously these hopeless thrill-seekers did not. At least we were going the other way and the road was clear after we moved past the barricades as we drove up to the little town outside the gates of Schofield Barracks and to Russ and Linda’s small comfortable home.
After we all got out of the car, Linda took the children into the back yard to play while I called C. Company to leave a message for Billy. Much to my surprise, the clerk told me that Billy had been trying frantically to reach me to tell me to leave, and that he was in his office, and he would transfer my call. When Billy answered, I could hear the anxiety in his voice but after I assured him that the landlord, and then the police, had warned us, and that the children, Pele` and I were safe and sound with Linda, I could hear him breathe a sigh of relief. He told me to wait for him right there and he would follow us home when the warning lifted. I do not think that either of us thought seriously about losing our few worldly possessions since our family was safe and that was all that mattered to him.
The tsunami alert was lifted just about 4:00 p.m., and the ‘wave’ that was from an earthquake in the ocean near Alaska was about 9 feet tall by the time it reached the northern shores of Oahu, and that was it. With relief that life would continue on Sunset Beach as always, we all headed back for the shore racing the setting sun. Even before we walked into the house, Billy, carrying Michael, and I, carrying Margie, with Pele` racing ahead of us, walked down to our beach and watched one of the most magnificent sunsets we had ever witnessed. There was a corona around the sun, as if God in his heaven was sending us a sign that all was well, but it had been an exciting day!
Billy would be working his usual long hours this week, but at the barracks and not in the field, but then the next week he would be in the field from Wednesday until Saturday morning while the platoons were put through the annual training tests. This would be the test of Billy’s skills as a platoon leader too, a version of the escape and evasion techniques that he had learned during his R.O.T.C. days at North Georgia College, and most of all during Ranger School. Not questioning Billy at all, I just assumed that the entire company would be in the field that long, and I had forgotten that he would be leading more than his own assigned platoon, and perhaps the weapons platoon, through the tests, which I knew to be rigorous. All I lived for were the days that he was home with me, but I knew that I had plenty to keep me busy while he was gone. Ironing some uniforms for him came to mind first since he was low on fresh ones, so that was a must for the week, then of course the routine care of the children, laundry, etc. I also had planned one of Billy’s favorite meals for Tuesday night, a large roast beef that we would be able to use for sandwiches the rest of the week. Without a doubt, this would be just another routine week in the life of an Infantry officer’s wife, but little did I know that my life was about to spiral out of control, turned upside down, and forever erase the word ‘happiness’ from my dictionary.