MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 75 – The Long Journey Home
Tuesday night, I could not sleep, realizing I would never sleep again in our bed, in this house on Sunset Beach. Most of the night I lay awake and listened for the familiar sound of Billy’s little car barreling up Ke-Nui, but of course it never came, and I never slept. As I lay in our bed, far too large for one, I could hear the waves as they crashed against the coral reef and a soft whish as they died on the beach. I knew I would never hear the soothing sound again that had lulled us both to sleep after a night of making love on the white carpet.
The house was quiet as I made my way downstairs to sit on the couch, hoping that if I left the bed where Billy and I had slept together in each other’s arms, sleep might come. However, downstairs the memories were even more distinct. I remembered all the nights of fireworks and tenderly whispered words that we shared while lying on the white carpet. This would never happen again. How could life be so cruel? How could I live without my Billy? How could I raise our dear children who deserved to have a fully functioning mother, and a father to toss them in the air and bring strength to our home? How? How? How? There were no answers for me as I gazed at the spot on the white carpet where we conceived our last child. I automatically brought my hand to my tummy and prayed this child would be the living duplicate of his father. That night, there were no answers, nor would there be for a long time to come.
Perhaps I should have prayed for strength to help me through the coming days and empty years, but I could not think of a future without Billy, and I realized there was no other way but to take one day at a time. Sitting on the couch and watching the same moon Billy and I had watched just one week ago this very night, I knew if I were still alive by bedtime then I would have succeeded in surviving that day. There would also be days when I no longer wanted to live; I knew those would come. The thought of walking into the ocean until it closed over my head was so strong I had to force myself not to open the door. However, the thought of the dark water closing over my physical body while my eternal spirit rose to the heavens into Billy’s waiting arms was almost too strong. That would be my battle – to live, to raise our children. With that thought in mind, I curled up on the soft aqua couch, closed my eyes, and that is where Mother found me in the morning.
I was dead. No one knew it but me. One of the ‘living dead’ I thought, with my heart closed tight, and with a new fear, that if I ever loved someone again, then they too would die. This thought did not include my children who were even dearer to me with their father gone, but I knew I could not ever love another man, not the way he would want to loved – not the way I loved Billy. I never wanted any arms to hold me except my Billy’s, I never wanted to kiss any other lips, and I never wanted to make love again because no one could possibly make me feel the way he did. I never wanted to feel again, that way I would never be hurt.
I performed the morning chores of feeding and dressing the children as if I were a robot, saying little, feeling my heart break over, and over, as I walked through the small house one last time. I double-checked the children’s suitcase, which contained all the clothing they could still wear; I rechecked the diaper bag so the baby, who could no longer suckle from my breast, would not go without during the long journey; then I packed my own clothes and personal items. I closed and locked the suitcases, and laid the keys to the house on top of the buffet for our landlord to retrieve.
Amazingly, my mother was ready on time since she knew airplanes would not wait for her to perfect her makeup. We were waiting when the cars arrived.
It was early on a Wednesday afternoon when the Army green cars pulled into our driveway. This time there were two cars, one for my mother, the children and me, and the other for our luggage and Pele` who would be accompanying us as ‘excess baggage’. I thought I might have to pay extra for Pele`, but when I asked Chuck he told me not to worry about anything, the Army had taken care of it.
I remembered Billy’s thoughts on the waste of money for all the beautiful flowers at his mother’s funeral, so I asked Chuck what military charity could benefit from donations in Billy’s name and he told me about the Army Emergency Relief Fund. In the obituary for the Atlanta papers, I asked for donations instead of flowers, and many family members and friends donated. I knew there would be flowers, close family members would send a remembrance with a lavish display of waxy floral arrangements consisting of an overabundance of gladioli with their stiff formal stalks. Long ago, I learned to despise the unique smell of funeral flowers; however, I too wanted to do something special for my Billy, but that would have to wait until I got home.
Pele` was brushed and clean, and we kept her inside until time to leave, and accompanied by my son, I walked her on her leash before putting her in the car with our luggage. Bunny was meeting us at the airport since both cars were full, although she really did not need to see us off, not with the two drivers to assist us with children, dog, and luggage. She had insisted on coming to say good-bye or aloha in Hawaiian, and although my thoughts about Chuck driving Billy to his death were unchanged, I knew I could smile and be kind just one more time. I almost felt sorry for Chuck since he seemed so devastated, and he had done everything he could to make this most difficult of times as worry-free as possible, and for all I knew he might have personally picked up some of the expenses of the photos, club bill, etc. He was also assuming responsibility for selling both cars, what was left of the Austin Healy and our beautiful blue Chevrolet that had carried us, singing and excited from Georgia to California.
I knew I could never drive that car again without thinking about my beloved, and if I had to start my life over without him, I wanted a new car. Besides, someone would have to go to New Orleans, the nearest port to Atlanta, to bring it back, and this was simply far beyond my capabilities right now. Even eating, sleeping, dressing and taking care of the children were beyond me now, so I could not possibly think about retrieving the car.
It never dawned on me to worry about our household goods because there too I knew Chuck or Trish would take care of supervising the packing crew, but I never dreamed so much would be ‘stolen’. Surely, the packing crew, knowing the circumstances, took advantage of Trish not knowing all we possessed, and helped themselves. It was not until years later I began missing items, even my sparkling gold bracelet with the words ‘More Than Life Itself’ spelled out in charms was gone, and truly worthless to no one but me. I did not think to look for it to wear home since I had not worn it while keeping house, and particularly when scuba diving. Since bright objects attract barracudas and sharks, I had reluctantly taken off my bracelet and placed it in a drawer in its original box. I never saw it again. Also missing was Gene’s shotgun that Billy had ‘borrowed’ while we were cleaning up after his mother’s funeral, and I did not give that a second thought until Gene asked about it, and of course, it had not come back from Hawaii. Nor had Michael and Margie’s wicker bassinet that my grandmother had given us, and who knows what else since it was years before I thought about it at all.
As we left our little beach house, I looked around for one last moment, hoping that surely, I would find my Billy, but again, the house was empty – conspicuous by the silence where just over a week ago, laughter rang to the rafters as Billy taught his son to eat peas with a knife. I hoped that whoever moved into this little house would be as happy as we were. This time, as we left our home behind, I did look back, since this time, for the first time, I did not want to look into the future.
I knew I could not leave the island without seeing where my Billy died, so reluctantly, without letting Michael hear my request, I asked Chuck to have the driver take the back road. That was enough for him to understand what was on my mind, and he asked me if I was sure, I wanted to do this. “Yes, I need to do this. I need to see where it happened, and perhaps I might better understand.”
However, when we reached the spot, Chuck asked the driver to slow down, and on the left of the road, I saw a tree, one tree, standing alone, with 50 yards on either side completely clear. It was not even a large tree, and I could have easily wrapped my arms around it, and it was only barely marred! How could this little gnarled tree have killed my strong lieutenant? It did not make sense. Also, the grade of the road was uphill at this spot, and actually the entire road was uphill, and having driven that little car, I knew that it would not go very fast going uphill! This was truly not what I expected! I had asked Chuck about the Austin Healy, if it was totaled or if it could be repaired, and he answered that it was totaled, but how did this little tree do so much damage when I knew that Billy could not have been going over 40 mph. The officer who saw the accident first, had pulled Billy out of the car, saying that the car was smoking, but he also said the top was down, and I knew it was not – at least it had not been down when Billy left. That same officer had refused to talk to Chuck, and had left the island immediately following the accident. I will never understand why he left, why he felt like he could not tell Chuck what he had seen. What had really happened that early Saturday morning? Somehow, I knew that I would never know.
By the time we arrived at the airport the poor driver in the second car was drenched with Pele’s slobber since she had leaned over his shoulder for the entire trip, but it was his task to see her safely on the airplane, and along with the other driver, our luggage. Bunny was waiting for us holding purple orchid leis for my mother and me, a lovely gesture, and a small part of Hawaii I could take back to Atlanta. I should have taken a bottle and filled it with the unique tiny shells that make up the sand of Sunset Beach, but of course, it never dawned on me to do that. Many, many years later, I made a friend of an Air Force Colonel’s wife via email who was living in Hawaii, and she went out to the beach and mailed me a decorative green glass bottle wrapped with a raffia bow filled with sand and a tiny shell shaped like a heart. The accompanying note said she had found the heart I left behind on the sand, and now the bottle sits in my kitchen where, every so often, I pick it up and remember.
With the aroma of the islands around my neck, I bid farewell to the lush tropics and that lovely island, and as my friend said, I left a part of my heart forever buried in the tiny shells of Sunset Beach. Never had I turned a page of my life so quickly or so heartbreakingly, and now I had to brace myself for the deluge of family and friends in Atlanta. I felt so empty and as if I had left something behind, but of course that something was my husband whose mortal remains had already left the island for who knew where, but I knew he was gone since Russ was gone, and Russ was with Billy.
As the huge airplane taxied down the runway and turned towards the mainland, I turned to look out the windows, and finally airborne, I felt as if I had left something vital, other than my heart. However, it was a long time before I realized that it was my youth. At exactly 22 years, 9 months and 2 days old, I grew up – the hard way, and I would never feel young again – not ever.
To say that Michael was excited was a definite understatement, and he was so enthralled with his captain’s wings and hat and the extra attention paid to him by my mother and the stewardess that he stayed in his seat and did not bother anyone. We had been assigned a bulkhead seat with an attachable bassinet so that neither of us had to hold Margie for the entire flight, which would have been difficult to say the least, and the bassinet was large enough to make changing diapers a breeze. Her diaper bag overflowed with bottles of juice and her sipper cup since I knew that I could ask for milk on the airplane. She was such a good little traveler that I knew we could depend on her to be quiet and cooperative; as for Michael, well that was anybody’s guess.
Certainly, I had not counted on a champagne flight, but that is exactly what we had. As the stewardess passed the champagne prior to serving lunch, she asked if I wanted a glass, but Mother answered for me. “If ever she has needed a drink, its now”, she said explaining the circumstances, and while the other passengers had only one glass, mine was kept filled for the entire flight. Not being a drinker and taking Valium, I was flying higher than the airplane, and before I knew it, we were landing in San Francisco to change planes for Atlanta. The long flight had left my legs feeling as if I had just stepped off a ship just as they had when we arrived in Honolulu. Here, though, there was no one to greet us or to assist us in getting the children and our carry-on luggage not just to another gate, but also to an entirely different airport, and we had to take a bus to get there. I still do not understand why we had to change airports, but perhaps it had something to do with the next flight consisting entirely of soldiers, most just coming back from Vietnam.
We might have taken the bus to the Oakland terminal, if there is one, because as soon as we boarded the airplane I knew that we were all going home together. Billy, the children, me and even Pele` because the first person I saw was Russ, and where Russ was, Billy was, although in the hold of the airplane in a cold gray coffin. Russ’s duty had been to see the casket placed aboard and to make sure that Billy’s head pointed to the front of the aircraft, but I have never asked how he knew that it was placed correctly.
By the time our flight took off, Michael was beginning to feel his oats after being cooped up all afternoon on an airplane with no room to run and play. Just as soon as the seatbelt light came off and the stewardess began serving coffee, Michael began running up and down the aisle much to the horror of those serving. Uninformed about our situation, although Mother, Margie and I were the only female passengers aboard, one harried stewardess turned to Michael and said, “Little boy, what don’t you go outside and play?”
That was enough for Russ, who retrieved my restless three-year-old, asked the soldier sitting in the seat beside him if he could find another, and buckled my rambunctious son firmly into the vacated seat. He then turned to the stewardess and said, “This little boy just lost his father and he has been on an airplane all day, but I will try to keep him out of your way if you will try not to be so rude”. Humbled, the stewardess could only mumble an apology to Russ and to me, and within fifteen minutes, Michael was fast asleep and slept for the entire flight. I do not think that any of us knew if it was day or night, and our internal clocks remained confused for days.
Usually when there are a large number of young soldiers aboard a flight, there is excited conversation and chatter, but tonight was entirely different, and I thought that I knew the reason. Many of these young men had just lived through the worst year of their young lives, watched their friends brutally slain, and knew that the cargo on this flight consisted of more young men who would never laugh or enjoy life again. Young men who now lay in gray caskets whose bodies had been prepared, as well as possible, at the Army Pacific mortuary in Oakland. One could have heard a pin drop since there were few words spoken the entire time, and those who did speak did so in whispers. The feeling was surreal, as if we were all in the Twilight Zone, flying from nowhere to nowhere, and I began to wonder if it would ever end.
Most fell asleep like my small son, and after a cup of milk, my daughter, but although I lowered the back of my seat and closed my eyes, my thoughts were not on sleep, but with my Billy lying so still in the belly of the airplane, for all I knew, just beneath my feet. How unfair, I thought, Billy should be here with us, sitting in my mother’s place, taking care of his son instead of Russ assuming the burden. He did not deserve to die just when his career was beginning to take shape, when all who knew him had come to respect his professionalism, his dedication to duty. No, life simply was not fair and that which always happened to other people had actually happened to us, or was I having a bad dream, and would I wake up in time to prevent the hard earth from burying the casket that held my darling? I had not and could not accept the cold hard fact that Billy was gone from me forever. This was not supposed to happen, not to me, not to him, and certainly not to our children. We were so happy, so in love, and had our future mapped out before us, but now, as far as I was concerned, I had no future, other than fulfill my promise and to care for our children until they were grown up enough to care for themselves, and then I could join my Billy in eternal sleep.
I must have dozed for a short time since I did not remember landing or leaving the airplane, except that Russ must have turned Michael over to us just as soon as we reached the tarmac so that he could perform his duties as escort officer. Night cloaked the large airport in darkness since it was only about 4:00 am, and the only lights came from the tall landing lights, the headlights on the baggage cart and other vehicles. Once inside the door I was approached by a captain dressed in winter greens who told me that he was my survivor’s assistance officer and would be at my beck and call until I no longer needed him, and for this I was grateful. I had never done this before, never buried a husband, never thought about how I could afford to take care of my little family, but just knowing that the Army was there to assist relieved my mind of some of the burden. Of course, all of my family was there, except for the two little ones, my sister, Lynne, and my cousins, Ginny and Cathy who was probably babysitting. Even my grandmother had taken time off work to be with me for the rest of that week, and her presence was comforting, as always.
As I hugged each one and saw their tears, mine once again began flowing freely, as if it was O.K. to cry now since I was home and could let my grief overflow since I no longer had to be so brave. Distracted by my family I hurriedly told them that Billy’s body was also on the airplane as was our German Shepherd Dog, Pele`. I rushed to the windows to see if I could see my handsome soldier’s casket being loaded into one of several black hearses that had parked beside the plane. As I watched, one by one, each hearse pulled around to the far side that I could not see, loaded their cargo and departed, and I never did know which carried my Billy. Concerned about Russ and his sleeping arrangements, I asked the officer in charge where Russ would stay, and he assured me that there was a nice room at the funeral home for him since he could not and would leave Billy’s body until after the service and the burial. Not wanting to keep us up at the airport, he told me that he would call me later that afternoon, after I had a chance to rest, and we could finalize the arrangements for the funeral. I did mention that if possible, I would, like to have officers and NCOs who had served with Billy at the Officer Candidate School act as pallbearers. He said that since Ft. Benning was not that far away he did not think there would be any problem, but was glad to know since he wanted to get to work on it immediately. He had already had a call from the OCS Headquarters saying that they would be sending a van of mourners, those who had known Billy the best, so he thought that surely these soldiers would think it an honor to participate. That off my mind, I felt like everything else would fall into place easily with this obviously competent officer in charge, and with Russ taking care of my Billy.
My father and uncle finally located Pele` and putting her into my parent’s station wagon for the long trip to the other side of town, we were on our way ‘home’, as Billy had last called my aunt and uncle’s comfortable home not far from Buckhead. Now, I thought, I can let my family take care of the children and me, and I do not have to think anymore, at least not right now. I sat back in the plush seat of my uncle’s Ford Queen Victoria and closed my eyes as the lights of the big city flashed by on my right, past The Varsity where Billy would no longer be able to order his ‘steak burgers and fries’, and off the expressway ramp onto Piedmont, the most direct route home. My Grandmother delighted in holding Margie, and my aunt held Michael on her lap while I watched the familiar yet now strange scenery pass by as I twisted the plain gold band on my left ring finger, vowing never, ever to take it off. Mostly I held Billy in my heart as I thought about our years together, and how wonderful they had been in spite of our families’ doubt and misgivings. We had a great marriage, two beautiful children and it was not supposed to end like this. However, it was far from over, although at the time, I thought everything was in place, and there were no more decisions to be made. Little did I know!
“20 September 1965
Mrs. Dianne (sic) Mc Connell (sic)
59-215 Keno (sic)
Sunset Beach (sic)
Dear Dianne (sic)
Bill’s death comes as a tremendous blow to all of us. He was killed when his car ran off the road while he was driving from his quarters to his company about 0500 hours, 18 September 1965.
I think it’s significant that Bill had completed the Annual Army Training Test with his rifle platoon just hours before the accident. It was his dedication to duty that made him return to his quarters, clean up, and return to the company for further duty that same morning.
Since is joining the Battalion, Bill has reflected much promise in the performance of his duties. Captain Armstrong, his company commander, has commended him to me on several occasions for his outstanding performance as a platoon leader and acting company executive officer. His leadership and dedication are recognized by all the members of Company C where he was respected and admired by officer and soldier alike.
The officers and men of the 1st of the 14th share your sorrow and join me in extending sincere sympathy and condolences to your family.
G. Proctor, Jr. LTC, Infantry, Commanding”
“15 October, 1965
Mrs. William E. McConnell
3921 Land of Lakes Drive
Atlanta, Georgia 30305
Dear Mrs. McConnell:
It is with great sadness that I learned of your husband’s demise. Though I had only a slight opportunity to meet and become previously acquainted with Lieutenant McConnell, I was personally impressed by the over-all dignity and vibrance, which was his. His death was a staggering blow to each member to each member of my command who had the opportunity to know, serve, or become acquainted with him. Many of his policies, procedures, and techniques which he personally established during his tenure as an Officer in the Infantry Officer Candidate School Program have indeed become lasting parts of this institution and will allow Billy’s presence to continue to be felt through their effect on all young prospective officers of the present and of the future.
Though I fully realize that any material assistance I might offer at this particular time might be construed as an affront to your memories of a dedicated soldier and a wonderful man, I would nevertheless like to offer any resources at my command to you and to your family.
The Cadre men of this battalion join with me in sharing your sorrow, and I would like you to know that both you and your family are continuously a part of our prayers and our memories.
Robert S. Nett, LTC, Infantry, Commanding”
Statement of Casualty
MCCONNELL WILLIAM EUGENE, O 5 317 756: 1ST LT; USAR;
CO C, 1ST BN, 14TH INF, 25TH INF DIV, HAWAII
DIED on 18 September 1965 in Hawaii, as the result of complete transection of brainstem at medullo-pontine junction, incurred when the privately owned automobile driven by officer ran off the road and struck a tree.
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH
20 November 1940, La Grange, Georgia
Date and Place of Last Entry on Active Duty in current status and Home of Record at time
21 January 1963, Ft Benning, Georgia; Dahlonega, Lumpkin County, Georgia
SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER, PAY GRADE, LENGTH OF SERVICE FOR PAY, BASIC PAY
255 XX XXXX O2 Over 2 Years $407.40
There was a stack of letters and cards waiting for me at my aunt’s home, and they continued to arrive daily. I was greatly appreciative, but at the time, I simply could not read them as each one made Billy’s death all too real and I still had to get through the funeral, and I did not know how. How does one grieve? How does one carry on as if their life is unchanged forever? How? How? How? So many questions with no answers, so I decided that I would think about it tomorrow, because in spite of my wishes, tomorrow would come and the next day, the next day and the next day. Soon, I would have to think as the family would tire of catering to my grief, and my children would need a mother, more than ever now that they had no father. Again, the question remained firmly planted in my mind, how? How could I do this alone? How could I be both mommy and daddy? How could I even attempt to fill Billy’s huge shoes? How could I throw my son in the air as his father had done? How? How? How? And these were my last thoughts as I lie down in my cousin’s bed, and fell into a restless sleep.