MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 77 – Rest in Peace, My Darling Billy
Saturday, September 25, 1965, I awoke in a puddle of sunshine. The warm early fall sun streaming in ribbons through the Venetian blinds on the bedroom’s east facing windows created sunbeams that bounced off of the walls and settled onto the bed where their warmth made me think of other fall mornings that now seemed so long ago.
Other fall mornings, when it had been a perfect day for Billy and for me to explore the myriad of dirt roads, paths and trails that ran through the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Anticipation permeated my every pore as excitedly I opened my eyes, and then realized that I was not where I should be, nor should I be anticipating this day since by evening my beloved Billy would be at eternal rest beneath the hard red clay of Arlington Memorial Park. Never again would I awake with the joy of the day, any day, coursing through my heart, which now felt as hard as the red clay. Actually, it felt even harder than clay, more like the huge granite block of nearby Stone Mountain and I wondered how blood could possibly flow through veins so closed off to every emotion. Increasingly I found it difficult even to love my own children because surely, if I loved them, then I would lose them too. Forevermore I would look at life from an entirely different perspective, never anticipating joy, because by this evening the joy that had been my life for the past four and one half years would be gone, out of my reach, out of my sight, out of my touch, forever.
As I lay there in the warmth of the morning sun, I began to have doubts. Doubts that I was worthy of the task that was now mine alone. Could I be the kind of mother that I had been with Billy by my side, or had I turned into stone, only to perform by rote the daily tasks that would accompany my everyday life? On the other hand, would I just remain on automatic pilot, watching myself ‘perform’, for all intents and purposes, as a loving mother, or would I just lay here and never get out of bed again? Maybe if I did not get up, I would not have to face this most hideous of days, I thought, as in my mind the sun fell behind dark storm clouds, maybe if I never got up, I too could die and be with my Billy forever.
I heard the door creak open quietly and I closed my eyes as if asleep, but suddenly with a burst of three-year-old enthusiasm, my small son was jumping on the bed.
“Mommy, Mommy, look what I found! A rainbow rock! That is what Uncle Homer says it is. He wouldn’t let me bring you the worms, but I can play with them outside! Uncle Homer told me that Daddy was in heaven helping God and the angels make rainbows and clouds, and that he is our special garden (sic) angel too! Mommy what does a garden angel do?”
“Michael, I am not too sure what Uncle Homer is talking about, so I will have to ask him,” I replied because after all why would he call Billy a ‘garden’ angel. Then I got it! “Oh honey, I know what he meant, he means that your daddy is now our guardian angel and will be helping God to take care of us.”
”But Mommy”, Michael replied, “Daddy told me that when he went away that I would be the man of the house and for me to take care of you and the baby, but you will have to take care of her since she cries too much.” Then, without taking a breath, or seemingly so, my too soon grown up son added, “Mommy, why don’t you feed the baby anymore?”
“But Michael I do feed her, all of the time,” I replied, puzzled by this turn of our conversation.
“No, Mommy,” he added, “why don’t you feed her like this?” With this last question, he pulled up his shirt and pointed to his tiny nipples.
Not knowing how to answer this last question since I did not know myself why I could no longer breast-feed, I searched for the words that a three-year-old would understand and replied, “Well, she is just too big for Mommy to feed that way anymore. She can drink from a cup now and is getting to be a big girl.” It was far too soon to explain to him that he would be getting a brand new baby brother or sister in the spring and would just add more questions since he already knew that it took a Mommy and a Daddy to make a new baby.
Wrong move! Michael, incensed that I had referred to his baby sister as a ‘big girl’ since I had always called him my ‘big boy’, vehemently disagreed and said, “She is not a big girl! She is just a baby and she can’t walk, and she can’t talk, and she can’t even hold her own spoon! I am a big boy, and the man of the house, and I will take care of you just like Daddy said.”
Wondering when he had this conversation with Billy since I had certainly not discussed this with him, I asked, “Michael, when did daddy tell you that he was going away and tell you to take care of me and the baby”?
“At the beach one day when we took a walk with Pele`. He said that he was going to have to go away for a while, but that he would be back before too long. And now, Mommy, you said that he is not going to come back. Who is right?”
“Oh Michael”, I said with tears once again welling up in my eyes and my words catching in my throat, “Mommy is right this time, but Daddy did not know that he would go away and not come back, or he never would have left us if he had known. Now let Mommy get up and wash the sleep out of her eyes and then I will look at your rock and even your worms, O.K.?” I murmured, trying to show some maternal enthusiasm in my voice that sounded as cold as I suddenly felt and I shivered in spite of the warmth of the sun. How could I possibly be a good mother when I felt as if my world had ended? I would just have to take one day at a time, like a child, and try to find joy in the rocks and worms in this world since I doubted if I would ever rejoice in a rainbow again. Right now, I had to take baby steps and perhaps someday I might be able to take a giant step, but not now, not so soon. I remembered the game we played as children called ‘Johnny May I’ with the giant steps, baby steps, teeny tiny steps, and even the giant steps backward. Perhaps that is how my life would be now, one baby step forward, two giant steps backward, one giant step forward, three baby steps backwards, but I would have to take those steps and maybe I would only be able to gain inches each day. However, inches made feet and feet made yards, and yards made years, and one day my children would grow up and leave me too, and have children of their own. Then I could take my own giant step forward to be with their father forever, but not now.
I had a promise to keep and this most hideous of days to conclude while maintaining the dignity and demeanor appropriate for an officer’s widow, even a widow just twenty-two years old. As I remembered Jackie Kennedy’s dignity, even with the black veil hiding her surely tear ravaged face, her children saw only their mommy, lovely but sad, and if she could do this in front of an entire nation, surely I could do it for family and friends, but most of all for Billy. I wanted him, above all, to be proud of me, and to smile down from heaven and say, “That’s my little girl, you show them what I have always known! You are indeed an officer’s lady, tender on the outside, but as tough as they come.”
And I would show them! I would hold my head high while all watched and I prayed that this would be the last time that I would ever be the ‘star’ or center of attention for anyone or for any reason.
“Come on, Michael, I said as I slipped into my robe and slippers, “let Mommy see your rock, then we will go see your worms, just as soon as I wash my face and brush my teeth.”
Michael curled up in my lap as I sat back down on the edge of the bed and the rock in his hand did seem to glow with the colors of the rainbow as he turned it in his small fingers allowing the sun to reflect the tiny veins of quartz throughout the stone. “That’s a real treasure,” I told him as I thought about the beauty of the quartz that I had found during the long hikes in the mountains with Billy. However, for a little boy, this rock was just as beautiful as the boulders that I had sat on with my darling to eat the bologna sandwiches I had packed for our lunch. Soon, I would be able to take our son and our daughter, up those same trails and show them the wonders of nature in the North Georgia Mountains that I had discovered while falling in love with their father, but right now, I had some worms to see.
If only there had been a chapter in ‘The Officer’s Wives’ Guide’ on ‘How to maintain your dignity during the funeral of your spouse’, I might have had an idea of the order of events of the funeral, and the role, as widow, that I was supposed to play. Did I hug and shake hands and thank all those who came to pay their last respects? Or did I just sit still and let my grief speak for me?
I knew that I would be given the flag that now covered Billy’s casket, and I knew that there would be a 21-gun salute and Taps’ played since I had requested that this happen just as the sun crested the hill opposite the grave site. I knew that there would be pallbearers from Ft. Benning, but not if I would know any of them, other than Kris. Oh how I wished that I could just go into the bathroom, lock the door, and not come out until it was all over, but once again I had the ‘starring role’, and I wanted, above all, that Billy would be proud of me and know that I was doing this for him. If only I could have talked to him about what was expected, or ask him if he wanted me to wear black, as was the old-fashioned custom, or blue, his favorite color? It was not as if I had much choice, but the ‘what ifs’ continued all this incredibly long and tiring day.
My grandmother had taken over Margie’s care and she glowed with delight just having a tiny baby girl around, although Ginny was just four and Lynne just five. There was something about Margie though, and I could see it too, and I knew that she would soon become my grandmother’s ‘favorite’, replacing me as her ‘best little companion’, and I was delighted that I could give her this joy in her later years. She had decided to retire in December having amassed her goal of monies that she thought would keep her comfortably in her declining years and I was delighted to know that I would have an instant babysitter, although I certainly did not know where I would go or what I would do. Right now, though, she was at heaven’s door having another pretty, little girl to dote on, and although she grieved for me and for the fatherless children, I knew that she was pleased that we were once again in Atlanta, this time for good.
My uncle had assumed most of the care for Michael, at least now he was home from work, although I knew by Monday morning he would be back at the office. Both Michael and my uncle derived such pleasure, one from the other, that it almost brought a smile to my face as I saw my young son, ‘the man of the house’, following Homer around, trying to walk in the very steps that he took, and watching intently everything that he did, just as he had his father. I knew, and Billy had known, that Homer would be good for our son. A strict disciplinarian, but a loving parent, he would always be an example that I would have been proud for Michael to shadow and right now, I was so very grateful just to have a place to stay. At least I had family who loved my children, and me, to a lesser extent; I am sure, but still wanting to help me through this day, this most hideous day of my life.
The service began at 4:00 pm, and there would be a brief service in the chapel at the funeral home since Billy’s and my church was an hour’s drive away in Dahlonega, and far too inconvenient for family and friends. The sun set approximately at 7:00 pm, so even after the ceremony that accompanies a military funeral with full honors, the cemetery crew would still have time before dark to fill in the gaping hole that would hold my darling’s coffin. I knew I could not watch as the dirt fell onto the gray steel box and the earthly remains of the man who had grown from the boy I was still desperately in love with, now and forever. I felt confident that everyone would do their best to make sure that nothing went wrong, and that the entire day would be as normal as possible for the children, but as for me, I had no idea how I would make it through.
We left for the funeral home in my uncle’s dark blue Ford Crown Victoria, the ‘Cadillac’ of the line, just before 3:00 pm. I wish that I could remember who was in the car with us, but I simply do not, but possibly my uncle driving, my aunt and I in the front seat, and my grandmother and cousin Doug in the backseat. I do not even know if my cousin Cathy was there at all, but I think not since she was such an impressionable age, just reaching adolescence. I am sure my uncle who could squeeze a penny until it hollered had decided his car could and would be just as proper as the funeral home’s limousine and he could spare me that extra expense.
I realize that I have barely mentioned my own parents, but they had been busy with their own arrangements, although in and out of my aunt and uncle’s home throughout the past two days. It was with a heavy heart I prayed my father would be sober and my mother would be on time. Usually a ‘big event’ was ‘cause celebres` for one of my father’s binges and all I could do was pray that for once he would think about someone other than himself and remain sober for me, just this one day. I knew both of my brothers would be coming since both had loved and idolized Billy. My older brother was talking about enlisting just as soon as he graduated from high school, which I prayed was the result of grief momentary insanity, but my little sister, like the other young children would be staying at my aunt’s house, where they belonged.
We had heard nothing from Griffin since the afternoon Ruth called and caused such a sensation in reference to Gene’s health. Calling her bluff and allowing the Army to take over had been the right thing to do, and if she had hated the children and me before, she was certain to despise us now. I was anxious to see the boys though and I hoped somehow that I could keep them in our lives since they doted so on Michael and I had learned to love them as I did my own brothers. Nevertheless, I knew, in my heart, Ruth would try to keep us out of their lives forever. She had hated Billy, for no reason other than insane jealousy, and she resented the attention she supposed Gene would take with Billy’s son and his only granddaughter, who would soon wrap him around her baby pink finger just as she had her own daddy. I am sure that Ruth feared her young son would no longer be Gene’s ‘second chance’, rather Michael, so like his father in so many ways. Assigned to an inferior position in Gene’s world was not what she intended for Stuart, and perhaps she was afraid that she would no longer be number one; this would never do in her narrow world where not all could share love.
The ride to the funeral home was far too short, and nothing could prepare me for this final farewell, although my aunt had slipped a pill in my mouth before we left the house. By the time, we pulled under the awning reserved for the hearse and the limousines I barely knew where I was, or what was happening. As we left the car behind the hearse that would very shortly be the transportation for the cold steel box that held my darling Billy, I could barely hold myself up on trembling legs.
“I can’t do this,” I cried, “I don’t want to do this,” I continued, and looking at my uncle I pleaded, “Please make it go away, I want my Billy!”
Obviously not having had to deal with a situation quite as tragic this kind man who had married my mother’s only sister took me by one arm while the funeral director who had suddenly appeared by the door took the other.
Quietly and calmly he said, “Diane, you have no choice, you have to do this and make Billy proud. You are an officer’s daughter and now an officer’s widow. Surely, you suspected that someday this might happen, so keep your chin up and take one-step at a time. You have a lot of work ahead of you but we need to do this first. I will be right here the entire time,” as if I was being led to the gallows.
Homer had always had a way about him that could calm me down and since I had lived with them on weekends after I graduated from high school until they sent me to college, I knew that this man, lovingly, meant every word and that he would not leave my side.
Billy’s body had been moved downstairs to a smaller room just off the main hallway and right outside of the family seating area of the chapel, and it was there that we found family members who had come to see him one last time before the casket would be closed for good. Someone said that Gene, Ruth, the boys and the grandparents were in the room with Billy, so my uncle found a chair nearby and seated me while we waited on the closing of the casket.
Whispers around me were saying, “Diane is here. She does not want to see him.”
I did not care what anyone thought, I would not and could not remember Billy lying so still and so stiff, or have the nightmares that plagued me after his mother’s death. Rather, I wanted to remember the copper mine, our tiny apartment in Dahlonega, the apartment at Ft. Benning filled with morning sunbeams, and the sea of cream-colored carpet where we made love over, and over, those last glorious days in paradise. I wanted to remember the loving words that he whispered in my ear and his kisses, sweet and long, and I wanted to remember his arms around me holding me close and telling me, “I love you more than life itself.” Those were the memories that I would cherish, not this last awful week when my heart, exposed and split open for all to see, became as hard and cold as marble. Tears roll down my face now as I write this, perhaps the tears that were so frozen inside of me for weeks that I could not shed them, although they are also for the memories of ‘perfect love’ and how blessed I was just to have experienced it, if only for a short time.
In the chapel, the organist began softly playing and I listened for the strains of my favorite hymn ‘Whispering Hope’, which was the only request I had made, not being able to think of any others. There was a murmur of voices and quiet coughs coming from the chapel, but we could not see or be seen from our position of seclusion and I just hoped that the chapel would not be half-empty since I wanted so for my darling to know how much he was loved and how much he would be missed. Little did I know, even now with fifteen minutes to go before the service began; the rarely used seats in the second floor balcony were now filling up. Nor did I even wonder where Russ was, although he had now taken his own seat in the front pew with the officers and senior NCOs from Ft. Benning who had known and admired Billy, including Kris and Sgt. Tuttle, more grief stricken than most.
Finally, looking at his watch, the funeral director went into the small room to close the casket for the last time, and as the rest of the family came out, my uncle came to me to tell me that I could go inside now as he helped me to my feet. This time, with my father holding me up on the other side, I seemed to float towards the door to the small room. I had not even known that my parents and brothers had arrived, and on time, which I knew was my father’s doing. He would have carried her out to the car naked if he thought that they might be late today.
“Let me go in alone,” I pleaded, “I need to be alone with my Billy.”
Reluctantly my father and uncle let go of my arms and holding my head high, tears that I had held for so long began running down my face and soaking my collar and my aunt thrust a tissue in my gloved hands. Once again, I thought about Jackie Kennedy. I remembered how she had kissed the side of her husband’s coffin as he lay in state in the Capitol, and then I walked inside the small room to be with my beloved Billy one last time.
Closing the door behind me, I found the lock and pushed it firmly into place since I did not want to be disturbed, nor did I want anyone to tell me when it was time to begin the service. Honestly, I think it was in my mind that if I could delay long enough, there would be no funeral, and someone would tell me it was all a huge mistake and Billy was alive and well in Hawaii. As I stared again at the cold gray box now covered completely by the American flag, my heart told me this was my darling’s earthly remains, and never again would he hold me in his arms. Never again would he wipe the tears from my eyes that had so upset him, and then it came to me that Billy must be horribly upset to see me in such grief and not able to hold me and to comfort me as he had always done. However, that would never happen again, at least not in this lifetime.
I pulled a chair close to the coffin and leaning my head against the hard flag covered metal, I began to tell my Billy, one more time, just how much I loved him and how much I would always love him. Whispering, I laughed for a final time about our various misadventures and silliness, and for some odd reason, our tradition of eating pineapple sandwiches whenever we moved came to mind, and I thanked him for sharing this with me. Continuing my litany, I thanked him for showing me how to love unconditionally and how to say ‘I’m sorry’, for teaching me that you catch more bees with honey than with vinegar, and for our nights of long hot showers. I remembered making love until the early hours of the morning, and all the trips to the moon, and the way my heart skipped a beat just thinking about him. I talked about how we had been two troubled ‘kids’ when we met and married, yet wise beyond our years, too wise sometimes, or so it seemed. Once again, I promised to do the best I knew how to raise our children in a home filled with laughter, love and most of all, peace, but in my heart, I wondered how I could possibly take care of three children when I did not know how I was going to live without him. I knew that he thought I could do this, and I wished he had shared this knowledge with me.
First, the rattling of the doorknob, then a gentle knocking on the door stirred me out of my reverie, but I had not finished telling my darling how much our years together meant to me, and how I would retain those memories and pass them on to our children. Ignoring the knocking, I laid my head against the casket again and put my arms around it the best I could, as if to hold him in the only way now possible. I talked about our new baby, and how sure I was we would have another son, and this time I would have my way and name him William E. McConnell, Jr., in spite of his misgivings about Eugene having been overdone in the McConnell family. I would call this child ‘Will’ since I could not bear to call another by the name he had used to introduce himself to me, ‘Billy’, and the name that I had always called him and whispered again and again, “Oh Billy, my darling Billy, how I love you so!”
Although others had called him Bill and sometimes ‘Mac’, he was and would always be ‘Billy’ to me, and I could not bear to think of anyone else ever having that name as if it had now become a sacred word. “Billy, Billy, Billy,” I softly said over and over as if to burn the memory of being held in his arms into my heart where it would always stay, and I could conjure up this magical moment whenever I had the need to be with him, or when I was feeling unloved. I promised him he would be my first thought every morning and my last thought every night, and as I closed my eyes, I would fall asleep in his arms. I could almost feel him with me, listening intently to every word I said, and I was grateful we had often, in life, told each other how very much we loved the other, and how we had shared our love with so many intimate moments. I apologized for never making it to the beach to make love, but assured him I had been ready, willing, and able to do so had he returned home that night, and the next time we met in heaven it would be the very first thing we would do.
Although the knocking was now becoming almost frantic and I could hear my father calling my name, I continued to talk to my darling Billy, telling him all the things I had been thinking about the past week, how I missed him so, and finally how I would always love him ‘more than life itself’. It would not have been difficult to stay in the small room for another hour just talking to my darling about our marriage and our love. However, realizing soon someone just might break down the door, or that the funeral director surely had another key, I kissed the flag tenderly where Billy’s lips should be, and wiping my eyes on my gloves, I opened the door and said, “I’m as ready as I can ever be.”
With most of the family already seated according to relationship, Gene and Ruth were right in the front row not leaving enough room for me and my guardians, my uncle and my father.
As the director tried to usher my uncle into one of the back rows, he refused saying, “This little girl needs both of us now,” referring to my father, and he requested another chair so I could sit between them. Ruth shot my uncle a lethal look, but he had just as much, if not more, right to be in the front row as she did since she barely knew Billy, did not know me at all, and did not even like either of us. I could understand she wanted to be at Gene’s side since he seemed in a zombie-like state, staring straight ahead and not even speaking, even when spoken to, and his face was expressionless. Most surprising of all, he remained tearless too. I wondered if he was thinking about the last night that he saw his eldest son alive as we backed out into the driveway on the way to a motel since there was no longer room for us in his house. Or was he thinking about Billy’s plea for the medication that would help to keep him awake while working those long hours, or was it that final horrible argument when he had not bothered to come home for Christmas? I would never know what he was thinking, and he never shared it with me since, as suspected, Ruth did keep him completely out of our lives by threatening to divorce him if he made contact before a year was over. By then, surely, she thought, he would have forgotten all about Billy, and about his children who could have brought such comfort to him, and that is exactly what did happen. I do know Billy’s death did almost kill him, but it wasn’t because he had a heart condition, per se, just his heart, like my own, was torn into shreds and he too would never be completely happy again. At least my final moments with my precious Billy had been special with loving words, and promises of pleasures to come, while Gene’s last night with his son had been fraught with anger, disappointment, and hurt, and now he would have to live with this forever. I almost felt sorry for him until I too began to blame him for not sending the medication, since I had blame enough to spread in a wide circle.
The family room was completely packed with my aunt, uncle, my brothers, cousin and grandmother in the second row since my uncle gave his seat beside me to my mother and now I was flanked by both of my parents. Billy’s little brothers who were so dear to him were also in the second row except for Charles, the youngest and the most grief stricken, who was sitting in the next row between Bubber and Pop. There must have been more than thirty-five family members in that small room, and I was beginning to feel quite claustrophobic and needful of fresh air as the flag draped casket was slowly rolled into the main chapel. I listened to the words spoken by the Army Chaplain, but I did not hear them; I listened to the soft organ music as the organist played the appropriate hymns, but I did not hear them. All I saw was an incredibly handsome and cocky young cadet in a green uniform, and all I heard were the words, “Hey doll, what are you doing on Saturday night?” I am sure the corners of my mouth turned up in a smile as I thought about that fateful night and those fateful words that changed our lives forever. I would always be forever grateful he did not take ‘no’ for an answer but tried again for Sunday night.
I saw the young father, glowing with pride as he held our son and again with more amazement and awe holding our daughter, and the card he had left with the roses when Michael was born that said, “What a moose! Love, Biggy”.
I remembered with love and pride the day his mother and I pinned the gold bars of a 2nd Lieutenant on his uniform, and how proud he had been when the M. P. at the gate of Ft. Benning, saluted him - so proud that he drove around again, and again. Instead of funeral music, I heard ‘Moon River’ as we danced for the last time at the officer’s club at Schofield Barracks, and I heard Billy say, “I love you more than life itself”, as I ran down the stairs to kiss him good-bye and repeat the words to him on that last morning. Finally, I heard the roar of the engine of that tiny, death trap car as it sped away from Sunset Beach for the very last time.
My thoughts had not caught up with the service and it was over almost before it began, or so it seemed. Suddenly, I was being ushered out of the building into my uncle’s waiting car which was now lined up directly behind the green van that would carry the pallbearers, and as of yet I did not even know who they were. The hearse was in front of the van, and I watched, as solemnly, with Russ walking beside the coffin, as gently, the soldiers slid it into the hearse; then Russ and the pallbearers got into the van. Some said the cortege was five miles long and pedestrians stopped and starred at the hearse, and the flag draped coffin, thinking perhaps an older WWII veteran had died. Certainly, no one could have possibly thought inside that coffin was a 24 year old lieutenant and young father with a 22 year old widow, since this was before the military funerals became commonplace as the Vietnam War escalated and lingered far too long. I kept my eyes glued on the hearse beyond the van, not altering my glance until we turned the corner of Spring Street onto Peachtree, then I thought again about the tiny fetus, and I wondered again if this was where Billy had buried him. However, that was one secret he had taken to his grave, and perhaps it was for the best.
As the cortege streamed down Peachtree Street with a police escort, we passed The Darlington where my grandmother lived on the 15th floor, wound around the curve where the 2nd Ponce de Leon Baptist Church, and the steeples of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, high on the hill across the street, sadly looked on. Finally, when it reached the corner of Roswell and Peachtree, the center of Buckhead, the cortege turned left past the old Buckhead Theatre where I had gone to Saturday matinees as a child, and then past the Seven Steers drive-in restaurant where Janet, Karen, and I would go to indulge on hot fudge cake when we skipped Sunday School. Soon we were passing the street where my aunt and uncle lived and where Billy’s and my innocent babies played unknowing that their father’s coffin was passing by. Next, on the left was Weinstock’s Florist where Christmas magic appeared every December where and the beautifully designed flag, ranger tab and the 25th Division insignia were so conscientiously made. Then, on the right, we passed the street where my parents, my grandmother, and I had lived after WWII.
Soon we passed the Roswell Road Pharmacy where my Godfather had been pharmacist in his older years and then my cousin, Benny, when I was in high school. From there the buildings began to thin out although new apartments lined the road all the way to Sandy Springs. When we reached Sandy Springs and passed the road where my parents now lived, then the road to the high school I had attended just six short years ago, it was only another block before the cortege turned left, passing the Sandy Springs Methodist Church. Finally, we turned right and through the gates of Arlington Memorial Park which, at that time, was a new and sparsely populated cemetery.
“Billy, my darling,” I thought as the car passed under the arch with Arlington painted in gold, “I am so sorry I could not take you to the real Arlington Cemetery. But darling, I could not let you go as far as Griffin, so how could I possibly take you so far away I could not visit and talk to you often?”
I knew in my heart I would find his grave a place for quiet concentration, for tears that surely would continue for years, and eventually, when they were old enough to understand, a place to bring our children and tell them stories about their father. I felt such peace at that moment, surely Billy was telling me it was O.K., that he wanted me to be nearby, and never again did I regret my decision.
On the small hillside, I could see the canopy covering the open grave and the steel braces that would lower the coffin into the ground when the service was over, and I shivered at the prospect of covering my darling with all that red clay. Again, I assured myself that with the autopsy he requested there could be no doubt that he really was dead, so it would be all right, and that only Billy’s broken earthly remains were in the gray coffin.
I sat in the car until the coffin, with the uniformed pallbearers had been carried from the hearse and placed on the silver machinery that was also half covered with green artificial grass so that the ugly red clay was hidden from view. Somehow, with my uncle on one side and my father on the other, they half carried me to sit under the canopy in the center chair, the seat of honor that I would have gladly relinquished to anyone. My brother later told me that my feet did not touch the ground, not once, as I walked to the graveside, and my head remained bowed in grief. It took over thirty minutes for the end of the cortege to finally wind itself under the steel arches and for the passengers in all those cars to gather at the graveside, but I saw no one, only the flag draped casket in front of me as the pain in my heart almost ripped my body into pieces. Was I dying? Or was my heart just breaking? Whoever first penned the word ‘broken heart’ certainly had to have suffered such grief since the phrase is so incredibly accurate, and through the years as I have seen death come to family and friends, they too have murmured, “But oh, I have such a pain in my chest!”
Finally, the chaplain once again said a few words, watching the now setting sun, and then came the final eulogy and prayer. I jumped as the command to retrieve the flag rang out, and the pallbearers stepped forward, and lifting the flag above the coffin, folded it slowly, but reverently, so that it formed a perfect triangle with the blue stars covering the red and white stripes. Next, with the flag in his gloved hands, the officer in charge, who held it away from his body, made a sharp right turn and walked over to me. With the time-honored words that are traditional as the flag passes into a military widow’s hands, and which I incapable of hearing, I received the flag; he then saluted and returned to the other pallbearers. Immediately I pressed the flag to my heart as if it had the power to stop the pain. Later I heard Gene too received a flag, but not with a ceremony, since here, I was the ‘next-of-kin’, and the Army had been all too pleased to accommodate my wishes.
With the noise of ten thousand cannons, the twenty-one gun salute roared from the opposite hilltop – seven guns fired three times by seven solders in dress blue uniforms. Then, just as the sun hit the crest of the hill, the sharp resound of the lone bugler playing Taps rang from the hillside and throughout the still cemetery, over the heads of the huge crowd around the now bare silver coffin, and up to God, as it has for over one hundred years as American soldiers have been laid to rest. Surely I would die right now, I thought, because surely no one’s heart can take this much pain and remain in one piece, but then the pallbearers were passing by to speak to the family, so I softly thanked each familiar face, and I knew that all of them had served with Billy at one time.
When Sergeant Tuttle reached me, he could not hold back his grief any longer, tears flowing down his proud face, he fell to his knees, buried his head in my lap and murmuring words of both pain and love. “I loved him like he was my own son,” he said, as his body heaved with sobs.
I patted his head and said, “I know, I know.”
No one moved and no one approached us not having prior knowledge the extent of his grief or his love for Billy, but I knew here was a man who did share my sorrow, and who understood what a special man my precious Billy had been to so many. I knew too that his memory would also remain in their hearts forever. Finally, the officer-in-command helped the sergeant to his feet and assisted him to the waiting van while the other pallbearers passed by and said a word or two, but the only true memory I have of that day is of the good sergeant on his knees, sharing the profound grief that only a few can understand.
We did manage to keep in touch for a while, and later I learned he had called my survivor’s assistance officer and wanted anonymously to add $100/month to my checking account so that the children and I would not have to worry or do without. The officer, stunned by his concern and generous offer, assured him we would be all right, that the Army and Billy’s insurance would provide for us well, but Sergeant Tuttle would not hang up the telephone until the officer assured him he would let him know if we ever needed anything. This he wanted to do in Billy’s memory. There were many kind gestures, but his, was by far the kindest, the one that most touched my heart, and is the most remembered.
All of the mourners wanted to say a word to either Gene or to me, or even perhaps to the grandparents, but the sun was not waiting for anyone to delay its nightly journey to the west, and it was time for all to leave as the cemetery employees started forward to lower the casket into the raw red earth. I knew I could not bear to watch this and had said so to my uncle who, with my father, now assisted me back to the car while my aunt invited everyone to her home for supper, to see the children or just to visit.
“Was this horrible day never going to be over?” I thought, but I knew it would be only proper if I thanked each one for coming and accepted their kind words of remembrance and sympathy. All I wanted to do was to go back to the house, hold my children, then go to sleep with the flag that I clung to as if it would break, as my pillow, never to wake again until I was once again in my darling Billy’s arms.
HEY LAURIE – The Picture of Billy’s grave should go here…
Postdated October 5, 1965
“Mrs. William McConnell
Dear Mrs. McConnell, Mike, and Marjorie:
I don’t know what to say, I feel as if I had lost one of my family. He meant much more to me than any other officer or enlisted man. He confided in me even about his family and I did in him.
Mrs. McConnell, I have tried to force myself to write. This morning I read one of his past letters and he indicated to me that you were expecting again. This has worried me and it inspired me to write to you and the children. There are several things on my mind; I shall try to bring them out to you.
If ever you and the children need help in any way, you must ask me first, I’ll always be available for any task within my power. Dean agrees wholeheartedly because she knew that Lt. Mac and I were very close.
Dean, Scotty and I want you, Mike and little Marjorie to visit us as soon as possible so that we may get to know each better.
I would like to know your birthday date as well as the children’s. I think the baby is about six months and Mike is about three years? You and the children will always be close to me, and even more now because of the loss we share.
All of Lt. Mac’s friends here send their regards. You will never know how many friends, especially enlisted men that he had. Everyone calls me to relay messages to you, so many that I can’t remember the names. My men send their special regards to you and the children.
Mrs. McConnell, I believe God made heaven for a very special reason. I believe it was to have a special resting place for very deserving people like our Lt. McConnell, while he waits for you. I can assure you that he is there, for no man could be as good as he was and not be there.
I could not help my emotions at the gravesite last Saturday. I had no intentions of making it harder for you than they were, but I held myself as long as I could and then no longer. I had it stored in me for a week and I would never have felt right had I not shared a tear for my friend.
Please understand my intentions, they are to serve my good friends loved ones for as long as I may live, in a way that you and I know that he would serve mine.
Remember, my home is yours and we would be honored by a visit from you and the children at any time. I would gladly come after you and the children.
I’ll quit for now and pray the Lord will bless you, Mike and little Marjorie with all his love and understanding, and that he will make life easier for you. Dean sends her love and devotion to you and the children.
Our Sincere Love
Preston, Euadean, and Scotty Tuttle”
Note: The baby that I was carrying, who would have been named after his father, was lost a few weeks following the funeral, probably due to the same reason that my milk went dry – grief and stress. Perhaps God, in His infinite wisdom, knew that my platter was full, for the moment.
1st Battalion, 14th Infantry
A.P.O. San Francisco, California 96225
8 October 1965
I am writing this at the request of your mother and because I personally feel that I would want someone to do the same for my sons in the event that something happened to me. I can only cover a very small portion of your father’s life, as I only knew him for four and one-half months. However, during this time he and I worked together on the average of 12-14 hours per day including most weekends. Under these circumstances, I feel that I knew him quite well and therefore am qualified to cover the time span aforementioned.
I met your father for the first time shortly after you arrived on the Lurline. Your first meal in Hawaii was at my quarters. From that time forward, your dad and I worked towards one end – one-goal – to make our rifle company ready for combat. It is important that you realize that this was in 1965 when the situation in Vietnam was critical and therefore deployment feasible and possible at any time. Bill’s greatest concern was to insure that his platoon was ready and he trained it toward that end.
In addition of the job of platoon leader, he served as my acting weapons platoon leader and executive officer. Each of these three jobs requires one officer, yet due to a shortage, he served as all three and did an outstanding job with each. His third platoon won the annual Army Training Test by a handsome margin in competition with the other 8 rifle platoons. He also led the weapons platoon to first place in their Army Training Test. Each of these accomplishments is a worthy goal for any young officer, one that few attain, as there is only one winner in any contest. To win both in a two (2) week time span is very unusual and stands as mute evidence of your father’s ability, dedication and professionalism.
I remember a battalion counter insurgency exercise that Company C participated in late August. We were trying to circle a guerilla force without being detected and chose a hard way to get into position to accomplish it. Towards dusk, Bill was concerned because his element was out of contact with mine (we moved on 2 axis) and started to look for me. During this surveillance he was captured by the aggressor forces. Shortly thereafter he escaped by diving over a cliff. This incident kept the company in humor for a couple of weeks as of all people to be captured your dad would certainly be the last. We even changed the name of our training room to the POW camp for a few days.
Taking everything into consideration your father was one of the two finest officers that I have ever encountered. He possessed the ability of sensing whathad to be done and did it with a sense of urgency. He possessed a strong conviction and the courage to stand up for what he believed in. He frequently would tell me when we were discussing something in which he felt contrary to what I did, “Now Captain, I don’t mean to tell you how to run your company but…!” There are not many grown men with the courage to state this and I, as a commander, always appreciated it as to me, it stands as the strong moral fiber that through the years has preserved the tranquility and peace of the United States.
A hard worker, Bill, was always carrying a double or triple load. Most evenings he would work at home to keep abreast of things. He rarely complained of things as he recognized the importance and felt satisfaction in accomplishing each and every task. This is not to say that like all outstanding officers he did not get puzzled sometimes concerning what was being accomplished. He did and we would talk about it. He was exceedingly quick to see through things – to see the why – and to avoid being discouraged even when a cause was not present.
I knew your father best as a professional officer but I know that he was a proud family man first. Nothing pleased him more than playing with you and Marjorie and he always tried to get home in time to do so. Like myself he never had enough time with his family.
In summary Mike, I hope that when you read this you will perhaps know your father a little better. If you do then I have succeeded in what I have set out to do. Bill was a professionally competent, knowledgeable, quick to learn, morally strong, and possessed the courage to back up his beliefs. These traits were backed up by determination and a desire to conquer all obstacles. A perfectionist, he came as close to reaching that end as is humanly possible.
CHARLES H. ARMSTRONG,
I met Lewis on the CompuServe Military Forum and we liked each other’s style of writing, and shared a similar brutal childhood. Slowly over the months, we became friends. Lewis listened often to my stories of my first love, Billy, and I listened to Lewis’s poems – for a man he has remarkable sensitivity and understanding. He ‘sees’ things that are simply the written word, and he forms pictures in his head, which he then translates into poetry. Without ever having met my Billy, or me, Lewis wrote this poem for us and you will find it featured in his book of poems. With his permission, and since the poem is ‘Billy’s and mine’, he has graciously allowed me to use it here and it is a remarkably astute portrayal of our love and our life.
PHANTOM OF A SOLDIER
W. L. Kirkpatrick
American Patriot 1940 –
Texas A&M Class of 1962
We were young and in love.
He was a brave soldier
Whose conscience made him
Serve his country in wartime
For future generations to come.
One fine morning we parted
Searching soul from eye to eye, and
Embraced, nevermore to see.
I remember clearly,
His blue eyes and dark hair.
I can faintly hear
His gentle voice and laughter,
And kind words of courageous support.
I remember the force of
His charm in words and deeds.
Our love was full and complete.
I can still see him
Playing with his baby, and
Hear a small voice,
See a small soul, and
A child’s embrace.
I see the love of devotion
In his young face, and pride in
Looking forward to
The birth of his second little spirit.
He was young, tall, and ever so handsome.
Billy was a courageous warrior
Proud to serve God and Country
Whose life was infinite in that tender age.
We shared the birth of
Our lives together in those
Joyful days of ancient past.
Together laughing, together aching,
We passed from joy to joy
A brief moment so long ago,
Experiencing life and love.
Joined in soul and spirit
By an Almighty Hand.
It seemed that it would go on forever,
Until he disappeared suddenly from our lives
In the service of our beloved country.
He honored us by his noble deeds.
His disappearance shall be
But for a short while and
I will rejoin him again forevermore.
I dreamed of Heaven
With God so near,
I was young again, and
I was waltzing
With my dear husband.
The moonlight caressed us softly,
Palm trees swayed gently
In the warm breeze and
A melodious stream flowed by.
I was at peace and my delight
Among sun and stars
Was just that we two
Were together again.
My chivalrous soldier
Shall be waiting for me
With outstretched arms and kind smile.
We shall embrace once again and
Walk and talk together
When the Almighty joins us once more
To go on together in delight and eternal bliss
Among the starry heavens.
HEY Laurie – The picture of the medal ceremony should go here…
The Secretary of the Army has awarded the
Army Commendation Medal
FIRST LIEUTENANT WILLIAM E. MCCONNELL, 05317756, UNITED STATES ARMY
FIRST LIEUTENANT WILLIAM E. MCCONNELL, United States Army, distinguished himself by exceptional meritorious service while assigned as a Rifle Platoon Leader, Company C, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division, Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, during the period of 13 May, 1965 to 18 September, 1965. His untiring, devotion to duty, and desire to ready his platoon for combat resulted in an effective fighting team which finished high in the Battalion in the annual Army training test in competition with eight other rifle platoons. In addition, First Lieutenant McConnell served as the acting weapons platoon leader and Company Executive Officer. In both capacities, his deep sense of responsibility produced outstanding results. The weapons platoon, under his leadership, also had high score in the weapons platoon Army training test in competition with two other weapons platoons in the battalion. His personal example, coupled with outstanding abilities and earnest leadership, earned him the respect and confidence of everyone with whom he came into contact. First Lieutenant McConnell’s outstanding performance of duty reflects great credit upon himself, the 25th Infantry Division and the United States Army.
According to a personal letter I received, I was told although Captain Armstrong tried to have this medal upgraded to a Meritorious Service Medal, and the application went through Division level to Washington, there seems to be some kind of ‘rule’ that Company grade officers, Captain and below receive the Army Commendation Medal. The Meritorious Service Medal is reserved for Field grade officers, Major and above. However, Washington bureaucracy and unwritten Army regulations cannot diminish what my husband accomplished those three days and nights in the field, and never has any one officer, with three different platoons, during one Army Training Test scored the highest score with two of the three platoons. The only reason he could not score the highest with three was that two were Rifle platoons that competed against each other, with the same Platoon leader in command. I am proud to know this will never be done again as the 25th Division put their training on hold and did not depart for Vietnam until a full contingent of officers could be brought to fill the numerous empty slots. Lt. Ware, after Billy’s death, returned to C. Company and accompanied them to Vietnam where he was wounded, but made a full recovery. The last time that I heard, he and Linda had two children, a son, and a daughter.
Chuck made two stars before he retired, and they too finally got their baby girl, although I lost contact with them also. As for my children, and me, well, that is possibly another book.