MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 28 – Spring 1963 – Airborne School
Billy continued relentlessly to press his commanding officer into allowing him to at least apply to the airborne school and get his name on the list of applicants.
Finally, with the reluctant blessing of the Commanding Officer of 53rd Company, Billy made an appointment to talk to the O.C.S. Battalion’s Commanding Officer (CO) at Headquarters. Only after he agreed to continue his duties as a tact officer when his classes at the Airborne School were finished for the day, since they had no replacement for him, was he able to talk his CO into signing his request.
I do not know if I was more angry or frightened, but I was really, really upset! How could he go through a physically demanding school in all this heat, and then work for hours each night without ever coming home? When would we see him? When would we make love? I had been upset enough about the school, but I certainly had not counted on him having to keep up his position as a tact officer, working all, or most of the night, since he would be in training all day. The entire situation was ludicrous, and try as I may to understand, I just could not get past the point that he would actually hold down a full-time job, and go through what alone, is strenuous enough training for any one man. However, Billy was determined, and I finally accepted that nothing I said or did would talk him out of it.
Angrily I told him I was afraid his parachute would not open, or at the very least, he would injure his weak knee, and he told me not to be silly, that hundreds of men went through this training every year and there were very few accidents. Right, I thought, but if there were to be an accident, it would happen to him! Looking over some of the jump school information, I found the poem "Blood upon the Risers’ and that did it! I would stay through the first week of physical training, to see if I was needed or even wanted, but after that, I was not sure. The thought of all those long hours alone with just the company of my adventuresome, and yes, a bit naughty, not quite two-year-old son was not my idea of a ‘family’. I knew I was being selfish, perhaps not as well as I know now, but I wanted Billy to be with me at night, not in some office counseling officer candidates after a long day at Airborne School!
How could he do it, even with youth on his side?
I was inconsolable, so I told him I would just take our son and go to Atlanta for an extended visit since there was no reason for me to stay in Columbus, and I did not want to be alone when I got the word he was dead! Perhaps my imagination was working overtime, but more than likely, I was playing my last card, but Billy held all the aces. By then, totally exasperated by my childish attitude, he told me to go and to stay if that was what I really wanted. We both knew that was not what I wanted, and that I would not stay, but I was too stubborn to tell him how much I loved him, and I could never leave him, and he was too stubborn to beg me to not to leave. Perhaps absence would make the heart grow fonder, or I just needed to get over my anger and disappointment from not getting my way, and I needed him to miss me as much as I would miss him.
He hoped to take some leave when the O.C.S. class graduated in late September, and promised we could go to Griffin and get the boat again, or even go to the beach. We had already planned for Charles to come down for a week’s visit, and we intended to have each of the other two boys, if they were not busy playing ball. Perhaps we could get them later in the summer, but now all our plans would have to be changed.
At long last, after pulling every string he could find to pull, and making a promise I thought impossible to keep, Billy was going to Airborne School whether I liked it or not. Seemingly, he did not care if he made a widow out of me with a fatherless son to bring up alone, so he planned to take me to Atlanta the weekend before his 2nd week of training began. This was the ‘tower’ training where they would ‘practice jump and proper landing’ from both the short and the tall towers in a field near the Officer’s Basic School.
The short tower, which was thirty-four feet, trained the airborne candidates how to land safely when they hit the ground, in other words, to ‘tuck and roll’ and there they had the protection of safety harnesses. The larger tower was two hundred and fifty feet, and there the candidate would practice the techniques learned on the short tower, but this time from a greater height and wearing an actual parachute. It certainly was not as high as the twelve hundred and fifty feet that the airplane would be flying for the five qualifying jumps.
‘Stand up’, hook up, shuffle to the door’ was a cadence call used during the first phase of training, but that was a condensed version of the preparations taken just before the jump. None of the statistics offered any solace, rather just frightened me more than before I read them.
After the first week while I watched Billy attempt to function with only four or five hours of sleep each night, I could not take stay any longer. I would not even promise him I would come back, but in his heart, he knew I would, and in my heart, I knew the same. We did make love for hours that Friday night as if this had to last us for the entire two weeks. I never could stay angry with him long, and he knew it, but this time I was going to try hard to stay very, very angry for a real long time!
It was a beautiful late April day the Saturday when Billy drove us to Atlanta. The only air-conditioning in our car was both windows wide open, and the weather was perfect for just that. It would have been a superb day for riding in a convertible. For some reason, the trip was far too short – far shorter than I ever remembered, but Billy seemed to be in a fantastic mood, as if goading me, and he sang silly songs for Michael until eventually their happiness was contagious and I joined in.
At the top of his lungs, Billy sang, "I’ve been working on the railroad, all the livelong day; I’ve been working on the railroad to pass the time of day," while Michael tried to sing along with him.
So far his words were still more like gibberish since his vocabulary mostly consisted of just a few words like ‘Mommy’, ‘Daddy’, ‘bottle’ and ‘Muck-Muck’ which was his way of saying ‘Michael McConnell’. It would not be long before he would be talking and connecting full sentences, and again I felt he was growing up too quickly – what had happened to my baby. I expected he would have his father’s silver tongue and a way with words that only Billy McConnell had. Someday some little girl would listen to those words as I had, and entranced by his good looks, would fall in love too, but that day was a long way off, and until then he was mine!
Now we were on the way to Atlanta, and I half wished I had not insisted on leaving, and it was all I could do not to tell Billy to turn around and take me home, but I was too stubborn.
Billy had asked me just the day before if it was not about time for me to go back on the pill, as if not being on it had stopped him from making love to me. Curtly I answered it was, but I did not tell him I had been feeling a bit queasy for days now and wondered if perhaps we had slipped up and I was pregnant again. I just did not feel ‘right’, and previously I had always known when I was pregnant, almost to the time and date it happened, but not now. Obviously, my physical manifestations were the result of the merry-go-round of emotions and worry that Billy was about to die in jump school.
Who would wash his feet each night with me gone, and who would make his sandwiches, wash his underwear, and make sure he had plenty of clean socks so he could change during the day? I certainly hoped he did not have anyone in mind, and really did not give it much thought, because if there were one thing I would have known for sure, it would be if he were fooling around. He definitely did not have time for that with his schedule!
Billy took me straight to my aunt and uncle’s home, although I planned to spend some time with my grandmother – it’s just that Michael had Ginny to play with there and they seemed to get along quite well, although I felt Michael would not want to play ‘dolls’!
Billy stayed until after dinner on Sunday, and as usual, we all had a nice visit, although I was noticeably more quiet than usual. Michael definitely made up for my lack of conversation as he and Ginny vied to be the center of attention, and both were quite successful. It was obvious my aunt and uncle adored our son and he could do no wrong, and in fact, they thought the same about Billy. According to my aunt, Michael was just a healthy, intelligent, inquisitive, adventuresome, toddler going through the ‘terrible twos’ a bit early, although watching Ginny, I was not too sure the threes or fours were going to be much better. Since it was too hot to do much of anything other than sit around their shady back patio and watch the children play on the swing set and in the sandbox, Billy talked on and on about his airborne training, and my uncle was fascinated since he had tried to join the glider corps during WWII. Only his poor eyesight prevented him from fulfilling his wish to join what had to be one of the most dangerous units during the war.
My uncle made homemade peppermint ice cream for Saturday supper with Billy and Michael helping, or so Michael thought, as they took turns cranking the handle of the ice cream maker. In the kitchen, I helped my aunt with the tray of accompaniments for the hamburgers my uncle would grill. Still quiet, she asked what was bothering me, if Billy and I were having problems. I am sure she had noticed I was not overly affectionate to my handsome husband that weekend, but I just told her I was tired and worried about Billy being hurt or even killed in jump school. She agreed I needed a break and since Billy would not be coming home at night for supper, rather eating in the mess hall with the other members of his airborne class, she was glad we had come for a visit. My grandmother would be on vacation the next week, which was good timing, and not because we were there, but I was happy we would have the diversion of being with her too as I had seen her all too seldom since becoming a wife and a mother. I wanted her to get to know Michael better too, but I knew she was partial to little girls, and Ginny would get the bulk of her attention, if not me.
My mother and aunt have always told me my grandmother was not an affectionate mother, but she certainly was an affectionate grandmother, and the entire family knew I was, and always would be, her ‘favorite’. After all, we had lived with her until I was in the 3rd grade. At times, I had shared her bed and we had always shared a room.
I guess I had my mind on the coming lonely two weeks, when my aunt broke into my reverie and said this was the only time she had seen Billy so enthused about anything since the night Michael was born, when he called everyone whose number he could remember. Truthfully, I felt nothing else was on his mind, not me, not sex, not his son. Thank goodness, the men walked in the door to say the fire was ready, and she had not had time to question me further, because I do not know what I would or could have said.
Billy left on Sunday afternoon after dinner. As much as I told myself I would act as if I did not care, I held on to him for dear life with tears streaming down my face while sobs choked my breathing, and he tried to reassure me he would be just fine. I just knew I would never see him alive again, that his parachute would not open on his first jump, and he would die. My aunt and uncle did not share my fear, and thought I was being ‘silly’, although at times I thought my aunt somewhat clairvoyant. Both just told him to be careful and to remember he had a wife and a son who needed him, and not to work too late at night. As usual, my uncle slipped him a twenty-dollar bill, and I hoped he would use it to buy food he could prepare for the coming two weeks. I realized now that I was not indispensable, or he would have tried harder to get me to stay in Columbus. Soaking my pillow, I cried myself to sleep that night, and longed for my husband’s arms around me, and God himself could not have assured me, that by the end of two weeks, I would not be a widow!
During the following week, Billy called me every time he could get to the apartment, which was not very often. He was sleeping there, but that was about it. He was not getting home until after 11:00 p.m. and he immediately fell into an exhausted sleep, only to have to be up before dawn to get back to the post for morning calisthenics, then chow with his class before the rigid training began. I could hear the tiredness in his voice, and I do not think I had ever heard him sound this exhausted, not even at summer camp.
In addition, he was holding his own, working at the company until late into the night. I am sure even his commanding officer and General Norton were amazed how badly he wanted those silver wings, and I have often wondered if anyone had ever gone through this exhaustive training plus work full time in any capacity. I doubt it, but when Billy McConnell really wanted something, he went after it with every ounce of strength he had. I should know, he went after me in much the same way, and he never took ‘no’ for an answer.
I was incredibly unhappy and each day seemed twice as long as the day before, and by the end of the first week I was anxious to get back to Columbus. Billy was due to jump that third and last week and I wanted to be home by the time he graduated, although there would not be a formal ceremony or reception since there were just too many soldiers being trained to expect anything special. Just as soon as one class finished the first week, and went into tower training, another class began their 1st week, then as the first class went into the third and final ‘jump week’, the next class moved to the towers, and so on, and a class graduated every week. I just wanted to be there when he got home from his last jump, if he got home. Somehow, I had it in my mind if he did not die on the first jump, he would do fine on the others and for the life of me I have no idea where I came up with that thought!
On a steamy hot Friday on the first day of May 1963, I rode the bus back to Columbus, and it would have been a long ride with a two-year-old in cool weather, but Michael was exceptional irritable in all this heat. The bus was not air-conditioned and he was cranky confined in his seat, and I could not much blame him - it was a miserable trip. As bad as I was feeling, I felt sorrier for two officers of the Salvation Army, with their wool uniforms, seated just in front of us. They would turn around and talk to Michael, but even this diversion did not placate my ‘too full of energy to sit still’ not quite two-year old. From beginning to end, it was one of the longest trips I have ever taken, not just because of the heat and the frequent stops, but because my husband, my Billy, would be at the other end.
Filled with longing just to be in his arms, I prayed I would find him safe and unharmed with silver wings pinned on his chest.
Would I be coming back to a husband, or would I be a widow? Surely, the Army would have found me, or at least they would have contacted Gene, and in my heart, I am sure I would know if he were dead. Could he have been hurt and not told me? Trish had promised to call me if she saw him on crutches or with any other visible injury, but she had not called either.
Most important - had he missed me as much as I missed him, and I knew my attitude towards his goals had changed forever. All these questions were rolling through my mind until we finally arrived at the bus station in Columbus. Karen, our neighbor, had told me to call her the minute the bus got in since we did not know the exact arrival time, and after my call, she was there to pick us up in about half an hour.
Childless, she adored Michael and often took him to the apartment’s swimming pool when I was just too tired to go, which gave me a well-earned break, and sometimes a quick nap. Today Michael fell asleep on the way home, exhausted from the heat, and Karen told me she had not heard Billy come home the night before. I told her I thought he was staying out at the barracks with his class this week since the jumps began so very early each morning, which would explain his absence. The good news was that no officers in that horrible Army green sedan had come looking for me as ‘next of kin’, so hopefully, he was all right and my worst fears had not come to fruition.
We arrived at the apartment in the late afternoon and much to my surprise, our car was in the parking lot! Michael woke up just as the car came to a stop, and after I opened the door and let him out, he ran up the sidewalk towards our apartment calling, "Daddy, Daddy," at the top of his lungs.
Billy met us about halfway to the apartment, picked up his son, and swung him up to his shoulders. Then he turned his attention to me, and put his arms around me and said, "Don’t ever leave me again! These past two weeks may have been the busiest, but they were the longest and the loneliest in my entire life, and right now, right here I need a kiss?"
Of course, he got a kiss, a huge one, right there on the sidewalk for all the neighbors to see! I spotted the silver wings gleaming on the front of his uniform, over the left breast pocket, and he was in one piece. I think I began to breathe again at that point, although I did not realize I had actually been half holding my breath since we parted. Billy thanked Karen for picking up his ‘little family’ then took my suitcase from her, and as if a whale had swallowed us, we disappeared into our cool air-conditioned apartment. Michael, satisfied his daddy and mommy were together again, ran to his room to find his favorite toys while Billy held me in his arms more tightly than he had ever held me before.
"See, little girl, it wasn’t my time, I’m O.K. other than a few scratches and bruises, I earned my wings without any accidents. Maybe I have outgrown my youthful carelessness, or maybe I just have more incentive to be cautious. I just know I don’t ever want to have to come home to an empty, dark apartment, not ever again!"
All I could do was hold onto him; confess how much I loved him and how much I missed him, while my heart beat so hard I felt it would burst right out of my chest. Looking into my eyes, with tears in his own, he said, "Little girl, you will never know how hard it was to come into this apartment without you and my son here. I need you both, and I don’t ever want to be lonely again."
With tears running down my face, I promised him he never would be alone again, not if I could do anything to prevent it.
I will have to admit, I was just as proud as he was, if not more so, when he put on his uniform with the silver wings of an Airborne trooper. Even with his shaved head, in my eyes he was still the most handsome soldier on the post, and in fact, I have yet to see another as handsome. We celebrated by going out to eat hamburgers for supper, and as I held his hand and he looked into my eyes, I thought never had I been as happy as I was at this moment, but then again, there had been so many of these ‘happy’ moments with Billy McConnell. Surely, our path would lead us into many, many more since we were only beginning our journey through life.
That night he called Gene to tell him he had successfully completed his jumps and earned his wings, and I could tell by Billy’s face that his father was neither complimentary nor congratulatory. Rather he berated Billy for not stopping in Griffin when he took us to Atlanta, and for having to hear we were ‘separated’ from his mother.
"Separated? Who?" I heard him ask, and then he assured his father that his little family was very much intact, and he was more in love with me than ever. He then told Gene he could just quit holding his breath waiting on something to happen to our marriage because he planned to be married to me ‘until death us do part’. My precious Billy looked like a little boy who had dropped his ice-cream cone when he got off the phone with his father, and sadly said, "And you would think that sometime I would do something to make him proud."
Of course, we took another of our long, hot showers that night, lingering and stimulating each other until the water ran cold. We then made love for hours while Billy brought me to climax after climax. After he was finally exhausted, he fell back onto his pillow and groaned, "Oh, my darling, I do know who taught you how to make love, and I could not be more pleased with the outcome!"
To which I answered, "Well, my darling Billy, I doubt if anyone ever had a more willing student!"
Maybe I was learning, after all, and for the next few weeks, Billy made love to me anytime and as often as he wished, and neither of us worried about anything.
Finally, we were able to have both Charles and David down for two weeks. While Charles was visiting, we all went to the annual ‘Open House’ at the Infantry School, with rides for the children and even the smaller of the ‘jump towers’ was open with carefully controlled ‘jumps’ for any and everyone who wanted to try, even the women. Of course, Charles had to ‘jump’, and my almost two-year-old wanted so badly to go out of the tower that he threw himself on the ground in a fit of rage when I said he was too little. Billy insisted there was no danger since wires kept the ‘jumper’ under total control and if his son wanted to jump, I should let him, so I gave in to their combined pressure, and Michael was the youngest child ever to go off the towers, and was so excited he had to do it again, and again. Oh my, was I raising another daredevil? I had my handsome husband to thank for this! Charles, of course, had been highly excited by everything military and Billy hoped he would follow his example and attend North Georgia College. Overall, we had a wonderful day and Michael talked about his ‘jumps’ for weeks. As for me, I still have a snapshot of my precious son on the merry-go-round, more his speed to my way of thinking. At least it was more my speed!
Once again, we were together. Life was back to normal, but as usual, this lull would not last for long.