MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 43 – Ranger William E. McConnell
At long last, February 17 arrived and I was sitting in our car in the parking lot at Sand Hill, along with a dozen or more other wives, about half an hour before the buses were due in from Florida. Some of the wives were standing outside and talking with one another, but I stayed in the car, so Billy’s classmates could not see my huge belly! When the buses finally pulled in, almost exactly on schedule, I felt my heart beating so hard surely, it would fall right out of my chest, and it seemed like an hour, but actually was just minutes before Billy found the car. After a huge kiss through the rolled down window, he asked why I was sitting in the car, not waiting outside with the other wives.
When I explained I had not wanted to embarrass him, he just laughed, as only he could laugh with his head tilted back and his eyes sparkling, and said, “Oh my darling, I am so proud of your tummy! That’s my baby in there and he waited for his daddy to come home!”
Then he opened the door and lifted me to my feet, and in front of the entire class gave me a kiss that was deep and loving! Ignoring the whistles and catcalls, he kissed me again, then once more. He seemed as excited as I was that he was finally home, this time for good! However, mostly he was relieved I had not had the baby without him.
On the drive home, he asked if I had heard from his father while he was away, but I had not. He said he would call him that night, although I knew he preferred to call at the store and avoid having to go through Ruth who had actually told Billy his father was ‘not available’ when he had called just before he left for Dahlonega, and Billy had not tried to call him again. Already things had become strained in Griffin, and both David and Charles had called to tell me how nasty Ruth was, and how she always blamed them for everything, especially if Stuart had been naughty. Even if they were not home, it was somehow their fault for leaving something out, or by example showing Stuart something he should not do, or a myriad of other excuses, anything but the fact that her son was a spoiled rotten tattletale! She now had threatened to send David and Charles to Gordon Military Academy telling them that only rigid discipline could straighten them out.
They did not even know the meaning of the word ‘rigid’, so they certainly had to be quoting her when they relayed the message to me. However, I knew those little boys, and they were just that, high-spirited, loving little boys, and if she would just try to love them, she would find she got back twice as much as she could possibly give. As I relayed the details of the boys’ calls, and how Charles had begged me to tell Billy to come get him, Billy’s face turned red as he became angrier and angrier, and finally he asked me if we could raise them.
“Of course, we could”, I assured him, because I loved them and they loved us, and if they needed anything right now it was the security of a home filled with love, not the sterile environment of a military school. For all of their young lives, they had been denied this security and anything even resembling a normal family life, but I knew Gene would never allow Billy to have custody of them, because of the humiliation of his ‘private’ life being made public in court, if not for any other reason. However, I also knew my handsome soldier’s determination and even if the odds were not in our favor, he would take his father to court just to embarrass him into treating his brothers at least as good as he treated Stuart!
Michael was riding his tricycle, with Elizabeth on hers, when we pulled into the parking lot, but when he saw our car he left his tricycle behind and came flying into his daddy’s arms.
“My, but I think you have grown a foot since I last saw you,” Billy said while throwing his son high into the air.
My heart was full of joy and overflowing with love since my family was together again with Billy in one piece and not even limping. There were no marks on his handsome face, and we had two whole weeks before he reported to Headquarters. Shortly, we would be leaving for our grand adventure, but first I had to have this baby! We had places to go, wondrous sights to see, and people to meet, and I refused to ruin this glorious day with worry about Vietnam, although the news was now reporting from Saigon, a name I had never heard before, and one I wish I had never known.
The minute he walked in the door he asked me if I was still able to take his boots off since his feet were sore from being constantly wet, and of course, I told him that it was simple to get down but I might need help getting up! With Michael back outside playing again with Elizabeth, I filled his foot basin with Epsom salts, and Billy carried it into the living room, awkwardly I sat down on the floor at his feet while he sat on the couch, and I began to remove his boots. Slowly and ritually I unlaced first his right boot, then his left, while he rested his head on the back of the couch, then I pulled them off one after the other, peeled his socks off, and that is exactly how it seemed! It looked as if flesh adhered to them, and the skin on his feet was as white and shriveled as that of someone who has stayed in the water far too long! I could not believe the sores and the cracks in his skin, and I worried that perhaps the salts would burn, but he said not, and he put first one foot in the basin as if ‘testing’ the water, then the other.
“Oh my God! That feels so good!” he groaned, and ever so gently, I washed between his toes and noticed he also had severe cracks between each of them. I knew he needed medicated powder, so after I gently toweled each of his feet dry and left them wrapped in the warm towel, I attempted to struggle to my feet to retrieve the powder. Billy protested that he could get it, but I assured him in cleaning out the drawers and cabinets in preparation for our move, nothing was where it had been, rather in stacks of ‘take with us’, ‘throw out’, ‘ship’, and ‘leave here’, and I was not even sure where it was myself. He reached down, putting his strong arms under mine, and helped me up. I probably could have told him where to look since I found it right where I thought it was, but I could not bear to think he had to get up and walk on those shriveled white feet! He was half dozing when I got back to the living room, so I shook the powder into a pair of clean white socks and pulled them onto his feet. I then picked up the basin that was not very heavy after all, and after I had cleaned it out for another ‘treatment’ later, I curled up on the sofa beside him.
“You sure do know how to spoil a fellow,” he murmured, without opening his eyes, “and I am going to show you how I can spoil you from now on.”
“You always have spoiled me,” I answered, “but there is one thing that I do want, and that is for you to make love to me every chance we get!”
Not expecting me to say this he sat bolt upright and said, “You’ve got to be kidding! I thought the night I came through from Dahlonega to Florida would be the last of that until after the baby was six weeks old! Do you really want me to make love to me, or are you just saying that because you missed me so much?”
I kissed him and told him I intended to make love to him as much as possible, because supposedly the reason not to make love, no longer applied to us since the baby was already overdue, although not much, and certainly was large enough for a safe delivery!
“Little girl, if that is what you want, then you can look forward to long showers and longer nights just as soon as we can get our firstborn in bed!”
“That is exactly why I did not even try to get him to take a nap today,” I replied, and Billy kissed me and held me close as if night would never come!
However, it did come, after Billy enjoyed one of his favorite suppers, “real food,” he called it, and while he finally managed to settle his over-excited son down enough so I could read to him, he called Gene. Much to Billy’s relief, Charles answered the phone and Billy talked to him awhile about Ranger School, once again making up fantastic stories about snakes and alligators and even a man-eating panther.
Laughing, as he made up his own amazing adventures while he talked, I had never seen Billy as enthusiastic about his little brother’s reaction to his tall tales, which is exactly what it was, more of his tall tales. Suddenly, as if a dark cloud hid the sun, the smile left his handsome face, and the laughter ended, then I saw the same face that had been laughing heartily just moments before turn deadly serious when Gene finally came to the phone.
The next thing I knew, Billy was shouting at his father, “If you dare to put David and Charles in military school, I will delay my orders, we will come to Griffin, and we will get custody of both of them! And you will pay the expenses!”
Therefore, it was true, Ruth really did want to get rid of the two youngest boys, but obviously, Billy was serious about seeking custody. Mostly I think because he knew Gene would never allow it because of his ‘reputation’ in the community, but time was not on our side. Billy also knew we could not afford to feed and clothe two rapidly growing boys along with out own growing family, but he was not thinking about that right now, he was only thinking about his brothers, and I was too. We would manage, I thought, never really considering the expense and the out-of-reach fee for an attorney. If we had to do it, we would, it was just that simple.
When Billy hung up the phone, his face was still flushed with anger, and that was the last thing I wanted for his homecoming. I had put Michael into his bed after he had fallen asleep halfway through ‘Peter Rabbit’, and Billy came over and sat beside me on the couch. I held him tightly and buried my head into his chest while he put his arms around me and implored me not to cry.
“Somehow I will make my father see how wrong it would be to send those little boys away from their home, their school, and their lifelong friends – just about the only thing that has remained constant in their young lives.” Billy said while I fought to hold back my tears.
I was not crying – not yet, but I was hurting. Hurting for my darling and more for those adorable motherless little boys, and with Ruth for a stepmother, they were still motherless.
“It will all work out,” he said as he smoothed my hair, and then turned off the light to make sure no one would come knocking on our door. He helped me to my feet, and once again, we drowned our troubles in a long hot shower. While I toweled him dry, concentrating on his now quite stiff and swollen symbol of manhood, he did the same for me, concentrating on my now almost pendulous breasts. With a towel around his waist, and my robe wrapped loosely around me, I silently followed him into our bedroom and slid the lock in place, just in case. We climbed into our warm bed with the freshly washed sheets, and this time I was hoping that perhaps, if I were lucky, his frantic probes would bring on labor! Billy had two weeks of leave and I had an appointment at the clinic in two days, so if making love did not work, I would ask them to induce me so I could have my husband with me when I got home from the hospital.
Our lovemaking completed, for now, as I lay in Billy’s arms, he asked me to wear my pink dress to graduation. It was then that I told him I did not want to come and embarrass him since I was so ungainly and so enormous. I could barely keep my balance my stomach was so immense, and still looking at me from the back, you could barely tell I was even pregnant. This baby had remained all in front, and now with it low in the womb, which meant I had to go to the bathroom every thirty minutes and I could barely waddle. I then showed Billy the chronic red mark I had on my tummy where the steering wheel now rubbed me raw, and Billy told me that I was not to drive anymore, that he would take me wherever I needed to go, even if it meant he had to take off from work. I assured him that surely our son would be born before he had to report to Headquarters.
“If you don’t go to graduation, I won’t go,” Billy said. “I will just stay home with you and they can mail my certificate.”
Incredulous, I replied, “But you are an honor graduate and you have to be there! And isn’t your father coming?”
“Yes, he said he and Ruth are coming, but they won’t take the boys out of school. Ruth does not consider this an emergency,” he said, as if to intimate that Ruth thought seeing their older brother honored as one of the top three graduates in his Ranger class was not important enough for them to miss a day of school. “And I want you there, right in the front row where I can see you. Promise me?”
I did not know what to say, he was as sincere as I had ever seen him, he really wanted me there to see him receive his certificate, and the honor of having his name called as third honor graduate. I had asked Trish if she could keep Michael, just in case he sweet-talked me into going, which he certainly did.
All of me, in my hot pink dress making me all the more obvious, would be on the front row at his Ranger School graduation! That Sgt. who had thought I was ‘that pregnant’ before would now be floored!
Graduation was early, about 10:00 am, but when his father and Ruth had not arrived at the apartment by 9:30, Billy took Michael over to Trish’s while I waddled, more than walked, out to the car. When we got to the auditorium, once again, Billy wanted to pull up front and let me out, but I told him the walk from the parking lot would do me good and maybe help things along. He had joked on the ride to Ft. Benning that perhaps we should rent a jeep, go out to Sand Hill, and take some of those fire trails, which should shake the little fellow loose! I told him I had thought about a horse, and he said that was an even better idea, but this situation was getting serious! We had a deadline, Billy had orders, and this baby, just like Michael, was quite content to stay just where he was.
When we entered the auditorium, Billy took my arm and walked me right down to the front row seats. He pulled down the aisle seat for me, and then left the two seats next to me pulled up as if reserved, so I could better watch for his father, and then he left me to join his fellow Rangers.
I think I would have popped my buttons if I had had any when they called his name as third honor graduate and the Ranger School Commander noted that the top three were so close in points he felt he had to name all of them. Only I knew how hard things came for Billy, and I knew how injured he had been while going through this rigorous training, but there could not have been a wife there as proud as I was of my handsome Ranger. Had his instructors known he had a broken toe and a continuously dislocating shoulder, he might have been number one! However, no one ever knew that except for me, and possibly Sgt. Tuttle, who he contacted each time that he was home. When the Commander continued and said these three Ranger candidates had stayed neck and neck throughout the entire school, he had decided that although once the ‘points’ were added up, one came up on top, all three deserved the honor. When Billy proudly walked across the stage to receive his certificate, he looked right at me sitting on the front row as I beamed my love to him. He could not have missed me, and when he caught my eye, he winked! The signal that meant, “I love you” just as he had always done, first at N.G.C., and then had through the numerous parades and receptions at Ft. Benning. This time I felt extra proud, since now an official United States Army Airborne Ranger was winking at me, and not just any Ranger, my husband!
I had taken his Class A uniform to the P.X. tailor and had the black and gold crescent Ranger patch sewn on during his last week in Florida, when he knew it was almost over, and now he proudly wore it at the top of his left sleeve, with the silver Airborne wings gleaming on his chest. He had finally done it! He was one of the few, the elite, an Airborne Ranger. His dream had come true, and mine, since after growing up while he was in Airborne School, I now wanted for him what he wanted. I have to admit though I was not too pleased that he was fully prepared to take on his next goal – to lead a rifle platoon of Infantry soldiers into battle. I could live without this one forever.
As soon as we left the building we saw his father and Ruth standing outside on the sidewalk, and before Billy and I walked up to them, I took his arm and whispered, “It’s all right, he made it, even if he was late, he tried.”
Billy seemed so tense, like a cat about to spring, but he smiled at me and told me he had my Valentine’s present in the car, and with this, he held out his hand to his father. I audibly let out a sigh of relief as my heart finally stopped beating so hard I was sure it was visible under my dress and blouse, while Gene told Billy how proud he was of him.
Ruth just stood there saying nothing at first; finally, she directed her venom at me. “You mean you have not had that baby yet? And why aren’t you staying at home!”
Before I could even begin to gather my thoughts, my handsome, now quite irate, husband answered for me. “Why should she stay home? He queried, “This is not the 19th century. I’ll bet there were a dozen or more pregnant wives at the ceremony today, and I wanted her there, right up front!”
Gene sensed an altercation in the making, and tried to change the subject so he asked when we were leaving for the West Coast, among other small talk, although not once did he ask about his grandson, or even if we would be coming to spend some time in Griffin before we left. Billy obviously did not want to let go of Ruth’s rude remarks, but to keep the peace; I interrupted and invited them to join us for lunch at The Officer’s Club.
As if we had asked her to go to some kind of ‘dive’, Ruth stuck her nose in the air as if sniffing it and finding it foul, she said, “We have to get home. I have children to take care of.”
Again this was an opening for Gene to ask about Michael, but again as if struck dumb, he said nothing, but Billy was becoming more and more agitated. “I thought you had a full-time maid,” Billy retorted, “my mother always did.”
“Oh, thank God!” I thought since I was waiting on Billy to say something about her not taking very good care of his brothers, and Gene, again sensing that Billy was about to explode, finally asked about Michael. Again, I held my breath since I could just about imagine Billy’s reply “Why do you care? You don’t care enough to take the time to see him,” but once again, as I held my breath, peace reigned and Billy did not use the opportunity to jab his father again. Relieved, I murmured, only to myself, “Thank you, God!”
Oh, I could see it was a good thing we were going far, far away. This woman and Billy detested each other and it was very, very evident! I did not like her much either, and I had been the target of her rude remarks, but that just made Billy even more angry. You could attack him, but do not attack his wife or his son. This he did not allow, as I remembered how from the day he had to come pick me up in Griffin while the plumbing in our apartment was not working, and the words he had for and about his own mother. Ruth did not stand a chance! There was very little doubt in my mind that she would be greatly relieved when we were finally gone and out of her way, but that thought just heightened my fear for the two little boys, who obviously displeased her no end.
I really do not remember the words spoken as we parted, but this time it was Gene, who looked sad, as if he had caught the wooden nickel instead of the gold ring. As far as I was concerned, it was much worse than that! This woman was jealous, controlling, angry, and vindictive, and my heart broke for those little boys who thought they would be getting a new mother to love them. I could see they were far better off with no mother at all rather than having this raving maniac for a stepmother! Oh, how I wished then we could get custody of them.
Before we had gotten two steps away, Billy turned around, and this time his voice cut the air like a saber when he said, “Dad, remember what I said! I meant it!” I knew he was referring to Ruth’s idea to send his brothers to military school, and from the look on Gene’s face, there could be no doubt he knew too. Now it was Ruth who looked puzzled, and that was fine with me.
Once we got back into the car, Billy seemed to have settled down and he dropped the subject since the ‘warring parties’ were obviously at a standstill, for the moment. He leaned over my enormous stomach, reached into the glove compartment, and pulled out another small velvet box. What had he bought me now? I could not imagine. Slowly I opened the box, accompanied by a large card that could wait until I looked at my gift, and inside was a pendant with the Ranger tab attached to a silver circle and a sterling silver chain.
“Happy anniversary, darling, you earned this as much as I did,” Billy said. He then took the necklace out of the box, and softly let it fall over my head where it hung around my neck, just as his class ring had once done, and I could not have been more pleased, not only with the gift, but with his words, and the love and thought that had gone into its selection.
“But I didn’t buy you anything, just a card,” I sighed. However, Billy just patted my stomach, and said, “Oh yes you did, its just a little bit late, that’s all.” Then he kissed me long and deep right there in broad daylight in the parking lot. Oh how I loved this man! Just when I thought that he could not do anything that could make me love him more he came up with something else, and my heart kept growing, as it had to expand with the love that continued to grow for my precious Billy. Somewhere, at sometime, I must have done something very right to deserve this wonderful man, and all the happiness and love he brought into my life.
With the extra pay burning a hole in his pocket, Billy took me to the grill at The Officer’s Club for lunch, and Billy ordered two hamburgers and fries while I ordered a chef’s salad. During this pregnancy, I really had not had much of an appetite except for the chocolates, and I had never gotten over the nausea I felt when I ate fried food. I told Billy to wait until we got home for dessert since I had made his favorite lemon pie, with the thought I could offer Gene and Ruth a piece and a cup of coffee if they came by the house to see Michael. Now Billy had it all to himself and I knew he would not waste one piece. I had deliberately not served the pie for supper the night before since I wanted to have some left for today, just in case, but now Billy could eat it all, with a little help from Michael who shared his father’s passion for the rich dessert.
Again, I had my Billy at home for two weeks, after which he would report to Headquarters Company until time to leave for California, although his duties would be light and flexible since he was so ‘short’. We had chosen Good Friday for our checkout day at the apartments, and Bill and Snookie would have the entire weekend to move their things from one apartment to the other. We would stop the first night in Griffin to say good-bye to the boys and Gene, and then go to Atlanta, with visits in the West End to bid farewell to Billy’s grandparents and to introduce their new great-grandchild. From there we would spend two nights with my aunt and uncle, where my grandmother and my family could meet the new baby, and see us off on our long journey. Those wonderful late December nights after Christmas, as I snuggled close to him, Billy and I worked out our final route to California with side trips to Denver then down to Salt Lake City, on to Flagstaff and The Grand Canyon. Both of us were beyond excitement about our pending adventure and could barely wait for the time to come, but first I had to have this baby!
Two days later, Billy took Michael over to Trish’s apartment again and went with me to my O.B. appointment. I knew we would probably have a long wait; the clinic was no place for our active son, and Billy would have to spend his time chasing him all over the hospital. Now, though, I could reciprocate and keep Elizabeth while Trish made her own visits to the ‘cattle call’.
Michael had become even more possessive about his mommy while his daddy was in Ranger School, since he had me all to himself for a total of nine weeks, and this last stretch, except for one night, had been six whole weeks – a lifetime to a 2 ½ year old. He demanded we not leave him out of anything, and I know he realized something was afoot with all of our packing, throwing away broken toys, and of course, the little white chest full of tiny clothes again. Even more often than usual when Billy and I would be standing up, hugging and kissing, once again Michael wedged himself between us and tried to pry us apart, saying, “My mommy.” I was dreading what I was sure would be a difficult transition when the new baby and I came home from the hospital. I also hoped with me occupied nursing and caring for the infant, Michael would bond closer to his father. One could only hope.
We waited for about two hours before I was called back to be weighed, my finger pricked for a blood sample, and I asked if Billy could come with me to talk to the doctor. The nurse told him he could not come into the examining room, since fathers did not take an active part in any phase of labor and delivery, but if he wished, she would call him back to talk to the doctor after the examination was finished.
We explained our predicament and the baby’s overdue status, and she took Billy back to the doctor’s office while I went into one of the many small rooms to wait for my exam. Fortunately this day I did not have too long to wait, and was surprised when the colonel in charge of the O.B. clinic came into the room. I had only heard about him, and of course seen his name, but we had never met. He was grandfatherly looking, very friendly and had a concern in his voice I had not heard from the younger doctors. After taking my measurements, listening to the baby’s heartbeat, he did a pelvic exam, and finally while he was writing in my chart, he told me to get dressed and go sit in his office with my husband and he would be in to talk to us shortly. He must have seen one more patient before he joined us, and shaking Billy’s hand he introduced himself as he entered the room. Closing the door, he opened my chart and told us since it had been determined there was only one large baby now overdue, he was admitting me that very afternoon to be induced, mostly because he did not want the baby to get any larger since I was not a big woman. I told him Michael’s weight, and he said he would bet I did not sit well for a long time, and he had seen the scarring from the episiotomies, but he did not want me to have a baby any larger than Michael had been. He then told me I would be in good hands with the doctors ‘on call’ upstairs, although Billy could not stay. Husbands could not wait in this Army hospital even when their wives were in labor and delivery, so after a hug and a kiss, Billy went home to our son, and an orderly took me upstairs in a wheelchair while holding onto my chart.
After changing into a hospital gown, the nurse weighed and measured me; finally, a young doctor finally came in and did a physical. “You have not dilated at all,” he exclaimed. “I don’t know why you need to rush this baby anyway.”
The nurse showed him on the chart where the chief of obstetrical services had seen me personally and signed my admission and induction orders, but I could tell this doctor was not happy about doing it although he gave instructions to the nurse and left the room.
As I lay there on the hard bed with the I.V. solution dripping into my arm, I could hear other women in labor on the other sides of the thin walls. I had not had this experience with Michael because I just went to sleep with a baby in my uterus and woke up wondering where he had gone! This time I was frightened because the Army did not use the popular ‘twilight sleep’ most civilian doctors preferred then, and of course their patients liked it too since no one ever remembered their labor and delivery. This time I would have a spinal block and would be numb from the waist down, but I would be awake the entire time. Although I admit I was curious to see what it was all about, and I knew although this medication was not administered until hard labor began, I realized this was not going to be an altogether pleasant experience.
“Oh Lord God! What have I done to deserve this?” More a shriek than a prayer woke me up from a light slumber. Obviously, the woman in the room to my right was in hard labor and not medicated. This was getting scary. However, I had not felt even a twinge, not one. My baby was kicking and moving around as usual, but my back did not even hurt as it had before Michael was born. Having given Billy all of my jewelry and my watch except for my wedding band, tightly taped to my finger – I had never and would never take it off - I did not have any idea what time it was. Usually in the hospital, I could get an idea of the time by the sound of the carts from the kitchen and the smell of the food as mealtimes came around, but up here where no meals were served, I did not even have that means of orienting myself to the time that had passed.
I lay there and stared up at the florescent lights, counting the tiles in the ceiling, anything to keep my mind off the suffering of the woman in the room next door, finally, after what seemed like along time, she was silent. It was not long afterwards the doctor came in, told me to get dressed, and call my husband to come get me. He stated they had too many women in labor to induce me tonight, and the I.V. only contained saline anyway, in spite of the orders of his commanding officer. He ended by instructing me to return to the clinic in a week. Of course, he said if I went into labor come right back to the hospital, but not tonight! When I called Billy, he sounded as if he had been sleeping, and I hated to wake him just to have to bring me home without a baby. Although I could hear the disappointment in his voice, he told me it was no problem and he would just ask Bill and Snookie or Major Mac to keep an ear out for Michael and be right out.
Neither of us could believe after the promise of the colonel, I was leaving the hospital without the drugs to induce labor ever given. I became angrier by the minute and vowed never to return to the O.B. clinic since the other doctors obviously did not care about orders from their commanding officer. And I meant it! I would not go back!
We spent the next ten days working out more details for the trip with a traveler’s guide from Texaco. Since we planned to stay at Holiday Inns across the country we could use our Texaco charge card, and that way we could wait until we got to Hawaii to pick up our travel pay just as the large bill caught up with us. The per-diem from Ranger School and our security deposit on the apartment would more than pay for what meals we did not eat at the motel, and for other expenses involved with a family traveling with a newborn and a young son. Billy decided it would be best to make reservations now since we would be traveling during the spring break season for some schools, but all reservations were long-distance calls since there were no toll-free phone lines. Finally, he decided to call no later than the middle of March, and our first overnight stop would be in Memphis, Tennessee at a Holiday Inn off the main highway, Route 66, and practically on the banks of the Mississippi River since he wanted to wait and cross the great river into Arkansas in daylight so I could see it. The more we planned the more excited and anxious we both became to get under way.
We took our long showers, gently bathing each other preliminary to making love and spent hours just necking on the couch in front of the television. Neither of us had outgrown our love for ‘necking’, just kissing and fondling, and whispering sweet words in each other’s ears, and I hoped we never would.
One night we invited Trish and Rusty over to play bridge since we had not done so since Billy came home, and we wanted to talk to them about our plans for finding a house in Hawaii. Trish’s pregnancy was now obvious, and when all of sat down at the table to play cards, she sat facing the kitchen with Rusty across from her, Billy sat to her left and I was on her right. We had been playing for about an hour when all of a sudden she turned as white as a sheet.
“What’s wrong, Trish?” I asked, thinking that perhaps she was having pain or worse.
“There is someone looking into your kitchen window,” she said, barely moving her lips or diverting her eyes away from the peeping tom. Billy and Rusty sprang out of their chairs at the same time and reached the kitchen door together where they were stuck since the washer prevented the door from fully opening. By the time, they got untangled, the man was long gone, and I was relieved thinking they just might kill him or someone was going to be badly hurt. Once outside, I heard Billy tell Rusty to head towards the back of his apartment, and he would move to the right, although both agreed the perpetrator had run for the safety of the nearby woods bordering the railroad tracks. They searched for perhaps twenty minutes while Trish and I sat silently so we would hear any ruckus if either of them found him. Both were large men, and both were more than angry, so Trish and I agreed we hoped they did not catch up with him! Of course we wanted him caught, but not by our husbands!
We had our problems with peeping toms at the apartments since vagrants and plain mischief-makers knew at any one time, probably half of the husbands were in the field, on T.D.Y., or otherwise not in residence. That left a community of women to prey upon, even if it was as non-violent as peeping into windows, stealing lacy underwear off the clotheslines, etc. For protection, and peace of mind, most wives whose husbands were away made a habit of hanging their husband’s uniforms and underwear on the clothesline with a load of wet clothes since a line filled with nothing but diapers, baby clothing and women’s wear was a sure sign the man of the house was away. We had lots of rain that winter while it was snowing in the mountains, so it had not dawned on me to hang anything that belonged to Billy on the clothesline since I had mostly taken our clothes to the Laundromat to dry, not having the huge piles of diapers. While I realized I had been foolish not to take that precaution, I also had not yet told Billy about the night I had gone to close the blinds in our front bedroom window and found a man was standing right there, his face up against the glass, staring at me! Calmly, I pulled Billy’s huge unloaded .45 caliber pistol out of the bed table drawer, took it off safety, and pointed the pistol right at his face. Shockingly, the man just smiled at me and I heard him walk around the end of the apartment to the side window, and he just stood there while I could not move. Finally, not remembering if I had locked the doors, I rushed to the kitchen first since he was heading in that direction and seeing the deadbolt in place rushed back into the living room and found that door safely secure too. He would have to break a window to get in, and protecting my son, and my unborn child, I would have shot him, hopefully not to kill him, but to stop him from harming us. This time when I went back into my bedroom to take my loaded .22 pistol out of the top of the chest, time I turned out the lights before I entered the room so he could not see me in the dark, but he was no longer standing by the side window with the still open blinds. Quickly closing those blinds as if not being able to see him meant he was gone, I rushed to Michael’s room where he was sleeping soundly. I always closed those blinds when I put him to bed since he thought if it was light he should be awake, then I slowly peered into the bathroom which had a window over the tub, but those blinds too were drawn against the night, so once again I felt safe in my sealed home.
I had thought about calling Rusty to tell him to keep a look out for this man, but then when I looked at the clock, I knew they would be sleeping, so I did not bother them. Sleep was slow coming for me that long night while I lay in the bed I normally shared with my husband, and it was dawn before I felt safe and could close my eyes. Predators did not prowl in the daylight.
I had not given my ‘caller’ much thought since that night, although I did make sure every window and door was locked tight, and every blind drawn against the setting sun. I had not wanted to alarm Billy so I had not told him about the incident, and in fact had not thought much about it myself until now. Was this man the same one who peered through my window while my husband was gone? It was then I told Billy, Trish, and Rusty about the night when I had a ‘caller’. Rusty wanted to know why I had not called him regardless of the time, but I had no excuse to offer other than not wanting to disturb them. I realized now that not only should I have called Rusty, I should have called all my neighbors. Major Mac lived alone, Bill was usually in the field, and I should have called the apartment management and had a police car patrol the area for a while. It had just not occurred to me it would happen again since it had not happened in the years we had lived there, at least not to my knowledge, and I had been alone at night when Billy was in the field. Since our apartment backed up to the railroad tracks leading to Ft. Benning and the surrounding woods, I knew it would not take long for someone to adequately disappear, which is just what our visitor this night had done. He was long gone by the time Billy and Rusty untangled themselves and were out the door, but with hundreds of apartments to hide behind, and the woods, it would not take but an instant to be out of sight. Rusty traded chairs with Trish so her back was to the window, and I noticed throughout the rest of the evening one or the other of the men would glance out the window into the now empty dark night.
Excited that Rusty and Trish were also leaving for Hawaii just before we did, they assured us they would have a place for us to stay when we got there if Billy’s new commanding officer did not do so. The Infantry is like a big family and everyone looks out for everyone else, so I knew we would have a meal and a roof over our heads, if only temporary, from the day we set foot in paradise. I never dreamed we would actually be neighbors with Trish and Rusty again, but again I tend to get ahead of my story.
Stubbornly, true to my word, I refused to go back to the O.B. clinic, although Billy was due to go back to work, and he despaired about leaving me alone all day in my condition. I could not even get off the couch without dropping to my knees and crawling to the television so I could pull myself up.
Months ago, I had to give up lifting Michael although he was always holding his little hands in the air and saying, “Up, mommy, up.”
However, I could not lift him. The strain on my back was enormous now, driving all but impossible, so Billy took the car, and when we needed groceries he would stop at either the commissary annex, or we would all go shopping on a Saturday. Our pocketbook still did not hold enough to do a large shopping but once a month when Billy was paid, and I had long ago trained myself to plan an entire month’s meals as I shopped. Of course, my basket rarely varied much since my husband’s appetite did not allow for much diversity, and his son was becoming just as fussy. It was ‘monkey see, monkey do’ with the two of them, and I despaired that Billy’s odd eating habits would rub off on Michael. Once again, we were a ‘normal’ family, with Billy leaving for work about 7:30 a.m. and arriving home about 4:30 p.m. He called every day, sometimes twice a day to see if all was well, and to let me know if he had to leave the office for any reason, and if so to tell me that Sgt. Tuttle would know where to find him.
After supper, with Michael in bed, we snuggled on the couch, alternately reading, watching television, kissing or talking. Our marriage was working as smoothly as a well-oiled engine now, we no longer had bitter arguments, and my tantrums had long ago ceased. We were getting it right, this thing called marriage, and both of us thrived and loved each other more under the truce we knew would last forever. We had been kids when we married, and both of us were the oldest child and used to being ‘the boss’, with tremendous responsibility for our younger siblings. Now we had learned how marriage was a team effort, and there was no boss needed when there was not any dysfunction.
I also appreciated that I might not have my precious Billy by my side for much longer since we now knew American Divisions were getting ready to ship to Vietnam at any time, we might just get to Hawaii, and even before we could find quarters and unpack, he could be gone again. Determined not to allow this thought keep me depressed, I vowed to make the days we had left together as pleasant as possible for both of us, and our son. I could not imagine how I could go on living without Billy, and hoped beyond hope I would never have to find out. Our lives had just begun together, although we would soon be celebrating our fourth anniversary on the 24th of March, but now our marriage was all both of had dreamed it would be when we vowed ‘til death us do part’. I doubt if many bridal couples even hear that part of the wedding vows, and if they do, they certainly do not take it seriously, and I admit I was one of those. I heard the words, I repeated the words, but I never thought about the solemnity of them, and had no reason to do so. Although now all career Army couples were having to think hard about those last three words, since soldiers were sent to make out wills, which we had already done, were being offered additional life insurance, and given pamphlets to bring home for their wives that detailed their benefits and rights in case of tragedy. Surely, I had seen these before but had only given them a cursory glance never dreaming death would knock on our door. That is something that happens to others, but never to us. However, with casualties mounting among the ‘advisors’, and mostly among the helicopter pilots and their door gunners, we knew it would get far worse before it would get better or brought to a conclusion. I don’t think any one of us ever thought it would last as long as it did, or that our field commander’s hands would be tied by the politics in Washington, and this would be the first war ever to be run by ‘armchair quarterbacks’! We certainly did not anticipate the protestors with the flowers they stuck in the soldier’s rifle barrels, and chants of “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many babies did you kill today?”
Nor could we imagine our soldiers upon returning home for the war chastised, cursed, and spat upon – how could we possibly think of such outrageous scenarios. Nor did we consider before it was all over, more than 58,000 American boys would lie dead in rice paddies and in the jungles of this far away land, that none us even knew existed until just recently. Had we even guessed the outrageous conclusion, none of us would have been willing to sacrifice even one American life for a lie.