MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 53 – Grand Canyon National Park
We had been fortunate that we had not run into any rainy days on this long journey, and each day had been just as nice as the one before. However, this morning seemed to outshine all the others in its beauty, and warmth, although in Georgia the day would have brought a chill and a light jacket.
When I questioned Billy about this phenomenon, he explained that the reason the sun seemed so warm was the lack of humidity that we had in such abundance in Georgia, particularly Columbus with its low ground, bound on one side by the low moving Chattahoochee. He asked me if I remembered how warm it had been, in spite of the snow; as we snaked down the mountains and crossed the Continental Divide half a dozen times. Yes, I did remember my discovery that in spite of snow piles where the plow had cleared the highway, at that altitude we were still quite comfortable in short sleeves. I also became acquainted with the ‘newer’ mountains of the west, which in comparison to our ‘older’ Blue Ridge that time had worn down, like old comfortable shoes, to lush mounds of green, the Rockies, were harsh, jagged snow capped peaks. Beautiful in a different way, these newer monoliths were rather like a spiked heel shoe that appeared lovely, but was anything but comfortable to wear. I did not think that I would enjoy days of climbing through the high passes as I did wandering through the wilderness of the Blue Ridge. However, nothing we had seen, so far, could even remotely compare to the wonders we would see this day, and Billy could barely contain his excitement as he efficiently, but more rapidly, followed our morning routine.
Since I expected that the cost of breakfast here would be as outrageous as the previous night’s supper, I suggested we should see if we could just find a grocery store, buy doughnuts and juice for breakfast, and eat in the car. Billy lived life with such an adrenaline ‘rush’ he did not need caffeine to begin his day as I often did, but between the excitement of the day ahead, plus the warning that nursing mothers should not drink coffee, I found Billy’s enthusiasm remarkably contagious and stimulant enough for me. Little did I realize how much caffeine we both consumed with our Coca-Cola!
During the mid-sixties we lived and ate innocently, and did not worry so much about fats, carbohydrates, etc., blissfully unaware of all the ‘dangers’. Our meals comprised of red meat, potatoes, cream gravy, coke, and even on occasion, a rich dessert, like Billy’s favorite lemon pie. Even had I known, what could I have done about it? Billy only ate certain things and that was it. Long ago, I had given up any attempt to entice him to sample something different, so I just cooked what he would eat and was grateful he at least learned to like the myriad of casseroles our budget demanded.
After he drove for about fifteen minutes into the outskirts of Flagstaff away from the canyon, Billy soon found a neighborhood grocery store that was far away from any of the tourist centers. He stayed in the car with the children while I went inside to purchase our breakfast, and our lunch, since we most certainly would still be driving through the canyon when it was time to eat. Although I had only one small bag of groceries, it had cost over $20 and Billy was appalled, but we were so spoiled by the commissary and the P.X. that when we had to pay ‘civilian’ prices for food, we were horrified. In addition, we did not have to pay any tax on post. Little did we realize that when we reached Hawaii even the commissary prices would stretch our already thin budget to the breaking point.
We pulled a neighborhood park where we devoured our doughnuts and juice. Billy thought perhaps this would be as good a time as any to allow Michael to run around, so while I sat in the car with our sleeping daughter, Billy chased Michael around the park, pushed him as high as the swings would go, then caught him as he hurtled down the high, bumpy slide. They played hard for about fifteen minutes, and then we were back on the road, headed for the entrance to the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
Billy knew we would not be able to visit the north rim of the canyon since snow and ice still covered the road, but we would be able to see it from the distance. Not long before we began our trip, an airplane crashed there with the loss of many lives, and Billy wanted to see the plane, but I thought surely, even if it was still there, we would not be able to see it. I was not particularly interested in this ‘sight’, although I have to admit to a slight morbid curiosity. In the end, it was a good thing we had not been able to tour both sides since it took the better part of the day for just one.
This was ‘off season’ for the park since schools were not yet out for the summer and families had not begun their vacations, so I was surprised when we found ourselves in a line of about twenty cars as we approached the stone entrance. Since The Grand Canyon is a National Park, there was no entrance fee, at least then there was not, but the Ranger on duty handed us a brochure containing rules and regulations for campers and ‘sight-seers’, and a map of the canyon, and the road we would be traveling with the major ‘lookout points’ clearly marked. There was also a strictly observed speed limit so we would be almost crawling through this natural wonder, but just past the entrance I realized that the road was winding and narrow, much like the Blue Ridge Parkway in our native south, and not built for speeds above those posted.
We drove for a about fifteen minutes before we reached the first ‘overlook’, and Billy pulled the car off the road so I could have my first glimpse of this natural wonder. He had not even tried to tell me what I would find, and when I asked, he said words, and photos could not describe the real thing. Although I had seen many pictures, absolutely nothing I heard, or saw in films, educational and otherwise, could have prepared me for the sight before my eyes as I approached the guardrail for my first look down into the canyon. It was immense! Moreover, it was much, much deeper, wider, and more majestic than anything that I expected. Billy was right, mere words could not convey what my eyes beheld when I first looked down and around this wondrous place. How could one not believe in God once they see The Grand Canyon? Surely, nature by itself could not have formed the magnificence that lay before me, and now I understood Billy’s anticipation and excitement about this day. Photos certainly have never done it justice, and I knew that I would never forget this moment for the rest of my life. I could not even speak, just look, and gaze, and look some more. I had even forgotten about our rambunctious son for a moment, and when I turned around to look for him, I was relieved that his father had him firmly by the hand as they approached the railing. Billy then picked him up and put him on his shoulders, but for the first time ever, Michael screamed and wanted down. From his lofty perch, the depth of the sheer sides of the canyon had overwhelmed our little man, and for the rest of the day, he would not even get close to the railings, or allow his daddy to pick him up. I can only imagine how small Michael must have felt when he saw this great gaping hole, so he was most content to stay close to the car, while Billy and I took turns staying with him, although Billy was disappointed that Michael had seen enough with one quick glance. This was much as he perceived the ocean – far too enormous for his little eyes to take in – so this was only the second time that either of us had ever seen our son seriously frightened by anything. Of course we had never taken him anyplace where man feels like an ant in comparison to the size and grandeur of this captivating sight, and although he was more than excited about the jump towers, this was far, far different, and I could very much appreciate his feeling of overwhelming smallness.
I thought Billy’s idea of stopping at each overlook would become boring, but with each one, we had a different view as the colors of the canyon changed constantly with the movement of the sun. It was not long before I was the one urging Billy to pull over so I could see, and obligingly he did not miss a stop. On one overlook, we were both amazed to see far on the distant north rim the gleaming remains of what had once been an airplane, although it was far more intact than either of us had imagined. Just witnessing the crash site, even from this distance, I was now grateful we would be crossing the ocean on a liner, and not in the air. I could not imagine a more frightening death than to know, with the plane rapidly descending, that in just a moment you would die. No, I was content to keep my feet on terra firma, and although just a bit apprehensive about being seasick, sailing on a large ship had to be far better than flying. Having had a lifelong fear of heights and closed spaces, I could think of nothing that would frighten me more than feeling trapped in a potential coffin of steel and plummeting through the air to my death. Yes, it was going to be far better, considering my phobias, to be on the sea.
As the sun crossed from the east to the west, we continued to follow the narrow, winding road around the south rim, and unable to find, even on the map, a spot to picnic, we ate in the car parked at one of the overlooks, but not until I had a chance to glance over the side. Careful not to leave any debris, we ate our wrapped sandwiches, opened a bag of chips to share, and drank cokes, although I had bought Michael a carton of milk since he had more than his share of coke on this trip already. Billy had filled the cooler with ice from the machine at the motel, so the sandwiches were fresh and the beverages cold. Since I checked the map as we traveled along, I knew that before long we would be leaving the park, so I stayed extra long at the last few overlooks, just to soak in the splendor before my eyes. I enjoyed looking at the craggy sides of the canyon with its ever-changing colors, but I would be the last person to get on a mule to go to the bottom – no, not me! Of course I knew my adventurous husband would have loved to do this, but fortunately, the ride was an overnight camping trip, and quite expensive, so he had to satisfy himself with just looking down to the bottom of this incredibly steep, deep fissure in the earth.
At the last stop, we left both children asleep in the car, since Michael finally became bored, and we only walked just a few feet away in case either of them awakened. We particularly did not want Michael to find us gone due to his understandable fear of this magnificent place. Billy now stood behind me and put his arms around me with his chin resting gently on the top of my head, and said, “Well, little girl, I’ve had more satisfaction being able to show you The Grand Canyon and the wonders of the West, than I ever had seeing it for myself. I wish I could have captured on film the look in your eyes at the first stop, but I will never forget it. I love you, more than you will ever know, and our children and I hope we will be able to see the world together.” Turning me around to face him, he added with a wink, “That is if the Army cooperates and keeps sending us where we ask to go. Shall we try for Europe when I get back?”
He held me in his arms and kissed me with longing just as he had those brief years ago when we first fell in love, although I teased him and told him his kisses were much sweeter now, and he just said, “Well I had a terrific instructor.” Oh how I wish I could have stayed there, just like that, in his arms forever. With no Army, no war, no soldiers needing training, no interruptions, just my sweet Billy and me. My love for him had no bounds, every day I fell in love with him all over again with increased intensity, and I knew my life was perfect.
Suddenly, I felt a chill roll over me as if someone had stepped on my grave, and I shivered from the coldness, although the evening was still quite warm. The sun dipped further over the side of the vast canyon, and a light breeze whispered in my ear that I should make very sure to remember each moment of this past week. Particularly this day, and even though Billy’s arms were warm, I felt as if someone, or something pulled them away from me and I was alone here with our children. My heart ached as if it would break in two, and I held onto my Billy even more tightly, and kissed him even more longingly. Somehow, I knew our lives were like a sled on a steep hill, hurtling faster and faster to the finish line, but as quickly as the thought entered my heart, it was gone, and once again I was content in my darling’s loving arms.
Back in the car, I was still not ready to let go of him, so I snuggled as close as I could without impeding his driving, and while looking straight ahead, not taking his eyes off the winding road Billy asked, “You felt it too, didn’t you?”
I wanted to deny I felt anything, but I had never told him a lie, not even once. I just said, “Yes, I felt it, but I am not sure exactly what it was, other than a desperate longing to remain in your arms forever, and an overwhelming thought that I should mentally capture this moment and never forget one single thing we saw this past week. What did you feel?” I asked, although I truthfully did not want to know.
Billy continued, with a strange sadness in his voice I had never heard before, “I just felt something magic happened to us there and that I need to let you know every day and every night just how much I do love you. Probably it was just the thought that soon I will have to leave you again and perhaps this time I won’t be able to come back.”
This was not the first time he talked about not coming back from Vietnam, and we both felt the overwhelming sadness that comes from a young couple, too much in love, with war on the horizon. I could not talk about it anymore as tears began to run down my cheeks, and I saw, just for a moment, a tear in the corner of Billy’s eye, but he quickly wiped it away. I knew he did not want me to worry, or to dwell on the fact that without a doubt, he would be leaving me again, this time perhaps for good. Just as soon as we were out of the park and once again on the straight wide highway, headed west to Needles, he put his arm around me.
As my eyes closed, the brief moment of sadness gone, I thought perhaps I was just borrowing trouble and I could not ask for anything more from life than I had right here and now in this bright blue Chevy hurdling through the desert straight towards the most magnificent twilight I had ever seen.
“Look,” I said to Billy, “Isn’t the sunset unbelievable?” Indeed it was, with soft, yet bright colors unlike any seen in nature, or even in a brand new box of sixty-four crayons!
“Yes, darling wife, it is indeed magnificent,” he answered me. “And I ordered it just for you, but wait until you see the sunset in Hawaii!”
Life was perfect, and I marveled how I escaped the embarrassing brutality of an alcoholic home, met and married a boy seeking to escape the same, and now we had the perfect family with no drinking, few arguments, and our entire lives to continue to grow and enrich the love we felt for each other more each day. How fortunate we had been, or was it determined, to have made a success out of our hasty marriage, and even though we married so very young, we fooled them all. We had already been through the rough times of early marriage when as newlyweds, and for us, newly met, we learned how to love and to please each other while not compromising our own needs. I audibly sighed with contentment as I fell back asleep with my precious Billy’s arm around my shoulders holding me close. Certainly, God would never allow anything to happen to either of us – after all, he allowed us to find one another? Was not that enough, I thought, as I fell asleep in my handsome soldier’s warm embrace.