MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 57 – Seafood, More Heat, and Sears
The next morning after a hasty breakfast, Billy left us at the motel while he drove down to El Toro Marine Base. I expected him to be gone most of the day but was relieved and thankful when he came in about lunchtime with what had become the ritual bag of burgers.
He was dripping wet with perspiration, and before we ate, I wet a clean washcloth with cool water and wiped his red face and neck only to find that he was almost clammy from the heat. I imagined this was the way he had been during Airborne School, but of course, I was not there to soothe him as I was this day, but then again, he would not have been at home either. After I finished cooling him down and he removed his soaking wet shirt and t-shirt, I hugged him and expressed my delight on his swift return as we all dove into the hamburgers. With his mouth full he said, “You didn’t expect me to leave my little family here to starve, did you?”
“Actually I thought that I could make do with soda and crackers from the vending machines, but having you here is so much better,” I replied, although I had planned for just such an event.
“Its too damn hot to stay outside without air-conditioning in the car, even riding with the windows open I sweated more than I did during Airborne,” he continued, “and it’s not safe for you or the children out there either. I just wonder how we will make out at Disneyland. If you start feeling sick, or the children seem not to be bearing up, we will just have to politely tell your uncle that it is too hot, and I hope he will understand, but I will not risk harming my family in this heat.”
I assured him that I felt certain that Uncle Charles would not mind if we did not stay at the park for the entire day, and surely by mid afternoon, it would too hot for any of us, but then again Uncle Charles was used to these ‘inversion fronts’, and we were not.
Billy then told me that El Toro was much smaller, and not nearly as rigid with regulations as he thought it would be, that it did not compare to the ‘regimentation’ on Ft. Benning, which surprised me since I had always thought of the Marines as the most ‘polished’ branch of the military. At least that was the recollection from my childhood when living at the Naval Mine Warfare School in Yorktown. We went to Sunday school at a nearby Marine Base and the difference in the two services was obvious, even to a child’s eyes, but then we were also at war with Korea at the time. Unfortunately, war being the ‘business’ of the military services, during wartime there was a much more ‘business-like’ atmosphere, and the congress allotted more of its budget for the armed forces than during peacetime.
After lunch, Billy played roughhouse on the bed with Michael, picking him up and letting him jump from his shoulders to the bed repeatedly. I hate to think of the state of those bedsprings when we left! Billy swung our little boy around the room as well as he could in our cramped quarters, but I was horrified that one or the other would hit their head on the sharp corner of a piece of furniture, but Billy was careful. He wanted to make a ‘man’ out of Michael since his mother was so protective of him, and I wanted my children to have the childhood that I never had, and not grow up too fast. I never remembered my father playing with my brothers like Billy played with Michael and his brothers, nor did Gene participate in his son’s roughhouse. In fact, I never once remember seeing Gene play with his sons at all – not ‘catch’, nor even raking the leaves for them to jump into like Poppa did. Gene was all business, all of the time, but then again I wondered how much of the blame was Helen’s since I am sure that Gene did not like to come home to a drunken wife, even if it meant not coming home to his own sons.
Billy had really missed his own little family during Ranger School, realizing that soon we would once again be apart. He was trying very hard to be more patient with Michael, and for that, I was grateful. He handled Margie like a piece of delicate crystal, but she was different – she was a girl, and still very much an infant. Finally, with playtime over Michael settled down to watch still more cartoons and both bored and worn out from his play, he was soon sound asleep. Our child, who had not taken a nap since he was 18 months old, was taking long naps daily and sleeping all night without waking! I had decided that the unusual long time he spent watching cartoons had to be hypnotizing him, and with that he fell asleep, but this was a little boy who was used to being outside playing most of the day. What he needed was to get out of this ‘prison’, and to work off some of his energy, and Billy could only provide so much ‘rough’ play in this small an area. Both my boys were longing for a place to exercise, while I just longed for clean, cool air!
We would be going to meet my Uncle Charles and Aunt Ruth early on Thursday since we did not have to turn the car in until 11:00 p.m. at the latest, but Billy was restless. After Darby’s Rangers was over for the day, he thought that we should all go over to the Sears at Long Beach, even though it meant paying tolls, but then we could have a good supper in a decent restaurant. By that time, I had just about had my fill of Darby’s Rangers and hamburgers. Although I read or napped while the movie was on, I agreed that it would be good for all of us to get out, even if it was just from one air-conditioned environment to another.
Billy dressed Michael while I put on some makeup and tried to look as presentable as possible, although with my new ‘blonde’ hair Billy assured me that I looked wonderful even without makeup. He thought that my new color flattered my ‘peaches and cream’ complexion and made my green eyes stand out even more. It seemed as if he could not take his eyes off me, but I knew what he was really thinking about – sex!
Sears was not too far from the motel, and the store was not crowded this late afternoon. The merchandise seemed very different from that in Atlanta. However, I found some nice Bermuda short sets that I could wear during the day on board the ship and one pink seersucker dress for evening that had enough lace to be ‘dressy’, and buttoned down the front, since everything I bought now had to have front buttons for the obvious reason. This would be suitable to wear when I dressed for supper aboard ship, plus cool enough for Hawaii’s tropical climate, so now I actually had three outfits that I could wear to ‘dress’ for supper. We bought Michael two more sets of shorts with shirts to match, the baby two soft casual sundresses, all frilly with ruffles and lace, and with our purchases paid for; we asked the last salesperson where we might find a nice place to eat supper where children would be welcome. He directed us about four blocks south where there was a casual seafood restaurant, but later we were to realize that just about everything in California was ‘casual’ compared to our ‘style’ of living in the still very protocol conscious south.
We saw out first Black and White couple shopping in the store with their little girl who was neither, and realized that it was not just the distance, but just about everything that was different in California. Unfortunately, in Georgia, they would have been the object of ridicule and rude stares, but here no one seemed to notice, and their little girl was adorable with a complexion the color of a cup of coffee half filled with cream. Of course we heard a lot of shoppers speaking a slang type of Spanish, which I guessed correctly was Mexican, and I was surprised that I could pick up most of what was said, but if I had to converse with them, it would have been close to impossible. Billy had not been fond of foreign languages in college, and had fared abysmally while taking German, but Spanish had been the simplest of languages to learn, or so I had been told, and having taken it in high school, I continued at North Georgia for the short time I was a student there.
Bundling our packages in a large shopping bag, Billy rounded up Michael who was enjoying looking at himself in one of the three-way mirrors. When we left the cool of the air-conditioned store, the heat hit us square in the face like walking into a sauna, just as it had every day since we had arrived. Once again, the heat had not abated as the sun set, rather the loss of light seemed to turn up the thermostat! Billy no longer left anything in the backseat of the car, if he could help it, being far more contentious after we had lost so many gifts to the thief who had broken in while we were shopping at Sears in Atlanta, and now he locked our purchases in the trunk. Thankfully It was just a short, traffic-free drive to the restaurant that looked like an old fishing boat that had washed up on shore after a storm, and had not had much renovation either, but it did look interesting. Once inside, a hostess showed us to a table that looked out towards the terminal. However, this was not exactly what I called a ‘seaside’ view, since all I could see were the lights of the industry on the bay, the blocks, and blocks of warehouses, and the car headlights on the distant roads, but the restaurant was air-conditioned, which had become a prerequisite for us.
I ordered a broiled seafood platter with some rather unusual types of seafood, like salmon, which I had only tasted from a can, and prawns, which were huge shrimp. Billy ordered the fried prawns for himself, and for Michael, and not even a child’s plate, since he knew that he could easily finish not only his plate, but also what his son did not eat, and he still would not have had enough! This was also the first ‘a la carte’ restaurant I had ever eaten in so I just ordered a green salad with blue cheese dressing while Billy ordered the French fries and salad for himself, and French fries and a fruit salad for Michael. We both knew that Michael would fill himself up with the fries, smothered in ketchup, and the fruit, before he would eat the shrimp, and Billy would get the rest. Hot rolls came with the meal although the beverage was extra, and since there were free refills on the iced tea only, Billy ordered this instead of coke, which was did not come with refills. A glass of milk for Michael and doing a quick addition in my head, I knew that the bill would come to almost $40! This was a huge amount for us to pay for one meal, and even an entire day’s meals during our trip. As I crinkled my brow with concern, Billy told me not to worry since we had actually spent a lot less than we had budgeted for the entire trip having not been able to get to Salt Lake City. I could not see what difference this made since we had still had to pay for a room that was more expensive than any other was for those two days and we still had paid for meals, although perhaps we had saved some on those with our sandwiches, crackers, and sodas. Billy told me to add to this our ‘free’ meal in Rosemead the night before with my family, and that we could afford this ‘treat’.
However, as usual, I was the one to worry, while sometimes I thought that Billy would never learn to budget, and still imagined that money grew on trees. He had also always been able to call his father when things got too rough, but I had a gut feeling that this would come to a screeching halt if Ruth ever found out! Billy now only wrote to his father using the store’s address, and when he called, unless he wanted to talk to the boys, he called him at the store. Yes, we had made every effort to avoid this woman whose jealousy of Gene’s love for Billy had turned her vicious with envy, and we suspected that Gene had a hard time dealing with her too. By now I was sure that he was regretting ever having met her, as he saw his oldest son, his favorite, tossed aside and ‘dismissed’ by this woman, and his youngest two sons made miserable by her jealousy. Only Dickie seemed to be faring well under her reign as ‘queen’ of the McConnell household, and eventually she even turned him against his devoted older brother. No, there would not be much money, if any, coming from Griffin anymore.
I also was concerned about what I had heard about the ‘high cost of living’ in Hawaii. In fact, the Army supplemented the pay for those who had to live off post with what was called a ‘C.O.L.A.’ or ‘Cost of Living Allowance’, since they were well aware of the added expense when quarters were not available for young soldiers and officers with families. Billy had grand illusions of living on the beach, if not at Schofield Barracks, but realistically I knew that we would never be able to afford living anywhere near the ocean. We had already heard from Trish and Rusty, they were living in temporary quarters in Wahiawa, the closest town to Schofield, and they had reserved a room there for our arrival. Rusty was waiting for Billy to go ‘house hunting’ so that we could live close to each other again since Michael and Elizabeth played so well together, and soon Trish would be having her new baby and hopefully a playmate for Margie. In addition, this would make it nice for Trish, and for me, since one of us would have a car and we could ‘share’ as we had previously done with Margaret and Larry, who should be well settled in Panama by now. I was anxious to have an address so that I could write to her about all I had seen on our great adventure. Margaret had promised to write to me at ‘C’ Co., 1/14th, so we should have mail waiting for us since she was a reliable correspondent. We both promised to write long letters about our families, our homes, and our days in these far off lands, and I felt sure that she would have written at least once by now.
As we waited for our much-anticipated meal, which at these prices should be enormous and wonderful, I fed Margie her cereal and fruit, and she settled down to gurgle and coo at the silly faces her father was making at her. Michael soon joined in the fun to make the baby laugh, and any on-lookers must have thought we were quite a crazy family, although I had decided that in California, anything goes! We probably looked far more sane than most!
The meal was wonderful, and the plates were more the size of platters and filled with hot steaming seafood. The ‘prawns’ were more than twice the size of east coast shrimp, and Billy’s eyes widened with delight when his plate arrived. As we suspected, Michael dug into the fruit and French fries, but then with a frown on his face, he said, “Mommy, the pineapple tastes funny.” Wanting to make sure that my child had not been served rancid fruit, I took a piece of the pineapple on my fork, and from that one bite my taste for the canned fruit was ruined, since this was ‘fresh’ pineapple, and an entirely different taste from that I had ever eaten before. It was far too good for mere sandwiches! I had thought for a long time that the first time I tasted fresh pineapple was aboard ship, but then after waking my memories as I began to write, I remembered that night on Long Beach, and our first encounter, and I just knew that I would never tire of this delicious fruit! Or so I thought! The salmon was out of this world, obviously very fresh, flaky, and tender, there were six large prawns, six huge sea scallops and several crab legs on my platter, and I wondered if I could eat it all.
Billy had no trouble wolfing down his shrimp, and then starting on his fries, while he patiently waited for Michael to say, “All done,” as he did after every meal. At least he no longer turned his plate upside down and finger-painted with his leftovers before running his hands through his hair! I do not think that either Billy or I could have handled that thankfully long gone habit on this trip.
There was not a bite of food left on the table when we finished. Billy even ate all of his salad, which contained some vegetables that I knew he had never tasted before, like raw cauliflower and small bits of fresh broccoli, but he seemed not to even notice as he added more and more Thousand Island dressing. I certainly had no room for dessert, but when Billy asked the waiter what was available, and he said that they had freshly made lemon meringue pie, I knew that he would never turn down his favorite dessert. Of course Michael wanted his promised ice cream for ‘finishing’ his meal (what his daddy did not eat), but I decided to pass since the button on my skirt was already straining, and I sat patiently while my ‘boys’ savored each bite of their desserts. Although the lemon pie was different from the way that I made it with the condensed milk, Billy ate it anyway without comment. Maybe he was becoming a more sophisticated diner after all, and I knew that we would encounter food aboard ship that neither of us had ever tasted. I was looking forward to this cuisine adventure with exotic foods, although my taste would not handle calamari, or other ‘gourmet’ seafood. It was not the taste, but the idea of what I was eating that ruined it for me, and I hoped that the menu would offer either steak or shrimp each night for Billy and Michael.
Back at the motel, the light was blinking that we had a phone message waiting at the desk, so Billy called only to find out that my Uncle Charles had left a message to verify the time we would meet him at his apartment, 10:00 a.m. He had hoped it was not too early for us, but he had forgotten that 10:00 a.m. with a baby and a not quite three year old was almost midday! While Billy bathed Michael and got him ready for bed, I called Uncle Charles and told him that time would be fine, and once again verified the directions to his apartment. After tucking Michael into bed to watch cartoons, Billy went down to the motel’s Laundromat while I bathed and nursed Margie and got her settled for the night. I had just finished reading two Golden Books to Michael, whose head was beginning to nod, when Billy arrived back in the room with the clean and dry clothes. He dumped them on our bed as I tucked Michael in, and while we both sat and folded them, he asked, “Up for a long shower?”
My answer was a big smile with “I thought you would never ask.”
Therefore, in this rather run-down motel in San Pedro, while we could not begin to empty the hot water tanks, we gave it a good try! Fascinated by my large breasts, just as he had been when I tried to nurse Michael, Billy fondled them, kissed them, and said that he wished they would stay that way forever. Alas, I knew that just as soon as Margie was too old to nurse, although I hoped to nurse her as long as possible, they would once again shrivel up into rosebuds. At least until the next baby and with Billy McConnell at the helm there were sure to be more, although I thought that my family was perfect right now.
Oh, how good life had been to me! I never, in my wildest teen-age dreams, thought I would marry such a handsome man and have the ‘perfect family’, a boy first and then a girl. I wondered aloud what I had done in my life to deserve all this, and Billy echoed my sentiments. Even if I had known what the near future would bring, I do not think that I could have given him more of my attention than I had since Margie’s six-week birthday. I tried to think of just when we both had changed and no longer had the disagreements that had punctuated our first years of marriage, and I knew that it was that short separation when he had been in Airborne School. It was during this time that I realized that I wanted to spend the rest of our days making sure that he knew how much I loved him, and that he was the number one priority in my life.
For Billy, it was when he came home to our dark apartment and felt so lost while longing for his little family, that he had realized that perhaps he had been selfish and uncaring where his career was concerned, and he vowed to spend more time making sure that I stayed in love with him. He also said that when I was so gracious and not upset when he told me that he would be in Ranger School when the baby was due, and when I did not have one of my ‘hissy fits’, as Billy called my tantrums, that he knew that our marriage had reached the point of no return. We both knew then that we would always be in love with each other, ‘more than life itself’.
From the moment that he greeted us on the sidewalk outside our apartment with his silver wings gleaming on his chest, we both knew that neither of us ever wanted to be apart again, and from the letters that he wrote home from Ranger School, I knew that he still felt that way, even more so. I knew that I would have died for him, and without him, and during every day when he was not with me, he was on my mind, and in my heart.
Actually, Ruth, in her cruelty by denying Billy his boyhood home and room, had done me a favor. She had driven him firmly into my arms, with no family to go to in Griffin anymore, and as he said that next day, it was just us – our family – his family and that was all we both had, which made our bond even more precious. He could have no doubt how much I loved him, and I no longer had any doubt how much he loved our beautiful children and me. Every opportunity that he had, he told me, but most of all, he showed me, and I melted in his arms with each kiss.
Never had I thought that things could be this wonderful for us, but now I was living my dream. Just three more days, and we would embark on our newest adventure, and travel around another bend in our river of life. What could possibly make it any better than this? What wonderful adventures awaited us in paradise?