Embrace me

Published 10:56 am Thursday, January 25, 2024

By Bonnie Latino

Columnist

January 8, 1981

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Hugging my sisters after two years was like a trip to Switzerland. I never wanted it to end. As we broke our impromptu circle hug, our heads bobbed in sync with our laughter. We came by our hugging gene via DNA. Aimee and Bill Bartel were big huggers and people-persons. Betty, Aimee, and I had gathered in our parents’ home in Atmore, Alabama, to finalize plans for their 50th anniversary party.

Aimee’s husband Dee, a retired USMC officer, had stayed in Texas to be with their three children, who were all like their mama, blue-eyed blonds. Betty inherited Daddy’s ebony black curls. Her short cut framed her eyes that were as dark as her curls. Her two teenagers were at her home about a mile away.

One never knew what color my hair would be, but my 33-year-old eyes remained as green as they were in high school. My new home (for now) was England. Tom, my Air Force husband, commanded the only American Squadron at RAF Uxbridge in the London Borough of Hillingdon, where the Queens’ Color Squadron is billeted. It is a coveted assignment. His former boss at the USAF Military Personnel Center had taken care that Captain Tom Latino had the inside track to be selected for the job. Fortunately, the general officer in Europe, who ultimately chose Tom for the position, had known us both when Tom was a lieutenant and in the man’s chain of command at March Air Force Base in California. My workaholic husband, now a major, would not disappoint his former bosses, but he promised me he would arrive before the anniversary party on the 17th.

As the Bartel sisters took our seats around the oblong oak table in our parents’ kitchen, Aimee, her posture morphing into “all business” mode, quickly ran her eyes through her checklist lying on the table. “I brought the engraved party napkins with me,” she turned to Betty. “You ordered the food we aren’t making, right?” Betty nodded.

I knew we would make deviled eggs and serve them on Mama’s egg plate that was older than any of us. We were not caviar people. “Champagne and wine,” Aimee said. We were Episcopalians, I thought, but I said, “Daddy assured me the bubbly is already chilling at Bartel’s Frozen Foods.

Aimee snapped her fingers. “One last thing.” Her voice and more relaxed posture signaled we were nearing the end of Party Planning 101. “I ordered a large arrangement of yellow and white gladiola mixed with curly willow sticks for the food table and smaller glass containers of yellow and white roses with baby’s breath for the other rooms. That OK?”

“Beyond OK,” I said, hardly able to keep my eyes open. “Can y’all imagine being married for 50 years?”

“To the same person?” Betty, a divorcee, quipped. “Sounds like a life-sentence to me.” Aimee and I laughed despite ourselves. How I wish I could have telescoped time and told Betty how happy she would soon be.

I yawned again. “‘Baby Sister’, you’re falling asleep,” Aimee said. “Go to bed. I’ll tidy up when Betty leaves.” Aimee would stay in the guest room.

“I’m sorry to be a party-pooper. I have a bad case of ‘jet flag’ as the adorable, young son of one of Tom’s sergeants says after returning from stateside with his parents.”

My sisters and I shared another hug as we said g’nite, and I staggered off to bed. I knocked on my parents’ bedroom door, then peaked in. Mama was asleep and Daddy was watching the 10 o’clock news on TV. I ran over and gave him a kiss on his balding head. Love you, I whispered as I went back to my bedroom. My mind wandered back 13 years previously when I left home as a spoiled, ungrateful brat, for Mississippi State College for Women in Columbus. I soon met Tommy Latino from Pass Christian, Mississippi, on a blind date. The senior at Mississippi State in Starkville, played in THE campus rock band, T-Tommy and the Tyrants, later Kaleidoscope. He had also been in ROTC for all four years. Had I fallen in love with an oxymoron?

A long-haired, local rock star, and an ROTC cadet?!

The answer was simple. Tommy put himself through college with national school loans, grueling summer jobs in construction and playing music on the Mississippi Gulf coast by night.

The $27 stipend he received during his last two years of ROTC, plus earnings from the year ‘round band paid for incidentals. The music-loving, patriotic, second-generation Italian American, had earned the rank of Eagle Scout and quarterbacked his high school football team. His principal had selected him as President of the Student Body. Determined to make something of himself, Tommy Latino was no oxymoron.

After I brought him home to meet my parents, Bill Bartel took me aside and locked his eyes with mine, a stern glare I had not often seen. “Young lady, do not bring that long haired, hippy Communist, Rock and Roller back to this house until he gets his hair cut!” Daddy was just a tad-bit to the right of Archie Bunker or would have been if he had been on air back then.

Six months later, Tommy went to Eglin Air Force Base for ROTC Summer Camp and Survival School training. Cadet Tom Latino got a buzz cut. Daddy got his wish. I got my man.

As I changed into one of Tom’s old football jerseys and crawled into bed, the words of an old Johnny Mathis song sprang to mind. “You and you alone bring out the gypsy in me.” From our first date Tom had talked incessantly about how much we wanted to see the world. Smiling, I drifted off to dreamland. Tom held me in his arms as we danced in Daddy’s den. “Embrace me, you irreplaceable you.”

Daddy’s knock on my door awakened me. “Come on in.”

“Bon, don’t get upset.” Suddenly my senses stood at full attention. His voice quaked in a way I had never heard. “They just said on the news that, um, RAF Uxbridge. . .” his voice rose three octaves, was bombed tonight.”

    [Atmore native, Bonnie Bartel Latino, began her journalism as a teenager co-writing, with Pam Middleton, a weekly column for the Atmore Advance for five years. A former columnist for Stars Stripes in Europe, book reviewer for the Mobile Press-Register, and wrote for over 20 years for Grace Publishing in Atmore. The multi-award winner of fiction and literary non-fiction, lives in Atmore with her husband, Col. Tom Latino, USAF, retired, and their Havanese rescue pup, Bella.]