Turning points

Published 3:44 pm Monday, February 5, 2024

By Bonnie Bartel Latino

Columnist

At the end of our blind date, Tommy Latino and I raced back to the Magnolia Dorm and arrived one minute before midnight, “W girls” curfew. The outdoor entrance to the large double glass doors was crowded with couples saying good night with their lips.  As Tommy leaned in, I tilted my eyes and head to welcome his lips. We utilized all 60 seconds. He whispered he’d “call me.”

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“You better!” I said as I sauntered into the lobby, then took the stairs two at a time. I ran to my room and straight to the windows facing the street.

There he was! Strolling slowly to his car. He stopped to remove his jacket. When he reached his Chevy, he opened the driver’s door. I was mesmerized as he tossed his jacket into the air, spun in a circle, and clapped once, before catching his jacket and getting into his car. I knew he would not be dreaming about my adorable roommate, Julie, that night. 

Our date marked a major turning point in my life. It would not be the last. Months flew by. I spent a lot of time following the band and watching Tommy play rhythm guitar. He didn’t read music; he was just a natural musician. As someone who can’t carry a tune in a shopping basket, I admired his talent. His constant romantic gestures, month after month, led me to accept his proposal on Thanksgiving night 1967. Tom went to Daddy’s den to ask for my hand as Southern men know they must. 

Later, Tom told me Daddy had advised him in no uncertain terms that if I ever wanted to finish college, he expected Tommy to pay for the remainer of my education. I screeched! “What did you say?”

“The truth. If you ever want to go back to college, I will see that you do.”

“Tommy Latino,” I poked my index finger in his cleft chin, “if the Air Force doesn’t place you in the diplomatic corps, they will be fools.” I couldn’t stop laughing. He knew college was the last place I wanted to “go back to.”

“Wait. Your daddy said something else as I left the den.”

“Dare I ask?”

A sly grin spread across Tommy’s fine lips. He said, “You do know, you’re getting an unblemished girl.” No one knew better than my fiancé that I was still unblemished. Again, we both laughed ourselves silly as only the newly engaged and hopelessly in love can. 

In late January 1968, Tom’s sister, their parents, and I attended Tom’s private graduation from Mississippi State. Immediately after he received his diploma, his mom and I pinned on his “Butter Bars,” the nickname of the brass-colored insignia of a USAF second lieutenant. Tommy Latino’s graduation made him the first graduate and first military officer in his family. That day proved to be a proud day for his first-generation Scilian American parents.

Tom stayed in Starkville and played with the band until late March, when he left for Reese Air Force Base in Texas, for Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT).

I still had two months of college. I spent most of my free time waiting for Tommy to call. One night I heard a bunch of girls laughing and cutting up in our Common Area. I peeked my head inside the door. There were about a dozen sophomores from the far end of our hall. They were dormmates, but not friends. “Can anybody join this party?”    

“Sure” they replied in unison. I took a seat on one of the sofas. The 1960s decor of nondescript furniture and pastel colors begged to be ignored. A large console TV droned in the background. Bowls of popcorn and opened bottles of cold TAB and Dr Pepper fought for space atop the oak coffee table. Suddenly the face of Walter Cronkite from CBS Nightly News popped on TV.  Mr. Cronkite, then a handsome man in his prime, appeared constrained as he wished viewers “Good evening.” He spoke with the eloquence of a skilled diplomat. “Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of non-violence in the civil rights movement, has been shot to death in Memphis. . .”

Silence reigned for a mere second, followed by my bewildered question. “Why are y’all smiling . . .” Before I finished the sentence, my words and those of Mr. Cronkite, were obliterated amidst cheers and raucous laughter exploding around me. My stomach hurt and bile rose in my throat. The outpouring of hate repulsed me. I gasped as I looked around in disbelief. Who were these compassionless young women?

Without thinking and with no idea what I would say, I stood and looked at every face, each one twisted by loathing that had contorted their faces into billboards of hate. “Y’all!” I got their attention. “No matter what your politics, or that of your parents, please consider Dr. King’s wife, his children, perhaps his parents. He was a human being. His family, and a lot of Americans are grieving tonight.”

The girls booed me as loudly as they had cheered the shocking news. Their loathing toward me projected from eyes that screamed my words had no impact on hearts obviously hardened by racism. Possibly, generational racism. Not one girl spoke for Dr. King or in defense of me. Thank God none of my friends had been among this cackle of hyenas. That’s hard, but these “W Girls” had earned it.

Shaking my head, I left the room. My face burned as if every girl in the room had slapped me. I was embarrassed . . . for them. I heard no cheers as I walked down the long hall. From a room near mine, Sam Cooke’s lyrics wailed from a radio. One of my suite mates lived in Memphis. Perhaps, hers.

I was ready to leave this dorm and even more ready to become Second Lieutenant Tommy Latino’s wife and part of the Air Force family.