The chapel of love

Published 2:43 pm Tuesday, February 13, 2024

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By Bonnie Bartel Latino


“Are you nervous, Bon?” Daddy tentatively touched the French Alençon lace that trimmed my fingertip veil. I looked into his blue eyes as I swallowed my glee. I shook my head. “No, Sir. I feel serene, happy, and excited!”

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“Good. Because you always over-think everything.”

“So, I’ve heard.” My mind wandered as we waited for our cue to appear inside the door at the back of the base chapel at Reese Air Force Base. Not wanting my ankle length, white linen, column dress to wrinkle, I stood straight and still. Daddy remained only inches away. By mid-afternoon, the Texas sun outside blazed as hot as the war in Vietnam sizzled. Our wedding day, a Friday, June 7, 1968, had dawned clear with horizon to horizon, bright skies the color of Texas Blue Bonnets. It appeared more ocean than sky as it floated above the flat landscape just above 3000-feet elevation.

“What a spectacular day to get married!” My attempt to compose myself resulted in more giggles. “I was just thinking about how funny you were driving that U-HAUL trailer with all my worldly goods from Alabama to North Texas, Daddy. You dog-cussed that thing across nearly a thousand miles.”

“I most certainly did not!” We both knew he was lying. We were still laughing when he leaned down and whispered. “It wasn’t my fault. I had to park where I could go straight and forward. That idiotic wagon was defective. It would not back up!”

It might have been driver-error, I chuckled silently to myself. I was 20, and my parents were 60. Having a baby at 40 had been brave, as had making this marathon trip at their age.

“You were heroic fighting that trailer, Daddy.” I would never tell him Tommy only recently learned if we had waited to ship my clothes and wedding gifts after we married, the military would have sent a moving company to Atmore, packed, boxed, and trucked it all to Heritage Arms Apartments, our new home in Lubbock. Why hadn’t anyone told him? Rhetorical question. I knew why. I shook my head at our naivety. Tommy and I did not even know what we didn’t know.

Daddy’s voice interrupted my embarrassing thoughts. “I’m sorry you didn’t get to have your dream wedding. Back in Atmore with all your crazy girl friends around you.” I took his hand and admitted I had always believed I would walk down historic Trinity Episcopal Church’s crimson carpet and marry my handsome fiancé waiting at the altar. “I also knew you and Mama would host a champagne reception at your house.” He averted his gaze to the chapel’s gray, government-issued linoleum floor, then back at me. Were those tears forming in his eyes? “Guess that’s your first sacrifice for Tommy’s career.”

“It doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. I just want to marry him already!” Saying those words sent joy racing through every cell of my body! Daddy cleared his throat. “We should go out when the music starts.” He raised his eyebrows and tilted his head assuring me it was a question.

My palms smoothed imaginary wrinkles down the front of my dress. “There probably won’t be any music, Daddy. This is going to be a no-frills, Vietnam War Era wedding.

“What does the Vietnam War have to do . . .” He raised his voice, a sure sign he was annoyed. “. . . with your wedding?

“Let me count the ways.” I smiled and stoically counted on my fingers. “First, the Air Force desperately needs pilots for the war. Two, training takes a year. Three, student pilots are given no leave. Four, all the bachelors were ‘counseled’ not to get married during Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT). It is not personal. The same policy probably applies to all pilot training bases.” I steeled myself not to become angry. “You know, Tommy had to fly earlier this afternoon?” Daddy nodded yes.

“Surprise! Surprise! He has to fly early Monday morning, too. No time for a wedding back home, much less a honeymoon.” I took a breath, exhaled slowly, and put on my brightest ‘I will be happy’ smile. “The U.S. Air Force does not make it easy for student pilots to get married.’’