The lieutenant wives

Published 11:05 am Monday, March 25, 2024

By Bonnie Bartel Latino

Columnist

“Never cook until you see the whites of his eyes.” Wives of newly married military student pilots soon learned that crucial phrase. Undergraduate pilot training (UPT) was never a nine to five job. I often spent afternoons in our tiny kitchen chopping red onions and iceberg lettuce, slicing tomatoes and marinating cucumbers in vinegar. Only when our husbands called saying they were leaving for home, did we pre-heat our ovens. We began cooking only when each man arrived at his home. Mine always needed a shower first to wash away a long day of hard-earned sweat.

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Tom never complained about UPT, nor about any meal I tried to cook. I was aware my man had not chosen me for my culinary skills. Even my high school principal, Travis Black, knew I lacked kitchen skills. He pulled me out of home economics, saying “Bonnie, you will never make (sic) a housewife, but you will be a writer.” Then we walked down the hall, where he introduced me to my typing teacher. I learned my most critical skill from Miss Brenda Gruetzmacher. Unless UPT wives had a military function to attend, most of us were free to do as we pleased Monday through Friday. Since our husbands were only going to be at Reese a year, many wives didn’t even look for a job. Some had children, others went to college. A few air “hostesses” continued flying in and out of Lubbock to an airline hub like Dallas, Texas.

My first social function, where I met many of the wives of the men in Tom’s section of UPT, had been a baby shower for one of the wives. While there, I overheard a conversation between two new wives. In low whispers, they admitted to being “freaked out” about going to an Officers Wives Club (OWC) luncheon and mingling with the wives of higher-ranking officers. And face it, for most of us, that was everyone. I could not relate to their fears. My sister, Aimee Allen, wife of a United States Marine Corps major by then, helped me prepare as much as one could for the military lifestyle. Before that, Mama (Aimee Bartel) and some of her best friends often asked several teenage girls to serve refreshments at their parties for young women, who were graduating, getting engaged, married or having a baby. Dressed in our Sunday best, we served tea, coffee and Southern delicacies like salted roasted nuts, pecan sandies and cheese straws. We also learned which fork to use; how to set a table for various parties; and how to hold a conversation with party hostesses. We didn’t realize we were enrolled in Hosting 101 and Advanced Party Manners. I had no idea those fabulous ladies would become instrumental to my ease at military social functions, which all wives were encouraged to attend in 1968.

At my first student wives’ coffee at the Officers Club (O’ Club), chatter was lively. Often punctuated by laughter, it felt… familiar, much like serving at Atmore tea parties. Some of the women here were also older, but lieutenant wives were well represented. Suddenly I saw a familiar smile. I remembered the perky, freckle-faced, young blonde from the baby shower. “Hey, there, Maggie Emery! Right?” When she replied, her accent, more guttural than mine, sounded radically different. All I understood was “Sure am,” or maybe she had asked for jam!? In spite of her rapid delivery, heavy Michigan accent, and my Alabama drawl, somehow we just clicked. We discovered our new husbands were in the same section of Class 69-06. I liked Maggie Emery with her friendly personality and wit as quick as her smile. Two women serving coffee and tea from large silver, footed urns beckoned to us. Maggie took her Java black; I preferred Earl Gray with lemon and milk. Bypassing the pastries, we both opted for a couple of lemon thins. 

We took our refreshments and sat them on the white tablecloth covering a nearby, round table for eight. Soon we were comparing our short journeys as Air Force wives. Every few minutes we stopped chattering and welcomed young women we didn’t yet know as they joined the table. Suddenly Maggie fixed her earnest green eyes on mine and said, “I bet you were a Scout!”

I felt my face flush. No way was I going to confess that my Scout leader had ejected me at 13 for burping. “You can’t even imagine what type of Girl Scout I was.”

“I knew you were!” Maggie replied.

“Truthfully, Maggie, I was at my best as a Brownie.” Bowing at the waist, I added “Troop Six, Atmore, Alabama, Ma’am.”

Neither Maggie nor I could have conceived that we would soon be embroiled in the wives’ version of “Rank has its privileges” conundrum.

(To be continued.)