A strange new world

Published 3:57 pm Friday, April 12, 2024

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By Bonnie Bartel Latino


Readers of last week’s column may want to know the fall-out from the lieutenant colonel’s wife, who used Maggie and me as babysitters after our weekly Brownie Scout meetings ended at Reese Air Force Base, Texas.

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Maggie and I learned the wheels of justice sometimes move silently in the military. Tom and Chuck suffered no consequences. The experience taught us early in our husbands’ careers that there was definitely a pecking order in the Air Force, and it apparently applied to wives, too. From them on, our Brownies’ moms all picked them up on time after every meeting.

Tom’s four years of R.O.T.C. at Mississippi State (University) made the early weeks of Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) at Reese relatively easy. In R.O.T.C., he had learned to fly the civilian equivalent of the USAF’s T-41, the first plane student pilots trained in during UPT. On a farmer’s land in Mississippi, he had also learned how to take off and land on a grassy airstrip, plus he had soloed in that aircraft multiple times.

Thus, the peculiarities of military life intersected with life’s ordinary occurrences. We tried to achieve normalcy in this new world in which we found ourselves. It wasn’t easy with the possibility of a tour to Vietnam hanging over the would-be pilot’s head. One of the first things we did together was purchase a tiny white poodle. We named her Lamb Chop. The term, emotional support dog didn’t yet exist, but that’s what she was to me.

Meanwhile Tom honed his flying skills, and I began to gain knowledge necessary to thrive in such an unfamiliar environment. The nuances of a military career were often draped in tradition with unusual terminology. For example, I learned an officer’s formal military dress consisted of a white dress shirt with cufflinks beneath a black tuxedo waist jacket that bore rank insignia on shoulder epaulets, black trousers and matching black bow tie and cummerbund. Referred to as Mess Dress, I thought it an oxymoron at best. During summer months, military officers wore white tuxedo waist jackets. As a new Air Force wife, I was shocked to learn that all officers, even second lieutenants, purchased their own uniforms.

I also learned the difference between Dining-In and Dining-Out. Both were formal military dinners defined primarily by who attended each. A Dining-In was strictly for active-duty members. A Dining-Out included wives (or dates, for bachelors), and had nothing to do with enjoying a glamorous evening off base. The affair was still a formal military event, just much more civilized than a Dining-In. For instance, Tom’s class 69-06 earned a notorious reputation, thanks in part to an inebriated second lieutenant at their Dining-In. Said lieutenant tossed his “cookies” into his dinner plate during the keynote speech given by the chief chaplain of the Air Force, as the title was then-known. Class 69-06 became well known for the aforementioned evening in which numerous officers, after the formal portion of the evening concluded, made tabletop belly-flop landings in the O’Club while wearing their Mess Dress uniforms. This apparently seemed unusual only due to the presence of the guest speaker from Washington, D.C.

Tom and I went to fun student pilot parties with my Brownie co-leader, Maggie, and her husband Chuck. We laughed and danced in equal measure. At parties in the fall, most of us sang along as we danced to the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and to the Bee Gees’ “Gotta Get a Message to You.” I doubt many of us knew the lyrics portrayed a man on death row crooning to his sweetheart. At those gatherings we never saw another Hairy Buffalo. Thank heavens! Class 69-06 held a couple of family picnics and a weekly night bowling league for couples. The women attended more baby showers and most of us attended the monthly coffee and luncheon for all officers’ wives at Reese AFB’s O’Club. No one visited parents, siblings, or old friends at Thanksgiving, Christmas, or to celebrate the New Year – 1969 – unless they lived close to Lubbock. “No leave” for pilots in training meant exactly that.

Snow flurries swirled early in March, and on the 15th, a large thunderstorm ushered in a heavy snowfall, which transformed Lubbock into a bright white wonderland. I discovered that afternoon that my sister, Aimee Allen, the Marine wife, had given birth in Pensacola, Fla. to their second child! To honor the arrival of Kimberly Michelle Allen, I ran outside with Lamb Chop barking loudly as I made angels in the snow!

Anyone who has never seen a small white dog of any breed bounding excitedly through snow deeper than she/he is tall, put it on your bucket list.