Where did the bubbly co-ed go?

Published 3:47 pm Thursday, April 25, 2024

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By Bonnie Bartel Latino


As a writer since childhood, I appreciate readers’ feedback, even critical comments. Without fail, I reconsider both what I have written and the reader’s viewpoint. When I discover merit in constructive criticism, it has often made me a better writer. I received two different types of reader reaction from last week’s column. The headline was Broken Wings. The article primarily covered the time Tom had almost completed pilot training, but he began having severe chest pains. A flight surgeon at Reese Air Force Base, Texas, twice sent him to San Antonio for further testing at both the Army and Air Force’s premiere medical centers at the time. The reason Tom was eventually medically eliminated from pilot training so close to graduation was not because he had Pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac around the heart, but because all of his physical tests and blood samples could not prove the cause of his Pericarditis.

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One male reader and Atmore native, who graduated from college and became a teacher and a published author in central Alabama, sent me a two-word text: “Positively fascinating!” That brought a smile.

Some less delighted comments, I found useful after I carefully considered them. These remarks were from a male author, editor, and publisher. I would be irresponsible not to read these thoughts carefully: “Your column reads like a third person account of Tom’s pilot training until the last couple of paragraphs when you relate the uncomfortable, personal experience you had with the lieutenant colonel’s wife at Furr’s Cafeteria. Where is the bubbly young co-ed we met at college? . . . I think any opportunity to illustrate the impact of a military career through your eyes and the ways it affected your life is more compelling.”

As I read the critique, I realized something I had almost forgotten. A part of the “bubbly young co-ed” died the day I married into the military. I remembered Tom’s section of his pilot training class had a Beatnik party in late summer of 1968. Most of us were dancing and having fun, when one of my fellow student wives, who already had a couple of children, pulled me aside and asked, “Where did you learn to dance like that?” I laughed and said, “I just came from college in June.” “Ohh,” she replied and wandered off. I wasn’t sure what she meant. Knowing her sweet nature, I decided to take it as a compliment. However, I toned down my dance moves.

I knew and accepted that my unspoken, volunteer job in pilot training was to support Tom and his career. In the 30 years he served, I never resented that. Disgruntled wives eventually jettisoned their husbands to return to civilian life. The only women, who vaguely knew the military way of life were those whose fathers had served in the military, no matter which branch. They had made constant moves and sacrifices that their dad’s career demanded. They knew changing schools, sometimes just before their senior year was part of their invisible contract with their parents. They saw all the culling of household “stuff” and prepacking that their mothers did every few years, long before the moving van arrived. How do the heroic children of miliary parents leave behind their schools, friends, and teenage crushes, especially those in single-parent families, and the active-duty parent these days could easily be a single, divorced mother.

Let’s return to women married to men of any rank in the military in the late 1960s and at least the early 1970s. For official purposes, the Air Force uniquely used the term wife by prefacing it with a big, fat adverb: Dependent. We were primarily called dependent wives. There were also “dependent children,” and the pervasive question “Do you have your Dependent I.D. card with you?”

The fact that one was a dependent wife obliterated a part of any individuality one might feel. There were women, especially my older, more evolved friends who loathed being referred to as dependent anything. I never resented it because I was so in love with Tom Latino, the Air Force could have called me dependent baggage, and I would have smiled and shown them my Dependent I.D. card.

For 30 years married to the United States Air Force, only once did I have to provide my, not Tom’s, social security number. That was when I applied for Civil Service jobs at the base library and base hospital in Guam. Everywhere else on base, we only used the military member’s social security number, that included at base banks! When Tom retired, it had felt strange to have to learn my own social security number. It was difficult to remember mine. I once told a civilian bank teller that the last four numbers of my social security number were # # # #. She said, “That’s your husband’s.” We’ve only been married going-on 57 years, but Tom’s social security number, not mine, is tattooed across my mind.

[Bonnie Latino welcomes comments via email at bonlatino@AOL.com]