Only one…

Published 3:41 pm Monday, May 6, 2024

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By Bonnie Bartel Latino


Johnny Latino sat in his modest living room with his son’s Eagle Scout leader waiting for Tommy to come home from school. “What do you think he’ll say?” Johnny asked Mrs. Gundlach, the middle-aged woman had become Tom’s Scout Master since he finished Cubs. “I do hope he’s pleased…” The vertical wrinkle between her eyes appeared deeper. “… Perhaps we should have told him what we’ve been up to.”

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The young man, a senior at Pass Christian (Miss.) High School, soon joined them. “Mrs. Gundlach! This is a surprise.” He placed a couple of schoolbooks on a nearby table. “Was I supposed to help you with something today?” She shook her head. “No, nothing like that.” His Dad handed him a document-sized envelope addressed to him. “What’s this?” Tommy pulled out an official looking, decorative certificate. “It says I’ve received a Congressional Appointment to the Merchant Marine Academy. I’m to be part of the Cadet Corps, studying in Kings Point, N.Y. “Wait? What?” His voice trailed off. 

“It’s no joke,” Mrs. Gundlach said. “Kings Point is to the Merchant Marines as West Point and Annapolis are to Army and Navy.”

“That’s right son, you’ll study everything you need to know to serve as a U.S. Merchant Marine officer when you graduate.” 

“Dad?” The boy’s brown eyes revealed the same disbelief as his tone. “I’m not going to be a Merchant Marine, officer or not.”

“But you’ll make good money after you graduate.”

Tom raised his right palm as if signaling his dad to stop. He took a deep breath. “I know you’re thinking about your friend who lives in Pass Christian Isles, (an upscale area of Pass Christian). He makes a good living, but he rarely sees his wife and kids, something I want someday. He’s continually away from his family, three months, then home for 30 days. That’s not for me.”

Johnny Latino, a World War II veteran, was normally a jokester, but that day his down-turned mouth and corners of his eyes revealed only disappointment. “Son, this route will keep you out of Vietnam!” Mrs. Gundlach eagerly nodded in agreement. “Plus, it’s a free college education!”

“Exactly! What will you do about college, son?”

“If you’d asked me that earlier, you’d know. I’ll enroll at Mississippi State this fall. I’m also applying for a National Defense Student Loan that I’ll have 10 years to pay back. Since State is a land grant university, the first two years every male student is required to take either Army or Air Force ROTC.” Tommy knew he sounded like a recruiter. He had read the brochure so often, words practically slid off his tongue. “After two years, students who hope to receive a military commission when they graduate, take two more years of ROTC. Those cadets earn a stipend every month. That helps pay for incidentals like food, maybe a few books. I also plan to get a part-time job on campus. My education won’t cost you and mom a cent.”

His father shook his head but couldn’t help respect his boy. “I won’t stand in your way, but you have to write the congressman.” Tom agreed as Mrs. Gundlach smiled. “Of course he will.” She hugged him and said goodbye. 

“Are you going to work on the docks in Gulfport again, slinging 40-pound boxes of bananas over your shoulders and dodging tarantulas in scorching heat in the ship’s hold?”

“No, sir.” His whole demeanor changed. “I’ve interviewed for a job at Gulfport Memorial Hospital. I was hired for housekeeping that day.”

His father’s tone of voice revealed bewilderment. “Housekeeping?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll mop and polish floors, clean bathrooms, including toilets. I’ll also take medical waste to the hospital’s gas-jet incinerator. (In fact, that summer he would have to dispose of placenta after-birth, plus an amputated leg.) The woman who interviewed him obviously sensed his empathy and humanity, rare in boys of 18. When I married Tom in June 1968, I knew nothing about his summer jobs. I only knew he was a good man, and we were an Air Force couple. Plus, he was smarter than I, a top priority. However, not until a year later, May 1969, did I learn the depth of his leadership skills and sheer compassion.

A brief recap for readers, who missed last week’s column about the nightmarish accident Tom and I witnessed early one morning while we travelled through rural West Texas: Suddenly we saw a vehicle wrapped in red dust and flying across the median before crashing through a wooden fence. The pickup truck landed on its side in a field. About ten minutes later, a cluster of men in trucks stopped to “rubberneck”. They peered at the wreckage and at the Texas-sized man bleeding profusely from his head and a young boy, who appeared unconscious after he smashed through the windshield and sailed at least 10-feet through the air. By the time the ambulance finally arrived, the impromptu audience had watched only one-man rendering aid.

Within seconds of arrival at the scene, he had sprinted over the four-foot-fence and sent for an ambulance. Quickly, he performed triage, took vitals, gave first-aid, and consoled the injured. That man was 24-year-old Second Lt. Tom Latino from Reese Air Force Base, Texas.