Tempest in the Gulf

Published 2:47 pm Monday, May 20, 2024

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By Bonnie Bartel Latino


Six months after Tom had been eliminated from flying because military medical specialists could not find the cause of his Pericarditis, we were almost ready to leave REESE AFB. The moving company had already packed and taken away the few possessions we had acquired during our time in Texas.

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The only “furniture” we had was a stand-up vacuum, some table lamps, a mop, a broom and a turquoise hair dryer, the old-fashioned kind with a bonnet that tried to burn off one’s ears. We also had a lot of wedding gifts and two of all of our favorite 45s and LP-records because our musical tastes were identical. We also took some (civilian) clothes, plus several of Tom’s winter blue uniforms: Trousers, long sleeved shirts, and black leather shoes in our suitcases. Tom would likely need uniforms for classes before our household goods shipment arrived in Biloxi, Miss.

The USAF had granted Tom his first career field choice, communications-electronics. However, the next C-E professional training course at Keesler Air Force Base did not begin until early January 1970. In mid-December 1969, we departed Heritage Arms Apartments near Lubbock with Lamb Chop, our Poodle puppy, luggage and some family Christmas gifts. We were excited to see what this next stage of Tom’s career would bring.

The first night of our trip, we stayed in Houston, Texas. I mentioned in last week’s column that when we visited the Dave Plank family while we were moving to Mississippi, Dave and Betty left a $100 bill in our Christmas card! Their generous gift became our deposit at The Saxony. The three-story, old-brick apartment building sat framed by ancient oaks draped with Spanish Moss, and which faced the Gulf of Mexico on West Beach Boulevard, was only a mile from Keesler’s front gate. The Planks put a roof over our heads at our dream apartment. We had the first and last month’s rent, but deposits were/are often a nemesis for newlyweds, military and civilian. Tom was still a second lieutenant, and I was unemployed again. Thanks to Hurricane Camille, enlisted and junior officers’ wives at Keesler already flooded what job market still existed on base and in the coastal communities after the night of August 17-18, 1969. Writing was my first love, but local newspapers weren’t keen to hire someone from out of state. Also, as eager as I was to get back to my high school and college roots, journalism, I would not lie about how long we expected to be in the area, less than a year.

Camille, of course, had decimated more than careers. She destroyed lives, churches, and families, homes, businesses, schools, and military bases. The worst hit towns were in the six coastal Mississippi communities, as well as Keesler AFB and the USN Seabee base. Then, as now, Ocean Springs anchored the extreme east side of the coast and Bay St. Louis the far western end, with Biloxi, Gulfport, Long Beach and Pass Christian between the two.

The damage Camille ravaged upon those communities, included Tom’s parents’ home, and it was a mile from the Gulf of Mexico. A bayou, previously located behind their home, shifted by Camille’s surge, overflowed, and reformed elsewhere as a bayou again. Only this time Bayou Portage filled his family’s front and back yards in Pass Christian and dumped nine-feet of water into their home. The following day Tom’s family saw a large stingray with a whip tail swimming in their front yard, aka Bayou Portage.

The destruction was so violent in Pass Christian that Tom could not even locate where he had played football for the Pass High Pirates, attended school for 12 years, and graduated with the mighty Pass High Class of ‘63. The 1969 hyper-active tempest in the Gulf also destroyed most of his school days memorabilia. Thirty years after he graduated, I gave him a copy of his high school annual. It had taken me almost that long to locate one in any shape and purchase it. In the book, which I gave Tom on our 25th anniversary, no students or teachers had written their names either on their own pictures or on the back pages. Yearbook publishers specifically leave those blank for fellow students, girlfriends, and boyfriends to write friendship notes to the owner of each yearbook. Tom was a popular leader with fellow students, his teachers, and Mr. Lizana the school principal. I had been determined that Tom would have an annual from his high school. Tom’s replacement book was in pristine condition.

Tom, Lamb Chop, and I spent the first part of Tom’s military leave that December with his parents and Phyllis, his funny, always laughing, teenage sister. Being homeless, like a lot of Mississippians back then, the Latinos were temporarily living in a small HUD *1 house- trailer, definitely not meant for five adults and a poodle with a bad case of woof-itis. My favorite memory of that time was a cold night when the humans were sipping mugs of hot chocolate. Lamb Chop came into the small room holding in her front teeth, an empty aluminum pot pie dish, which we used as her traveling food bowl. She stopped in front of Tom and sat perfectly straight, balanced on her hind legs, and still holding the tin dish in her mouth. Of course, her “daddy” took the dish from her, warmed a-half cup of milk, and placed it on the floor in our midst. Moments like that kept us laughing during the aftermath of such a horrific event.

Next week: Meet the precious military family and a special bachelor, who became our Air Force family for life. We are still in touch with those sweet, sweet people.

*1 The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is a U.S. government agency that supports community development and home ownership.