Our merrie band of 5

Published 1:42 pm Sunday, June 9, 2024

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By Bonnie Bartel Latino


Tom entered our second-floor apartment laughing after another half-day of classes at Keesler Air Force Base, learning about communication-electronics.  He dropped his books on the beige chair nearest the door. “You’ll never believe … what Rita Harris did to … Bill, today” he said, as he hugged me close. He choked out the words in clusters. “You know, your friend … Rita has about as much experience … being a housewife … as you. Right?” I pretended to be offended, but he knew better. “Rita has never cooked, cleaned, or ironed. Just like you when we were newlyweds.”

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“OK, Latino, I get it.”

Controlling his laughter, Tom explained Rita’s Homemaking 101 faux paus. “She ironed a pleat down the outside of each leg of Bill’s blue uniform trousers. Bill said he dressed by the glow of a small night light, so as not to wake Rita. When he came into the squadron everybody laughed. Instructors, students, secretaries, none of us could stop laughing. Bill looked like he was wearing, oh, what’s the word?” Tom laughter bubbled up as he searched for a word that would do justice to Bill’s pants’ predicament. Tom snapped his fingers. “I know!” His eyes lit up with glee, his shoulders shook. “Bill looked like a … a … harem dancer with his pants flared out stiffly on both sides. He’ll never live this down! When he went home to change, he said he’ll iron this time.”

Rita was a cute, former air hostess from Minnesota. Her accent had such quirky cadence, I could hardly understand her when we first met a few weeks earlier. She could hardly understand me either. 

Our year at Keesler felt more like college. The officers went to class from 6 a.m. to noon every weekday. There was often homework, but Gordy Aitken, one of Tom’s classmates, remembered recently that the classes … “were good, but didn’t provide the kind of information, which would prepare us for (our future) real-world Air Force jobs.” Gordy should know. He eventually went on to an illustrious Air Force career serving on the White House Communications Agency during the Carter administration. Laurie wrote me back then that when Gordy often came home from an overseas trip, his military and civilian laundry only got done thanks to a few neighbor ladies who pitched in to help. It takes a village … Within an hour or so, Laurie and Gordy quickly repacked the clean clothes, he gave her and the kids quick kisses, and he went off on another official trip. He also served as an inspector for communications for the Inspector General of the Pacific Air Forces, headquartered at Hickam AFB, Hawaii.

At Keesler our niche of friends quickly included Gordy and his adorable wife, a very pregnant Laurie. They both grew up in Michigan. Their personalities were similar to ours, easy-going and fun-loving. The four of us “adopted” a bachelor, Missourian Jim Kirkwood. They felt like family. All of the people we liked best during Tom’s first couple of years in service were either Yankees or from the Midwest, and we loved them. Still do. 

Being in classes together for six hours every weekday, the men quickly became acquainted. Counting Tom there were 10 students their class. Having afternoons and weekends free meant the five of us spent a lot of time together. When I recently asked the Aitkens and Kirkwood about their memories of that time, they all   vividly remembered “FLOUNDERING” in the Gulf of Mexico. Gordy said: “Fishing” for flounder … I say fishing meaning walking around in the dark with flashlights carrying spiked sticks similar to the ones used by prison crews to pick up trash along the highway. Besides if we had really wanted flounder, we would have gone to Gus Stevens, assuming we could have afforded it.” 

We also formed an obsession for ‘rasslin down South. Hey! It was inexpensive entertainment. The five of us liked it best live and in person on Saturday nights at various National Guard Armories on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We screamed and yelled for the good guy, “Cowboy Bob Ellis”.  Gordy said the villain was aptly named “The Blue Yankee.” Our Merrie Band of Five also played Tripoley, a board game. Many pennies changed hands around the Aitkens and Latino’s kitchen tables. Kirkwood took home all the pennies in our final game.

Everyone vividly remembers our crazy Saturday trip to New Orleans, Tom Latino’s birthplace, so he got to choose where we’d dine. Again, Gordy described it best: “First we visited Pat O’Brien’s and had “hurricanes”. Then we walked around the French Quarter, rented paddle boats, and ended up at the Walgreen lunch counter for dinner.” It was the only place Tom remembered from his youth. Tom’s parents kept the Aitken’s new baby Chris. “Miss Anne and Mr. Johnny,” Gordy continued, “were such wonderful people and so good to all of us during our time there …” 

Soon after, the guys graduated, and we went in separate directions. Tom’s assignment was to the communications squadron at March AFB, California. The Aitkens went to the communications squadron at Webb AFB in Big Spring, Texas. Laurie eventually birthed another son and a daughter. Jim Kirkwood left the Air Force after an assignment to the communications squadron at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, where he was awarded the AF Meritorious Service Medal, unusual for junior officers. He soon exchanged the military for the civilian world. He went to graduate school. He married his smart Bessie. Jim says, “She’s smarter than me. Our two adult daughters are smarter than their parents.”  After earning his PhD at the University of Virginia, he became a professor at prestigious Sweet Briar University, where he taught for 40 years. He earned the highest accolade the state of Virginia awards to faculty at colleges and universities.