Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - Culture Shock - #4

Shortly after I was hired to be a Federal Sky Marshal in the winter of 1971 (what they call Air Marshals these days) I was ordered to report to newly created branch of Treasury School established just outside of Washington, D.C. at Fort Belvoir, VA to speed-train Air Security Officers. The culture shift from Berkeley in 1971 to at Fort Belvoir, VA., could not have been greater. In fact it was more like cultural whiplash. For starters, Berkeley was a college town with it's head perminently affixed up its ass with respect to the outside world. Whereas, Ft. Belvoir was an active duty base for an Army at war. It was chock full soldiers destined for or returning from battle. Everything was crisp, serious and tinged with an air of more than a little fatalism.

Berkeley was anything but a serious place despite all of the pompous rhetoric and anti-war posturing. The street protests I mentioned earlier were less well organized than high school home-coming rallies – though they shared the same goal of allowing amped-up students to blow off a little steam. Rioters eagerly taunted police who themselves were eagerly seeking such taunts so they could hone their marksmanship by shooting sizzling canisters of tear gas at moving targets. The scene made for thrilling front-page photos and allowed journalists to write lines like “All across our nation once staid college campuses are paralyzed by massive, well-organized, student-lead anti-war protests.”

Photo copyright Hamish Reid

Many of the rioters weren’t students all, just the then-ubiquitous street freaks – unwashed kids from someplace else who’d migrated to Berkeley on a whim in hopes of finding Nivana or at least some free dope. To them a street riot was a fiesta with dangerous party games. Merrymakers with more hutzpah than moxie would often reap the consequence of their frivolity in the form of a skull split by a police baton or a lung full of pepper gas. As a rule they would make their way to the Berkeley Free Clinic where they would be treated and no questions would be asked.

Some years earlier I had been trained as a US Army medical corpsman. One evening after a particularly boisterous anti-war demonstration along Telegraph Avenue I figured that I remembered enough of the training to be of use in treating the local battlefield carnage, and I went over the Free Clinic to offer my services. The Free Clinic was a riot of a different sort. The entrance to the clinic was clogged with dirty, excited refugees from the afternoon’s riotous festivities. I insinuated my way into the throng, approached one of many people frantically shouting orders and asked who was in charge. She didn’t know. And neither did the next person I asked. Or the one after that. Undeterred, I continued to plow through the chaos until I spied an older guy off in a corner tending to a nasty laceration on kid’s shin.

The guy in the corner turned out to be an ex-Navy corpsman. For you to appreciate the signifcance of that, let me put his qualifications in perspective. The Army took 6 months to train me as a medic and that included 3 months in hospital operating room learning what not to touch. The US Navy took the job little more seriously. Corpsmens spent a full year training and, when their training was complete, could treat combat wounds with little more than a Q-tip and tweezers. If you ever have the misfortune of being injured in a gun fight, pray that the person who answers the call “MEDIC!” is a Navy Corpsman. Suffice it to say that he was competent. Though I’d venture to say he was the only one in the clinic who was.

I’d worked my share of medical emergencies, but the choas at the Berkeley Free Clinic was pretty much like everything else in this self-absorbed, self-described progressive Mecca – a caricature of the real life directed by clowns.

The laceration on the kid’s shin was plenty bloody, but not all that deep. After the Corpsman had cleaned the blood away we had a brief discussion about whether or not to suture the wound closed. No doubt the Corpsman had sutured wounds while crouched in crater taking fire from the View Cong, but this wasn’t Viet Nam and the bleeding on the kid’s shin had subsided to the point that we decided to approximate both sides of the wound (match one flap of skin to it’s opposite) and hold them in place with a couple of butterfly bandages. That would do the kid until he could see a real doctor – if he ever chose to. The lad looked like the sort who would welcome a couple of ugly “combat” scars.

The Corpsman and I chatted for a while longer while around us the chaos had subsided into mere confusion. The original trickle of wounded – most of whom had been little more than harshly insulted by the police – had trickled completely out. So I went home.

I was early evening. Stars were faint in the darkening sky. A couple of blocks away the wails of police sirens were punctuated by the sounds of breaking glass and cheering.

© Stephen Rustad, 2007

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