Saturday, November 17, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - Why Mike Went to Sky Marshal School - #2

In the spring of 1970, Berkeley, California – that is to say, the University part – was a surreal mess for anyone who wanted to go to college, graduate, and get on with his or her life. The brouhaha cooked up the the student-radicals in response to the “invasion” of Cambodia by US troops bent on closing the NVA supply lines caused a craven school administration to cancel all campus academic functions. Those of us who chose to stay in school earned our semester credits working on anti-war propaganda - creating pro-war propaganda was not an option.

The balmy spring days were punctuated with frequent street riots protesting the war which were characterized by wanton vandalism against the “capitalist establishment,” e.g., the local merchants who sold books, clothing and snacks to the students. In response this political theater the campus police, backed by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Tactical Squadron, eagerly suited up in their riot gear, loaded their shotguns with tear gas grenades and blasted smoking cans of tear gas at anything in sight that moved. On more than one occasion that moving target was me as I zig-zagged through Sproul Plaza on my way home from propaganda class.

The University didn’t hold a formal graduation for the Class of 1970. To accommodate the students protesting the war, the University administration cancelled the ceremony. Or maybe the administrators were so preoccupied searching for their missing backbones and they just forgot. As a result, my University Education came to an abrupt, unceremonious end in August. “Your sheepskin is in the mail. Don’t forget to turn off the lights when you leave.”

Lacking any vision for life after college, I waded into the plethora of post-graduate tests including the Federal Service Entrance Exam (FSEE).

Time cover September, 1970

Coincidently, at about the same time – though at the time I didn’t realize how relevant a coincidence it would be – the PFLP (thugs and thug-ettes sponsored by Palestinian Liberation Organization) hijacked a quartet of International airliners and blew them up in the Jordanian desert and the Cairo international airport. Since two of the demolished planes were American carriers, PanAm and TWA, our government's attention was momentarily shifted from the Viet Nam war to what the Israelis had been warning them about for years, namely that commercial aircraft were easy pickings for political terrorists and other cowards in search of easy targets.

Washington responded to the threat by rounding up every Federal and military law officer who wasn’t currently in the middle of a hot pursuit, and put them on as many US International and domestic flights as they agents. Simultaneously, they established what would be commonly called the Federal Sky Marshal program.

Back in 1970 the country also happened to be in the teeth of a recession, one consequence of which was a hiring freeze that left Federal law agencies woefully understaffed. Perhaps the worst effected was the United States Customs Service, then a branch of the Treasury Department. Since Customs principal function is to collect duty on all goods imported into the US, it maintains offices at all international airports as well as seaports and major land border crossings. With a great need for fresh blood, and lots of handy branches throughout the country, it was decided that the newly created Sky Marshal program would fall under the Custom Service.

Having taken and passed the FSEE, I received a telegram offering me a job as Customs Security Officer with no further explanation. At the time I associated Customs only with the bored people pawing through airline passenger's luggage all day long. That sort of job didn’t appeal to me so I passed the telegram to my roommate at the time, Mike. The program was hiring out of LA and Mike wanted a reason to move back down to Southern California where we had both been living prior to moving to Berkeley in the fall of 1969. In short order, Mike was hired, passed his background check and reported to Treasury Air Security Officer School in December of 1970, which I think was then temporarily located at Fort Dix, New Jersey while more permanent facilities were being built outside of Washington. D.C.

On his way to LA following graduation, newly minted Sky Marshal Mike stopped off in Berkeley to collect his stuff. And that’s when I got a look at the gleaming, silver Smith & Wesson Chief's Special they issued him. Determined to get one for myself, - and do my part of course to thwart the predatory intentions of the PFLP - I retrieved the original telegram from Mike, contacted the Feds and in short order flew down to LA for my own interview as a candidate Sky Marshal.

Copyright Stephen Rustad, 2007

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