Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - Paris Trip - #12

During the time I was temporarily posted as Sky Marshal (these days, Air Marshal) out of New York I covered flights in teams of two, or three, from JFK to a number of European cities including Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, Paris, Lisbon and Rome. Since I had been stationed as a soldier in Germany some years earlier I was relatively familiar with the first four cities on the list, but the place I had visited the most while I was soldier was Paris.

I can trace my original affinity for the City of Lights to two influences. The first was my mother, who being half-French thought the Gauls were superior in all things. The second, and even stronger, influence was the movies. In the early Sixties I was a movie geek who haunted the foreign movie houses in West Los Angeles near UCLA where I was nominally then a student. Those were the years of the New Wave in French cinema. The term in French, “nouvelle vague” is actually more revealing since the plotting in so many of those movies was pretty vague to me.

In spite of all that “cinema,” one of my favorite movies from that period was a piece of Hollywood confetti called Irma La Douce, which takes place in Paris mainly around Les Halles, the historic central produce market shoe horned into one of the most ancient quarters of the city. I loved that frenetic, crowded and pungent madhouse where rattling scooters laden with cases of iced fish would shoot down the narrow cobblestone streets artfully dodging beat up vans hauling beef carcasses, and hand trucks of fresh produce.

I’ve since lost count of the number of times when, during the pre-dawn hours, I sat half-awake at a back table in a grimy worker’s café nursing a bowl of onion soup while waiting for the magic hour of 6AM so I could to check into a hotel without incurring a charge for the previous day. But as Moustache, one of the characters in Irma La Douce, is fond of saying, “that’s another story.”

On this particular flight we landed at the original Orly airport. After clearing French customs the Sky Marshals had to pay a visit to the airport gendarmes and turn in our weapons. Unlike the German polizei, the Flics didn’t trouble us with so much paperwork. They merely took our guns, tossed them in a heavy canvas bag, and gave us each a flimsy carbon of the receipt. “Merci, now scram. And stay out of trouble,” was the gist of their parting words. Since French police carried tiny little automatic pistols that could easily be mistaken for the trick cigarette lighters popular in the 1940’s, I always suspected they fondled our guns as soon as we left.

Since we were not supposed to lodge with airline crews, I had to find another hotel for the night. Still, I was able to catch the crew bus from the airport into the city. During the ride into town I regaled a bunch of the stewardesses with my experiences a half-dozen earlier as a soldier who spent his weekend passes bumming around Paris. In those days New York was what they called a “junior” base for PanAm, and this happened to be the first trip to Paris for many of the girls. In short order, it was arranged that I would squire several of them around the city, and show them some of my old haunts, most especially my favorite pizza place near the Sorbonne University.

The crew bus dropped us all off at the – quite nice – PamAm designated hotel. From there I caught a cab to my – not so nice – hotel in a much less ritzy part of town. Since it was never quite worked out whether Sky Marshals were to be totally undercover, or considered part of the airplane's crew…we ended up being neither. Once on the ground, we were just tourists who happened to be leaving town the next day.

The black Peugeot taxi dropped me off at a nondescript Parisian fleabag. I checked in without even checking out the room, left my gear with the night porter…the less time I spent in my cramped, dingy room the better…and headed back to the crew hotel.

In short order I was back in the lobby of the crew hotel where I located the house phone and dialed up one of the girls. She told me that they just finishing changing out of their uniforms and would be downstairs any minute, which meant I had a good half-hour to kill. The hotel had a bar adjacent to the lobby so I went in, took a chair and ordered a glass the rusty tap water that passes for beer in France. Seated a couple of chairs away were two PamAm flight officers who I recognized as part of the crew I had just flown in with. They were deep in conversation and didn’t seem to notice me so I nursed the sudsy tap water and waited for the girls.

After a few minutes of semi-eavesdropping on their conversion I heard one of them declare something to the effect of, “Hey let’s get a couple of girls and do the town.” At that point, the other one – I think he was the First Officer which is to say co-pilot – turned to face me. He made eye contact and said to his friend while gesturing at me, “That’s a great idea, but HE’S got them all…” Sky Marshals were never all that popular with the boys in the cockpit, who prior to our arrival had considered stewardesses to be their private lovestock.

Eventually, the girls bubbled out of the elevator and into the hotel lobby – all freshly made-up, mini-skirted and smelling great. As I recall each one was better looking than the next. They collected me and we headed out for an evening dans La Cite des Lumieres leaving behind two sullen flight officers. You know, it never occurred to me to ask them to join us.

That evening Paris was at her noisy, crowded, smelly and vibrant best. We ate oven baked pizza with students from the Sorbonne, poked our heads inside the Moulin Rouge, drank café presse at Les Deux Magots, walked a few blocks and caught the end of a session at Le Petit Journal St-Michel, a Jazz “cave” in the Quartier Latin. We finished the night sipping Cointreau in at a bistro on the Place de Montmartre a block or two away from the lighted Sacre Coeur.

However, that was the year they demolished Les Halles, so we had no onion soup.

© Stephen Rustad, 2007

Monday, December 24, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - New York Subway - #11

After leaving Federal Air Security Officer training I – along with a number of other newly minted Sky Marshals (these days, Air Marshals) – was temporarily posted in New York before being assigned to my permanent base in San Francisco. During the two or so months that I flew out of JFK, I made a number of trips to Europe as well as a few US cities, but none of these trips was as potentially dangerous as my first trip on a New York subway.

I took the subwy ride because on my first flight as a Sky Marshal I had met a lovely Pan Am stewardess. Well, they were all lovely, but this one actually talked to me...

Yes. I said “stewardess,” because that’s what the ladies who flew as flight attendants in 1971 were called before we heard Helen Reddy roar and guys got all metrosexual. Anyway, this lovely stewardess invited me to pay her a visit when we got back to New York city.

After the PanAm flight touched down and I cleared customs, I split the cost of a cab to Manhattan with other members of my team. I had the cab let me off in Times Square where I checked into my hotel and stashed gear into a room about the size of a janitor's closet. A quick shower and some fresh clothes and I was out the door and headed “up-town.” The stewardess I’d met on the flight back from Germany shared an apartment with a pair of other stewardesses, that was located somewhere in the East 70’s…the streets between East 70 and East 79.

As a suburban kid new to the Big City I hadn’t acquired the habit of automatically hailing a cab. I did spent a couple of years stationed in Europe and picked up an affinity for the urban transit in the major cities over there, which was uniformly fast, cheap and safe. It didn’t occur to me that New York City would be any different. So I sought out the nearest subway map. A quick scan revealed that I was a short distance from the Lexington Avenue subway which would take me within a block or two of my destination.

When I got to the subway station it was nearly deserted, which didn’t seem surprising as it was close to 10PM. I bought some tokens from a kiosk and waited for the train. In not time at all the train rumbled into the station. It was 5 or 6 cars long and as the train squealed and ground to a halt I noted that all of the cars were empty of passengers save for the first car with the driver and a Subway cop. I didn’t think much about this as I boarded one of the empty cars, found a seat – there were lots to choose from – and sat down just as the train lurched forward.

I hadn’t been in seated in the car very long when I heard the whoosh of the pneumatic doors that separated the cars from each other. The noise came from the door at the rear end of the car. I turned to look and noted the first of what would be four young men enter the car. He was a lean, dark-skinned, shaggy Hispanic lad wearing a heavy coat, dirty jeans and motorcycle boots. His three pals were similarly attired. All wore there coats open with the hands stuffed in their coat pockets…all except the first kid who appeared to be the leader. His hands hung at his sides.

As guy number one nonchalantly swaggered toward me, it occurred to me that if they meant me any harm I had precious few seconds to “assume a defensive posture”…whatever that might been. The gun tucked in my shoulder holster seemed a mile away underneath my sport jacket and overcoat. I don’t know if you’ve practiced quick-drawing a 4”-barreled pistol out of a shoulder holster, but I had, and it wasn’t pretty. I looked the young man in the eye and he looked back, clearly taking my measure. He had a cool demeanor. His buddies were cool as well. It was all cool. The four of them approached me in a file, one behind the other. making small talk between themselves in Spanish. Their eyes occasionally flicked toward me and away so I assumed that I was the “small” in their talk.

As my mental debate continued raging, guy number walked directly in front of me, not two feet away. Any advantage the pistol provided me had vanished. If they meant me ill, I was going get some ill. But apparently they didn’t. Or, if they did, they changed their minds. Or perhaps the swaggering and smirking was all for show – street theater in the Big Apple.

I looked each of them in the eyes as they passed me by, one by one, shambling on to the next car. The last guy in line nodded at me. I guess I was cool, too, after all. Four whooshes of the pneumatic doors and I was once again alone in the car. When the sound of the final closing or the pneumatic car door faded away, I exhaled the breath that I think I had been holding the entire time.

© Stephen Rustad, 2007

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - The First Flight - #10

Many of the details of my first flight as a United States Customs Security officer, a.k.a. Sky Marshal or (lately) Air Marshals, have evaporated from my brain like the scotch in a forgotten bottle stuck in the back of cupboard. What I do remember was that my first flight was an uneventful hop from JFK to Frankfurt, Germany, and back again with a short layover at Schipol airport in Amsterdam. We stayed in Frankfurt for about 12 hours…just long enough for me to eat, sleep and look up a German gun dealer so I could buy a Walther PPK/S. Several years earlier, I been stationed in Germany and had been to Frankfurt on several occasions so I wasn’t totally verloren in the industrial metropolis. 1971 was years before the German reunification, when it was called West Germany. At that time, it had been occupied by U.S. troops for 26 years and, as a result, most Germans spoke English better than people do in many parts of the U.S. I didn't go to the pistolehaus looking for a souvenir. I needed a back-up gun, and what could be better backup than James Bond’s famous sidearm. The reason I needed a back-up gun had to do with the murky area of International law, or rather the lack of it, which pertained to the authority, legality, and legitimacy of armed Sky Marshals on foreign soil. For example, once we left the plane at any foreign country we were no longer allowed to carry our weapons. So, upon landing at the Frankfurt am Main airport, our first stop was the office of die Flughafenpolizeieinheit. When we got to the airport police unit office we deposited our pistols and ammo and received an official receipt that was at least three pages long and covered with colored stamps and signatures…we were in Germany after all. The only people that made more of fuss about the gun-related paperwork were the Japanese, but I’m getting ahead of myself. In any case, my gun was to remain in German custody until I retrieved it on my way out of the country. During our training at Treasury Air Security Officers School we had been “advised” that once overseas our weapons would be temporarily confiscated by the local constabulary at our destination, and it was “suggested” that at the earliest opportunity we should pick-up a second gun…which we would not – I repeat – would not surrender to the local cops. Or, for that matter, even tell them about its existence. I would have bought a back-up gun in New York but even in those days it was easier to tap dance on the ceiling than to legally buy a gun in Manhattan. By the way, it should be noted that this fatherly advice about the need for a backup gun wasn’t official, and it wasn’t dispensed during our scheduled classes. Rather, we got this tidbit at one the after-hours bull sessions conducted by several of the instructors who enjoyed dispensing useful advice while regaling us with amazing tales of daring-do…as long as we were buying the beers. Buying the Walther in Frankfurt turned out to be quite easy. My Customs badge, a thick sheaf of credentials and a wad of Deutschemarks were all that I needed. However, local regulations prevented the proprietor from letting me take it with me out the door. Or even the box of .380 rounds that I bought. Instead, we arranged to meet in the overseas departure lounge the next day as I was leaving the country. Indeed, he was there as promised and handed me a brown-paper-wrapped package over the railing. In hindsight the scene of him discretely passing me a parcel as I was heading for the boarding gate would have looked pretty suspicious had anyone been paying attention to suspicious behavior. On my way to the gate, I ducked into a bathroom, ditched the box (I can hear some gun collector shrieking…), loaded the clip, stuck rest of the cartridges in my overnight bag, and put the gun in my coat pocket. Later on I would acquire an ankle holster, but I hadn’t thought to inquire of the German gun dealer if he had such a thing. © Stephen Rustad, 2007

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - Biting the Big Apple - #9

Along with several other Sky Marshal (these days, Air Marshal) graduates of class #11 at Treasury Air Security Officers School, I departed Washington D.C. the day of our graduation in March of 1971, and arrived at JFK.

As nominal (Customs Security) officers of the United States Customs Service, our first stop was the agency offices buried in the bowels of the airline terminal. Seated inside the shabby, cramped quarters on the ancient, chipped government-issue furniture were a half-dozen veteran Customs agents and port officers who “greeted” us with mild curiosity and undisguised contempt.

With a single exception, we didn’t even rate the sort of hazing that a “real” Customs agent would have endured. Instead we were treated with the sort of disregard visited by battle-scarred combat vets upon new replacement troops who weren’t expected to survive long enough to warrant the veterans learning of the newcomers' names.

The exception to the non-hazing was a story told to several of us by one beefy agent in a worn tweed sport coat about the death of another – unnamed – agent that had been the victim of mugging in Manhattan. He finished the tale with a moral: “If some scumbag demands your wallet at knife or gun-point, give it him…then shoot him as leaves.” The moral or legal ramifications of his advice notwithstanding, he left me with the impression that the Big Apple had more than a few worms.

After meeting with the Agent-in-Charge, I took a bus from Queens to the City and checked into an affordable hotel a couple of blocks off Times Square. The lodgings featured single rooms just large enough so that you could stand next to the bed…assuming it was pushed hard against the opposite wall. At the time I was lugging around a guitar in a case thanks to the misguided notion that knowing 4-5 chords and a strum or two would make me a welcome addition at social gatherings. My crowded flight schedule meant checking in and out of the hotel so often the unwieldy guitar lived in the Bellman's coat closet for the entire time I was posted in New York.

Prior to my first real flight as a newly minted Sky Marshal, I joined the other new Sky Marshals in an introduction to a Boeing 707 that was parked in a cavernous hanger at the TWA maintenance facility. A genial guy in white overalls walked us around and through the plane while rattling off lots of data about fuel load, cruising altitude, passenger capacity and such. Then someone asked the one question that was on everyone's mind, “What happens if a gun is fired during a flight.” A few years earlier the James Bond movie, Goldfinger, had featured a bit about an “explosive decompression” caused by a gunshot fired inside a jet flying at high altitude. The bullet blasted out a window and the sudden exhaust of air sucked Goldfinger out of the airplane to his doom.

The guy in the overalls patiently explained that passenger airliners had redundant pressurization systems capable of maintaining sufficient cabin pressure even with a missing window or two. Should this happen, he continued, anyone seated near the “open” window would find the situation quite drafty and could become windburned, but would likely remain in their seat. Loose items would blow out the window but not people.

I mentioned in an earlier posting that we were issued Super Vel ammo that was significantly more powerful than garden variety 38 caliber rounds. One might think that in an environment as fragile as an airplane cabin, it would be prudent to employ low velocity ammunition. In point of fact, a Super Vel round fired inside the oxygen-rich atmosphere of an airplane would generate not only a significant fire ball, short of hitting a sky-jacker, an unfortunate passenger, member of the crew or critical piece of airplane equipment, it would continue traveling for a mile or so before plummeting to Earth.

Crew members were generally aware of this and would often say that if we were to fire towards the front of the plane, that is to say in the direction of the cockpit, that we should aim to left. Since the lead pilot or Captain of the plane sat in the left-hand cockpit seat, we presumed they were looking for us to create promotional opportunities for the more-junior Co-Pilots and Engineers.

© Stephen Rustad, 2007

Monday, December 10, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - Graduation - #8

The 11th class at the Federal Air Security Officers School, aka Sky Marshals or Air Marshals, graduated in late winter of 1971. On the final day, we were bused from our billet at Fort Belvoir, VA, into DC where I had my one and only visit to the imposing granite Treasury Department building. Once there, we were hustled to a classroom for a short graduation ceremony. Some administrator type people spoke, but honestly I don’t remember who they were or what they said.

The thing that did stand out for me in the ceremony was taking the oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America. I had done that once before when I joined the Army in 1964 and I’ve done it a few times since then – most recently as school board trustee. I always get a lump in my throat at facing the flag, raising my right, and pledging to defend my country from enemies foreign and domestic. It’s a privilege.

Call me a sap.

But I can tell you that I’m immensely grateful for all the present-day “saps” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in places even less enjoyable who are presently defending our country with skill and determination from other folks who really don’t have America’s best interests at heart.

After the ceremony at Treasury HQ we were kitted out. First came a fist full of credentials – a Treasury Air Security Officer ID card and badge, Special Deputy US Marshal papers, a couple of passports, a card identifying me as an FAA agent, and something to do with Geneva Convention that determined that Air Piracy was naughty. Besides being a fat wad of leather, metal and mostly paper, it was also a kind of juju to ward off bad luck, for example, incarceration in some dank foreign jail.

Frankly, no one responsible for placing us freshly-armed Sky Marshals on international flights was quite sure that doing so was legal, or what another country might decide to do to a US Sky Marshal who shot a would be hijacker while flying in that county’s air space. So they gave us the badge, the credentials, plus all the other stuff, patted us on the head and sent us out the door.

Sure, the Israelis had been using Sky Marshals since Israel first painted the words El Al on the skin of a DC-3. 23 years (by that time) of constant hostilities with their Muslim neighbors had made national survival more important than cow towing to the details of international legality. The US, on the other hand, was just warming up to the idea that once our airplanes left the cozy hearth of US airspace, they became what the security boys call soft targets.

Along with the credentials, we also issued the official Sky Marshal starter kid that included a decoder ring, handcuffs, a real sap (spring-loaded, 10” long, leather bound lead cudgel), bullets and our weapon. In my case, the weapon was the Smith & Wesson 38 caliber Combat Masterpiece Model 15. Yep, I had failed to qualify with the Chief Special – the cherished stainless steel object of my desire and the pursuit of which had gotten me into this situation.

After the leaving Treasury headquarters we headed for the airport for our first assignments. In my case a temporary duty assignment at JFK airport in New York. However, on the way to the airport I looked up a gun store in the Yellow Pages and had the cab driver make a small detour. At the gun store I bought a leather shoulder holster.

The Feds had issued the Model 15 along with a ridiculous plastic clip, which projected from the gun's wooden grip and was supposed to allow you to carry the gun inside of the waistband of your trousers. It tried it once and found that doing so felt like walking around with a pair of bolt cutters in your pants. I think the clip ended up on the floor of the cab.

A number of us who were to be ultimately stationed in San Francisco were told that we were temporarily assigned to New York while the SF facilities were being set up. That was fine with me. Up to that point I had been in New York precisely one time before that: a single frigid day in 1965 before I was to be shipped out to spend the next two years with the Army stationed in Germany.

As I and a passel of other graduates boarded the flight in Dulles Airport bound for JFK it occurred to me that the plane probably carried more Sky Marshals than passengers.

© Stephen Rustad, 2007

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - Sky Marshal School - #7

Far from attracting, or creating for that matter, a cadre of highly trained and experienced counter-terrorism professionals, the Federal Sky Marshal (a.k.a. Air Marshal) program that initiated in late 1970 was more like a stealth hiring program for the woefully understaffed U.S. Customs agency.

In addition to a terrifying spate of airplane hijackings, 1970 will also be remembered as year that kicked off an economic recession. Naturally, thanks to the “one-two” punch of the recession and sky-jackings, one of the hardest hit industries was air travel. As a consequence, air carriers were laying-off pilots, co-pilots and engineers* by the battalion.

*Once upon a time, before extensive computerization of an airplane’s electronic and mechanical systems, those systems needed to be constantly monitored throughout the flight. This job fell to the “third officer” in the cockpit – the Engineer. In fact, before NAVSAT, international flights often had a navigator in the cockpit, who charted the plane’s progress by observing the stars through a porthole in the planes roof with a maritime sextant.

Due to their familiarity with airplanes and airline procedure, many of these “furloughed” pilots, co-pilots and engineers had been encouraged to seek employment as Federal Sky Marshals. In my class of 30-some at Treasury Air Security Officer School, about half had been recently employed by major air carriers. And almost all of those had received their initial training as military pilots – many were Viet Nam war vets as well.

As you can imagine, the atmosphere in the dorm, or billet or whatever you want to call the refurbished Army barracks where we were lodged was understandably macho. This, however, had some unexpected consequences for me. Not that I’m not “macho.” Well, honestly, I’m not all that macho. As I’ve noted I can’t shoot all that well. I draw cartoons and, at the time I wore colored underwear which was a source of much consternation among my white boxer-wearing brethren.

Just prior to joining the Sky Marshals, I had been employed as advertising artist at a large Macy’s-like department store. This was during the “peacock revolution” when men were encouraged to abandon their Brook’s Brothers grey in favor of bright prints. Heretofore, I had worn the same type of jockey shorts that mom bought for me as a boy and I liked the stylish “European” tight-fitting t-shirts and “Speedo” style underwear.

This presented no problem while I was fully clothed. But anyone who’s experienced the communal living situations common in frat houses or Army barracks knows that everyone washes, and dresses pretty much in plain sight. One morning while shaving I found myself standing next to a guy who was – shall we say – outraged by my underwear. Turns out that he was a West Point grad, former Army pilot, and a combat veteran. He was also suspicious of any man who didn’t wear boxer shorts. So much so in fact that he openly questioned my sexual preferences.

Before then it never occurred to me that the color of a man’s under garments mitigated his virility. On one hand, women who had the occasion to see me in my colored underwear didn’t seem to feel that my ardor for them was hindered by florid skivvies. On the other hand, this guy was aghast at my underwear. Furthermore, he shared his opinions widely. While he didn’t actually call me names – at least within earshot – he went out of his way to suggest that I failed to meet his personal threshold of masculinity, which led to two particular – and peculiar – events.

The first event occurred in a class for what our instructors called “arrest techniques.” The idea was to learn how to administer a choke hold on a suspect who is resisting arrest. The West Point guy, who I’ll call “Chad,” was selected to the resisting perp, and I was chosen to administer the choke hold. As I wrapped my forearm around Chad’s neck and locked my fists together in front of his Adam’s Apple there was no doubt in his mind, or on his face, that he would easily break the hold and then proceed to make short work of me.

Ten long and grueling minutes later we were both dripping with sweat, gasping for breath and in same exact position as we started – with my arm locked around Chad’s neck. The only difference was that Chad was no longer smiling and his face was beet red. Having demonstrated to the class that that a properly administered headlock was effective in the face of determined resistance, the instructor had me turn him loose. Chad got to his feet and - to his credit - made an attempt to congratulate me for my success.

The Second incident took place a few evenings later at the Fort Belvoir Officer’s Club, where a bunch of us future Sky Marshals went for drinks. As I recall it was a Friday or Saturday night and the place was crowded with Army officers, their spouses and dates. There were also a number of attractive women without escorts, which was the reason we came. Among our group was Chad, who’d eased up on me somewhat since the choke-hold experience.

Upon arrival, the drinking, dancing and flirting began immediately to commence and soon several ladies joined us. After downing a squadron of Mig-15’s – a 50-5o mix of scotch and Drambuie for the uninitiated – Chad fixed his sites on a petite brunette. She appealed to me as well – that is until I found out that her husband was serving in Viet Nam. Please understand that I didn’t (and don’t) expect home front wives to sit home and mope, but still I wasn’t going to put the moves on a soldier's wife no matter how pretty – or lonesome – she seemed to be.

As the evening wore on, and Chad’s pleas for the attention of the pretty Army wife failed to sway her, mostly because – as it turned out – he was married as well, Chad decided that he was going “fix her up” with me. By now it was well after midnight. I was tired and besides I was fed up with his attempt to bully me into doing something I abhorred. So I bid everyone goodbye and got up to leave. Chad was not to be denied. He jumped up, grabbed my arm and proceeded to loudly, if somewhat incoherently, denounce my masculinity, sexual orientation, and other stuff which I forget – all for the sin of not hustling another man’s wife.

So why didn’t I pop him one? To begin with, Chad was stupid drunk and none too stable on his feet. I continued on my way out of the club while dragging him with me. The rest of the guys had also had enough of Chad, so we took turns hauling his butt back to the barracks where we tossed him on his bunk to sleep it off.

© Stephen Rustad, 2007