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

1 comment:

Edwardo said...

Thanks for sharing your stories. I always look forward to the next installment.