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

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