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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting coming across your blog. I was a sky marshall for EL AL from 1977-1978. Those were interesting times.