Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Hong Kong - #20

During 1971 and 1972 I visited Hong Kong many times while flying as a Federal Sky Marshal (aka Air Marshal) through I rarely spent more than 12 hours on any one stop. On the other hand, I stopped there so often that – now 36-some years later – all of the visits have blended together.

In those years Hong Kong was still nominally part of the British Empire. However, with the Red Chinese breathing heavily just over the horizon, the Brits new their days were numbered. On the other hand, the Hong Kong Chinese – perhaps the most industrious branch of a hyper industrious race of people – just tended to business, raising their kids, revering their elders and fleecing the Yankees. Oh, I don’t mean to imply that they treated Americans any differently than they did the French, Germans, Aussies, or Japanese for the matter. We were all sheep to be sheared…but in a very honest and straight forward manner mind you.

Tourism was one of the things that fueled the Hong Kong economy and the powers-that-were made sure that no one upset the money rickshaw. Keeping a firm rein on goings-on were the ever crisp Hong Kong police, who combined the no-nonsense attitude of a British bobby with the gimlet-eyed cynicism of a 1000-year-old culture. Sky Marshals were just yet another weird western custom they tolerated with implacable indifference. There was little fuss when we checked our guns in after landing at Kai Tak airport. “Just toss ‘em into the canvas bag, Yank. See you in a few hours.”

The stopovers in Hong Kong were generally so short that I had little time for anything but grabbing a snack, catching a few hours of sleep…and buying some shirts. I don’t mean off-the-rack shirts. Kowloon – the part of Hong Kong attached to mainland China – had more tailor shops than tea houses. If you liked to live dangerously, you could have a suit measured and tailored in a single day – though I don’t recommend it unless you’re fond of wearing clothes that look like they belong to another species. On the other hand, if you could give them a couple of days Chinese tailors could work magic.

I’d always prized – but could never afford – custom tailored shirts. Store-bought shirts typically came with about two yards of extra fabric around the middle and I coveted the sleek, tailored shirts that James Bond wore. Since Saville Row was on the other side of the world, Hong Kong was the next best choice. The first time I hit town, I made a beeline for a crowded, narrow street lined with tailor shops. Each store was fronted by a guy who called to you as you passed – just like a midway barker or the doormen in front of strip joints in San Francisco’s North Beach.

Eventually I found a store that looked clean, or perhaps my sales resistance had been worn down after hearing, “Hey GI we’ll make you look like Charles Bronson,” for the 20th time. I poked my head inside and was immediately overwhelmed by bolts of fabric and a couple of Indian salesmen brandishing quart bottles of Singha beer. An hour later, with a mild buzz and minus about $32, I was headed back to the hotel with the promise that my four custom-fitted, button-down, Oxford cloth shirts would be delivered later that evening. And you know what – they were delivered as promised and they fit great. After that, buying a couple of shirts was a Hong Kong ritual.

On only one stopover did I have enough time for any sightseeing. On that occasion I boarded the Star ferry and headed across the harbor for the actual Hong Kong, which I didn’t realize until that point in time is an island. Armed with little more guidance than a tip to visit the venerable China Fleet Club, I left the ferry and took my life into my hands.

The China Fleet Club was safe enough. Founded around 1900 as a canteen for Royal Navy personnel it boasted a storied past including serving at the Japanese Navy HQ during World War II. After the war, the Royal Navy took it back, thank you, and it continued to serve Royal Navy tars into the 1980’s when the club was relocated to England. That was to be a few years after I visited Hong Kong. This was 1971 and Hong Kong was a major R&R (Rest & Recuperation) stop for war weary soldiers. Thanks in no small part to it’s proximity to the Wan Chai neighborhood the CFC was a popular hangout for American GI’s who wanted to tank up before heading out to fall in love.

In case the name Wan Chai doesn’t ring a bell, it was romanticized in a 1960’s chick-flick titled The World of Suzie Wong that starred William Holden. If Holden’s name doesn’t ring bell either, your mom thought he was really cute. Anyway, in those days, the Wan Chai was a noisy, smelly kaleidoscope of neon signs, topless joints and drunken soldiers, sailors, marines. Of course, I had to see it for myself.

One bar was enough. If you’ve been reading this blog you might remember the story about the bar in Lisbon I visited where a delicate flower tried to give me a hernia exam. Well, the girl in Lisbon was positively genteel compared to the Chinese lassies at the Manhattan Bar. No sooner had I parted the beaded curtains at the front door when I was greeted by a chorus of voices, all of which seemed to be saying, “Hi GI. My name is Suzie. I love you. Buy me some champagne and maybe I take you around the world.” The next thing I knew, some beady-eyed madam in her 30’s or maybe her 60’s wearing a silk ao dai was haggling with me about buying “Suzie” for the night. Buy Suzie for the night? I hadn’t decided to buy “Suzie” the warm ginger ale they were pawning off as champagne.

Before you could say, “Who's going to notify Steve’s next of kin?” I had half a dozen people cursing me in Mandarin as I backed up in what I hoped was the direction of the front door. Fortunately as I hit the beaded curtains, in came a scrum of 3 or 4 noisy soldiers bent on making the most of their R&R. As they stumbled into the bar I bobbed and weaved my way out and was half-way down the block before I realized that no one was chasing me.

Aside from the Wan Chai, the only real adventure that I encountered visiting Hong Kong was landing at the infamously famous Kai Tak airport. With a single runway and a perilous location, Kai Tak was considered challenging by the best pilots…and PanAm’s pilots were the best. Depending on the direction of the wind, a landing plane had to pass over the rooftops of Kowloon at an absurdly low altitude. They called it the "checkerboard" approach because the pilot had to fly toward floodlit orange and white checkerboard patterns painted on a hillside and then make a 47-degree right turn to line up with the runway. I was always a little nervous riding in a plane that weighed almost a million pounds that was flying little more than the length of a football field above the rooftops of packed tenements.

On more than one occasion the pilot took almost all the length of the runway to rein in the 747 and had to turn around 180 degrees so we could taxi back up the runway to the terminal.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Friday, February 15, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Bangkok Story - #19

During the period when I was working as a Federal Sky Marshal (nowadays, Air Marshal) guarding PanAm flights in the early 1970’s the majority of my trips did an about-face, as it were, in Bangkok. That is to say, that whatever the interim stopovers, be they Hong Kong, Hawaii, Guam, Manila, Saigon or Tokyo, the farthest west I ever flew was Bangkok. Federal per diem notwithstanding, thanks to the strong dollar in those days I generally managed to stay in fairly nice hotels on my stopovers with but notable exception, and here is that story.

Whether it was by design, or by accident, we were rarely paired with same partners for more than a few patterns. As a result, I flew with a whole spectrum of team-members from retired military, to furloughed airline pilots, to footloose recent college grads like myself. Generally we tolerated each other. The rote nature of the job didn’t demand a high level of coordination. Some took the theoretical protection of American flag-carriers from terrorist threats very seriously while others considered the frequent trans-oceanic trips to be little more than paid sightseeing. I fell somewhere in between.

Occasionally, though, I was paired with another Sky Marshal with an agenda that had little to do with in-flight security or sightseeing. Such was the case with Jeremiah. No, that’s not his real name, nor was he an invisible rabbit. Jerry was a brilliant chess player, passionate conspiracy theorist, and a self-annointed authority on pretty much everything – so much so that nobody who had ever flown with him would agree to do so again. Of course, I knew none of this when I was paired up with him. Also unbeknownst to me before we flew to Bangkok together, Jerry was a major fan of hookers, or as my old dad would say, a whore-chaser.

Usually when a team of Sky Marshals landed, cleared customs, dropped off our weapons with the local constabulary, we headed straight for our hotels. Sometimes we all chose to stay at the same hotel, but mostly we split up to wile away the few hours between flights in our own ways. My hotel of choice in Bangkok was the Intercontinental which, in those days, was affiliated with PanAm. It was elegant, had good food, you could drink the water, and since that was where the PanAm crews stayed, there was generally someone there I knew who I could join for dinner.

On this particular trip however, Jerry was adamant that we both stay at hotel that he would pick, and he would brook no argument. Since I knew by now that he was – to put it nicely – a prickly sort of fellow, and I was stuck with him for the next few days, I figured it best to go with the flow.

It was a decision I immediately regretted when the taxi pulled up in front of a creaky, teak paneled, two-story fleabag. Actually, the term “fleabag” fails to adequately characterize the unique qualities of this flophouse. “Giant Cockroach Motel” comes closer. It boasted all the cozy charm of a budget opium den. Bare bulbs wreathed in bugs half-heartedly illuminated the geckos who skittered along the stained walls. The air-conditioning was the minimal, cold water sprayed over a fan kind that left you hot and damp. Slowly turning fans hanging from ceilings in every room did little to disturb the fetid air. I felt like I’d walked on the set of Demon Queen of Siam.

Jerry and I were assigned adjacent rooms, something else I was later to deeply regret. We parted company and I caught a cab to the Intercontinental where I hoped to at least temporarily bask among more civilized surroundings.

The evening wound down and I dragged myself back to my dark, dingy and dank lodgings. I had no sooner crawled between the thin, damp sheets on my bed when there was a knock on the door. In a place like this they don’t have turn-down service, but I got out of bed and cracked the door open a bit.

Standing outside in the hall was the taxi driver who had brought Jerry and me to this sorry pit along with a sullen, skinny, teenage girl who could have been forty - the light was so bad it was hard to tell. The taxi driver clearly expected me to take this girl for the night and pay him for the privilege.

I said, “no,” and shut the door expecting that that was that. No such luck. In about twenty minutes there was another knock at the door. It was the taxi driver with another forty-year-old teenage girl.

I said “no” again and got a flurry of Thai in reply interspersed with some English words that he’d no doubt picked up from an angry Gunnery Sergeant. It’s worth noting that, at the time, the war in Viet Nam was going full blast and Bangkok was a major R&R destination for servicemen looking for some distraction from the horror of jungle rot, ambushes, and k-rations.

It was about thirty minutes before the taxi driver returned a third time, this time bringing a slim, pretty, pale…boy. Now I was wide awake and more than a little angry my own self. I told him that if he came back again I’d get the FBI after him. Thai taxi drivers had no clue what the US Treasury Department was, but they all knew about the FBI.

By now I’d also realized that Jerry had chosen this hotel because nicer establishments banned pimps and hookers and firmly dissuaded guests from entertaining paid companions in their rooms. My good buddy Jerry had done a deal with the taxi driver to save money by hiring two girls. I had lots of time to puzzle this out because the thumping and squealing that rattled the thin paneling separating Jerry’s room from mine continued well into the wee small hours.

The next morning the same enraged taxi driver told Jerry how I had rejected his multiple offerings of Siamese pulchritude, after which he charged Jerry the full amount. Needless to say Jerry took umbrage at my thoughtless and inconsiderate behavior. Personally, I was dog tired and would have none of it. He was building a head of steam until I interrupted him with a mention that “whore-chaser” wouldn’t look good on his permanent record and I was not only in a position to make that might happen but would surely do so if he didn’t shut up that very minute.

Call me a rat, but Jerry was actually kind of tolerable after that – in an obnoxious sort of way.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Berserkeley - #18

Leigh, the PanAm stewardess whom I’d met in Tokyo while flying as a Sky Marshal (aka Air Marshal), asked me to join her in a visit to some old friends who lived in Berkeley. Leigh was quite the free spirit – always decorating the hotel rooms where the airline put her up between flights by draping scarves over the lamps and taping psychedelic posters over the windows – so it came as no surprise that her Berkeley friends were pretty left of center.

What was surprising – at least to me – was why Leigh injected an agent of the much loathed “pig” establishment, in my case the Treasury Department, into this cocoon of macrobiotic, progressive virtue. Since Leigh treated men more or less like Ernest Hemmingway did big game I suspect that I was the catch of the day – ultimately destined to have my skin stretched on the wall of some trophy room. Or perhaps she thought she could raise my consciousness, as they used to say, by cleaning out my musty, Neolithic, cerebrum with a blast of revolutionist rhetoric. Let me set the scene…

We were met at the door by a willowy woman in her 40’s wearing a tie-dyed, floor-length peasant dress. Her prematurely graying hair, which was so straight that it had to have been ironed, was captured by a leather barrette from which it flowed down to her waist. In close attendance was a brood of three daughters ranging in age from mid-teen to early “tween.” Her husband – they weren’t all that radical – was a heavy set, bald guy in a baggy dashiki cinched at the waist by a checkered apron. He was off in the kitchen dutifully cooking up the evening’s vegetarian repast – bean sprout and tofu couscous drenched in saffron oil.

The walls of the apartment displayed the standard issue Berkeley collection of motivational artwork: Malcolm X Is Welcome Here, Free Huey, Woodstock, and the Che Guevara icon posters, as well as grainy black and white blow-up photos of Angela Davis, Tommy Smith and John Carlos raising gloved fists on the victory stand at the 1968 Mexico Olympics and a saintly Ho Chi Minh. The air was thick with incense and Ravi Shankar. I knew it was going to be a long night.

Dinner was seasoned with the usual 1970 Berkeley small talk about the-running-dog-capitalist-pig-establishment’s-illegal-war-on-the-downtrodden-Viet-Namese-peasants-blah-blah-blah… I nodded politely or perhaps I was sleeping with my eyes open. In any case, I had little to add. A fly on the wall might come to the conclusion that all of this radical cant was meant to soften up the enemy – I mean guest – for interrogation. I swear to you that the second hand on my watch had stopped moving.

Eventually our hostess tired of reciting verbatim from the editorial page of the Daily Worker, and launched into a serious effort to tune up my political sensitivity with the story of her beautiful black lover. He, along with some fellow felons who called themselves revolutionaries (“felon” and “revolutionary” were often redundant in those days) had recently made the national headlines. While on the lam from robbing a bank in Tucson the three decided to hijack a plane and divert it to Cuba. Their request was challenged by a member of the plane’s crew who incurred death for his insensitivity to their plight. There was no further protest from the crew or passengers and the hijacked plane arrived safely in Havana.

The story made me ill. Maybe it was supposed to. I consoled myself in the knowledge that her radical skyjacker-lover most certainly did not receive the hero’s welcome in Havana that he’d been expecting for his anti-establishment high jinks. Cuban Communists then as now, are a suspicious lot and in all likelihood they promptly took our bank-robbing revolutionary and his two felonious cronies directly from the airport to some hot, dirty, bug infested cane fields for an extended period of intense political education. Cubans have been known to politically educate people to death, so there was a glimmer of the possibility of justice for this murderer.

While mom was regaling me with the tale of her lover her three girls were literally seated at her feet, wide-eyed, soaking up all the drama, while papa was off in the kitchen scrubbing the wok. When she finished her story, this New Age, liberated, progressive woman looked directly at me – her voice choking in empathetic fervor - and asked what I would have done had I been on the plane and confronted this beautiful black victim of a criminally oppressive society who had been merely struggling to throw off the shackles of a racist culture.

I looked her at her girl’s innocent faces, and at her husband doing his best to ignore a story that he’d probably heard countless times. Then I looked at my hostess and contemplated the polite response. In the end, honestly won out. “With all due respect Ma'am, anyone who attempts to hijack a plane I'm guarding can expect to be shot...dead, if at all possible.”

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Monday, February 4, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Sake Story - #17

After about two months of temporary posting as a Customs Security Officer, otherwise known as a Federal Sky Marshal (these days, Air Marshal), covering PamAm flights out of New York and bound for Europe, in March of 1971 I was reassigned to my permanent duty station in San Francisco. From there I, and a couple dozen other Sky Marshals, guarded select routes flown by PamAm and other US carriers to points west – flying as undercover guards far as Bangkok. Capitals further west, such as New Delhi, were covered by Sky Marshals flying out of New York.

For the next 15 or 16 months I would rack about 750,000 miles making short stops in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Saigon, Manila and Bangkok. To and from these destinations I touched down in Anchorage, Hawaii and Guam. Rarely did the Sky Marshals have much of a layover between flights. Uncle Sam wasn’t paying us to broaden our cultural horizons and we didn’t have any “flight rules” governing how much down time was required between flights that I ever heard about. Such free time as we did have between flights was taken up by checking in our weapons upon arrival, clearing the local customs, finding a cab, getting a hotel room, eating some chow, grabbing some shut-eye and then repeating the process in reverse. Often I had as little as 6 hours between flights. Not much time for sightseeing if I wanted to get some sleep.

But what the heck. If I met someone on the flight who wanted to see some sights…well, sleep has always taken a backseat to feminine companionship on my list of priorities. As mentioned a couple of blogs back, PanAm boasted some of the most attractive young ladies aloft. Not all of whom were disinclined to accept and invitation to dinner by the in-flight security personnel…that is to say…me.

Yah, yah, yah. I can hear it now. Fraternization between the security personnel and the flight crew is not to be encouraged lest it create a breakdown in the…whatever. After nearly three months on the job, it was obvious that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had pulled in its horns. Or, at the very least, Yassir’s stooges weren’t casing out airports outside of the Mediterranean. Of course there were splinter groups of wild-eyed wackos seeking martyrdom all over the world. Anyways, I assume there were. You see, I never saw any kind of report, or threat warning, or danger status-condition-orange sort of thing…the whole time I worked as a Sky Marshal. All I ever got was a list of patterns every few weeks of flights that I was supposed to guard. A typical pattern was SFO / Tokyo / Hong Kong / Bangkok / Hong Kong / Tokyo / SFO…all in five days. I guess the presence of hastily trained, ill-informed in-flight Sky Marshals was a sufficient deterrent to terrorists in those days.

So I made friends with the stewardesses, or at least the friendly ones. Stop rolling your eyes. I have no intention of writing a kiss-and-tell blog. And even if I did it wouldn’t be true. As an example, here’s a “didn’t kiss and tell” story…

On a flight to or from Tokyo, I forget which, I met a pretty girl who I’ll call Linda. I’d seen her on a couple of other patterns so when I bumped into her outside the airport waiting for the crew bus I said “hi.” We chatted a bit and before you could say “coffee, tea or sake,” we had set up a date. As usual, PanAm put the crew up in pretty ritzy digs, while those us living on Federal per diem roosted on a much lower perch. Though, with the yen at 280 per dollar, you could still find nice rooms cheap.

After a quick shower at my cheap hotel room I found a cab and I picked up Linda at the Imperial Hotel (I said they were ritzy digs). From there we went out to a tempura restaurant in the Ginza that she liked. We spent the next little while seated on the floor washing down batter-fried octopus nostrils with rounds of sake when Linda says to me, “It’s expensive to drink here. Let’s get some sake and go back to my room.”

Before you could say, “Ready, aim, fire,” we get a cab and head back to the Imperial Hotel. But when we get there, Linda tells me that she doesn’t want to order the sake from room service because it will show up on her bill, so would I please go get some. "Sure, no problem" I said and then I spent the next hour in a cab driven by a driver who spoke no English trying to find the Japanese equivalent of a 7-11 store. Amazingly, I found one, bought some sake, and we returned to the hotel. I gave the driver a good tip and despite the hard-wired Japanese dignity, he couldn’t resist giving me a big smile. Way to go, round eye!

I stuck the bottle under my coat before I walked through the majestic doors of the Imperial Hotel into a lobby that was about the size of an airplane hanger. In short order I found the house phone and called up to Linda’s room fully expecting that she’d gotten tired of waiting for me and gone to sleep. But no, she was all sparkly and told me to come right up.

I found the door her room ajar, and as I opened it she called out for me to heat up the sake in the bathroom sink. So, I did a quick 90 degree turn into the bathroom and ran hot water over the bottle. Eventually, after increasing the sake’s temperature by about one degree, I poured out about two fingers each into two hotel water glasses and walked into the room…

…where I found Linda seated cross-legged on the bed wearing only panties and some virtually transparent, short, peignoir-type top. My sake-addled brain shot right past “every boy’s fantasy fulfilled” to “this is pretty weird.” Still, a full bottle of sake and a pretty girl who seems friendly are not things to be ignored, so I handed her a glass and sat down next to her on the bed.

“I rather you didn’t sit so close,” she said.

Okay. So I moved to the other bed – the room had two double beds. We – mostly Linda – chatted about this and that. When she drained her glass, I offered to get her another drink. “Please,” she says and so I do…returning to find that she had taken off her transparent top. Now it’s just me with an almost naked, really good-looking girl with a flirtatious smile and a mostly full bottle of sake.

After I handed her the glass I moved to touch her hair. She flinched away and said, “Please don’t.”

By now we’re in the smallest of the wee small hours. I’ve had a snoot full of sake and I’m very confused about the rules of engagement. The whole "get away closer" thing is making my head spin so I tell Linda that I’m leaving, at which point she starts to cry. With her sudden rush of tears I’m expecting a private detective with a Speed Graflex camera – flashbulbs popping – to jump out of closet. I said “goodbye” and left.

The next morning as I’m walking on to the PanAm flight that I’m scheduled to guard, who should I see handing out the rolls of steaming towels that were given to all the First Class passengers at the start of a flight but Linda, my sake buddy from the previous evening. She takes one look at me, utters a small shriek, drops the tray of towels, and rushes through the curtains into the large galley that separates the First Class seats from steerage on a 747.

In short order, the flight’s Purser – in this case a senior stewardess – comes out through the curtains like an avenging angel on afterburners, points at me and says, “I’ll see you in the lounge, mister.” I look around to see all the passengers staring at me mouths agape. I follow the Purser up the winding staircase to the 747's upstairs lounge where she reams me out every which way at a volume that the ramp rats standing outside of the plane on the tarmac could hear. I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that she was going to file a report with my supervisor in SFO.

Which she most certainly did, and I was duly called before Agent in Charge who asked me what had happened. I told him the whole story, after which he sat silent for a long time. Finally, he pulled open some drawers in his desk until he found what he was looking for – a copy of the Federal regulations and policies – from which he read something along these lines. The exact words escape me but it went something like this:

“Federal agents are specifically prohibited from discharging a weapon unless presented with a clear and unobstructed target.”

Since it was clear that I had followed Federal regulations to the letter, he closed the book and told me to get out of his office.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008