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