Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Guns Are a Pain - #28

I flew as a Federal Sky Marshal (nowadays, Air Marshal) between the winter of 1971 and the fall of 1972. During my 20-month stint I racked up almost 750,000 miles on countless overseas trips; traveling initially between New York and points west, and later on departing from SFO for the Far East and even further east.

Though the media made a big deal out of the presence of Sky Marshals on US passenger carriers – even going so far as to tell the world and any would be hijackers who happened to be tuning in that we always sat in seat number such-and-such – Sky Marshals were supposed to be operating undercover. That is to say that we wore plain clothes and did our best to travel incognito or in the parlance of the trade, undercover.

Undercover doesn’t just mean just being more or less unobtrusive. For example, the Secret Service guys who wear a holster clipped to a belt and covered by a suit coat jacket have no intention of being invisible. With the sunglasses, flag pins and the talking-into-the wrist, those guys are meant to be obvious to all but the most inattentive observer. Their dark business suits notwithstanding, they damn sure want everyone in the vicinity to know that the President is surrounded by heavily armed bad-asses.

Sky marshals, on the other hand, had to fly long hours in cramped quarters, cheek by jowl with ordinary passengers who weren’t supposed to be aware of our function, which meant keeping one’s gun as inconspicuous as possible while maintaining a cover as an ordinary business or vacation traveler.

As part of my ongoing effort to find a place to keep the gun readily accessible, invisible to the naked eye, and where didn’t feel like a spear in my side, I tried out every possible type of holster, harness and rig I could find, and I’m here to tell that hiding a gun under your clothes is a pain.

It didn’t make any difference whether I was stuffed into a tiny seat in Row 46 just ahead of the furthest aft bulkhead, or savoring the comparative comfort of cushy chair in First Class, the gun always managed to poke, jam or wend its way into my nether areas. On some of the longer flights, half of the time I went to the john was to readjust the holster so as not to develop a bed sore.

In the movies the hero is always able to quickly snatch a gun from under his coat when the scene calls for it. Judging from the smooth lines of their tailored suits, I strongly doubt that they make the actor lug the piece around under his coat when the scene calls for romancing the sexy foreign agent. In police shows of course they show the cops in shirtsleeves wearing belt holsters, which are fine as long as you don’t have to wedge yourself into an airline seat.

At the point where I had more leather in my closet than a dominatrix, I finally hit upon the solution that I used until they phased out the undercover work – something called a “belly band.” This was a strip of elastic-reinforced cotton that closed by means of several sets of bra hooks – though these fastened in the front. Stitched into either side of the band were patches of canvas cut in the shape of a holster. When worn correctly, a belly band allowed the wearer to conceal a small handgun under a shirt, assuming that the shirt wasn’t tailored.

Since I never had reason to use the gun on the job I never found out what it would be like trying to haul the piece out of my shirt while under fire. The number of times that I did practice unbuttoning the shirt and fishing the gun out did not encourage any fantasies that I could achieve a fast draw. Still, the belly band allowed me to carry the Chief's Special and sit as comfortably as was possible on the plane. As an added blessing given the sweaty nature of its in-flight location, the Chief was made mostly from rustproof stainless steel.

(c) Stephen Rustad 2008

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