Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - TASOS Instructors - #30

I was recruited as a Sky Marshal (aka Air Marshal) in the winter of 1971 and sent to join other recruits in the eleventh class of the Treasury Air Security Officers School (TASOS) that was tucked into a little-used corner of Ft Belvoir, a US Army base in Virginia just outside of DC.

With little in the way of practical experience on which to base the Sky Marshal curriculum, those responsible for creating the course chose provide us with a very pared-down version of Treasury School salted with some odd bits of theory on how to combat a mid-air sky-jack attempt…and a lot of time on the pistol range.

Over a period of four weeks, this jury-rigged course was taught to us by an ad hoc group of Federal law enforcement personnel who had been dragooned to the classroom. Some relished the task, others were less enthusiastic.

Not to say that the teaching wasn’t interesting, highly-professional and even, occasionally, useful. Merely that the classes – unlike traditional government rote teaching – reflected the personalities and experiences of the teachers. Several of the teachers stood out as almost characterizations of their job and even their particular agency:

One class the laws governing our role as Sky Marshals was taught by a charismatic Secret Service agent who always wore sharp suits tailored with the kind of contrasting stitching popular at the Grand Ole Opry. He was reputed to have spent time as a prisoner in a Mexican jail just to befriend and extract information from a particular thug.

After hours he smoked Cuban cigars while he regaled his wide-eyed, slack-jawed, audience with tails of daring-do, raids gone wrong, and the hi-jinks of some of the famous (though never named) folks that he had protected in his career.

The class on Arrest Techniques was taught by a senior agent seconded to TASOS by the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) branch of the Treasury Department. He was a tall, lanky, courtly, gentleman who wore elegant grey three-piece suits and always spoke in the measured tones of a Dixie politician. I remember him for his rich command of criminal slang with which he peppered his recollections of busting gun-runners and rooting out stills secreted in Appalachian hollers.

As I’ve noted in earlier blogs, Firearms training was provided the Secret Service’s uniformed branch – the Executive Protection Division. (Don’t quote me on the name – it’s been 36 years.) These guys weren’t just crisply starched – they were chiseled out of granite. I’ll bet they changed shirts 6 times a day. You could shave using the creases of their pants.

Unlike many of the other teachers, we (or, at least, I) never saw the Exec-Protect guys after hours, or out of character. I always imaged that they taught us to shoot in between shifts guarding the White House. Before I met the sergeant in charge of our firearms training I thought the Drill Instructors at Army Basic Training were the scariest folks in the world. Compared to this guy, my boot camp DI was a Den Mother.

Another memorable fellow was a Deputy US Marshal. His clothing was distinguished for its lack of descriptive feature. Everything he wore looked used…not dirty or frayed…just well worn. In fact, he looked well worn. If half the stories he told were true, then he had a right to be.

The price of a few drinks, the well worn Marshal told us tales of shepherding black students past frothing white mobs into the then just-desegregated southern universities. We heard about escorting criminals not just hardened but so tempered prison life that they had to be so heavily shackled from head to foot that they could barely walk…and they were still dangerous.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Stupid Sky Marshal Tricks - #29

When the government suddenly decides it needs a Sky Marshal (aka Air Marshal) program and they hire over 1500 folks to fill the ranks lickety-split, no manner of background field investigations is going to weed out all the possible mischief-makers, fools and the unqualified.

Otherwise, who in their right mind would have hired a near-sighted, Berkeley graduate who’d never fired a pistol, or won a fist fight, to join an elite team of anti-terrorist operatives?

But hire me to be a Sky Marshal they did and while I didn’t apprehend any miscreants or prevent any skyjackings, I didn’t shame the force either. Well, at least, no one told me I did to my face.

Others were not so fortunate. Now, before I proceed, let me assure you that I participated in none of the high jinks I’m about to mention. And since I didn’t personally witness them either, they may well be myths. Well, some might. Others I’m pretty sure happened because the central characters disappeared quite abruptly.

In an earlier blog, I told you about the Sky Marshal who – while unloading his automatic pistol in Heathrow Airport – accidentally cranked off a round into the side of a metal filing cabinet…much to the everlasting joy of the Bobby who told me the story…twice.

However, my favorite “accidental discharge” story has to do with a sky marshal who fired off a round in an airplane bathroom while the plane was cruising at altitude. The story goes that he attempted to sneak back to his seat as if nothing untoward had happened. Unfortunately, even a 38 caliber-sized hole in an airplane’s skin leaks air so ferociously that air masks rained down on all the passengers like balloons dropping at a New Years party.

The source of the leak was quickly determined though no one immediately ‘fessed up. Nonetheless, as but one of only two people on board carrying a gun – not to mention the only one possessing a gun that had recently been fired – our boy was sacked upon landing.

How did it happen? He was reported to have told the investigators that the gun accidentally discharged as he was unbuckling his pants in order to use the toilet. If so, then how did the round exit the bathroom exactly at his waist height and directly to his side? My theory is that he was practicing fast draws in the mirror. Ooops!

I’ve mentioned the ease with which we – as US Customs Officers – could pass through the mandatory Customs luggage screening upon returning from overseas. Just showing the badge was enough to get us whisked through as the other passengers were shaking out their unmentionables. This phenomenon proved to be too tempting for one young man. A surprise inspect of his locker uncovered a suspiciously large number of brand new Rolex watches sans any related Customs declarations. I never found out what happened to him, or the Rolexes.

I also detailed one not-quite incident with a stewardess in an past blog that, despite the best efforts of an outraged In-Flight Purser, didn’t get me fired. Others were not so lucky.

The night porter at one European hotel which regularly housed the plane’s crew during stop-overs was alerted by irate, sleepless guests to the joyous noises emanating from a young stewardesses’ room. The Sky Marshal who answered the insistent knock on her door couldn’t produce a room key in that same, or any other, hotel. Thanks to his undeniable charms, the Sky Marshal was introduced to members of the local constabulary who no doubt envied his way with women as they locked him up for the remainder of the night.

Sadly, upon our boy’s return home, the Agent in Charge didn’t appreciate his brand new arrest record…even if it wasn’t written in English.

That’s enough for now and don’t forget to turn out the light.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008