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