It’s funny how some people will open up to a stranger, sometimes relating deeply personal information. I felt like a voyeur or maybe the way those Catholic priests must feel during a really juicy confession.
In the early 70’s I was chosen to be a Sky Marshall. After a spate of air piracy incidents, mostly in the Mideast, President Nixon ordered a fast ramp-up to temporarily support the older, smaller Air Marshall program. The Sky Marshall program was a temporary stopgap measure that would remain in existence for less than three years, to be eventually subsumed by a beefed -up Air Marshall force. The military provided about a thousand men from the various services. Expert pistol shots, hand-to-hand combat training, and a pleasant appearance were the main criteria. The pay was supplemental to our military pay and we all saw this as a colossal gravy train. There was a $500 clothing allowance and, perhaps it was an oversight, but we qualified for military travel pay on our assignments. Because of travel pay my monthly pay soared from $900 to $4600. One month I netted $7100. I was making more than a general. Later the Navy tried to take the travel pay from us, but Congress, in a generous mood, protected us vets. Then there were the stewardesses. I’ll just say I was seldom lonely on layovers. Also, it was a rare flight attendant who wouldn’t slip me half a dozen miniatures just before we deplaned. But there were down-sides too. We were in the air 5 ½ days a week, 8-14 hours per day in airports and in the air. That sucks. Ask any flight crew member. I logged 4223 takeoffs and landings, many thousands of flight hours, 3 ear and 2 sinus infections.
We were sent to a six-weeks training program at Ft. Leavenworth then sent to Miami which would be our hub for assigned flights. Seventy-five percent of our flights were domestic. Foreign flights were mostly to the Mideast as most European countries forbade entrance by armed agents. At our training the psychological testing disqualified about 30% of the selectees. These would be replaced and trained in a second class. The training consisted of profiling passengers via facial expressions, dress, mannerisms, nationality, and behavior at boarding gates. Also, we were trained in physical take-down and disablement techniques. We were armed with Beretta 21A automatics. These sweet little .25 caliber pieces with a short 3.5” barrel and a black matte finish, were handy for pocket or purse, easily concealed and in the hands of an expert, lethal, with minimum risk of collateral damage to an aircraft or passengers. Additionally, we spent hours role playing as teachers, engineers, salespeople, etc., to enable us to assume our assignments as non-threatening ordinary passengers. For me this part became what made one of the most boring jobs in the world somewhat endurable. It let me feel like an actor. Well, I guess I was an actor, wasn’t I?
The first couple of months was settling in time, getting used to the long days and nights sitting in a cramped aisle seat (we were always assigned aisle seats). Let me tell you right now that in my 22 months as a Sky Marshall I never once encountered violent or terroristic passengers, only the occasional rowdy drunk. The protocol for dealing with rowdy drunks was simple. The flight attendant would shift seating to place me next to the loud mouth. I’d have a quiet yet stern chat and show the gentleman, or in a few cases a lady, the badge and a pair of handcuffs with mention of the available straight jacket. That worked in all but two cases; those times I broke the wrist of one asshole and the middle finger of another. Each subject quieted down whimpered and was arrested upon exiting the plane. Just so you get the picture, this was very boring duty.
If you travel much you probably have noticed how some people will open up to a stranger, sometimes relating deeply personal information. I’ve had seat mates confess infidelities, petty crimes, addictions, abortions, lies, and even STDs. The frequency of these candid confessions took me somewhat aback. I grew up in Wyoming where there’s a strong sense of privacy. That has always precluded me from revealing any information of a personal nature about me or my family. Understanding how Catholics could regularly dump their secrets in a confessional is totally beyond me. I could never do that. But when a total stranger would blurt out his or her inner-most information I found it easy, actually fascinating, to listen. I felt like a voyeur or maybe the way those Catholic priests must feel during a really juicy confession. In time I even learned ways to coax secrets from unsuspecting air passengers.
Around the third month of service I began constructing odd stories for my assumed identities, quirky stories to share if my seat mate wanted to chat. First as a way to draw out confessions, but the more I did this the more I realized how much I enjoyed acting the part of someone totally different than the real me. Soon I began playing odd roles, someone out of the mainstream. I’d take delight in convincing somebody of what to me would have been unbelievable. I first did this with a grandmotherly lady flying to Providence. I told her I was a rodeo clown and that I’d broken bones 27 times and that the top of my skull was the same kind of plastic used to make GI Joe figurines. You would be amazed at how gullible travelers are. I am. I told a high school teacher that I was a congressional aide and that Congress would soon vote on a bill to mandate a reduction of high school from four to two years. Other times as a congressional aid I told about the secret slot machine and video poker game room in one of the senate chambers and how three unnamed United States senators, addicted to machine gambling, had to be physically pulled off the machines for crucial votes. As an assistant White House chef I confided how Pat Nixon was a closet drinker who hid bottles of gin, how President Nixon routinely consumed as many as six bowls of Fruit Loops for breakfast every morning, how President Johnson’s daughters were such chronic shop-lifters that the Secret Service detail assigned to them carried cash to pay for the girl’s peccadillos without their knowledge. Their code words for the two girls were “Klepto One and Klepto Two. This was my only remedy for the boredom of the endless hours seated in cramped seats with the never-ending drone of aircraft engines. And how I dug it.
On a red-eye from New York to L.A. I posed as a chef for an unnamed big -time Hollywood producer. “When Kathryn Hepburn was a guest she’d request her favorite breakfast: an entire can of Spam battered and deep-fried in lard then covered with Karo syrup. This washed down with a twelve-ounce tumbler of Stolichnaya Vodka served neat.” I’ve have served Miss Hepburn this twice,” I told my chubby listener. Just before deplaning he handed me his card and asked me to call on him when I returned to New York. He was an editor at Simon and Schuster. “Let’s talk about a tell-all book.” The more I gleaned how gullible travelers were, the more I inflated my stories. On a long transatlantic flight to Morocco, posing as the nurse at a high-priced rehab in Palm Springs, I related to a curious seat mate how Henry Kissinger had thrice been delivered by Secret Service agents in the middle of the night for detox.
“The Henry Kissinger,” he’d asked.
“Yep, German accent, wavy hair; I can tell you there was one arrogant, raving, sonofabitch. We had to hit him with Haldol just to get him from the government limousine into the clinic. He’d climb the walls for a day or two then he’d calm down. Bet you’d never guess that the National Security Advisor beneath that Armani suit wears a half-slip, red lace see-through panties and a black lace bra scented with Chanel cologne. Oh yeah, Kissinger has one very nasty addiction. It’s a mixture of prescription cough syrup mixed with Ambesol and paregoric. And you’d be amazed at some of the stuff we see. We’d dry him out for a week, then Washington would send a plane for him.” What I didn’t know was that the dude I was telling this to was a counselor officer at the Embassy in Rabat. That story was all over the State Department within a week. Only thing that kept it out of the press was no one could find out which rehab in Palm Springs the story came from.
Another hot one was when as a Texas hospital administrator I confided to a Stanford History professor that our hospital had confidential records which could prove that Stevie Wonder was the love child of Lyndon Johnson and Ella Fitzgerald. Some folks guessed Ella used the secret to blackmail the President into pushing through the Civil Rights Bill. Who knows how many of the professor’s students got sucked into that big lie.
The best story of all? That’s easy. Flying from San Francisco to Washington D.C. I told a beautiful redhead whom I particularly wanted to impress that as an orthopedic surgeon I was on a team of other orthopedic surgeons and neurosurgeons who had spent two years on a hush-hush government project developing a complex operation that could restructure the brains, larynxes and throats of monkeys enabling them to learn to speak. At Stanford there are monkeys with 500-word oral vocabularies. “It’s like talking to a four-year-old, you’d be astonished,” I told her. “They actually hold conversations with one another all day long. It’s amazing.”
The lady told me that I was amazing. An amazing bullshitter is what she said. “What a crock of shit, Chief Robinson,” she said, shocking me with the use of my real name. She broke into a huge grin, extended her hand and introduced herself as Petty Officer First Class Jeannie McDonnough, Sky Marshall. “Chief we all do this, but you gotta be the best.” McDonnough was off duty and had caught this flight to begin her leave at home in Virginia. We then had three hours of good laughs zipping across the continent exchanging identity stories. Yes, I got her phone number.
The Sky Marshall program terminated just short of three years during which time the Air Marshall program had been able to recruit and train sufficient numbers of men and women to police the skies without us. With all that incredible travel pay, I was able to buy a house in Chula Vista where with my new wife, the former Jeannie McDonnough, we retired. To tell the truth I cannot remember the myriad of identities I assumed in those twenty-two months. Play acting was what kept me from unravelling, something that made the flights tolerable, and something that’s given me much in relating these stories, especially to shipmates once I had returned to sea duty, and still today I love telling some of these stories.
Buy the table another round and I’ll tell you about the time I was a costume designer for Star Trek. How we had to tailor special pants to accommodate Leonard Nimoy’s colossal private parts. “They stuck those pointy ears on him just to draw attention away from the bulge. Wanna hear some more?”
©Gary Ives 2019