Friday, November 24, 2017

Review: It's more than black Friday -- it's D.B. Cooper Day!

Review of: Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper
Author: Geoffrey Gray
Publisher: Random House, Inc.
Source: Dallas Public Library
Grade: B

Welcome the anniversary of the day in 1971 when an airplane hijacker named (but not really) who gave his name to a ticket agent as “Dan Cooper” parachuted – or perhaps simply fell -- off the aft stairway of an in-flight Northwest Orient Airlines 727 into the Pacific Northwest with a $200,000 ransom from airline. And disappeared into legend.

In my perpetual quest for light-read audio books, I plucked Skyjack, by Geoffrey Gray, off the shelves of a Dallas Public Library branch recently. It’s been so long, I had completely forgotten that the hijacking by the man who came to be known as D.B. Cooper occurred over the Thanksgiving weekend. (The November 24 date was actually the day before Thanksgiving Day back in 1971.)

images: Wikimedia commons
Considering that in the 46 years since Cooper (or whoever he was) disappeared into the night skies, neither his body, his loot (save for a small amount of almost decomposed bills) have been discovered, I didn’t expect much from a tale even from a bestselling journalist like Gray. In fact, Skyjack was nothing like I expected. Instead, it was much more!

Despite Cooper’s threat of possessing a bomb, nobody was harmed during the hijacking. No one would have benefited financially from the ransom he demanded for leaving the aircraft unharmed, because the bank which provided the $200,000 -- all in $20 bills -- had a complete list of the serial numbers.

So why, in view of the far deadlier airplane hijackings since, does D.B. Cooper’s continue to intrigue? And why has it swallowed far more resources – financial and human – than the original ransom amount could ever justify?

The answers to our continuing fascination with the event, Gray hints, lie in the imaginations of the cast of characters he encountered. A cast of ordinary people whose lives have been transformed, absorbed, deformed, forever entangled with the D.B. Cooper legend. Not to mention the people who have claimed to be – or vehemently denied being – D.B. Cooper.

Instead of satirizing these people, Gray treats them sympathetically, as he does the ever-increasing list of suspects, each more improbable than the next. There’s the widow who insists her husband confessed on his deathbed to being D.B. (or “Dan”) Cooper. At least the dying man confessed to using the same name as listed on the original Northwest Orient ticket. Or perhaps his widow (who has no other witnesses to her husband’s statement) provided the ticketed name when she remembered the confession years later. (And decades after the jump from the airplane stairway.)

About the name – it was “Dan Cooper” on the ticket purchased by a man who may have worn a black suit. Or a brown suit. Or a “russet-colored” suit as one witness recalled. Or maybe a suit with a stripe. However, when the name was transmitted by phone to reporters after the hijacking was made public, a misunderstanding transmuted “Dan” in the “D.B.” Perhaps a name change, an alias, certainly more than touch of mystery, is required to create a legend.

And oh, those suspects. The man of the deathbed confession, who turned out to be a petty thief who also may (or may not) have been acquainted with James Earl Ray, the assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King. And a roughneck civil pilot who underwent a sex change operation to become a woman prior to the hijacking, but has been credited (or discredited) with performing the hijack in male drag. Little issues such as discrepancies in height, hair color (possibly dyed?) and eye color (partly disguised by dark glasses?) get overlooked in the excitement of the chase.

Oh, and don’t forget the Mormon Sunday School teacher who actually did pull off a copycat hijacking for a ransom of $500,000, only to be captured almost immediately.

And there’s the boy who discovered (or did he?) part of the Cooper loot on a sand bar, the bills identified by those telltale serial numbers. Or the stewardess who became a nun. And another stewardess who became a bodybuilding fanatic. (She’s keen to demonstrate her one-handed pushups to Gray.)

Considering that the stewardesses who were the closest observers of their plane’s hijacker placed Cooper’s age in the 40’s, and that 46 years have passed since that fateful November 24, 1971, the hijacker, even if he survived the initial jump, may well be dead now. Or at least a very, very old man.

But hope springs eternal. Since the publication of Skyjack, fingers have started to point to a suspect who would only have been in his 20’s at the time of the event. I’m waiting breathlessly for the day when we encounter a suspect who wasn’t even born at the time of the hijacking. Long live D.B. Cooper! And long live his legend!

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