[5 October 2011]
“I don’t have a grudge against your airline, miss. I just have a grudge.”
—Dan Cooper to a stewardess aboard Northwest Orient Flight 305
“With your pleasant smile/And your dropout style… D.B Cooper, where did you go?”
—“The Ballad of D.B. Cooper”, by Judy Sword
Life—at least as lived by the vast majority of mankind—has a disconcerting habit of not being anywhere nearly as exciting as expected. In fact it goes through long stretches of being wholly mundane, not to say downright uncomfortable.
It was during a particularly disaffecting epoch of this type—mid-‘70s America – that a man calling himself Dan (later immortalised via transcription error as D.B.) Cooper took control of a jumbo jet over the Pacific Northwest, demanded and received $200,000 and a parachute, and leapt out over the vast north woods… and into legend. Save a few tantalizing bundles of bills washed up on a sandbar, no corporeal trace of him has ever been found. Witnesses who had spent hours on the same plane with him couldn’t agree on even his hair colour.
The specially interesting part wasn’t the skyjacking; this was a common enough occurrence back in the days when the notion of ‘someone flying a plane into an office tower’ was only wild speculation. But only one such hijacker was never found. Perhaps it was this daring parachute stunt, perhaps the simple lure of the unknown, but at any rate, Geoffrey Gray makes a convincing and highly entertaining case that when ‘Dan Cooper’ jumped out of that plane, he took the angst of a nation with him.
Maybe, the wishful thinking went, D.B.’s motives had been something more than simple greed or revenge. Maybe he spoke for everyone who was sick of the system and didn’t want to take it anymore.
Both mystery and mystique, nearly three decades later, become the jumping-off points for Gray’s Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper. It’s a book that’s not so much an investigation as an irresistible descent into fascination – a blow-by-blow chronicle of the lure of true-crime mysteries in general and in particular the freewheeling, often funny and sometimes frighteningly sad zeitgeist that both spawned and has supported the D.B. Cooper case through the years.
It begins with the basic question of identity. One day, Gray gets a tip from a PI friend on a new and promising suspect; visions of Pulitzers dancing in his head, he immediately convinces his editors at New York Magazine to back his pursuit of this seemingly hot lead… which leads to another… and then to another… Only gradually does he realise that he’s popped, Alice in Wonderland-style, down the rabbit hole. By the time he’s done, truth will be relative, the connection between evidence and proof nearly irrelevant—and a hot lead is but a cherry cheesecake recipe stuffed into a notebook.
As conspiracy theories go, D.B. Cooper’s is a rather benign one – nobody’s actively claiming his choice had anything to do with aliens, for example – which is precisely what makes it so absorbing to the author, and in turn translates entertainingly to the reader, both of whom might otherwise be more than ready to scoff dismissively. The basic principle at work here is the one you can see in action on any number of mainstream online ‘sleuthing’ sites: somewhere between hard skepticism and fringe loopiness lies the seductive prospect of not only solving a mystery, but revealing reality as the exciting place you always suspected it must be… Oh, and the Pulitzer would be nice, too.
One of the most engaging things about this entire enterprise is Gray’s refusal to adopt the rather sententious tone of the standard true-crime author, who ism of coursem anxious to reassure readers that he’s just as shocked as we are. Instead, Skyjack works off much more relateable themes of common humanity: everyone’s crazy here but me and thee, and sometimes I’m not so sure about thee. Especially if thee is claiming inside knowledge of the Cooper job, as devised and financed by the CIA, by people—possibly transsexual people—who complain of mysterious migraines and once shared jail cells with Martin Luther King Jr. assassin James Earl Ray… but hey, one has to admit, the logic kinda sorta hangs together. Maybe, just maybe…
Not that actual checkable fact is wholly neglected. Much of the middle of Skyjack is taken up with a road trip through the important Cooper sites, involving the author, the now-grown kid who found the random bills, a Vietnam vet working off his PTSD by scouring the woods for the parachute—and maybe the body—and a geeky fringe inventor trying to apply modern forensic techniques to the location of the same items. These last two don’t like each other a whole lot, one of several situations in Skyjack at which the reader is unsure whether to laugh, sympathise or frankly despair of human civilization altogether. Again, Gray is not about making judgments. He’s frankly too busy ensuring he’s in on whatever discoveries might be made.
Throughout he keeps a firm hold on his story, regardless of where it’s leading him. His prose is clear, strong and spare – a nice update on the ‘man’s man’ school of journalism as exemplified by Plimpton and Hamill—while at the same time mostly avoiding what must have been nigh-irresistible temptation to slip into pretentiously world-weary angst.
What posing there is isn’t fatal, and tends to dissolve into desperation as Gray sees his hold on his story receding into goofiness. Of his investigative ability, on a quest like this, it’s impossible to evaluate any sort of purpose; he sorts through the mass of malleable realities well enough to convince the reader that he’s still got a decent grip on sanity, if not, I fear, to convince them he deserves awards.
In the end, the mystery and mystique of D.B. Cooper are largely intact, although enough new questions have been raised that anyone inspired to follow in Gray’s footsteps should be kept entertained for a long time to come.
Assuredly the truth is somewhere out there; but the ultimate question is, would finding it spoil the whole thing?