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“Damn, it’s cold in here,” Scott said and immediately went over to the cast–iron stove and began loading in the small logs.
“This is Scott. He’ll be your jump instructor,” Sam said. Then turning to Scott he said, “Jon here is looking for D.B. Cooper.”
“Will they just let that die already?” Scott said. “He got away with it, easy as that.”
I asked Sam if he thought Cooper got away with it, and Sam said, “You know how those Special Forces guys are trained to parachute into places and not leave a trace? That’s what it looks like to me.” As he said this, the two young men from outside entered the building, and Sam said, “These two gentlemen here are my protégés. I’ve been working with them all week for their first solo jumps. This here is Jaws, and this is Boudreau.” When Jaws was introduced, he smiled widely, revealing the braces on his teeth. Boudreau shyly placed his hands in his pockets and toed the ground when introduced. Sam repeated the same statement to Jaws and Boudreau about Progressives being equal to Communists, and Jaws said that that was absolutely right, and Boudreau nodded vigorously, the same way he had done outside when talking to the two women. (Later, when sitting on my knees in the air in front of the Cessna’s second steering wheel, I will be tempted for a moment to grab the wheel and shout, “A liberal’s flying the plane! A liberal’s flying the plane!”)
“Do you guys want to hear a joke?” Sam asked. “So there’s this prospector and a cowboy in a bar. The cowboy says to the prospector, ‘Hey, old man, you ever danced?’ and when the prospector says, ‘No,’ the cowboy takes his six–shooters out and starts firing at the prospector’s feet, making him dance. When the cowboy stops to reload, the prospector reaches into his satchel, pulls out his double–barreled shotgun, draws back both hammers and says, “Hey, cowboy, you ever licked a mule’s ass?” Boudreau, Jaws, and I all laughed.
“On that note…” Scott said, closing the door on the cast–iron stove. “Come on, Jon. Let’s go get you ready to jump.”
5. It Really Does Feel Like You Are Diving, Not Falling
When Scott and I push off from the plane, the plane doesn’t just disappear above us, but feels to me as if it has evaporated into the air. Scott, too, seems invisible behind me, and the technique he showed me of arching my back and spreading my arms like a goalpost helps to stabilize me. Whatever condensation had formed on my goggles in the plane immediately clears. Scott had said to me on the ground that nothing about the process of jumping out of a plane is natural to the human body. This feels true to me, though not exactly in the way I’d expected. Instead of feeling rising anxiety, everything levels off. As if in some form of extreme, invisible elevator, the first moment is a jolt, and then equilibrium establishes. Visual cues provide the context for speed, but with a clear sky, I focus only on the ground, which, from two miles up, initially seems to move toward me slowly. Scott reminds me that he is attached to me by steering us to the left and right. Although I can’t see him, he spins us 360 degrees in air, then stops the spin and steadies us. When the chute deploys everything pulls upwards. Thankfully, my manhood avoids the straps. I sway comfortably in the air as the harness creaks like the wooden planks of a ship.
Scott’s voice returns in my ear. “So what do you think?” he asks. I say, “Great, peaceful!” His arms extend above mine, and he says, “Look how I am holding onto these two straps here. This is how we steer.” He pulls on the left strap, and the sensation is of swinging upward to the right, then dipping to the left. This sensation makes me feel nauseous, even though the jump itself did not. “Here,” Scott says, “you give it a try,” and he places my hands in the straps. I tug the right one tentatively, and Scott says, “Not like that, like this,” and pulls the right one hard, swinging us upward to the left, then dropping us to the right. I feel nauseous again. As a disembodied voice, Scott tells me that he has experienced just about every bodily fluid from the tandem jumpers. “One woman even started her period mid–jump,” Scott says. This is not a conversation I had expected to have. I pull half–heartedly on the straps a couple of times to appease Scott, and then I settle happily into a slow descent like a crate of supplies dropped from a cargo plane.
I had asked Scott earlier about the landing, and he had said he would go over that in the air. Since we are now in the air, and the ground is rising, I ask him again. “Can you go like this?” Scott asks and extends his legs on either side of me. I raise my legs. He says that when he tells me to, I will need to raise my legs. Simple. “Okay,” he says, “I’ll take over from here.” Scott takes hold of the straps and steers us toward the grassy runway from which we ascended. Mt. Hood pivots on the horizon so that it is behind us, and the shapes on the ground—the parking lot, cars, another plane, and the buildings—start to solidify. Scott steers us toward a soft patch in front of the garage/shed. “Okay, lift your legs,” Scott says as the ground draws up. I lift my legs, and with a mild thump, like going over a speed bump, we are both sitting again on the earth. Scott detaches himself from me, and Jaws and Boudreau, who have been watching from the ground, hustle over like the friendly Rottweilers to inspect everything and ask how the jump went. “Great!” I say again. “Peaceful!” And Jaws and Boudreau both nod and grin.
“Okay,” Scott says, “that’s it. You did great. Just put your jumpsuit and harness over there, and I’ll take care of the rest.” I do as told and then head to my car. When I pull from the long gravel drive, I am again a flightless citizen of earth, hunched slightly over the rental car’s steering wheel, the right turn signal blinking on and then off and then on.
6. Next Stop Ariel, But First Maybe Some Vomiting
My plan had been to drive directly to Ariel, Washington, but when I pull back onto the highway, I start to feel nauseous and clammy. I exit the highway at my first chance, and navigate the rental car to a chain restaurant’s parking lot and select the spot farthest from the restaurant’s front door so that I can rest for a bit. My morning with Sam and Scott only took a few hours. The D.B. Cooper party at the Ariel store doesn’t start until evening. I tilt back the driver’s seat and cover my eyes with my jacket. “So these are the after effects of your first jump?” I think. When D.B. Cooper jumped, the air temperature would have been below freezing. He jumped in darkness. One of the two parachutes he wore was a nonfunctioning instructional chute, accidentally included with the four chutes Cooper demanded. (Naysayers point to Cooper’s inability to recognize the dummy chute as justification for the argument that Cooper was an inexperienced skydiver.) Below him stretched cloud cover and rain at 5,000 feet, and below that were 150–foot trees, rock, and mountain lions. As I doze off in the parking lot, Cooper’s survival seems impossible to me.
7. “Silver Wings, Slowly Fading Out of Sight”
The Ariel Store in Ariel, Washington, served briefly as the headquarters for the D.B. Cooper search party in 1971. Thirty miles from Mount St. Helens, Ariel is a miniscule town (pop. 700) on the edge of Lake Merwin. Every year since 1973, the Ariel Store has hosted a D.B. Cooper party on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The store has also become a shrine to Cooper’s legend. The store feeds the legend, and the legend feeds the store. Every year, approximately 250 people attend the party to exchange stories and conspiracy theories, to peruse Cooper paraphernalia, to participate in a Cooper look–alike contest, and to drink beer and dance.
After lunch, a shower, and a longer nap in my hotel room, I drive to the Ariel Store. Even in darkness (the sun set before 4:00 p.m.), the beauty and fierceness of the landscape is evident. Himmelsbach hadn’t been exaggerating when he wrote that the terrain was some of the most rugged in North America. Beyond its urban centers, much of the Pacific Northwest still feels like untamed frontier. That the prospector, and not the cowboy, had been the hero in Sam’s joke was no accident.
In Ariel, I park in a sequence of cars along the side of the road. The first sight reminds me of college: a young man takes a leak between two parked cars. As I approach the store, someone sets off a firecracker in the parking lot, and the firecracker spins and jumps. Three young men standing around the firecracker do a little nervous dance, though each person is careful not to spill his beer. The store itself is literally steps from the road. An elderly man sits on a stool at the door as if he is the bouncer, but when I walk inside he just says, “Hello,” and doesn’t ask me for any cover charge or identification. The store has two main rooms: the front room and the bar area. The front room has a white parachute hanging from the ceiling and several tables spaced around. At a card table, a woman oversees a sign–in sheet and raffle tickets. A glass display case runs along one wall, and another woman, selling Ariel Store/D.B. Cooper hats and shirts, stands beside the cash register.
In the bar area, a band has set up in the corner, and when I enter the room the band is playing Merle Haggard’s song “Silver Wings.” Will all of the music for the night be airplane themed? Will the crowd hold hands and sing “Leaving on a Jet Plane” at the end of the evening? Both rooms are packed with people. A makeshift dance floor has been cleared out in front of the band, and a man (dressed in a starched red button–down shirt, jeans, black cowboy hat, and boots), who looks to be in his sixties, gently dips and twirls a woman of the same approximate age. The beads on the trim of her cowgirl skirt swish lightly as she turns.
The store owners have set up a permanent shrine/display of Cooper material in the far corner of the bar area. I weave through the dancing patrons and crowded tables. A mounted deer head, wearing a baseball hat and giant sunglasses, protrudes from a wall covered with laminated newspaper clippings about Cooper. One article from the Columbian in Vancouver, Washington, details the experience of Brian Ingram, an eight–year–old boy who, in 1980, while digging a hole to build a fire on the beach of the Columbia River, discovered $5,800 of the decaying ransom money. In the article, Brian’s mother, Patricia Ingram, says, “I wished several times we hadn’t found it” (Columbian Staff, AP). The article describes the family’s breakup, a false warrant issued for the father by the State of Oklahoma, and the father’s plan to seek legal action against Northwest Airlines to claim ownership of the money and auction the decayed bills for, he estimates, up to five million dollars. The article also states that Northwest Airlines had not, at the time of the article’s printing, responded to the father’s requests. Other newspaper articles on the wall contain maps speculating about Cooper’s jump site based on the location of the found money. A poster–sized photograph shows a farcical gravesite constructed for Cooper. The tombstone reads, “Here Lies D.B. Cooper. We Spent Your Money Wisely.” A poster from the Treat Williams movie yellows next to the deer head.
The patrons (most of them gray–haired, some of them dressed in suits and sunglasses for the look–alike contest) sit around long tables. Most of them seem uninterested in the band. They talk animatedly to each other about the Cooper case. Cooper is currently in the news again because a woman is claiming to be his niece. Her last name is “Cooper,” and she claims her uncle (who died in 1999) appeared bloody and wearing a T–shirt at her house the day after Thanksgiving in 1971. She says she heard him speaking of the hijacking, a story her mother corroborates. The F.B.I. is attempting to match fingerprints from the uncle’s toothbrush and guitar strap to Cooper’s partial fingerprints obtained from the plane. Most of the patrons in the bar seem suspicious of the F.B.I.’s motives and enthusiasm for the lead. The consensus of the patrons seems to be that the unsolved case is an embarrassment for the agency and that the F.B.I. is overeager to close the case.
Several bumper stickers, mostly anti–government, are pinned or taped onto the wall behind the bartender: “IRSucks.” “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” “How’s my driving? Dial 1–800–EAT SHIT!” “Sure you can have my gun…bullets first!” “There’s no fart like an old fart.” And, “Are you an Environmentalist, or do you WORK for a living?” The bartender chats with a man standing beside me, and when the bartender hands me my beer, the man standing beside me pivots, surveys the crowd, and introduces himself to me as “Karl with a K.” Karl is wearing a motorcycle jacket, and as he drinks a Rainier beer (the Pabst Blue Ribbon of the Pacific Northwest) I notice a bear claw tattoo (one claw tattooed above each knuckle) on the back of his hand.