1. “With a Little Luck and Greenback Dollar You’re Gonna See Me Shine”
Right now, someone in the world is claiming to have seen, to know, or to be D.B. Cooper. The story of D.B. Cooper’s 1971 hijacking of a Boeing 727 between Portland and Seattle, the delivery of the $200,000 ransom, and Cooper’s eventual parachute jump from the 727, has evolved in popular culture to epitomize both the entrepreneurial charm of the American rogue outlaw and the self–absorption and folly of hijackers and thieves. In the opening credits of the 1981 movie The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper, Cooper (played by Treat Williams) jumps with a full–throated “Yahoo!” from the rear hatch of a Northern–Pacific airplane. Accompanied by banjo music, Williams, in a sequence of poorly edited cuts, checks his altimeter while dangling from a cable in a Hollywood soundstage before landing in a tree in the Pacific Northwest. After applying a fake beard that resembles peat moss, donning an L.A. Dodgers hat, and lighting a cigar with one of the stolen twenty–dollar bills, Williams declares, “Who says you can’t take it with you?” to his reflection in the shaving mirror he’s hung from a tree. Smirking, he then strolls from the grove into the pantheon of American folk heroes.
Robert Duvall, as the presumed embodiment of consequence and justice, plays Bob Gruen, the fictitious insurance executive (and Cooper’s previous Army sergeant) who pursues Cooper over the course of the movie. In the closing scene, Cooper gives Gruen $30,000 of the money as Gruen asks, “Do you think all this bullshit was worth it?” to which Cooper responds, “Yeah,” and then jogs to a dirt road and hitches a ride on a passing truck. With Cooper in motion, the movie ends where it began. The credits roll, and Waylon Jennings sings “Shine,” the song’s lyrics reinforcing the movie’s central trope: “I like living easy. I like being free. / Living free and easy brings out the best in me. / Makes me shine, shine, shine, shine, shine, makes me shine. / With a little luck and greenback dollar you’re gonna see me shine” (Jennings). Romantic at best, unexamined and vacuous at worst, the celebration of Cooper’s lawlessness forms the central paradox at the heart of the American public’s continued fascination with the story. Should Cooper be celebrated, denounced, or both? After forty years, the question, like the mystery surrounding Cooper’s jump, remains.
2. That’s All Well and Good, but It Must Really Hurt When You Hit the Ground
From a commercial airliner, Mt. Hood dwarfs the Oregon landscape. From a single–engine Cessna, Mt. Hood is the landscape. Spiraling upward to 10,000 feet, I sit, legs extended, in the small (approximately four–foot–by–four–foot) cargo area of a 1980s–era Cessna two–seat plane. What looks like brown carpet lines the interior of the cockpit. The doors have been upholstered in such a way that they remind me of a down vest I owned in sixth grade. The passenger seat has been removed, and I lean against the back of the pilot’s chair. Next to me, Scott, my instructor and tandem–jump partner, adjusts his harness and the parachute on his back. I’m wearing an orange jumpsuit over my clothes (“Here’s your prison clothes,” Scott had said on the ground) and a harness, but no parachute. My seatbelt, which is really more of a floor strap, jostles loosely as the window quivers beside my head. Resembling a golf course fairway cut into the wilderness, the grassy landing strip diminishes below us. At over 11,000 feet in elevation, Mt. Hood fills the rear window. Though snow–covered in late November, the dormant volcano’s jagged lines refuse to soften.
“I’m going to drop this to test the wind direction,” Scott says. Because of the engine noise, he speaks loudly and holds a yellow streamer in front of him like a fish on a stringer. As he lifts the side door, the November air rushes in, sounding oddly like a kitchen garbage disposal whooshing to life, then cutting off when he closes the door. The streamer flutters earthward. We circle higher and Scott says, “Huh, I didn’t think it would do that,” as the streamer veers toward the trees. “We’ll have to make some adjustments,” he says. He leans forward to confer with Sam, the pilot, and then tells me to take my place next to the pilot’s seat just like we practiced on the ground.
Thirty minutes prior to going up in the plane, Scott and I had rehearsed the process of jumping as part of my training, which also consisted of watching a VHS video on an old projection–screen television in a garage/shed at the end of the grassy runway as Max and Lady, Sam’s one–year–old and ten–year–old Rottweilers, nudged me with their broad heads for more rubbing behind their ears. After the video (which seemed more promotional than instructional), Scott fitted me in a jumpsuit and harness, and then walked me toward the plane. “We’re taking up Douche Bag, right?” he yelled to Sam. Sam said, “Yeah, she’s all gassed up,” and pointed to the Cessna. As we walked, Scott demonstrated how to adjust oneself so that nothing catches in the harness when the parachute deploys. “I’ve got my man speech and my lady speech,” Scott said. “The man speech goes like this: When that parachute deploys, it’s going to yank that harness real hard. Between us we have about 400 pounds moving at 120 miles–per–hour. You don’t want anything caught between the harness and your body when the chute deploys. I pinched my nut sack one time when I jumped, and I screamed all the way down. I’ll never do that again.” As he said this, he adjusted himself while striding in an exaggerated bow–legged cowboy style.
At the plane, he asked me to sit behind the pilot’s chair as he talked me through the process of jumping: “Once we get everything set in the air, you’re going to get on your knees up here beside the pilot and cross your arms on your chest.” I moved beside the pilot’s chair, and Scott positioned himself behind me, joking that, once in the air, we will “get to be real comfortable with each other.” In his early–to–mid thirties, with a stocky build and beard stubble, Scott struck me as the kind of person who is paradoxically most at ease in the language, routine, and expertise of his high–risk job. “I used to have long hair,” he told me, “until 5000 jumps started to pull it out. My wife likes it all shaved off like this anyway.” “Genetics pulled my hair out,” I said. Then I asked him if he had ever been skiing on Mt. Hood. “Skiing?” he responded. “No way. That’s dangerous.”
With the plane in the air, I take my place beside Sam and cross my arms on my chest. A second steering wheel, moving in tandem with the one Sam controls, extends in front of me. Attached now to my back, Scott leans forward and shouts in my ear, “The first rule is ‘Don’t touch the steering wheel.’ The second rule is ‘Don’t touch the steering wheel.’ Can you guess what the third rule is?” I nod. He adjusts my leather helmet, pulls my goggles down over my eyes, and opens the side door. The kitchen disposal sound fills the plane again as the cold air rushes in. Scott places his foot on a metal step outside the cockpit. He instructs me to place my right foot beside his. When I extend my leg into the air, my leg wobbles from the wind speed but then steadies when I place my foot next to his. “Remember: Fall out. Don’t jump. Goalpost arms. Arch your back. Kick me in the butt”—techniques we had discussed on the ground, where he also had told me a story about doing a tandem jump with a 270–pound football player who freaked out and grasped the struts in such a way that Scott had to grab the man in a wrestler’s arm lock and force him from the plane. Scott places his hand on the back of my head and helps guide it just outside the plane’s door in the same motion that a police officer assists a handcuffed perpetrator into or out of a squad car. “Are you ready?” he shouts. I nod. “Okay,” he says, “Ready…set…” and on “dive” we push off together, releasing into the air.
3. The Hustle
On November 24, 1971, a man who identified himself as “Dan Cooper” bought a one–way ticket aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 305 from Portland International Airport to Seattle–Tacoma International Airport. The flight was scheduled to take approximately thirty minutes. Smartly dressed in a black raincoat, dark suit, starched shirt, “bubble–type” (Himmelsbach and Worcester 15) sunglasses, and a black tie with a mother–of–pearl tie pin, Cooper carried an attaché case and sat toward the rear of the plane. In the F.B.I. files, the crewmembers describe Cooper as “white, 6’1”, black hair, 175 lbs., approximately 50" (F.B.I. Seattle). Florence Schaffner, a twenty–three–year–old flight attendant, took a seat near Cooper as the plane prepared for takeoff. As the plane accelerated on the runway, Cooper slipped a note to Schaffner. Schaffner was accustomed to men flirting with her on flights, and she dropped the note without reading it into her purse. In his book NORJAK: The Investigation of D.B. Cooper, Ralph Himmelsbach, the lead F.B.I. investigator of the hijacking, details Schaffner’s response:
Although Miss Schaffner was used to having notes thrust at her by lonely or overeager passengers, she was a bit surprised to get one so soon from a Portland–boarding passenger with whom she had exchanged only brief words. Later she was to tell authorities she thought the man was trying to hustle her. For now, as she felt the jet accelerate and the objects outside the window begin to blur with the speed of the moving aircraft, she stuffed the note in her purse.
Dan Cooper did not change expressions as he leaned close to Mrs. Schaffner and in a low voice rasped: “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.” (Himmelsbach and Worcester 15)
Schaffner removed the note from her purse and read the message: “I have a bomb in my briefcase. I want you to sit beside me.” As Schaffner moved next to Cooper, she asked to see the bomb, and Cooper opened his attaché case. The F.B.I materials describe what Schaffner saw as “dynamite sticks, wire, battery” (F.B.I. Seattle). Cooper then dictated his demands to Schaffner that he wanted $200,000, two chest–pack parachutes, and two back–pack parachutes to be brought to the plane when it landed in Seattle. Cooper told her “there was to be no ‘funny stuff’ at any time or he would detonate the bomb” (F.B.I. Seattle). Schaffner relayed the information to the pilots then returned to Cooper. At no point were the other passengers informed of the hijacking. Instead, they were told that the delay in their arrival was the result of a “minor mechanical problem” (F.B.I. Seattle).
A black–and–white photograph taken in the Seattle airport after the hijacking shows Florence Schaffner sitting in a chair, her legs crossed, one hand perched on the other, as two men in suits (presumably F.B.I. agents) fill the foreground of the frame. One man holds his hand to his head (it’s unclear if he is talking on a phone or not), and the other man looks dejectedly toward the ground. In the photograph, both Schaffner’s beauty and her fear are clearly seen. Her hair tapers sharply along her jaw line, accentuating her high cheekbones. Her head is turned slightly, but her eyes cut back toward the camera, as if, still unsettled, she’d startled at the camera’s flash. According to an article in New York Magazine, Schaffner, as of 2007, still carried anxiety from the hijacking:
Flo, as she calls herself, has frosted blonde hair and deeply tanned skin. Her hands were shaking on the table. Just thinking about the Cooper case makes her nervous, she said. She was never the same after Cooper’s jump. She took a month off and went to live with her family back in Arkansas. She also became paranoid. If Cooper was living, she feared that he’d come after her. Eliminate the witness, you know. She’d look under her car for bombs. She’d turn her keys over real slow. (Gray)
Part of the allure of Cooper as a folk hero grows from the public’s romanticized view of the perceived chivalry that Cooper extended to Florence Schaffner and the two other flight attendants, Tina Mucklow and Alice Hancock. Following their normal routine, the flight attendants proceeded with the beverage service on the flight, and Cooper ordered a bourbon and water from Florence Schaffner. After ordering a second bourbon and water, Cooper paid with a twenty–dollar bill, instructing Schaffner to keep the change, an eighteen–dollar tip. Tina Mucklow, who was twenty–two years old, spent more time with Cooper than any of the other crewmembers. When asked about Cooper later in an interview, she said, “He seemed rather nice. He was never cruel or nasty. He was thoughtful and calm” (Bentley). One anecdote claims that, as Cooper smoked, one hand holding close to the bomb, the flight attendants helped him light his cigarettes.