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Karl, already a little drunk, speaks to me as if he is continuing a previous conversation: “I can’t believe they don’t let the kids in here anymore. What the hell?” I ask him if they used to let kids into the bar area, and he pauses, then looks at me directly while scratching his head. He has long black hair and heavy eyebrows that lift and fall with the halting rhythm of his speech. He doesn’t answer my question, but instead looks back at the dance floor and tells me that he now lives in Alaska. A woman carrying a Cocker Spaniel enters the bar area, and Karl’s attention is drawn to her. The bartender points at the dog and yells out from behind the counter, “You can stay.” Then pointing at the woman, the bartender yells, “But that dog has to go!” The woman, clearly the bartender’s friend, laughs and gives him the finger.
Swaying slightly back and forth, Karl asks me, “So, you want to know who D.B. Cooper is?” Before I answer, he points to an older gentleman wearing a suit and black glasses. “That’s him right there. He gives out his card if you ask him. He drives a Cadillac. He even used to drive the President,” Karl says. One of Karl’s friends then calls Karl a name I don’t catch, and Karl staggers over and tries to put the friend in a headlock.
I approach the older gentlemen and introduce myself, telling him that I have been informed he is D.B. Cooper. The man leans forward toward me, cups his ear, and says, “What?” I repeat myself, and he says, “What?” again. I tell him I heard he has a card. As I say this, a trim, pretty older woman who, from a barstool, has been watching this exchange, leans forward, points at his pocket and says, “Your cards, dear, your cards.”
“Oh!” he says, reaching into his pocket. He produces a stack of cards, and with a flourish he hands me the top one. Thinking of Florence Schaffner, I turn the card over and examine it closely. The following sentence is typed in blue ink on the card: “D.B. Cooper body found on top of Three Sisters Mountain all petered out.” I look back at the elderly gentleman, and he hands me the next card. It reads, “Good for one pair of space panties for the girl who thinks her ass is out of this world.” He hands me a green card and says it is his “green card.” He hands me a card with holes punched in it and says it is his “holy card.” He hands me a card that says, “Free Beer” on one side and “Tomorrow” on the other. He hands me a card that says, “My Card” on one side and “Call Me” on the other. Then he ruffles the deck in his hands like a blackjack dealer and smiles widely. I look over my shoulder to see if “Karl with a K” is laughing at me, but he appears to have already disappeared from the store.
The elderly gentleman turns to show someone else his cards, and the woman sitting on the barstool says that she is his wife. “He’s eighty–five years old,” the woman says, touching my arm. “You’d never know it by looking at him. He just loves to make people laugh.” I can tell from the tone of her voice and the way she looks at her husband that she clearly adores him. “How old do you think I am?” she asks, straightening on the barstool. Before I answer her, my phone vibrates in my pocket. I look at my phone, but I don’t recognize the number. The person leaves a message, and I return the phone to my pocket. The woman is wearing an ornately embroidered T–shirt and slender jeans. Her makeup looks like it has been meticulously applied, though overdone with fake eyelashes and glitter sparkles. “You’re fifty–six,” I say, and she brightens, straightening even more on her barstool. “I’m seventy–two!” she says. “You’d never know it from looking at me!” She places her hand next to her mouth like she is about to tell me a secret. Then, somewhat loudly, she says that she met her husband years ago when she was a lingerie model. “I was older than all the other girls, though. I was in my forties, and I was like a mother to them. It was so much fun!”
The band finishes its set and promptly goes on break as the manager of the bar takes the microphone and announces the look–alike contest. Eight or so D.B. Coopers make their way forward and line up beside the store manager. Because there is no actual stage, bar patrons continue to weave through the Coopers. All of the Coopers wear the same basic outfit: sunglasses, black suit, and tie. There is only one female Cooper, and her jacket is plaid. The elderly D.B. Cooper stands at the end of the line and, either drunk or confused or both, continues to cup his ear toward his wife as she encourages him to focus on the contest. The manager explains that she will ask the crowd to clap for each Cooper individually, and that only “clapping” and not “hollering” will be counted. Two Coopers stand out to me as the most “authentic.” One young man wears what looks like an Army/Navy store parachute over his black suit. Throughout the evening, bar patrons have been approaching him for photographs. The other standout Cooper, though without a real parachute, has arrived with an entourage: friends dressed as flight attendants and pilots—the whole flight crew.
When the manager places her hand over the head of the first Cooper (the woman wearing the plaid jacket) and says, “Cooper number one,” the crowd starts hooting and hollering. The manager immediately drops her hand and says into the microphone, “Just clapping. We’re not going to count hollering!” Then she places her hand over a nondescript Cooper and says, “Cooper number two.” The crowd hoots and hollers again, and the manager repeats more forcefully her “no hollering” rule. When she reaches the Cooper with the entourage, he tosses a bouquet of photocopied twenty–dollar bills into the air and they flutter to the floor. I pick one up and notice he has inserted the F.B.I. sketch of Cooper onto the face of the bill. After the manager completes the line, she says, “O.K., none of you listened to me about the hollering, so we are going to try this again from the beginning. Clapping only!” When she says this, the crowd hoots and hollers. As she cycles through the contestants again, the crowd continues to hoot. Exasperated, she declares the young man wearing the parachute the winner. The entourage Cooper protests, but the manager is already placing the microphone back in its stand. In celebration, the winning Cooper spins on his heels and pulls the ripcord on his Army/Navy store parachute. The chute flops onto the floor and unrolls like a cloth tongue.
When the band begins its next set, I slip out the door and head to my car. On my drive back to Portland, I remember the phone call I received, but I can’t play the message until I reach the hotel. The message is the last thing I check before I fall asleep, and I am surprised to hear Sam’s voice: “This is Sam. I’m calling to see how everything went today. You took off too quickly this morning after the jump. Give me a call when you get this.”
8. Cooper Snoopers
I call Sam in the morning. “Yup,” he says when he picks up the phone. I tell Sam that I got his message. “Oh, yeah, I had some skydiving flyers I thought you might take up there with you. You feeling okay today?” he asks. I tell Sam that I feel fine, and that I appreciate all of his help. “I saw in the paper this morning that Himmelsbach gave a talk yesterday at a hotel downtown,” Sam says. “You should go over and check it out and see if he’s still around.” I tell Sam thanks for the tip and to take care. He says, “Yep,” and then hangs up.
My flight doesn’t leave for a few hours, so I look up directions to the hotel on my cell phone. Cloud cover blankets the city, and downtown Portland is empty except for a few panhandlers. When I reach the hotel, the concierge doesn’t know who Ralph Himmelsbach is. She says that everyone who was there yesterday for the symposium has packed up and gone. There is a coffee shop next to the hotel, and I pick up a newspaper. In the “Metro” section of the paper, there is a short article on the symposium. The accompanying photograph shows Thomas Kaye, a “retired businessman and amateur scientist” (Hammond), speaking from a parachute–draped podium flanked by miniature green cardboard trees. The fourth paragraph of the article states, “Although the collective brainpower at the symposium did not solve the case, Cooper snoopers expressed optimism that it will be solved—perhaps soon” (Hammond).
9. Homeward Bound
When I check in with the ticketing agent at Portland International Airport for my flight back to Florida, I think of D.B. Cooper inquiring to make sure that his plane from Portland to Seattle was a 727—the only commercial airplane equipped with stairs that opened from the rear of the plane. I also think about the other passengers on the hijacked plane in 1971. Perhaps, if they were anything like me, they too were looking forward to seeing some loved one at the end of their destination. I know that what compels me home is the thought of my fiancée appearing in the terminal—the immediacy of her welcome only hours away.
The other passengers stuff their bags into the overhead bins when I take my seat on the plane. The passengers exchange pleasantries as they fidget and arrange their things. Beneath their words is the steady hum of expectation and responsibility: Where are you going and why? From what or whom are you leaving? To whom or what are you returning? The teenager who sits down beside me on the plane is dressed as if she is on her way to a business meeting. There is pale scar tissue that looks like a sequence of thumbprints at her temple. Makeup partially covers a deep bruise along her jaw line.
Over the course of the flight, the young woman tells me that she is returning home to California after trying to find her biological father in Portland. Her stepfather beats her, she says, and her mother doesn’t listen. The scar, though, is from a wreck. Two wrecks. Driving drunk the first day she got her license, she wrecked her mother’s car. Two weeks later, drunk again and driving a rental car, she hit a family in an SUV and was thrown from the car. When I ask her if the family was hurt, she says, “No,” but waves her hand dismissively in such a way that makes me think there is more to the story. In a separate incident, her mother, drunk, was also thrown from a car and survived. “The odds of that happening,” she says the doctor said, “are very small.”
When she tells me her mother is exactly my age, a mix of sadness and sympathy settles over me. How old are the members of the unnamed family in the car? Who is suffering most? “I can’t have a felony,” she says. “I just can’t. My life would be over.” When the young, male flight attendant comes down the aisle, the girl brightens, accepting her beverage with a quivering hand. “I think he likes me,” she says, as he continues down the aisle. “Do you think he likes me?” she asks. Out the window, the cloud cover is starting to clear as we approach Los Angeles—the first leg of my three connections home. I close my eyes and imagine the highway arteries stretching below us, the throb of cars, of people, all moving as a collective pulse. I imagine Cooper at the end of the steps, the shrillness of the engines, the darkness and the rain—the moment just before his dissolution.
Bentley, Paul. “Air Stewardess at the Centre of D.B. Cooper Mystery Revealed for the First Time in 40 Years.” Daily Mail (UK) 3 Sept. 2011: n. pag. Print.
Columbian Staff, AP. “Not All Will Celebrate Hijack Date.” Columbian 28 Nov. 1980: 16. Print.
F.B.I. Seattle. High–Jacking; NWA Flight 305, November 24/25 1971 (Communication Log). Seattle, 1971. Print.
Gray, Geoffrey. “Unmasking D.B. Cooper.” New York 29 Oct. 2007: n. pag. Print.
Hammond, Betsy. “Writing an Ending to the D.B. Cooper Saga.” The Sunday Oregonian 27 November 2011: B1, B3. Print.
Himmelsbach, Ralph P., and Thomas K. Worcester. Norjak: The Investigation of D.B. Cooper. West Linn: NORJAK PROJECT, 1986. Print.
Jennings, Waylon. “Shine.” By Waylon Jennings. Black on Black. RCA Victor, 1982. CD.