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.

In contrast, Ralph Himmelsbach emphasizes Cooper’s criminality throughout his book: “Confident of the Bureau’s enormous capacity to investigate and solve crimes, I heard myself say: ‘Cooper, huh? Well, turkey, we’ll have you in the slammer before the Thanksgiving dinner goes in the oven'” (Himmelsbach and Worcester 32). Like Schaffner, Tina Mucklow was affected by the experience for years. Mucklow stopped speaking to the media not long after the hijacking and withdrew from public view, joining a Catholic convent in Oregon where she lived for twelve years before leaving the convent and changing her name as public fascination with the hijacking persisted.

When Flight 305 landed in Seattle after two hours in the air, steps had been taken by Northwest Airlines President Donald W. Nyrop to meet all of Cooper’s demands. In his book, Himmelsbach describes the scene at the Seattle airport from the F.B.I.’s perspective:

At 6:05 p.m., the Northwest Airlines courier car approached the aircraft. Cooper again informed the crew that no one was to come aboard and that the stewardess, Tina Mucklow, was to go to the car and get the money and the parachutes. It was quiet aboard the aircraft, where the passengers had been told they would be debarking in a few minutes.

But, when Tina returned to the aisle of the airplane carrying a sack, and then the parachutes, more than one passenger now guessed the nature of the delay.

After a quick check of the money bag, Cooper permitted the passengers to leave the plane. Flight Operation at SEA–TAC was stopped as the passengers filed out of the front door of the plane, and walked down the runway. As the last of the passengers left the craft, a stewardess called out:

“Have a nice Thanksgiving!” (Himmelsbach and Worcester 30)

Only the flight crew, Cooper, and Tina Mucklow remained on the plane once all of the passengers had been released. With the parachutes and money aboard the plane, Cooper specified that “he wanted to go to Mexico City non–stop, that the aircraft configuration must be gear DOWN, flaps at 15 degrees, that the aft entry door must be open at all times, and that the aft stairs be extended after take–off” (F.B.I. Seattle). Cooper later “specified that the stairs must be fully extended before take–off” (F.B.I. Seattle). Cooper was informed that the plane couldn’t take off under those conditions, and that flying with the landing gear down at an altitude under 10,000 feet (which Cooper demanded) would require the plane to refuel before reaching Mexico City. According to the F.B.I. files, Reno was proposed as the potential refueling stop, and Cooper “agreed to this without much, if any, objection” (F.B.I. Seattle).

The plane lifted off in darkness from Seattle, and Tina Mucklow and Cooper were alone in the cabin of the plane. Cloud cover and rain at 5,000 feet obscured any hint of the landscape. When they reached the desired altitude, Cooper told Mucklow to join the flight crew in the cockpit. Cooper also instructed Mucklow to close the privacy curtain that separated first class from the back of the plane. Mucklow did as instructed, locking the cockpit door once she entered. From the cockpit, the flight crew and Mucklow monitored Cooper’s opening of the aft door and his extending of the stairs. Himmelsbach places Cooper’s jump at 8:12 p.m., thirty minutes after the plane lifted off from Seattle:

Though the crew did not know for sure at the time, they were a few miles north of the Oregon border, flying over some of the most rugged terrain on the North American continent. A track of the airplane, kept by the FAA air controllers in Seattle, plotted the jet over Ariel, on the southern outreach of Mount St. Helens, a sleeping giant that was to make its own history nine years later. (Himmelsbach and Worcester 45)

The final image Tina Mucklow saw of D.B. Cooper when she drew the curtain closed before joining the flight crew in the cockpit was of him tying something by a cord around his waist. When the plane landed in Reno the only evidence that remained on the plane was two parachutes (one unopened, one unfolded with several of the cords cut free), a black clip–on tie, and a mother–of–pearl tie pin.

4. I Didn’t Expect to Have a Gun Drawn on Me

Videos of exuberant, athletic people—some with video cameras on their helmets, others spinning and doing stunts in air—played when the skydiving website loaded. I called the 1-800 number flashing on my computer screen, and the operator (whose chipper tone immediately conjured for me the image of a headset–adorned woman reading from a marketing script) took my information, processed my payment, and gave me the contact information for Sam—the proprietor of the skydiving business in Oregon that would be managing my jump.

When I called Sam, his voice conveyed anything but corporate slickness. He picked up on the fourth or fifth ring and said only, “Hello?” I asked him if this was the correct number of the skydiving business, and he said, “Yep, that’s the one.” Sam sounded like he was in his sixties. Static crackled on the line as he waited for me to speak. I told Sam that I would be coming to the Portland area from Florida for the Thanksgiving weekend. I confirmed that it was my first jump, and I asked him if there was anything I needed to know or to wear. Sam paused and then said loudly, “You got any of those adult diapers, any Depends?” When I asked him if I should also wear one over my head as a blindfold, he laughed. “We always take bets on whether the ladies are going to be moaners or screamers. Are you going to be one of those?” he asked. “Just give me a call when you get here on that Friday, and I’ll give you directions to the place.” The last thing he said before he hung up was, “We’ve got the best safety record in the business.”

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, almost forty years to the day after D.B. Cooper’s jump, I arrived at 9:30 in the morning at a rural airport and sky–diving business fifty miles south of Portland. The sun was out, and there were few clouds in the sky. The temperature was in the low forties, but it was expected to climb to almost fifty — “A beautiful day to jump,” Sam had said the day before when I called him for directions. When I parked in the gravel driveway, two Rottweilers ran up to greet me.

“Well, you made it from Florida,” a short, round man called out affably as he walked from one of the buildings. The dogs sniffed me eagerly, and I asked Sam if they were friendly, and he said, “Yeah, yeah, they’re fine.” I introduced myself, and Sam said, “That’s what I figured. Come on in, and we’ll get you set up. You’ve got some paperwork to fill out, and I’ll be in there in a minute.” He pointed me to what looked like a remodeled barn that served as an office. Outside, four young adults (they looked to be between eighteen and twenty–five years old) stood next to the tailgate of a truck as they discussed the previous evening. A young woman said one of their friends was on the warpath to find a husband last night, and one of the young men nodded vigorously. The two young men were already wearing jumpsuits. When I greeted them, they acknowledged me and then went back to their conversation.

Inside the office, a wood–burning stove sat in the middle of the room. Insulation bags had been secured between the studs of the clapboard walls. When I sat at a round table near the door, a woman emerged from the back room with the release papers for me to sign. I assumed the woman was Sam’s wife. Thin, soft–spoken, and demure, she seemed to be the counterpoint to Sam’s gregariousness. She barely spoke to me except to point out the places where I needed to sign and initial the release papers. As I looked over the forms, Sam entered and sat down across from me and rubbed his hands together. “Alright,” he said. “So where you from in Florida?” I told him Pensacola, and he continued to rub his hands and said, “Okay.” I told him the old joke that Florida is more Southern the farther north you go, and he said, “Yep. Yep. That’s where the Naval Air Station is, right?” Sam was wearing an Airborne sweatshirt, and I asked him if he had learned to jump in the military. “Yep,” he said. I told Sam that my father was a marine in Vietnam, and Sam nodded approvingly. When he asked me what brought me to Oregon from Florida, I told him that I was planning to go to the D.B. Cooper party that night in Ariel, Washington. Sam smirked, and when I asked him if he knew anything about D.B. Cooper, he told me that the F.B.I. used to call him for years about Cooper.

“I ran the only skydiving business in the area at the time,” Sam said. “I knew every skydiver out there. The F.B.I. called me the day after the jump and asked me if I knew Dan Cooper. I said, ‘Hell, yes, he lives right up the road and jumps all the time,’ but the Dan Cooper I knew didn’t match their description.” Sam paused for a moment, formulating something. “Hey, do you know who Ralph Himmelsbach is?” I told Sam I wasn’t familiar with Himmelsbach, and Sam grinned. “Himmelsbach was the lead F.B.I. agent,” he said. “I used to give Himmelsbach a hard time. If you see him up there today, tell him you know me.”

I asked Sam if he knew D.B. Cooper, and he grinned and crossed his arms, then swiped the air with his hand and said, “No, no, I probably trained him, though. Just about every skydiver went through me back then.” I then asked Sam if he was D.B. Cooper, and he laughed loudly and said, “No, Cooper was a thin man.” I told Sam he looked pretty thin to me, and he rolled his eyes. The woman I assumed to be Sam’s wife emerged from the back room and collected my papers as Sam said, “Those F.B.I. guys couldn’t find their butts with both hands.”

“What are your political beliefs?” Sam asked me, and I told him that I didn’t feel comfortable telling him my political beliefs right before he threw me out of a plane. “In my view, you’ve got Republicans, Conservatives, Democrats, and Progressives,” Sam said. He tilted his head slightly forward, looked at me over the top of his glasses, and said, “‘Progressive’ is just another word for ‘Communist.'” There was a photograph on the wall of Sam with George H. W. Bush, and I asked Sam if he was the person who took the President skydiving on Bush’s eighty–fifth birthday. “No, that was great that he did that, though. This picture is from a dinner I went to because of the newspaper I used to run,” Sam said, but didn’t elaborate further.

“Let me tell you about the cops around here,” Sam said without prompting. “I figured out not long ago that several of them were pressuring these underage girls to have sex with them, and I hired a private investigator to follow the cops and run a sting on them. When the cops found out that I was the one who busted them, they started following me around town. One day, one of the cops pulled me over up there around the bend, and he asked me to step out of the car. When I did, he told me that I had better watch what I was doing, or I might find myself in the river. When he said that, I put my hand behind my back like this, like I had my pistol, and I said, ‘If you’re going to do it, do it now, because I’m going right to your supervisor when you get done with me.'”

As Sam told me this story, his wife emerged from the back room with my papers and told me that I had missed a few places where I needed to initial and sign. Sam continued acting out the scene while the woman, unfazed, carried my papers back into the other room after I made the corrections. I asked Sam what the concealed weapon permit laws were in Oregon, and he grinned, then reached into a pocket of his sweatpants and produced a small pistol in a holster. He turned the pistol back and forth a few times for my answer, before placing the pistol back in his pocket as Scott, carrying several small logs, entered through the front door.

“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.

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.

Works Cited

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.

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