Geoffrey Gray's Skyjack

>> Saturday, October 08, 2011

I never get around to doing as many book reviews as I might like to. Perhaps because they're time-consuming to write, or maybe that it's that my reading habits are sort of... hrm, would "spotty" be the right word? I have books I devour and others I've literally (no pun intended) had open for years.

I was sitting in the airport in Charlotte last Saturday and decided the various digital downloads I had on the tablet weren't enough, I needed fresh books on the thing and downloading them to the tablet's Kindle app was the thing to do. Wonders of the age and all that. Geoffrey Gray's Skyjack was on my wishlist--I must have seen an intriguing review somewhere--and seemed like a good choice for a book to read on an airplane or sitting in an airport. And a good choice in that setting, it occurred to me, for an e-book, particularly: one can only imagine what might happen in this gratuitously paranoid day and age if one was sitting on an airplane and pulled out a book with the word "skyjack" emblazoned on the cover in very large letters, as opposed to the discretion of a thin black slab merely bearing the innocuous words "Samsung" and "Verizon". The softcover might have delayed the flight or resulted in a strip-searching by TSA employees wearing rubber gloves and grim glares.

Skyjack is ostensibly about the D.B. Cooper hijacking, the only unsolved American skyjacking case on the books and one of the most famous (or infamous, if you prefer). On November 24th, 1971, a guy calling himself "Dan Cooper" got on board a Northwest Orient Airlines plane in Portland, Oregon. The plane in question was a Boeing 727–100, notable for having an aft airstair, a rear entry designed for loading and unloading passengers at small airports but also used by the CIA's Air America to drop cargo into Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Once the Northwest Orient flight was in the air, "Cooper" (was that his real name? unlikely) showed a stewardess what he claimed (and what looked like) a bomb and said he'd blow everybody up if his demands weren't met: he wanted 200 grand and he wanted parachutes.

The plane landed and refueled while the plane's passengers were exchanged for the money and the chutes; the plane returned to the air, and somewhere over the dark Pacific Northwest woods between Tacoma and Vancouver, Washington, the hijacker lowered the airstair and apparently jumped1 out of the plane; anyway, he wasn't onboard when the plane landed again and the money was gone. Investigators combed the woods and somebody in the government even managed to get an SR-71 deployed for a fly-over with cameras running, but the only evidence anybody ever found in the woods that could be positively connected to the skyjacking was an instruction card for the plane's airstairs found in '78 and a bunch of damaged twenty-dollar-bills a kid found on the banks of the Columbia River in 1980.

And there it's sat, an unsolved mystery for forty years but plenty of hypotheses, lots of people over the past four decades proposing suspects or even confessing to it, lots of arguments about whether "Cooper" could have even survived jumping out the back of an airplane in the cold wet darkness nearly two miles up over a black forest on a rainy November night. Did the guy get away with a perfect crime? (Was he even a guy? One of the not-wholly-implausible suspects, Barabara Dayton, was born physically male but underwent gender reassignment surgery two years before the hijacking.) Is there a collection of bones caught in a tall tree somewhere in the ominously-named Dark Divide, or did "Cooper's" corpse wash down one of the rivers and out to sea? Did "Cooper" get away only to get arrested on his second attempt and eventually die in a firefight with the FBI?

Geoffrey Gray started reporting on the Cooper case in 2007, when a guy named Lyle Christiansen fingered his late brother, Kenneth, as the hijacker. Gray drank the Kool-Aid and became convinced, at least for a while, that Kenny Christiansen was the guy: he kinda looked like the sketch and he seemed to have a lot more money floating around than people thought he ought to, he was a WWII paratrooper and he supposedly had a grudge against Northwest Orient, where he'd worked awhile. Also, right before Kenny Christiansen died he told Lyle there was something Lyle should know, but Kenny couldn't tell him what it was and he didn't, which is of course very mysterious and probably, probably involved some kind of final confession to a famous unsolved crime.

But if that were the book, I wouldn't be recommending it to anyone in particular, because books nominating Yet Another Suspect In The Cooper Case are much like books finally and conclusively identifying Jack The Ripper, The Zodiac Killer, and Who Killed JFK. They're an industry unto themselves and will continue to be written and published even if the crimes are solved--what am I saying? We know perfectly well who killed John Kennedy beyond a reasonable doubt, and we all know how settled that case is; unreasonable doubts prevail. The Ripper murders and, sadly, the Zodiac killings are almost certainly unsolvable, but don't let that stop you if you have a pitch for A&E or The History Channel.

But do you remember a few paragraphs back, where I wrote, "Skyjack is ostensibly about the D.B. Cooper hijacking...," emphasis added to the "ostensibly"?

Here's where it gets good, and where I do recommend Skyjack and where it fits into something this blog has covered over the years: Gray drank the Kool-Aid on Christiansen, only to taste the cyanide at some point, and this becomes the real theme of Skyjack: Skyjack is ostensibly about looking for D.B. Cooper, but really about folie à deux, about how easy it is to get willingly dragged down into a rabbit hole and find yourself really enjoying the tea party, man.

See, the thing about folie à deux is that a lot of theories sound really, really good when they're being laid out in front of you, a lot of them sound really reasonable at first, especially when you're new to a subject and aren't necessarily that informed or sophisticated.2 A lot of times, too, it really isn't the theory that's wacky--sometimes, it's actually a pretty good hypothesis that's being tendered, but what gets wacky is the increasingly frantic dedication to proving that it's not just a pretty good hypothesis but in fact the definitive truth that pushes all the other pretty good hypotheses to the outer margins forever and away.

You know, much of reality is essentially and fundamentally unknowable, and probabilities are all we get to work with and certainties walk on unsteady legs on decks heaved through unsteady seas. We know, trust me, we know beyond a reasonable doubt who killed John Kennedy, for instance, but we'll never know beyond all doubt, because there will always be things that don't quite add up or that will always be unfathomable to us. There will always be pieces of evidence it would be nice to have, but that we'll never get our hands on; will always be witnesses whose accounts are inconsistent with other accounts--even their own at different times of recollection; will always be irredeemable mistakes made in the course of various investigations. And we'll always hate that, won't we? It will always nag and pester us to varying degrees, will always make us feel stupid that we're at a loss of a ready answer when this or that flings itself in our faces or gets dredged up again.

So this is where Gray's book (ostensibly) on Cooper is entertaining and even wise: because at some point in his research, he realized he was getting carried away, and then when he'd make a course correction he'd find himself getting carried away again, and he relates all this with an endearing level of wry self-effacement. Early in the book, he's wondering what his Pulitzer will look like ("Is there a trophy? A plaque? Anything I'll be able to keep? A check to cash? And how will I apply?"); by the end he's huddled in a cabin in the Catskills wearing the same pair of sweatpants every day and trying to figure out where the Cooper hijacking fits into the Bay Of Pigs and the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King. (His tongue is clearly in cheek whether he's contemplating his awards or explaining how the Pentagon finally hung up on him when he called to find out why an SR-71 was deployed to look for "Cooper" after the jump). He goes out in the woods with a bunch of Cooper sleuths and things get odd. A scientist Gray spends time with is excited to discover silver on the twenty-dollar bills that were found in 1980--and crushed to learn he's discovered the fingerprint powder the FBI dusted the bills with... except it turns out that maybe there are silver grains embedded in the fibers of the money that weren't deposited by FBI investigators... and what would that mean, actually? One investigator who practically lives in the woods is possibly looking in the wrong place, or maybe he's the only one still looking in the right place, he just hasn't found anything and he's been out there forever. Gray's on the phone with a woman obsessed by the notion her late husband was the skyjacker, but the truth is there's not a scintilla of evidence for her belief beyond some really dubious claims made by people who seem to be stringing the poor woman along.3 And so on. Gray's account bounces from year-to-year and place-to-place, but it all holds together marvelously well, especially once you realize it's less a book about a four-decades-old unsolved hijacking and more a book about how a perfectly competent and reasonably successful journalist lost his fucking mind for a coupla years.

Worth a look, definitely. Especially if you're wondering how the rabbit hole looks from inside, which is worth knowing. We all believe at least a few crazy things, the question is whether we have the perspective to confess that. And then there's the people who have really lost it, the people who are basically sensible but believe lots of crazy things and have been swept away by the force of them, and beyond that are the great masses of the lunatic fringe who believe crazy things and have gone crazy because of them (or maybe I have cause and effect reversed, there; could be). Crazy is a continuum, is what I'm saying, and Gray does an admirable and entertaining--and maybe even thoughtfully provocative, when you step back from it and consider it--job of traversing that continuum, running down it and coming back up on the return lap with a decent and engaging book that makes for a nice, quick read. Add it to the queue, I'm saying.

1The interior of the passenger section of the plane was, according to some accounts, wrecked when the plane landed. As in, more wrecked than would have been expected from the pressure changes produced when investigators subsequently ran experimental flights to determine how much turbulence would be experienced inside the cabin with the airstair open and could it really be lowered in flight and could somebody stand on the end of the stair and actually jump out (the stair tends to be pushed closed by air pressure when the plane is in forward motion and relatively little turbulence was experienced at less than 10,000 feet with the door partially or even fully open). As in, Gray writes, "Food from the meals the hijacker requested for the crew are spattered over the seats and on the walls." As in, there are implications, and some people have wondered if "Cooper" jumped but an actual flat-out statement might be libelous or at least insulting or uncomfortable, but some people have wondered, shall we say, if "Cooper" really jumped.

2I'm reminded of when mystery writer Patricia Cornwell pretty much lost it and claimed she'd solved the Jack The Ripper murders--it was world-famous painter Walter Sickert all along, and I remember her telling everybody and their cousin that what gave her the ability to see what everybody had missed all these many long years was how fresh she was to the subject. Problem is, her suspect in fact was somebody who'd been assessed by various "Ripperologists" over the decades as a possible perpetrator or accomplice, and generally discarded; perhaps worse yet, Cornwell evidently was looking at 19th-Century painting with the same fresh eyes, as her choice suspect was somebody whose life has been thoroughly documented by art critics and historians, too. Result: her research has been quickly and thoroughly trashed by people interested in the Ripper murders (example) and by art critics (example) who had no trouble whatsoever ripping (sorry) into all the things Patricia Cornwell didn't know about the crimes and about art history, but not before Cornwell used some of the millions she'd made writing labeled-as-such fiction to buy up some valuable and important paintings so she could destroy them in a frankly insane attempt to find DNA, which is where the story proceeded from farce to tragedy.

3A bizarre note she found amongst her late husband's effects serves as a deranged epigraph to Skyjack:

Bombproof and crowded with oxygen... terrace, volcallure at casa Cugat, Abbe Wants Cugie Gets.

Wonderful and uncanny, no? Like something from a numbers station broadcast. A dubious person tells Gray the thing is a coded message, and claims that "casa Cugat" "...references the House of Cugat. which on first glance seems to refer to an actual casa de familia 'safe house' on the outskirts of Havanna [sic], as you may already know" (sic in original text). Actually, on first glance--or first Google--"casa Cugat" appears to be a reference to a Mexican restaurant chain that was partly owned by Cuban bandleader Xavier Cugat; "Cugie" and his fourth wife, sexkitten singer and dancer Abbe Lane ("Jayne Mansfield may turn boys into men, but I take them from there," she once said--and check out the picture on that Wikipedia entry, va-va-voom!) had a hit with their version of the songbook standard "Whatever Lola Wants", you might be interested to know ("Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets"). Which doesn't make the message any less strange, really, but is it a nefarious jumble of words or some kind of out-of-context appreciation for Latin food and big band music?


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