Here’s a piece of something I wrote in 2011, with hyperlinks added.
On the afternoon of November 24, 1971, the day before Thanksgiving in that year, a guy named Dan Cooper got aboard a Northwest Orient Airlines flight in Portland, Oregon, for a 30-minute flight to Seattle. After takeoff, he told a flight attendant that he had a bomb in his briefcase. He asked for $200,000 and two parachutes. The plane landed in Seattle, Cooper got what he wanted, and the plane took off again. Cooper instructed the pilots to head generally southwest toward Mexico City, but at the minimum air speed and at no more than 10,000 feet, and to leave the rear door open and the exit stairway down. About 30 minutes after takeoff from Seattle, the pilots felt a bump, apparently caused by the weight shift when Cooper jumped out of the plane and into history.
You do not remember when Dan Cooper hijacked the plane and jumped out. The guy you remember is named D. B. Cooper. The process by which Dan Cooper—the name under which the man’s ticket was purchased—became D. B. Cooper is unclear. Walter Cronkite called him “D. A. Cooper” in a broadcast the next night, but by the time the wire services picked up the story on November 26, D. B. is how he was known, and it’s how he’s been remembered ever since. D. B. Cooper is a better name anyhow, more befitting the enigma to which it’s attached.
Cooper became famous as someone who had audaciously outwitted everybody and got away with it. But as much as we’d like to think that he made it to Mexico and spent the rest of his life happily drinking margaritas and banging senoritas, that’s not the way to bet. The FBI has insisted for 40 years that he probably didn’t survive the parachute jump, and about $6,000 of his cash was found along the Columbia River near Vancouver, Washington, in 1980. But nothing like a body has ever been found. Several people have been fingered as, or claimed to be, Cooper, but the FBI’s case file remains open.
The FBI closed the file in 2016. After so long, we no longer need to know who he was or what happened to him. Not knowing makes for a better story.
I have spent some time this week free-falling into the past, back to Thanksgiving 1971.
Morning TV, parades, balloons, floats, bands, New York, Detroit, Toronto, Santa Claus on the last float, and now the holidays can start.
Coats on, three boys 11, 9, and 5, unbuckled in the back of the ’65 Comet, over the river and through the woods we sing, to the house in which Mother was born. Loud greetings at the back door, hello hello everyone.
The men tell jokes and visit while the women finish cooking. Kids want candy from Grandpa’s jar on the kitchen counter, but you’ll spoil your appetite.
Seventeen of us around the table, two grown cousins and seven more between the ages of five and 12. I am happy to sit near a girl cousin one year older, my first crush. Grandpa, left-handed, sits next to my left-handed cousin, Grandma sits at the head of the table (although she never sits for long), each of them not much older than I will be in 50 years.
Turkey and stuffing, potatoes and squash and gravy, corn and peas, cranberry sauce, rolls with butter, glass of milk—and pie and cookies, and rosettes and sandbakkelse, Scandinavian holiday treats. An uncle asks, “Did you get enough to eat?”
Around the table the adults linger over coffee and light up smokes. Too cold to be outside but we go anyway, me and my brothers and our favorite boy cousin.
The afternoon unspools, football on the TV, fuzzy through rabbit ears. At mid-afternoon Grandma gets out leftovers and we eat again. There are cows to be milked and we have to go home. Names are drawn for the Christmas gift exchange. At the back door we say goodbye, love you, see you soon.
We bump along rural roads through the late-autumn afternoon, 20 minutes home, past fields partly harvested, trees mostly bare, sure of the way and secure in the only life we know, with days and years to come.
Fifty years to come, and now 50 years gone, and a lesson is left behind: you can’t be sure of the way. Life is a free fall. You may have a plan—like D. B. Cooper did—but where you land may not be up to you.