Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Flying the Coop

The man known as D.B. Cooper is back in the news after a bunch of years away.

Who's he? 

Just the only person ever to successfully hijack a U.S. airliner. 

The night before Thanksgiving, 1971, Cooper, a bureaucratically suit-and-tied white man, jumped from a speeding Boeing 727 into a raging thunderstorm high above Washington State, parachute on his back, $200,000 in twenty-dollar bills clutched, presumably, to his chest.

We the People never heard from him again.  And only the half-decomposed remains of a few marked twenties, discovered a decade later by some kids on a riverbed, testified he hadn't been just a dream.

What a beautiful story.  A confluence, like all beautiful stories, of a number of human dreams, wishes, golden mind threads, some of them timeless, some of them historical and moment-bound.

It's an American outlaw story, of course, in the Bonnie-and-Clyde, of-, for-, and by-the-people tradition.  D.B. Cooper hurts nobody.  The hostages all go free.  The blow is to the System, the Bank, the Corporation, Fort Knox, made on behalf, somehow, of those jogging away from the scene, down the tunnel to their loved ones at the gate, those left with the impossibly generous gift of a great story they can tell for the rest of their lives: The Night They Were on the Plane with D.B. Cooper.

It's a story of the eff-it audacity, the hilarious fury, of the power-to-the-people 1960s.  Which didn't really get rolling till 1970 anyway.

It's a story of the triumph of the wee-bitty human over behemoth technology.  John Henry defeating the steam shovel.  How many times, after all, has each of us beheld the sealed portal in the emergency aisle, sagged at the howl of the goose-smashing engines, gazed down the long aluminum tube of human heads, sensing death sealed magically out but also, somehow, inexorably, in?  And understood we were corpses, or as good as, in the grasp of some giant robot like the one Frank Freas painted?

Now imagine going out that portal, into the 300-m.p.h. maelstrom, streaking past the screaming robot's torso, bear-hugging 200,000 reasons to live, betting it all there's such a thing as the future.

Though a future, despite your flabbergasting act of bravery, no one else will ever (if all goes right) know anything about.

And that's the deepest, most golden thread in this story, isn't it? 

It's a story of fame wedded to anonymity.  An act of radical self-promotion coinciding—it's a magic trick—with an act of self-erasure. 

There's something in every moderner that wants to vanish from the world that educates it, disciplines it, hospitalizes it, gives it a Social Security number, demands that it speak, vote, get a job, buy more shoes, raise two children, be the sweetest granny or grandpa ever, climb into the incinerator and assume a place in an urn on the mantelpiece already.  There's something that wants to erase the heavy burden of selfhood inflicted on us the moment the chart gets hung on our crib in the maternity ward.

But that something wants, paradoxically, to survive the self-erasure to enjoy it.

This is what D.B. Cooper did—or does, since it's the only thing he'll ever do for as long as we remember him.  From the emergency aisle of an airliner, belly of the beast, node in a person-processing system as airtight as any we moderners have concocted, he erases himself in a manner so fantastic it makes him famous.

The act is so perfect we don't even know if he survives it.

D.B. Cooper.  Who possibly lifted his nom de guerre from a flying French comic-book hero.  He's back in the news today, because the FBI may have learned his real identity.

Please don't let it be true.