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In Defense Of D.B. Cooper

Humans need mysteries, and he's one of the best ones we've got

Day before Thanksgiving, 1971, mid-afternoon, guy walks into Portland International Airport alone, buys a ticket to Seattle. Middle-aged guy, raincoat, suit. Gets on the plane. Lights a cigarette and drinks some bourbon. Not a packed flight, mostly empty. He gives a note to the flight attendant and she ignores it; this is just another lonely businessman who wants to run her to a motel someplace.

He corrects that assumption. "I have a bomb."

He's Dan, she's Florence. She sits next to him, he opens the briefcase. Cylinders and wires, close enough. He wants $200,000 and four parachutes and a ride to Mexico. Florence goes up to the cockpit and hands the news down. Now Dan is wearing sunglasses.

The plane circles Puget Sound for a couple hours while Seattle police and the FBI get Dan his money, and the passengers don't know this. They land. Dan pays his drink tab. The passengers go home. Dan gets his money and his parachutes and the plane is headed to Mexico, with a refueling stop in Reno. Then, around 8:00 p.m., in the dark and the rain somewhere north of Portland, Dan jumps out of the plane, never to be seen again.

The cops comb the Pacific Northwest from the land and the sky. They drag rivers. They knock on doors at farmhouses. In the spring, they search again with submarines and hundreds of soldiers. And they don't find a damn thing.

The next year, 15 other people tried to copy the man who came to be called, through the mistake of a hurried wire reporter, D.B. Cooper. None of those 15 people succeeded. Maybe D.B. Cooper didn't either. But the word is maybe.

Odds are he died right away. Maybe he died a little bit later in the cold. Got hypothermia and went crazy, took his clothes off, started throwing away the money, fell to the ground, got eaten by wolves. But maybe he didn't. Maybe he got to a road and hitched a ride with some trucker at two in the morning and asked for a cigarette and said he had troubles with the wife or pretended to sleep. Maybe he made it to Mexico, or got a nice place by the beach in Southern California. Maybe he's alive now, in his eighties, sitting in a little house somewhere and watching some old Western. Maybe he's got grandkids whose energy he regards with loving skepticism through a cloud of cigarette smoke. Maybe he developed a taste for crime and got killed after a sloppy bank robbery during the Carter administration. Maybe he's in jail now under another name.

After all these years, we still don't know. Now we probably never will. The FBI announced on Tuesday that they’re not pursuing the case anymore. They’ve released D.B. Cooper into the dominion of mythology.

This, of course, is outrageously wonderful news.

We don't need to know who D.B. Cooper is. He's supposed to be an itch we can't scratch. He's the guy who pulled it off. He committed the perfect crime, and we don't get to know who he is. The book has a chapter ripped out of it. He didn't kill anybody and he had the guts to jump out of a plane into pure, dark, freezing nothingness on just two bourbon and sodas and he fell to earth with more money than most of us will ever see and we don't know what happens next. It's mystery and adventure and legend, three things that society does its level best to deny us.

And we’ve been left with just enough evidence to always be wondering, always be entertaining a now-unsolvable crime. We can think about the little boy named Brian who went out to start a fire on the Columbia River in 1980 and found a stack of D.B. Cooper's rotting money. We can wonder how and why the hell it got there, and we will never have an answer unless D.B. Cooper himself shuffles up to a video camera with a cane or a walker and says "Here I am, I got away with it," but he can say that just fine in absentia.

Here's the thing about D.B. Cooper. There are plenty of legendary figures, folklore figures, from when America was developing and unsettled and lawless. Plenty of people whose lives are shrouded in myth and lies and conjecture. And we need people like that — we need to be searching and not finding, left with a sense of wonder and the idea that there are yet things out there we can't know. We used to be able to do it with UFOs, but in retrospect there seemed to be a whole bunch of those near Air Force bases in the Cold War, and there don't seem to be hardly any at all now that most of us have high-definition video recorders by our side at all times. The internet, the speed and depth of communication we have today, has made everything easier to access except folklore and myth.

D.B. Cooper got in just under the wire. D.B. Cooper got to be the last great UFO.

It's not the man. It's what he represents. D.B. Cooper is an idea — an idea that someone can enter our lives and permanently change them without breaking them and then fly away into the dark, so unknown and undocumented that the laws of death don't even apply. We can have theories about what happened, deathbed confessions that are more compelling than others, suspects who sound right, yellowed family photos of men with crooked looks in their eyes, but we'll almost certainly never know.

And culturally, that's better. Humans need mysteries, and as long as D.B. Cooper isn't found, he's one of the best ones we've got.