I think it was when I found the duffel of money and the open parachute bag that I realized my grandfather was D.B. Cooper. It’s really tough to say, as it’s hard to trust the memory of a nine-year old. I remember I told my mother about the duffel and parachute to which she replied, “Maybe he’s D.B. Cooper.” She laughed and went back to chopping her vegetables that were to be the victims of our next dinner. I mentioned the same thing to my father and he, too, grunted, “Probably D.B. Cooper.”
At the time, the name D.B. Cooper was unfamiliar to me, so my third grade legs pedaled down to the local library and I researched any book I could find for the name D.B. Cooper. This proved more troublesome than anticipated, and by the time I reached my fourth book without the faintest mention of Mr. Cooper, the librarian approached my cubicle and asked, “Is there something I can help you with, young man?”
“I’m looking for D.B. Cooper.”
She cackled just like my mother. “Why on earth are you looking for D.B. Cooper?”
“Because I think my grandfather is D.B. Cooper.”
Her face darkened, unsure if what I had said was a joke or not. Honestly, I didn’t really care one way or another I just wanted an answer. “I’m not a fan of sarcasm, young man,” she said.
“I’m not being sarcastic.”
Her face further darkened. “Row 26,” she said. “There are some books on plane hijackings there.” She moved away, grumbling something as she went. I don’t think I cared much for that librarian.
I walked to Row 26 and found the first book on plane hijackings. No D.B. Cooper. I opened the second book and found a quick blurb, but nothing substantial. The third book, however, proved to be most useful. There was an entire chapter about D.B. Cooper and it was utterly fascinating. He was quite a character. A real wisenheimer. Apparently, while waiting for his ransom money, he cracked wise with the flight attendants and drank bourbon and water. Can you believe that? A wisenheimer like that drinking bourbon and soda while holding people hostage. What a character!
I checked out the book. The librarian said it was due in six days. I never returned it. I’m sure it chapped her hide, but that’s all right. It really was a very good book.
As I rode home it started to rain. It was early June. Flowers were sprouting, leaves were budding, and the rain gave the air a profound freshness. I placed the book in the bicycle’s basket and covered it with my sweater to protect it from the rain.
When I got home I went straight to my room and read the D.B. Cooper chapter three times before I gave my eyes a rest. I learned so many things, all of them interesting. Honest! I mean, at least, I thought so. I learned he who wore sunglasses all during the hijack. He also wore a lightweight black raincoat over a dark suit, a neatly pressed white collared shirt, a black necktie, and a mother of pearl tie clip. He had a receding hairline and chain-smoked cigarettes. He told the flight attendant he had a bomb in his briefcase and would use it if necessary. He told her to sit next to him and that the plane was being hijacked. His demands were simple: $200,000 in negotiable American currency, four parachutes, and a fuel truck standing by in Seattle. It really was quite an amazing story. But the most fascinating part was—and honest it was!—that after Mr. Cooper got his money, he released the passengers except for the flight attendants and pilot, and the plane took off again. Apparently, Mr. Cooper was headed for Mexico, but the plane needed to stop in Reno, Nevada for refueling. But on the way to Reno—and this is the interesting part I was telling you about—the plane’s aft air stair opened and Mr. Cooper jumped out of it wearing one of those four parachutes. Isn’t that something? I couldn’t believe it. Well, the authorities tried and tried and tried, but they couldn’t find a single trace of Mr. Cooper. Isn’t that something?
After a long while of reading my mother called me down for dinner. When I got downstairs my father was at the table drinking a martini and my mother was setting out our roast and creamed peas.
“You missed your grandfather,” my mother said.
“Grandpa was here?”
“About an hour ago.”
“You were up in your room making all that racket,” my father grumbled.
“I was reading,” I said.
“What were you reading, sweetheart?” my mother asked.
I told them all about the book I’d gotten at the library.
“Why are you researching D.B. Cooper?” my mother asked.
“Because I think Grandpa is D.B. Cooper,” I said.
My parents laughed. My father sipped at his martini.
“And why do you think that, dear?”
“Because of the parachute and bag of money I found in his garage,” I said.
My parents laughed so hard my mother nearly dropped the roast and my father spilled his martini.
“Your imagination is quite something,” my mother said.
“I’m serious. I found them both in a little crawlspace behind his tool bench.”
This didn’t sit well with me.
“I’m telling the truth! I even read about Grandpa in a book at the library today.”
“I knew it wasn’t his imagination,” my father grunted, gulping down the last of his martini. “You see? The boy said he got it from a book.” He was smug. My father was positively unbearable when he was smug. He shook his empty glass at my mother and she went to fetch him another martini. Boy, the food had just been set down and already she was on her feet again.
“I’m not lying,” I said.
“Nobody said you’re lying, honey.” My mother’s words were barely audible over the sound of the ice in the cocktail shaker.
“If your grandpa was D.B. Cooper, why would he just store the money in his garage?” my father asked. “Why wouldn’t he go out and spend it?”
“They said in the book they tracked the serial numbers,” I said. “Maybe he was afraid to spend it.”
My father grunted something I did not understand.
“I don’t think your grandfather was D.B. Cooper, sweetie,” my mother told me. “He was a family man, a hard working one, at that. Also, I bet I can count on one hand how many times that man has been on a plane. No, dear, I don’t think your grandfather was D.B. Cooper.”
“But how does that explain the parachute and the—“
“That’s enough!” my father shouted. “Your mother said to drop it, now drop it.”
My mother glanced at me with these solemn, understanding eyes, but said nothing. She set the fresh martini in front of my father and he ate the olive immediately. He sure could be a grouch sometimes. He smacked his lips and I poked at my mushy peas. We ate in silence the rest of dinner, the only sound coming when my mother went to clear the table. I slunk up to my room and went straight to sleep. I was too defeated to crack back open the plane hijacking book.
In the morning I did the only logical thing I could think of: I biked over to my grandfather’s house to ask him if he was D.B. Cooper. At the time, it didn’t seem like too bad of a plan. I had the book in my basket and was pedaling faster than I had ever remembered pedaling. The air was thick and dewy. It sure was hard to breathe, but that only made me pedal faster.
When I pulled up in my grandfather’s driveway I saw him putzing around in the garage. There was a green rubber hose wrapped around his shoulder. My grandfather was a thin man, but was stronger than anyone I knew. He was bald except for two thin patches of grey hair at the sides of his head. He had narrow black eyebrows and his jaw was wonderfully severe, almost like an isosceles triangle. He waved to me as I climbed off my bike. I waved back.
He set down the hose, grabbed at his back, winced. “Darn body ain’t what it used to be,” my grandfather said.
I got the book from my basket and took it to him.
“What you got there?” he asked.
“A book,” I said, suddenly anxious.
“What book is that?”
“A plane hijacking book.”
He scratched his chin. “That doesn’t seem like something a nine year old boy should be reading,” he said seriously.
“Mom says I can read anything I want,” I said. “Even Stephen King.”
My grandfather laughed. “Your mother always was an old softie.” He ruffled the hair on my head. “What brings you by so early in the morning? Summer vacation boring you already?”
“I wanted to ask you something.”
“Oh?” he said, curious. “And what’s that?”
The book was shaking in my hands. I tried to think of the most delicate way to go about it, how to ask a subtle question without much pushback. It would be best to posit a simple inquiry, gain a bit of information, posit another, and so on and so on and so on until he broke down and admitted he was, in fact, D.B. Cooper. My slow and plodding plan was ready to unfold when I blurted out, “Are you D.B. Cooper?”
My grandfather looked at me thoughtfully and scratched his chin again. I thought he was going to laugh as my parents had, but he said calmly, “What makes you think something like that?”
“Because I found an open parachute and a bag of money in your garage,” I said, still unable to help myself.
“This garage?” His calmness was unnerving.
He looked around. “I don’t see any parachute in here,” he said.
“It was in a crawlspace.”
“Over there.” I pointed to the area under his workbench.
“I don’t keep anything in there besides paint cans,” he said. “Have a look for yourself. Here, I’ll hold your book.” He took the book from my hands and I walked tentatively over to the crawlspace under the workbench. This was it! I had him!
I pushed open the crawlspace door ready to find 200,000 smackaroos, ready to find a fraying nylon parachute, ready to find the evidence that hijacking book said I would find. But when the door opened all I saw were paint cans—all eggshell, all unopened—and the occasional brush. The room was dark and musty, just as I had remembered it when I first found the money and parachute, only now the items I sought were gone.
I turned back to my grandfather. I was sure I was crying, but I couldn’t feel my face—or any other extremity for that matter. He was still looking at me with that thoughtful expression, only his eyes were a bit more narrowed and, while I couldn’t be sure, I thought I saw a small smile work its way onto the corner of his mouth, only this wasn’t his usual amiable smile, this was something more sinister.
“Come here, pal,” he said.
My feet traced across the garage floor as I made my way back over to him. He set a hand on my shoulder and said, “That imagination will get the best of you.”
“They were in there,” I said helplessly. “I saw them.” My lip was quivering. My vision blurred; bright, white stars popped everywhere. I could still feel his hand on my shoulder.
“Run along home,” he said. “You don’t want to go wasting your summer vacation chasing ghosts now, do you?”
I nodded, but it didn’t really matter. I barely heard him.
“Run along,” he said again.
I ambled over to my bicycle and rode myself home. I don’t remember much about the trip; all I remember is getting home, going up to my room, and going to sleep. My mother woke me some time later and told me dinner was ready. I could hear my father downstairs talking to somebody. They were laughing. The laughter made my stomach turn.
We went downstairs and took a seat at the table. My father was where he usually sat, shoving another martini down his gullet. Across from me was my grandfather, an empty rocks glass in front of him. They continued to laugh. What was it they found so funny? Boy, I sure hated their laughter. The sound was driving me nuts!
“Hey there, squirt,” my grandfather said to me when his laughter finally subsided.
“Hi,” I said.
“Dad,” my mother said closing up the oven, “did you hear our little whippersnapper’s most recent theory?”
My father began to laugh again. “Oh, you’re gonna love it. Wait until you hear it!” He had tears in his eyes from laughing. Can you believe it? My father was actually laughing so hard he was crying. That sure made me sore.
“That I’m D.B. Cooper,” my grandfather said.
Everybody burst into laughter. I swear the house shook from all the laughter.
“Can you believe such a theory?” my father said, downing the last of his martini.
“Quite the imagination,” my grandfather said.
“That’s what I said!” My father was in tears again.
“How about I freshen up those drinks?” said my mother. “Another martini and the same for you, Dad?”
“Sure. Why not?”
My mother—meal, once again, freshly set on the table—went to fetch my father and grandfather their drinks.
“Your boy has quite the mind,” my grandfather said.
“I just wish he used it for his studies. He’s got fourth grade coming up, no use wasting that brain on crackpot theories.” My father slopped a helping of chicken and gravy onto his plate.
“It’s good to have an imagination,” my grandfather said.
My father pretended not to hear him.
My mother returned with the drinks. “A martini for my love.” She set the glass in front of my father. “And a bourbon and soda for my other love.” She kissed my grandfather on the cheek and he smiled up at her with his fantastically deep brown eyes.
Bourbon and soda...
My grandfather took a drink and leaned back in his chair. “I never tire of these,” he said, toasting the table.
Bourbon and soda...
“I don’t know how you can drink that stuff,” my father said. “Taste like turpentine to me.”
“A man’s gotta have a drink,” my grandfather said. “You have your martini, I have my bourbon.”
“Oh boy...” I said, though I said it so quietly I wasn’t sure anybody had heard me. In fact, I said it so quietly I was quite sure I’d even uttered the words. D.B. Cooper had drunk bourbon and sodas. That’s when he was cracking wise with the crew! What a character that guy was! And there my grandfather was, sitting at our dining room table sucking down Jim Beam and Schweppes with impeccable ease.
“What was it you were doing down in the basement the other day, Dad?” my mother asked.
This seemed to stir a bit of unease beneath my grandfather’s gruff exterior. He squirmed in his chair and ran a finger around the edge of his bourbon glass. “Just storing a few things while I finish up painting the living room,” he said.
“You were in the basement?” I asked.
He was almost expressionless. “Yes,” he said.
“Yes,” he said again.
“Speaking of which,” my father interjected. “Was that paint all right?”
“What’s that?” my grandfather asked.
“The paint you borrowed from us, was that the color you wanted? Eggshell, right?”
My parents had painted all the walls in our house two years back and had spent a small fortune on large buckets of eggshell paint. They’d stored them in our basement ever since. Much to my father’s chagrin, a few months back I tripped over one of the cans while playing hockey and spilled the thing everywhere. I’d been banned from the basement ever since.
But rules were ready to be broken.
“May I be excused?” I said.
“Where you going?” my father grumbled.
“Bathroom,” I muttered.
“Don’t be long,” my mother said.
I slid back from the table and headed down the hallway feeling my grandfather’s eyes on me. As I disappeared around the corner, I heard my father boast about a recent sale he’d made and curse at the bit of martini that had slipped out of his glass and onto his slacks. I didn’t dare turn back.
I turned on the bathroom light and closed the door—a decoy technique I had read about in an old Hardy Boys novel—and continued down the hallway to the basement. Laughter came from the dining room—my mother and my father’s. My grandfather was silent.
I opened the basement door smelling its musty aroma. It was dark and humid and, as I descended the steps, felt my breath labor. While I hadn’t been down there since Easter not much had changed. The washer and dryer were still against the far wall, the water heater stationed next to it. There were boxes of books and old movies stacked in the corner and faded memorabilia from my father’s high school glory days on a shelf next to them. Everything was dusty and untouched, the basement unmolested save for the area under the stairs—the area where my father had stored his paint cans. I believed there were twelve total, though, as I mentioned earlier, it’s tough to trust the memory of a nine year old. Especially since, on this particular day, in the paint cans’ place were stacks of old LIFE Magazines. I’d never noticed them before, nor did I ever notice my parents reading LIFE Magazine, nor had I even ever heard of LIFE Magazine. It seemed terribly peculiar that one, let alone stacks of them, would be in our basement. Behind the magazines was something I found even more peculiar: a wicker basket four feet wide and two feet tall. I suppose there’s nothing peculiar about a wicker basket, but the fact that there was a faded United States Air Force decal on its top was very odd, indeed. Neither of my parents had ever been in the Air Force. In fact, my father was absolutely petrified of flying. The mere sight of a plane made his palms sweaty and stomach nervous. Crouching there in that basement I was certain of two things: those were not my parents’ LIFE Magazines and that was not their wicker basket. Something was truly amiss.
I pushed apart two stacks of LIFE Magazines and crawled over to the wicker basket. My hands were trembling. I pulled the top off the basket’s top and saw what I had expected, but could barely believe. On one side of the basket were four stacks of $100 bills. On the other side of the basket was that open nylon parachute, ripped and tattered in places, fraying from age in others. Set on top of the cash was a pair of dark sunglasses and white dress shirt with a few spots of dried blood around the collar.
I was so preoccupied with the contents of the box that I didn’t hear my grandfather come down the basement stairs and say, very calmly, but forcefully, “So you found it again, have you?”
I nearly fell into one of the stacks of magazines.
“Grandpa...” I said.
“I knew you were curious,” he said. “I just hoped you would’ve stayed away from this one.”
“You’re D.B. Cooper?”
My grandfather sighed, knelt down. He didn’t look angry, but his expression was terribly grave. I felt my tongue swell and the roof of my mouth dry. He set a hand on my shoulder. Even over my t-shirt I could feel how gruff it was. He was a small man, but seemed to possess a tremendous strength.
“I thought if I moved this out of my crawlspace that would have been the end of it.” His eyes were sad. “I guess I was wrong.”
“So you are D.B. Cooper?”
He was quiet a very long time before he said, “Yes,” but then corrected me, “I was D.B. Cooper. But I’m not anymore.”
“But...” My mind was spinning. “Why?”
“I mean, you didn’t spend any of the money...I mean...it’s just...if you didn’t do it because of the money, why did you do it?”
“Because I wanted to,” he said plainly. “Because I needed to. The head of the airline—D.W. we called him—he was a real son of a bitch.” In all my years I never heard my grandfather curse. “I knew him from the war. He nearly got me killed—on multiple occasions no less! Damned fool, that’s what he was.” He was gritting his teeth and the expression frightened me. “When I got on the plane I didn’t even think I’d do it. I thought I’d lose my nerve. But I just kept thinking of old D.W.’s face, so smug, so arrogant. And before I knew it I was telling the flight attendant I had a bomb. And she took me seriously! Honestly, I couldn’t believe it. The whole thing was so preposterous. When she asked me my name I nearly said D.W., just out of reflex, but then I muttered, D.B. and used Cooper to fill in the blank. The whole thing was just so easy. I swear I couldn’t believe it! When I jumped from the plane I didn’t think I’d have a chance in hell of making it. But when I landed safely on the ground—except for maybe a few scratches on my neck—I knew I’d be okay. It was about a mile and a half to the nearest town. So I popped off my tie and trudged that mile and a half to a service station. I bought a proper bag, stuffed the money and parachute inside, and...” His voice trailed away and he seemed almost nostalgic. “Well, I guess that was it. I had this money from D.W.—money I didn’t even want—but I knew the fact that he paid some schmuck a portion of his fortune would eat him up inside. The S.O.B. retired a few years later. He never was the same.”
“Why didn’t you just get rid of the money?” I asked. “Or the parachute for that matter? If you didn’t even want it, what was the use in keeping them?”
“The money? Hell, I don’t know. I suppose if I got rid of it I wouldn’t have had the same satisfaction. I took a bout of shrapnel because of old D.W. and every time I took a gander at that money it made this rickety hip of mine feel a little better. And the parachute? I suppose it was like an artifact, just couldn’t part with it. Same goes for the sunglasses and shirt. I loved who I was in that moment. Even though I scared a lot of people, I made a lot of them laugh, too. Hell, a lot of them didn’t even know what was going on, most of those passengers were sleeping, anyway. When we stopped to deplane in Seattle, a few of them were even saying, ‘I think we’re switching planes because I heard there’s something wrong with the engine.’ Can you believe that? This whole charade is going on and they’re clueless!” He sort of hung his head and scratched his chin. “I suppose I should feel bad for it...I suppose...”
I put my hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay, Grandpa,” I said. “I won’t tell.”
His eyes lit up, as if my discretion was the only thing in the world he cared about. “You mean it?” he asked. Never once did he mention the fact that nobody would believe a nine year old, or the story was too ludicrous for anyone to listen to, or my parents would be the first to scoff at such a suggestion. All my grandfather said was, “You mean it?” and it ballooned my heart.
“Sure I mean it,” I said.
He smiled. “Thanks.”
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s close this stuff up and we’ll get it out of here after dinner.”
“Even if my father found it I doubt he’d put two and two together,” I said.
My grandfather laughed heartily. “I suppose you’re right.” He patted the top of my head with his calloused hand. “Come on, your folks will be wondering where we wandered off to.”
“All right,” I said.
“You’re a good kid,” he said. “And you’ll make a fine young man some day.”
I said, “All right” again and D.B. Cooper and I closed the wicker basket and went upstairs for dessert.