I’m watching a story on CNN about the infamous D.B. Cooper, who hijacked a plane back in 1971 and never got caught. The report indicates that the FBI is closing the case after 45 years, and then they show sketches of the guy. Something seems familiar about his face, but I can’t connect the dots because the images are only on screen briefly.
Working at my desk later that morning, I look up at some family photographs, seeing one of Dad as a boy with Papa, and I realize that Papa looks just like Cooper except for a bushy mustache and blonde hair. After printing out the sketches and confirming the resemblance, I decide to go into Manhattan and visit the old man.
Papa’s aide Annie, a friendly older woman from Jamaica, opens the door. “Why are you such a stranger?”
“I’m never invited,” I say.
Annie directs me into the spacious living room where Papa sits hunched in a wheelchair looking out the picture window at the city.
He doesn’t turn to acknowledge me. “What’s the occasion?”
“Just thought I’d stop by,” I say.
“When’s the last time I saw you?”
Papa spins the wheelchair around – the bushy mustache now snow white; however, his face remains remarkably unwrinkled and his blue eyes are clear behind gold-rimmed eyeglasses. I thought he looked like Cooper when I saw his old photo; now I’m not so sure.
“I know your father told you how I was a bad guy.”
“No, he said he loved you; he said it often.”
“Why are you here, William?”
I take the print-out of the Cooper sketches from my pocket and hand it to him. “I made the connection this morning.”
“It took you all long enough.”
“Are you saying that you are…”
“I’m not saying it – you are!”
“So, is it you?”
He stares at the image. “Coming back from Vietnam very angry, I stayed out West and settled in Portland, working in the airport for Northwest Orient Airlines, but I kept messing up and they fired me.”
“So they owed you.”
“Shaved off my mustache, cut my hair, dyed it black, and put in brown contact lenses, so no one recognized me when I bought a ticket. On the plane I showed them my bomb – just some red safety flares in the briefcase with wires and battery taped to them, but that worked. I got my ransom and parachutes.
“Passengers got off in Seattle but I kept some crew on board. Told them to fly to Mexico, but I took the money and jumped. Being a paratrooper in Nam, it was no biggie.”
I stare at him in awe. “How did you avoid being caught?”
“I never used the money – at least not for a long time. Eventually, I made small deposits in different banks. When I finally started to withdraw it, those original bills had been long passed into the general population, serial numbers undetected.”
“Did Dad know?” I ask.
“No one has ever known until now.”
I think of what my father once told me. “Dad believed that you would have been a different person if grandma didn’t die so young.”
I see in his expression that he is fighting tears. He nods and then puts his head down. “Millie’s loss…destroyed me, and I know my kids hated me for marrying Gail, but I only did it so they would have a family. That was probably my biggest mistake.”
I think of myself, how I lost my last girlfriend Ella because of stupid reasons and pride. I put my hand on his shoulder. “We all make mistakes, Papa. At least you tried.”
I feel his body convulsing now as he cries, and I do something I haven’t done in my whole life – I get down on my knees and hug him. Papa brings up his good hand and arm and hugs me back, and I feel sorry for the old man now. He has lost a son, two wives, and can’t walk anymore.
We stare into each other’s faces, his eyes clear and watery now. “I know now that the sins of the father hurt the son; if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t hijack that plane.”
I get up and sit on the chair next to him. “What’s done is done now, Papa.”
He nods somberly. “I suppose you will expose me; tell the world who I am and what I did. I guess I deserve that.”
I had thought about that on my way here, but now I am thinking that there is no reason to divulge anything because it changes nothing – Dad and Papa’s wives are gone. My brother, sister, and their children don’t need a scandal to ruin their lives, and looking at the old man I know that he has suffered enough.
“I’m not going to tell anyone,” I say, “not now, not ever.”
Papa looks up at me. “Sometimes I still can’t believe I did it.”
So yes, my Papa was the hijacker D.B or Dan Cooper, one of the most infamous fugitives and wanted men in America for all those years, but now the case is closed, and for me it’s not about the money, avoiding scandal, or protecting my family.
Yes, those things factor in, but the most important thing for me is that my grandfather served his country in war and came back and was treated poorly. Papa didn’t hurt anyone in the hijacking – he didn’t even have a real bomb, and in the end maybe Northwest deserved to compensate him in some way after firing him instead of helping him get better.
We are quiet for a while, and then I say, “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to visit you more often.”
“But why now?”
“To make up for lost time.”
“I don’t deserve it,” he says with a big smile, “but thank you.”
I never saw Papa happy before. Case closed and then some.