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Really? This Happened?

The Skies Belong to Us is, simply, well-told history



At a recent event in Portland (er, sponsored by my book club, the Beef & Book Club, the greatest book club in America), author Brendan Koerner flashed through slides of news articles from the late '60s about a spate of skyjackings. Like a professor unveiling an alternative and largely untold history to eager college students, Koerner explained about "the golden age of hijacking," a span of nearly 10 years when commercial airlines were snagged by gun/knife/fake bomb-welding nut jobs at an alarming rate. (At the crescendo of the era, from 1968 to 1972, nearly one plane was hijacked weekly, including one evening in San Francisco when one such plane was leaving San Francisco just as another was being forced to land.)

Copycats, like D.B. Cooper, who was not the first—or the last—hijacker to demand ransom and boldly/stupidly skydive out, were common. The demands ranged from money to free flights to Cuba to release of political prisoners. It is almost the mirror image from contemporary attitudes of buttoned-down security and suspicions.

Koerner, a contributing editor for WIRED magazine, deftly and entertainingly tells this history, providing both journalistic discipline and storytelling fancy. At times, the tone is: Can you believe it? Like the Detroit hijackers who—correctly assuming the FBI would try to send an uncover agent—insist that their ransom be delivered by someone only wearing a skimpy swimsuit so that he couldn't hide his gun (er, so to speak), or the jaw-dropping stories, like the hijacker who, unknown to his wife, hides a shotgun in his baby's bedding (ultimately, she also was co-sentenced with the crime because, after the crime commenced, she forced a flight attendant at gunpoint to knit a cap for the infant!).

These well-told stories provide detailed texture of the times while simultaneously and briskly moving the history lesson along. But it is the main event, the story about two unlikely lovers and hijackers, that Koerner hovers over—and does so with painstakingly researched details and a great deal of care and heartfelt concern.

The force behind the 1972 hijacking of a San Diego flight (ultimately taken to Algiers) is Roger Holder, an Army vet whose head is scrambled by tours and killings in Vietnam, and racism at home (not to mention a great deal of marijuana). Holder is as crazy as he is charismatic, and Koerner does a remarkable job of creating a great deal of sympathy and understanding while never losing sight of the fact that Holder's harebrained decision to hijack a plane poisoned dozens of lives, including his own.

AWOL from the army and living on the margins in San Diego, Holder hooks up with Cathy Kerkow, who grew up in Coos Bay. A classmate with Steve Prefontaine, Kerkow also is a track star before, like many in her end-of-the-'60s generation, dropped off the beaten path for a more free-living and loving lifestyle. (Almost like an episode of the "Twilight Zone," when Koerner traveled to Coos Bay to interview residents about Kerkow, no one acknowledged her existence, even though the hijacking was international news and her siblings and mom still live in the seaside town.) As much as Holder is a case study in post-traumatic disorder left untreated, Kerkow is mysterious and keenly tragic, a writ-large emblem of how dumb decisions made in teenage years can haunt the rest of our lives.

The Skies Belong to Us is an enthralling yet breezy read, and it is also one that reverberates with numerous historical themes—about racism, bad choices, the '60s, the '70s, the Vietnam War, the cost of security, the cost of trust, and, yes, of course, about September 11, although Koerner tactfully resfrains from stating the obvious. More than anything, it is history incredibly well told.

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