Thursday, September 6, 2018

Book 145: The Skies Belong To Us

"In struggling to make sense of this madness, pundits and politicians often invoked the term epidemic to describe the skyjacking crisis. They spoke more truly than they knew, for one of the best ways to understand the Golden Age of Hijacking is through the lens of public health. The phenomenon spread in strict accordance with the laws of epidemiology: skyjackings always occurred in clusters that traced back to a single incident that had turned contagious."

Dates read: May 12-15, 2017

Rating: 6/10

September 11, 2001, happened when I was in high school, at the beginning of my junior year. I remember being in Mrs. Brehm's Public Speaking class, chatting with a classmate about something in Spanish class, when the loudspeaker announced that there had been an attack in New York. We turned on the TV after the first plane struck, obviously, but before the second one did. It's a day burned in my memory, for which there is a very definite "before" and "after". The most noticeable hallmark of the after, of course, is the airport security regime that's been in place ever since.

I knew there had been domestic airplane hijackings (like everyone else, I'd heard of D.B. Cooper), but I'd had no idea how numerous they were until I read Brendan Koerner's The Skies Belong To Us. In the late 60s/early 70s, they were happening all the time! Sometimes even twice in one day! Koerner tells the general story of the brief skyjacking "craze", but also focuses on a particular instance to tell the story writ both large and small. The crime he chooses to highlight was a hijacking to Algeria, committed by Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow.

Holder and Kerkow were a deeply odd couple, united mostly by their love of drugs. Holder used them to salve the psychic wounds of a life scarred by systemic racism and the Vietnam War, Cathy used them because they were fun. A one-time small-town Oregon good girl (she was track teammates with Jeff Prefontaine), she grew up to become a party girl in hippie San Francisco. Through much more luck than planning or skill (they were almost thwarted by their own idiocy), they managed to pull off stealing an airplane and get $500,000 hard currency to take with them. Although their original plan was to head to southeast Asia, when that got derailed, Holder chose to head to Algeria. From there, the couple headed to France, where Holder fell deeper into long-brewing mental illness and Kerkow propelled herself into the most exclusive social circles she could find. While the pair eventually split and Holder returned to the US, Kerkow is still living the life of an international fugitive from justice to this day.

Although I certainly recall life before the TSA, I don't recall life before any sort of airport security at all. Which is apparently how it used to be for a long time, even after all this constant hijacking nonsense! The airlines pitched a fit about even the most minor screening measures because they didn't want to inconvenience their customers! Which, coming from a time in which little girls are bounced from flights because they're wearing leggings and ticketed customers are dragged off flights and beaten, seems literally crazy. I mean, there are definitely things about that time that I 100% don't want to go back to, but given what we hear about the actual efficiency of TSA at actually finding any sort of dangerous material, it seems like maybe considering the idea of lighter security (like PreCheck, but for everyone!) should be on the list of things to do.

Koerner does a very solid job of balancing all of the elements in his book: the state of the country as a whole at the time, the prime hijacking era and highlighting some illustrative vignettes (including one set right here in Reno where the banks were already closed after the money demand was made so the casinos ponied up the cash), and the story of Roger and Cathy. No one story thread feels irritatingly dominant, and Koerner's treatment of hijacking never feels like cheap drama being played up for shock value. The frequency of hijacking in that era was shocking enough and he's assured enough to let it speak for itself. That he was able to interview Roger before his death definitely helps in creating portraits of the central hijacker and his long-ago girlfriend as actual people and not caricatures. It's a very readable, enjoyable look at a phenomenon that happened not actually that long ago that I'd had NO idea about.

Tell me, blog friends...can you imagine the airlines pushing back on additional screen nowadays?

One year ago, I was reading: The Sisters Chase (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Other Side of the River