1971: I searched throughout Portland for Wilbur; every likely restaurant and cafe, army surplus stores, the county library, Maury's Gun Shop, vintage comic book shops, and various Skid Row dens where Wil liked to watch the gypsies. All his old haunts were searched except for his parent's house, the least likely place to find him. It was late afternoon on a Saturday in our old working class North Portland neighborhood from where Wil had voluntarily fled years prior, and from which I was yanked a year later, both of us departed via wartime military conscription. Finally, as my search circled closer to the core, narrowing still nearer to our earliest hangouts, I found him at his old thinking place, his place of contemplation, the bandstand in Peninsula Park.
An Oregon drizzle and fog wafted through the park, shrouding the circular bandstand that appeared as an apparition, an antiquated flying saucer rimmed by rows of azaleas. Wil was bent over like a tired person on a toilet at the end of the bench, his face mostly covered by a large hooded sweatshirt, the neck strings tugged down in each hand. He was shaking in concert with the foliage around him in the gusting, uncertain breeze. We were losing the late November daylight, the last couple of days of the usual wet, crappy, ear-aching, influenza-tilted Portland November. Across the street, Christmas lights switched on.
I knelt momentarily to glance a face that looked like an encounter with a lawn mower, a maze of scratch marks, one eye a dull, smoky red from broken blood vessels, lending a malamute look. Now, confused and fearful, the “tough-as-nails” 140 pound interior lineman, the feared Airborne Ranger First Lieutenant, was finally just another North Portland stray dog.
Neither of us spoke, it was not necessary, we both knew the score, where his adventure began. It was already in the news, the composite FBI sketch was a good likeness, so much that I nearly blurted out at the black & white TV screen, “Oh my God, it's Wilbur!” I figured it was all over for him, another tragedy of the age, one of those smart guys and basically a good person, indeed a generous person, gone mad, gone wildly mad.
Sitting at the opposite end of the bench, parallel to Wil, we likened a pose from our high school football days -- a couple of bench-sitters staring into the invisible football field with our thousand meter stare, never expecting to be played. We were too skinny, and wondered where the phrase “football builds character” came from. For Wil and me, football built neurosis.
I chose my questions carefully, not wishing to run him off. I did not look directly at him again on that day – nor him at me, as the enormity of the situation required no embellishment. I did not expect to see him again, in person.
“How did you get back?”, I asked. He said, “Hitched a ride from a drunk Mexican guy, and then Greyhound. Maybe some day I'll give you the whole story, but right now I need to get back in hiding.”
I got up and walked to the edge of the bandstand steps, and turned to nod goodbye, when Wil said, “There's a bounty.” I said, still half-turned, “Don't insult me.”
He said, “No, I don't mean you. I know you'd never squeal. It's just that it's a lot of money...and loose lips...well, you know.”
“Wil, don't think about it. If you get caught, it wasn't me, and it would not be anybody I talk to. When have I ever squealed on you or anyone? What makes you think I'd squeal today? And who sprung you in '66 and kept it secret long enough for you to split? I lived with the fear of your crazy brother and your nutso dad jumping on me in my sleep. That went on for three or four hot, miserable nights in that attic my folks put me in, while you rode the bus, so you could get clean away from your dad. So, I don't need no damn blood money.”
Before descending the bandstand, I asked one last question...
1962-1963: Wilbur, his mom and dad, and Wil's bullish older brother, Ray, moved in across the street in June of '62. My mother stuck a fruit basket in my arms and sent me to the door of their barn-like New England Colonial style house. The door was ajar, so I announced myself, heard no reply, and turned to scurry back across the street when I heard a muffled voice from somewhere in the house. It came from somewhere upstairs, where I found Wilbur in his room, lying in a fetal position. I immediately noticed an 18-inch length of industrial rubber hose at the foot of his bed. He had been beaten. The hose was a whipping tool that left few marks on the disciplined child, and was a fairly common tool of the times. It was Friday, and the welts on his neck and face would be gone by arrival at school, on Monday. I learned more about Wil in the months to come.
Wil was trapped in a nightmare, that was easy to see. I looked around at his bedroom, a phantasmagorical assortment of neatly separated projects; rare comic books in foreign languages, model cars, ships and airplanes, an insect collection, 33 rpm records, a race horse betting game that he had invented, and a surprisingly sophisticated theater makeup cubicle. On his wall were three homemade cork dart boards; photos of Stalin, Mussolini, and J. Edgar Hoover. Most of the darts were clustered on Hoover. I asked, “Why not Hitler? Where's Hitler?”
Wil said, “Hitler was simply insane, but these other guys were not insane. They represented evil, and the exercise of free will to serve that evil.”
Wil often waxed fatherly; much older than his years, and seemed to have a gift for premonitory thinking, that view into the future that he seemed to display when he was being publicly criticized and mocked. Mentally, he simply went away, somewhere, and I often wondered just where that hidden foxhole was dug.
Wil lived in his head, absorbed with projects outside of school, mostly in his bedroom at home, which was representative of the segmentation of a fractious American culture that some anthropologists labeled families as subcultures unto themselves; that each American family was a separate subculture. Each family stubbornly held to their own set of standards, rules, and life-ways – their own cosmology, their own world view, separate from the family next door. Wil's bedroom exceeded the standard, it was his subculture within a subculture, a voyage with undetermined destination; unmapped, unobtainable, and unknown. The sole knowable notion was that Wil would probably, as he often repeated, “...pull off the big one, some day, something that'll shock you out of your tennis shoes.”
In the early 1960s, everything interesting seemed to be happening in the skies, the stratosphere, and in space with moonshots and other aeronautical innovations. But not much was happening on the ground, except that which was effected from the sky, or so it seemed. Incineration from the skies from nuclear attack was stupidly apparent, it could happen any day. The looming Cuban Missile Crisis enforced attitudes already instituted from the Cold War. Kids “ducked and covered” in schools as a natural part of everyday peace time life. Strangely, though airplane technology was no more inherently dangerous than more modern, improved performance planes, they were falling out of the skies with some regularity, in the early 1960s. Most of the crashes happened in the U.S.
Wil and I sought many kinds of distractions. At every opportunity, we explored the Columbia Slough, in northernmost North Portland. It was the nearest thing to “wilderness” for city-locked North Portland kids. We crept its banks and shrunk from view when we saw the rare wildlife that had survived the pollution; the plethora of garbage, cars, industrial waste, raw sewage, carcasses, and Lord knows what else. We just called it The Slough, and had no idea that the name meant a fresh-water river's backwater, sometimes landlocked in oxbows, and was lazy and slow flowing and lake-like but usually relatively clean. Us kids just thought that the word “slough” was synonymous with dumping, dead carp, and fishing grounds for crazy old men. It was one of those naturally dirty places like the bus station and public bathrooms where mothers said not to play.
The Slough flowed south of the Columbia River and parallel, until it flowed into the Willamette River, a short distance from its confluence with the Columbia. The Slough flowed very slowly on its journey from and towards the two major rivers. Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington were on opposite shores of the big confluence. Part of the slough adventure, near its banks, there sat a wondrous 1950s artifact gallery of WWII army surplus, a store called GI Joes.
The surplus was so inexpensive that it only took pop bottle pennies to fully outfit ourselves with WWII Army outfits: The original uniforms and other equipment, sometimes still spattered with blood … occasionally we found live rounds in the field gear. We sampled the war era canned C-rations that tasted like mud, but never made us sick. We jumped from sports field bleachers with pairs of chutes, and landed hard.
The mildew smell of the military surplus transitioned into the real army when, sure enough, our generation entered the military. It was a strange, surrealistic transition from playing army, to the real thing. The same little Jewish men tailors who had measured and dressed our dads' generation were still there, all in their 70s. They were consummately skilled, unhurried, yet quick.
The jolting starkness of sudden adulthood and the new war was still some years away as I enjoyed the relative bliss of high school. That was not the case for Wil.
Wil's high school experience was much different. He became the chicken with the spot of blood that brought everyone down on him. His unfortunate name did not help, nor did his pointed, delicate nose, shifty little almond eyes, slightly wide hips for a skinny guy, and his odd laughter. He was unable to laugh normally; the ability to exhale, “ha-ha-ha,” like most people, rather, he inhaled through nasal passages and made a nefarious, snuk-snuk-snuk sound. That only added to his sneaky looks, and earned him the nickname, “Weasel,” the animal known for its cleverness, quickness, and guile. All good traits, yet, his strengths worked against him, like his advanced sense of smell, again, like a weasel. He could find hamburger joints at a distance, as well as taverns, the nearest latrine, and gas stations. He was praised for saving our high school when he was the only one in the building who smelled the grease fire in the unattended cafeteria kitchen. I was proud of him on that day, most everyone was, except those who really would liked to have seen the school burn.
I had become Wil's ad hoc, de facto sole friend, confidant, and psychiatrist. I knew him like no one else could, he was my responsibility. Yet, he had built such an impermeable wall around himself, he did not really need a confidant, indeed, he never complained about the treatment he received, from anyone. When he was hit by a car in front of the Bun 'n' Burger on his way to school one morning, and incurred minor injuries, he barely talked about it. When kids in the high school halls skipped happily along, laughing, “Weasel's been hit, ha-ha!”, he simply turned a deaf ear so convincingly he actually seemed to have left the continent, projected from the scene, departed the temporary reality, found some sort of Zen state, and took off. Easy to say nowadays with all the drugs, he could have been on stuff, but he wasn't, because that was 1964. He simply had a gift for looking beyond the present. In fact, sometimes he actually stared one-thousand meters into the North Portland skyline, as if he wasn't there, at all.
Wil was eager to meet my airline stewardess sister, Jeanne, who worked for West Coast Airlines, a relatively small airlines that serviced, as the name implies, the coastal states, and also flights to Montana and Alberta. Jeanne visited the house when she had time, a minor celebrity who thrilled us with stories of the crazy, loose, fun-loving pilots and other airline employees. Whiskey was a sacrament for them, part of every stopover, layover, and any pause of more than four hours. Dark glasses and hangovers, still legally drunk, the pilots furtively and guiltily skirted the passengers and fumbled into the cockpit, begging coffee. Vomiting, amphetamine-fed stewardesses, a trail of jealous spouses, angry hotel owners, and confused, nonplussed, and cleverly deceived passengers marked the airline industry of the late 1950s – early 1960s. Jeanne showed her souvenir jewelry box, to Wil and me, and we were stunned by the sparkle of men's wedding bands. Prior to boarding, married men with philandering intent would slip their wedding bands into their pockets. When the plane angled up on takeoff, rings fell from pants pockets and rolled to the rear of the plane where Jeanne snatched them.
Part of the happy-go-lucky looseness of airlines in those days included flying employee family members at only half-cost, which made a Portland/Seattle round-trip twenty dollars. I took advantage of the deal every time that I could round up the money, though not easy for an adolescent, usually Jeanne simply forked it over. A kid could not ask for a zanier older sister, at 5 ft 1 ½ she was the premier athlete in the family, taught herself figure skating on the first day she slid onto Laurelhurst Park pond ice. She insisted on bright colors, red was her favorite, such that mom called her “My little gypsy.” She was also a natural at making the most of any situation, and now, with real spending money at hand, she indulged her younger brother. We darted all over Seattle, goofed at the curios shop on the waterfront and the red mummy, ate fish & chips, rode the bus, and laughed a lot.
Wil gratefully, happily, and always a little seamy like Eddie Haskell, pandered for Jeanne's sisterly attention when she stopped over for visits in Portland. He peppered her with questions about the airlines, wore her out, until one day Jeanne proposed that he have a look himself, first hand, come on a trip with me. He could be another family member, the airlines did not really care, anyway, and rarely checked ID. She would be stewarding on the return trip from Seattle. I thought Wil would be leaping with glee but he only looked depressed. Then I realized that not only would his folks not pay the fare, they would simply not allow such an excursion in the first place. Jeanne volunteered his fare, and from there on we were in the hands of Providence, the flight leaving the next day. Wil caught his dad with a mild whiskey buzz, his mom on a sugar high, and explained the flight was part of a school writing project, cost covered. Next morning while his folks slept off their respective highs – his dad's whisky high, and his mother's sugar high -- Wil slipped out and stayed hidden until flight time.
West Coast Air mostly used F-27 turboprops, and a few other types to include the old DC-3, the two-prop workhorse from WWII. We flew the F-27 from Portland to Seattle, and received no special treatment as it wasn't my sister's crew. The eye-popping trip back was in the old DC-3 with my sister as stewardess, and her pals in the cockpit.
My sister's apartment in the hip Alki District of Seattle was open and breezy, a refreshing place in that Seattle summer. Wil and I were utterly thrilled and half mad with liberation. We met sis's wild stewardess roommate who wasted no time accidentally-on-purpose going topless for us, much to our jaw-dropping delight. If she was dingy, then her boyfriend was downright daffy, saying the most inane things, and apparently competing against us little kids for attention of the woman. Wil and I excitedly compared notes in our room the instant the door was shut. Here we are mere high school freshman and we're ten times more mature than those people, we thought. Man, those were some stupid people, we thought, and hoped that boyfriend was a baggage handler and not a pilot.
The fabled DC-3 was our craft for the return trip to Portland. We could hardly believe our good fortune. Plus, as added excitement, the plane took off in a bad Pacific Northwest storm. My own fun quickly dissipated into severe air sickness, with my sister Jeanne assisting with suppressed laughter. I learned that people actually turn green, like in the cartoons, and I filled the vomit bag to the brim. Wil, on the other hand, was ecstatic. I declined the usual visit to the cockpit, while Wil practicality sprinted down the aisle. He had many questions for the Captain and First Officer, the pilot and copilot.
1966: Shortly following high school graduation, Wil was allowed to take his dad's car for a spin. We no sooner got on the road when Wil started acting crazy, and taking chances. Sure enough, he crashed the car – nothing serious, yet there was damage. I never saw anyone as terrified, before or since. Wil pleaded with me to get him out of town before his fiery dad erupted in rage, and beat him senseless. Creeping into the driveway, Wil shakily parked the damaged car and walked like a ghost to his room. We made a pact that early in the following morning we would slink to the Greyhound station where he could slip away to the U.S. Army where his dad could not touch him.
1969: Meet with Wil at Overseas Replacement Station, Ft. Lewis: My barracks-mates were astounded to see a First Lieutenant with Vietnam combat ribbons and all his military accoutrements, taking the steps two at a time right up to the upper floor of the barracks, like he knew exactly where I bunked. His astounding intuition paid off yet again. He was the oddly gifted Wilbur.
He whisked me away to his off-base temporary apartment in Tacoma, pending his processing out of the army. There was something complicated about his discharge, I never knew if it was simply owing to his officer status, or something else. It was certainly more complicated than an enlisted man's discharge, the kind that I dealt with daily as my army job, but the details didn't interest me enough to inquire.
His Tacoma apartment was confined, cloistered, and void of any fun, like priests' quarters I'd smelled while serving as an army chaplain's assistant. Processed foods, the usual pizza leftovers, half-eaten cans of cold beans, fruit cocktail, and other canned foods, like military C-rations, as if he could not escape Vietnam. Then it dawned, maybe he was seeing a shrink, maybe that was delaying his out-processing. Wil may have been getting an “early out,” the kind of honorable discharge that was granted simply because of gigantic, unmanageable army personnel, or crazy people, it was a convenient category.
Wil gave me Olympia beer, the locally made popular brewery that gave tours. “It's the water,” Wil winked. Then he clicked into his slide show. There is nothing like the old photographic slide shows for starkness in a dark room. The subject was graphic war casualties.
Hideous, bloody slide after slide, I had to look away. At one point my sideways gaze caught Wilbur. He was not happy. He was, as I'd seen him so many times, disconnected as a spider stricken from its web; gone; somewhere else lurking nearby, but gone. Slides became better, less combat and more information, and some dazzling panorama scenes. He had shots of small markets, mouth-watering displays of fresh peppers, and fruits I had never seen.
“Valentina Tereshkova.” Wil blurted it without changing his distant stare.
I thought he was talking gibberish, maybe the Olympia Beer had made him goofy. “Um, what did you say there, Wil?”
Wil also had heroes. Among his treasurers and souvenirs there hung a photograph that was positioned in a state of reverence and secrecy, squarely centered in the interior side of his door, such that no one could see the image: Valentina Tereshkova.
“Valentina Tereshkova was a Russian woman who was the first woman cosmonaut, in 1963. And before that she was an amateur skydiver. She was born and raised very working class, her dad was killed in WWII, and she was raised by a single mom. She worked in a tire factory, then a cotton mill, and applied to the cosmonaut program. She got selected because she had jumped 128 times, but she was the least qualified of the women selected. She studied hard and she became the only woman to blast into space – she orbited the earth forty-eight times!”
“Holy shit, Wil, I never heard such a thing. Where was I?”
Wil said,“Where was anybody. We got our own American propaganda and deceit. They keep it all hid. They really hated Valentina. She was women's lib and adventurer all rolled into one. And more than that, even the Russians made her the boob.”
“Wil, you lost me. The Russians did something to her?”
“Yeah, the goddam Russians had planned the big event for launching two women, together, that was the big media event. They needed a sucker to test, like the little dog they sent up in Sputnik. Valentina was the the little dog, the 'Spam in the can.' Anyhow, she lived through it and became a Russian hero. The planned dual woman launch never happened. The outcast, Valentina, became the space woman hero of the Soviet Union, and the world.”
1974: Meet with Wil at Quality Pie, long talk:
Quality Pie, or QP as everyone called it, was a restaurant with an attached bakery that specialized in pies. The actual name was Fryers Restaurant but QUALITY PIE was ten times larger on their sign logo. It was a Portland tradition, an amalgam of mom and pop, the kids, business people, a large following of hospital personnel from across the street, and a 2 a.m. drunk rush. The impermeable waitresses, mostly older gals, gazed unconcernedly at drunks, druggies, frightened runaways, the elderly, the outpatients, and the just plain dumb as hell. The server cocked her competent hand upon apron-swathed hip, order ticket in hand, pencil held like javelin: “Have you decided what you want?” I ordered chocolate pie and coffee, and asked, “Have you seen a sort of big cop with a pointed face and sort of large hips.? We're old pals, thought I'd catch up.”
Late night, the crowd mild and scattered, and the restaurant door was propped open. “I know what cop you're talking about, usually he shows up just before the drunk rush. He's that mean one, the cop who beats people with a rubber hose, and has his own homemade mace – ammonia in a kid's squirt gun. And he's Vice Squad for chrissakes, the bastard. Even other cops are afraid of him because he's just not right in the head.”
I had heard stories, myself. He had his own set of rules, it wasn't as if he was amoral or without standards, it was just that it was his own morals and standards. Sometimes, he was judge and jury, not bothering to haul a guy in, rather, he just punished him on the spot. The most remarkable story, to my reckoning, was when he turned a young prostitute over his knee and spanked her like a child. Then he gave her money to get back to her small Oregon town.
The waitress tightened her apron. “He's totally unpredictable, give a guy a break one minute, then beat another guy senseless for doing hardly anything. Totally unpredictable. Don't tell him I said anything, please.”
It was summertime on the west side of the Willamette River, in NW Portland where the cool breezes ran down the West Hills foothills at night, reversing the daytime uphill wind pattern. On this night the cool summertime breeze blew down from the well-heeled neighborhoods, that saccharine scent of the rich. A rare summer storm accumulated from the Pacific Coast, and was headed inland. Nothing feels like PO in the summer, “I'll stay here until I die,” I mused, “Nothing beats this, my God, surely there is no better place on the planet.” Ionic air puffed through the openings and closings of QP's double front doors.
I hardly recognized Wil when he pushed through the swinging glass doors. Staring sideways from where I sat, half way down the rows of stools at the counter, I finally saw the fabled madman in his swaggering, constable strut. Wil, Officer Wilber, the Joseph Goebbels of the Portland Police Vice Squad. Big now, not a lot of fat, just a generalized thickness and toughness born of wrestling drunks, slamming people against cars, and boozing gustily to forget. Genetically prescribed to look scary, he had grown into his large hips, and smartly, militarily, uniformed in cop colors, all badge, polish, glisten, and threat.
He walked by as if he had not seen me, then at the last instant he grunted slightly in my direction and nodded toward the back booth. A pair of young hippy guys sat there, and he used the same nodding to command the boys out of the booth. Wil sat with his back to the wall, a cop thing to do, but he always kept his back to the wall. He used that same nod, which was getting a little irritating, to motion the busboy to grab old dishes, then another nod for the waitress.
His demeanor, I thought, meant that his conversation would prove just as glib, and nothing revealing would be learned that night about Dan Cooper. I was wrong. He bolted two cups of coffee with extra sugar, which he drank from the saucer for cooling, and stared intently into the saucer as if it were a crystal ball.
I decided to start off with reminiscing, after all, the last we talked was that dim day in Peninsula Park. I asked if he remembered the prank he pulled on me during our high school days, when he came screaming Navy commands out of a side room in his house, dressed in his dad's old uniform. He had used theater makeup to look much older. He scared me senseless, I though his crazy dad had finally decided to kill me.
We chatted of light subjects, funny old teachers, the last of the soda fountains, and the comical quaintness of an old Portland that was growing up fast. I told Wil that I once knew hard working tree planter transients, the top of the Skid Row hierarchy, who told me that “Skid Row was going downhill,” meaning that the yuppies were moving in and taking over with new shops. Wil knew what I was talking about, gypsy population that he admired had been displaced and dissolved. We tried to avoid dark subjects, nevertheless we debated whether his older brother and pals actually engaged in the sadistic sport of “rolling bums,” or if that was just American myth. Wil seemed to think it actually happened, that high school upper class men crept Skid Row, ambushed transients, then beat and robbed them. I guessed he would know.
The conversation became less and less meaningful as the moment of truth drew near, and voices trailed off into indifference. I was anxious to get to the object of our meeting, and began with one of many pressing questions.
“I've been thinking about it, and the reported age of Dan Cooper is twice as old as you; you'd have been my age at the time, twenty-three. So, you don't even need to tell me except to humor me: you used your theater makeup, didn't you.”
He answered nonchalantly, “Of course. Coming straight out of Airborne, the feds simply had to look at records and go directly at me. But if they were convinced that Cooper was forty-ish then they'd breeze right past me. In fact, they didn't even interview me. I was afraid of that happening while my face was still scratched up, and how I'd explain that.
It was fun, the makeup part. I was laughing behind my mask. The thing with makeup is that it's very difficult to look younger, and it isn't very convincing. But looking older is easy. I also made my complexion a couple of tones darker, for added effect.”
I added, “Yeah, that was a nice touch. Still, they got your facial features absolutely right, I could never get over that – a dead ringer and everybody ignored you. When I saw the composite drawing of your face on the TV screen, I nearly had heart failure.”
Wil looked into his lap, obviously saddened. “What is it?” I asked.
“I think that's exactly what happened to my brother. They found him on the floor in front of his TV, a few days after I got back. He was all alone, his wife had left him because of temper. Massive heart attack, he'd been watching Channel 6. I had wanted to brag to him about the heist, he wouldn't have squealed. Maybe he got the message as quick as you did from the TV. At least, I hope so...bad outcome, though.”
I tried to console, “Sorry, man. Your brother...Ray?”
He snapped, “Yup. Only damn brother I had. Who the hell do you think? My mom wasn't a breeding sow like your Catholic moms.” Then he abruptly changed the subject. “You smell that?”
“That sweet puke smell, the damn drunks.”
The nightly drunk rush had started at QP. A few of the regulars spotted Wil and quickly exited. He took obvious pleasure, seemed gratified and rejuvenated, ordered french fries and gravy. Then, finally, thankfully, he entered directly into his story.
He had always surprised me, threw me a curve of one kind or another, and that night was no exception. He proceeded with a warm, overt, calm, metered telling of his jaw-dropping escapade. He did not whisper, and barely lowered his voice. I felt people come and go in the booth behind me, but did not dare turn from Wil. I was finally on the brink of learning the answers to questions that had kept me awake, and he did not disappoint: He shot straight to the point, his hatred for the FBI.
“It was never a question of whether I'd pull off a big heist, I'd been telling you that since we were kids. I'd rob a bank or something like that, but over the years I became more political in my thinking. They made me mow down little brown people in big heaps – you saw the Nam slides – and for what? I wanted to pull something off that would say fuck you to the U.S. Government and especially something that would bring in the goddam FBI, I wanted to pull it off while that cocksucker J. Edgar Hoover was still the director. That fat little motherfucker, I wanted him to experience the only man he couldn't find. I wanted to meet him in person, somehow, and smile, just smile at the little federal fuck.”
I stole a french fry. “Yeah, I hear that. A jab in the ribs of that little pig, uh...jerk. How did you decide on an airliner?”
“I can thank you sister for that – how is she by the way?”
“She's great, still lives in Seattle, got two kids. She found Jesus, left the stewardess job, tried being a cloistered nun but didn't last long. Probably guilty about dating all those pilots, I dunno.”
Wil perked up, “Hey you know Tina, the stewardess who helped me? She quit and became a nun, and also a cloistered nun!”
“Gosh Wil, you must have had a life-changing effect on the gal, ha-ha.”
“Snuck, snuck, snuck.”
I interrupted his laughter. “So, what do you mean, you can thank my sister?”
“Well, she showed me two things that were basic to it all. Crews generally stick together, the guys in the cockpit and the stewards are generally on the same schedule. There's some switching around but you can basically count on the same crew. So you watch them. Follow them to their favorite restaurants and find out their favorite motels for layovers, like the Thunderbird, in Portland, and various pads in Seattle. Sit in adjoining booths in restaurants, just like we're doing.” I glanced nervously over my shoulder, he was speaking much too loudly.
He boasted even louder, “You know, you can walk directly behind someone, nearly stepping on their heels, and they never know you are there. You can hear conversations, get notions about personalities. That's how I found my crew. I wanted a smart pilot, someone who could follow instructions, and no hero shit. And I needed a smart yet gullible stewardess, a hard combination to put together. Look, it's like betting on poker, you don't play the cards, you play the opponent.”
I reminded, “You said there were a couple of things you learned from my sis. What was the second?”
“I also learned from that visit to your sister's place on the Alki that there are some stupid as hell people in fairly important positions, especially on the airplanes. That was the germ of the idea, that silly girl who exposed herself, and her stupid boyfriend. People like that beg to become marks, they're dying to give stuff away. Thank God we're not a very loyal bunch of employees as societies go. Japs probably would have attacked me, like, Bonzai! Or, can you imagine what the hot-blooded races would have done – or the big, tough Eastern Europeans, or Russians? Thank God we live in America, everybody just glanced and looked away.”
“Wil, you were talking about the germ of the idea.”
He went on, “What I'm saying is that the crew that I chose got along with each other, they seemed to truly respect one another. I watched them through restaurant windows while they ate, I watched them shopping, I ate fast foods alongside them, I strolled with them in parks, I sat on benches and fed pigeons with them. You don't need to hear them talking. It's the same with watching couples – if they aren't talking while eating then they aren't getting along – that, or the food is really good, but that's the exception. The 'talking-food rule' usually stands.
Point is, that's not much trouble for 200K. Gee, it sure was tough eating fish & chips on the Seattle wharf, and lounging beside the pool at the Thunderbird and other motels sure was a bitch. I had saved more than enough in the army to just travel around and enjoy cafes, bars, and motels – and I like driving and flying. I was all over the Pacific Northwest, you know, casing the crew, casing the scene in general. The sweet little mom 'n' pop hamburger joints are dying out. Soon, there won't be nothing but Mac-Fucking-Donalds. Anyhow, I even thought about finding you and inviting you along, and probably would have. You wouldn't have known my purpose, we could have ostensibly just been tooling around, you know, a real Kerouac on-the-road-groovy thing. I heard you were working at Owens-Illinois glass bottle plant, near the airport and near the slough, I almost dropped by.”
I said, “I wish you had. I worked graveyard shift, and it was boring as hell. My life was shit, at the time. Could have used a thrill.”
Wil continued about his crew selection techniques.
“And part of it is our society’s ignorance and lack of acknowledgment of others. You can always hide right under their noses because they don't really see anybody else, they're so self absorbed – me, me, me. The Asians aren't like that. Third World people see everything, hear everything, learn new things on the spot, and appreciate everything more than us. We drift by one another, thinking about should it be Hamburger Helper or tuna casserole tonight, and which bathroom deodorizer should I buy.”
“I can't believe you remembered that Alki visit to my sister's pad,” I said.
“Ho, that's not the half of it, Senor. I sat directly amongst my chosen flight crew in bars, no problem. And that was fun, like KGB. The captain even bought me a drink when I answered some local sports trivia questions about old Oregon sports heroes. Tina's crew chatted, they communicated, they liked each other. They would look out for each other, that was important because that meant they'd follow instructions. And I was right, they performed on the plane like it was scripted. Nice people. That's why I called off the Mexico destination, and simply made it Reno. I couldn't send those good people all the way to Mexico, that would have been very inconsiderate, downright cruel. The Reno flight line went over Portland just the same as the Mexico flight line, and either way, I was definitely jumping near Portland, so what the hell.
Anyhow, the account in the newspapers about everything that happened on the ground at Sea-Tac was exactly as it happened, the conversations all the same. They brought the NB-8 pack with the C-9 military chute, and the extras. These hand-holding, star-making, 'Hollywood style,' modern skydiving dip-shits get on my nerves talking about those modern chutes. Those things would come apart. When you jump from a 727 you need a stout chute. That was standard operating procedure with Airborne. We used 727s all the time. The rear stairs are perfect for jumps. It's not that big of a deal. If you are seventy years old and accustomed to jumping on and off rolling trains, then it's no problem. And you've seen old people dancing the polka on Lawrence Welk, you know, it's just a routine, not that hard.”
I steered him back to his planning, though dying to hear the mechanical details of the jump itself, for which I would pester. “Okay, so you're saying you hand-picked the crew. But what about the scheduling, the planning, jeez, all those details – all that stuff.”
Wil explained, “It wasn't about Thanksgiving Eve. It was all about the next day, Thanksgiving Day, and all the people snug in their little rabbit hutches and all soporific and doped up on turkey – passing gas and gone from view. And I was invisible amongst them, right under their noses, the Spider Man from the sky. They watched me on TV, and after landing I walked right behind those same TVs. Can you imagine, you're walking just a few feet away in front of their homes – practically tripping on their TV cords, and there they lounge in their stupid, decaying, little Art Linkletter lives.”
I squirmed a little, thinking how much I liked turkey dressing and my safe little Portland life. Leaping from airplanes, or anything that involved untethered heights, was too frightening. I climbed occasionally with pals in the Cascades, but with the assurance of a rope, ice axe, and crampons. Anything like skydiving or any large jump from the ground was unthinkable. That made him all the more fascinating, a cosmonaut, a spaceman, a guy who gleefully stepped off cliffs. I pressed for more information.
“So you were aiming for a holiday. Smart.”
Wil stirred the gravy with his index finger and nodded at the waitress for more coffee.
“Well, that was the last smart thing I did that night. After the Seattle departure things came apart pretty fast, and it was all my fault as far as mechanical things went. But the one thing I depended on – actually was forced to depend on like religious faith – was my Time:Distance:Speed calculations. My Timex watch was everything to me. I had already measured the distances on maps and charts, and I dictated the speed of the aircraft. Then it was simple high school math – the time of day told me where I was on the map, and I had it all written down and plotted on my own map.
"That way, I could relax a little, go back into the airplane, crouch in the bathroom, warm up. I didn't have to hang out on those aft stairs like a monkey.”
Wil was beginning to enjoy the interview, and like anyone pressed to tell a story, he was losing focus, having fun, getting scattered. He almost seemed a little senile, like he had aged somewhat prematurely the way that stressed crazy people age from their imagined demons. Yet, at the same time he seemed grandfatherly, overly benign, placid in a stupid sort of way, yet restless. That restlessness was the only trait that I could recall, the remainder of Wilbur was someone I did not know. I had to direct the interview – something with which I would become skilled years later as an anthropologist, but for the moment I only had this one, 30-minute cop lunch break to hear his story, and I didn't want to lose a minute.
“Okay. You had your hand-picked crew, your refuel, the loot, the chutes, dinners for the crew, and even some back up Benzedrine in case the crew got sleepy. Nice touch by the way. Look, the part that's killing me, the stuff I got to know, is the mechanics of the flight south from Seattle – the stuff not in the paper, the stuff nobody else knows. God, please tell me now before I have a Quality Pie chocolate pie stroke and you'll never see me again, shit-on-a-stick, Wil, what the hell happened?”
“After I got everybody forward and behind the curtain, I used duct tape on my cuffs and so forth, secured clothing and shoes. I had long johns and newspapers taped under my clothes. And I don't mean loosely. I spent hours getting it snug – paper is still the best insulator – you know, like that tree planter bum you told me about who ended the season with lots of dough but still camped under the Burnside Bridge under a bunch of Sunday Oregonians, great insulation. I initially wrapped the loot around my midsection with nylon cordage that I got from an extra chute. But I kept a contingency plan for the money, a dependable cargo chute I kept from the army. Nifty little helpers, those little chutes like the ones -- only a little bigger -- like the ones that you guys bought at GI Joes army surplus down on the slough.
"Anyhow, I tossed my satchel after I used everything that I'd brought along, the goggles, gloves, duct tape, arctic cap, candy bars, and most important, the little cargo chute. It wasn't a bona fide cargo chute, you can make better ones from the pilot chutes from regular jump chutes. Do I have to explain?”
“No.” I said. “Those are little chutes that pop out first to slow the main chute when it pops.”
“Correct,” he responded as teacher. “That was basic to Airborne training, they're excellent cargo chutes with a little jury rigging. I kept it as contingency. Until the last minute, and depending if I actually saw aircraft following, or landing zones seemed unworkable, then I'd use the cargo chute, depending.
"And that's where I really fucked up. That money packet against my midsection was just too damn bulky and uncomfortable, I mean we're talking over twenty pounds of twenty dollar bills, a bulk worse than nine months pregnant, I mean, hell, what's the most women carry – ten pounds? Besides, I wasn't sure that I wanted all that loot on my person in case my landing was covered by spotlights and news reporters. But I should have gone with the damn discomfort for just a little while, damn it. That unraveled cord that I'd cannibalized would nearly kill me, and surely put me off my schedule.
"So anyway, the weather was starting to break up a little bit here and there, and I could see lights, a few shimmers off of the lakes and ponds, and physical features blinking through the cloud layer.
"My Time:Distance:Speed calculations seemed to be working okay. The crew had helped me open the aft stairs near Amboy, Washington. Somebody always did that for us with the Airborne, it was a little harder than I thought. I like those airline stewardesses, they're neat people. Be sure to say hi to your sister.”
“So, Wil, staying on the subject, you were headed south at 10,000 ft., with the flaps at 15 degrees, slow, at about 120 mph but that was really impossible for you to know. You could have been tricked, easily tricked by slow ascent or descent, gradual turns, and the speed.”
Wil looked out the restaurant window seeking an image that only reflected ourselves. “Like I said. Faith. Religious type of faith in science, in Time:Distance:Speed calculations, and the trust in human spirit that I had placed in those good people, that nice bunch of folks, that good flying crew, Tina, the pilot, copilot, and all. I wish I'd gotten to know the other stewardess better, the one I put off the plane, oh well.”
Under the QP table I was experiencing “sewing machine foot,” my patience was yearning and I was getting a little angry.
“Shit, Wil, you almost sounded Catholic for a moment," I joked. “You were talking about how you fucked up with the loot. That nylon cord. What happened?”
He clutched his coffee cup as if holding onto a lifeline. I could not tell if he was going to continue the story or bolt from the restaurant. Thankfully, he continued.
“That's when things went snaky, when I was setting up to deploy the cargo chute. I had goggles but the visibility was near zero except for interior lights from the plane, which wasn't much. However, I believed in my distance calculations so I went forward with the Washington-side cargo drop, working pretty much by touch, it was so damn dark. Little did I know that the goddam nylon cord was snagged on both ends – one end was in my parachute webbing and the other end in the hinge of the aft stairs. In between, it was looped around my right foot. I got about two steps down the stairs, skittered on my hands and knees and fell face-first near the bottom the the stairs, still snagged up, like a yo-yo, and my head almost hanging off the aft stairs.
"By that time I was committed to using the cargo chute – toss the chute with the money, then jump. I had three potential jump zones planned by Time:Distance:Speed calculations. The best spot was the undeveloped area near The Slough, in fact in was perfect, it had all the elements I needed. No power lines, no population, I knew the area like the back of my hand, and it was close to Portland. All I had to do was stroll into town, get the car, and drive back and pick up the money. The only drawback was it was near the Columbia River – a miscalculation and it would be a night landing in the river, and I'd be sturgeon food.
"The other two drop zones were to the north, and to the south of Portland. The one to the north was around Brush Prairie because it's just that, a pretty much open prairie. And the population up there is scattered.
"The zone south of Portland was just south of Woodburn. The Valley starts getting open and agricultural, and it's near Portland.
"So I got the cargo chute rigged up. First, I would drop the flares – we did that all the time in Airborne, and it works great for getting a fix, a visual remembering tool, the target stimulus. Then goes the cargo.
"Well, that fall on the stairs messed me up, and I flew over the first opportunity, Brush Prairie. Then I chickened-out about jumping north of North Portland – The Slough. So I decided to drop the cargo just south of The Slough, and I would do my jump in the third zone, near Woodburn. Then I could go back on Thanksgiving Day and pick up the loot. And that's exactly what I did. I dropped the flares and cargo south of The Slough, and braced for the jump. I could clearly see the lights of Portland, they were beautiful, and I felt good.
"I jumped south of Woodburn, and was lucky about avoiding power lines. Jumping at night is like being born. You come out of darkness, and you go into darkness, because you're blind. But you've never been so alive – not before or after. Anyhow, I hoped for an open field but wasn't lucky. I hit a brushy area with little trees, and that hurt. But at least I was down, and alive. I felt like a million bucks – or two-hundred grand, snuck-snuck. Then I rolled up in my chute and settled down for the night. It was the worst night of my life. I was soaking wet and half froze. I didn't sleep a wink. Man, was I happy to see daylight.
"I crammed my chute under the brush and walked east, to I-5. I was worried about my appearance, my scratched up face, and my shoes were still duct-taped. And I was so damn tired, I could barely stand up. From then, it was purely luck-of-the-draw for finding a ride to Portland. Any cop, any suspicious person or busy-body, and I'd be screwed.
"So, I hid near the edge of the highway and watched the traffic, which wasn't much on the morning of Thanksgiving Day. I blew off any nice, new cars, and cars with families. Finally, I spotted an old pickup truck, and put out my thumb. The guy pulled over, a Mexican dude. Only problem was that he was already drunk, about eight in the morning. His driving was terrible, and he got out and pissed, right on the side of the road – a real cop magnet. That scared hell out of me. But the cop traffic was light, of course, on Thanksgiving morning. In fact, I didn't see any cops.
"I relaxed a little, and was looking forward to Portland. I had pulled if off, and felt pretty content. Well, that was my downfall. The guy had his car heater on high, and it felt really good. I fell sound asleep, and I mean out like a light.
"The dumb shit didn't stop in Portland, I guess he didn't understand me. He was headed for The Dalles. The next thing I knew, I woke up just shy of Troutdale. Yup, right back in the Gorge. So, I stayed in the truck until we got to Troutdale, and got out. Luckily, there wasn't anybody on the streets.
"I found the Greyhound stop, just a bench on the side of the main drag. Then, I took the duct tape off my Penny Loafers, and waited. It was holiday service, so I had to wait for hours. I kept ducking behind the bench to throw up, trying not to attract attention. When cars went by, or people walked past, I held my head down. I didn't have to worry about the face makeup because what hadn't came off during the jump, I rubbed off.
"Finally, the bus came. I paid in cash and explained my appearance by saying I'd been in a car wreck. There were only a few other passengers. When we got to Portland – downtown – I found a bus stop. But again, it was holiday service and another long wait. There was an old newspaper at the stop, so I used it to hide my face. I took the Division Street bus, and it took me close to my apartment, in Southeast.
"Man, was I happy to be home! I turned on the TV, hoping to see news about my heist. Then, I poured a Bourbon and laughed to myself.
"The next thing I knew, it was late afternoon, the next day. I didn't have any serious injuries but it felt like my whole body had been sprained – one big sprained ankle. I stayed in my apartment, and that night I watched the six o'clock news. And there I was. They already had the FBI sketch of my face, complete with old guy wrinkles. No witnesses said anything about face makeup. No one said anything about my fake bomb, they still believed the hoax, and continued to believe the hoax all these years, snuck-snuck.”
I laughed with Wil, and felt his exuberance. Then, I excitedly asked about the money, almost forgetting that we were in a public place, and myself now talking too loudly. Wil explained:
“It was driving me crazy, but I waited one more day before driving out to The Slough. I walked for a while but I was so excited, before I knew it I was at a dead run. When I got to The Slough, my heart was pounding. I was frustrated with the weather – foggy as hell.
"It took hours to find the spot where the money chute fell. Finally, I found the spot on the south edge of The Slough where there was one flare on the bank, almost in the water. I thought my head would explode. I never had high blood pressure but at that moment I thought I was in the first stages of a heart attack.
"I ran up and down the bank, looking through that damn fog. Then, a bad thing happened. The cargo chute was snagged on the edge of the bank – and no money. I had missed the drop by only inches, and the money was on its way to the Pacific Ocean.
"I ran around all over the place, and finally sat down on the bank, sat for hours. Well, you know me, no matter what happens, no much I'm hurt, I never cry. Well, I did on that day, cried like a baby. All that planning and effort, and I lost the money. Just inches.
"I thought about getting a boat and grappling hooks, but that only depressed me more. That would only mean more defeat. So, I walked back to the car. Felt like I was carrying a fifty-pound back pack – what you hipsters call a real bummer. The next day is when you found me at Peninsula Park.”
I said, “That's something I wanted to ask you that day. I had one last question: I didn't think that it was about the money, really. I mean, you're smart and talented, a war vet, and you have a good job. I always knew you'd succeed, at something. It wasn't really about the money, was it?”
Wil put his head in his hands and stared into his coffee. He said, “Well, it would have been nice. It would have taken a few years to start laundering and spending the dough. I wasn't worried about the serial numbers, which, of course they can't really track. It only takes a little time.”
I asked again, “Then what was your real motive, your M.O., as you cops say.”
Wil took his face out of his hands and looked square in my face.
He almost shouted, “It was about bragging rights. I never got any credit for my accomplishments – not in sports, and not for my Airborne service. They only called me a baby murderer. And, yeah, I heard about my nickname. I'm no Weasel.”
1993: Many years later, I encountered a recently retired Portland cop who was working on the security force at Portland's Lewis & Clark College. I asked if he ever knew Wilbur, and his eyes bugged out: “Wilbur! He was crazy!”
Then I asked what happened to Wil, that I wanted to talk to him, talk about old times. He responded that Wil retired from the force, bought a boat, and literally sailed away into the sunset. Wil was never seen or heard from again.