In the end, Brendan Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, is about character. Though it was published nine months ago, it’s a fun choice for No Excuses Book Review #1.
I’m not old enough to remember the plague of airline hijackings that took place in and around American airspace during the hippie era, but I do remember laughing with my mom through a television rerun of The Out of Towners, a 1970 Jack Lemmon comedy. In it, everything that can go wrong for two hapless New York tourists does, and despite the appearance of a happy ending, the two find themselves on a hijacked plane just before the credits roll. “This plane is going to Havana, Cuba!” announces the hijacker as he brandishes a gun. (Apparently a lot of these folks were aiming for Cuba; they envisioned a revolutionary paradise when, in reality, Castro jailed ’em instead.)
Initially that’s why I picked up this book: Because I am old enough to remember the aftermath of the ’60s and ’70s skyjacking plague.
In The Skies Belong to Us, Brendan Koerner provides readers with a central romantic antihero narrative on which his exhaustive research hangs. But nothing hangs so long as to slow things down. Koerner’s approach and writing is solid as cement, yet it moves as quickly as a TV news crawler.
Readers are treated to a time when airline privileges included paying for your tickets in the air and no TSA screenings, full body scanners, metal detectors, long lines, or being spoken to as though you were asking your fellow travelers for spare change. As you seamlessly breeze in and out of the rich cultural and criminal scenery of dozens of hijackings, you are anchored by and hooked to Bonnie and Clyde at 30,000 feet. This, after all, is mainly the story of San Diego lovers Roger Holder and Cathy Marie Kerkow, who themselves pulled off one of the most infamous commercial airline hijackings of all time. Throughout their four decades-long tale, there’s loads of history pertinent to both the lovers’ fate and the timeline of airline safety, policy, and security. It’s a revealing, entertaining read.
As we accompany Holder, Kerkow, and other and less successful, looney hijackers, we see how simultaneously naïve and crafty the commercial airline industry was before, during, and after skyjackings reached 82 per year in 1969 (82!!!). We learn of the industry’s resistance to pricey metal detectors and lobbyists who dissuaded Washington from laws making it mandatory to X-ray carry-on luggage. And we gain insight into how both law-enforcement and the airline industry adapted to then weekly hijackings: at first by giving in to demands made, then by giving in to trigger-happy FBI agents. All of this is just as engrossing as Holder and Kerkow’s “happy” ending once they walk away with the ransom money.
With every turn of the page comes something else that’s difficult to imagine in today’s post-9/11 world. Then there’s Kerkow and Holder: he with his paranoia, excuses, and Vietnam trauma, and she with her culturally insensitive amoralism. One minute you catch yourself hoping they’ll get away, and the next you find yourself soothed by their misfortune. Their story is a roller coaster of principles, ideology, practical law enforcement realities, and people’s need to feel important. Ultimately, Koerner portrays the couple and every other hijacker he addresses in very human strokes. I found myself moved by the sadness of some, the idiocy of most, and the unique place in history they all occupy.
Several times throughout the book, Koerner points out that virtually all of the hijackers between 1957 in 1985 were desperate, misguided people who, at certain points in their lives, decided they needed to pull off something big and theatrical to prove to the world that they mattered.
And that’s probably the biggest reason I enjoyed Koerner’s effort. We see a lot of that thinking today, too frequently involving moving targets.
Like disgraced Vietnam vet Holder, aspiring hijackers were people who’d seen others take command of entire airports, demand ransoms, boss the police around, and grab the world’s attention. Desperate to feel like they, too, could seize the day, sweep away their regrets, and free themselves of unfavorable circumstances, the hijackers of The Skies Belong to Us thought they’d found an answer.
Redirecting an airliner’s flight path at gunpoint was seen by many as a form of heroic, personal reinvention. So really, this story is about spectacularly poor coping skills, rationalizations, excuses, and deep resentments. In terms of Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, it’s also about people who were disillusioned to utterly shocking degrees. In Kerkow’s case there was an astonishing a lack of self-direction and purpose, but as a fugitive (still), she may have gotten one of the juiciest last laughs law enforcement will ever know.
In sum: The Skies Belong to Us is a kick ass true crime epic written like a (good) Tarantino movie that I want to go see now-now-now!
And that’s the gist of No Excuses Book Review #1.