Humans need folklore; we’ve got D.B. Cooper

British author Diana Wynne Jones once said: “If you take myth and folklore, and these things that speak in symbols, they can be interpreted in so many ways that although the actual image is clear enough, the interpretation is infinitely blurred, a sort of enormous rainbow of every possible color you could imagine.”

Which might seem like an odd topic for a newspaper editorial. Except that we are delving into our own piece of local folklore.

D.B. Cooper, you see, is back in the news — or at least his legend is. That is all we have to go on, considering that Cooper’s identity remains a mystery.

Since infamously hijacking a Boeing 727 between Portland and Seattle the night before Thanksgiving 1971, Cooper has morphed from mystery to legend.

You know the story, of course. Somebody who bought a plane ticket under the name Dan Cooper handed a note to a stewardess saying he had a bomb while demanding $200,000 and four parachutes. Cut to the chase: He eventually lowered the rear stairs and jumped from the plane, probably over the forests of Southwest Washington.

It remains the only unsolved hijacking. And it remains a fascinating piece of Northwest folklore — the birth of an anti-hero. Even the telling of the tale adds a twist: Initial reports of the crime misidentified the perpetrator as D.B. Cooper, and the name stuck. “D.B.” sounds much darker and more enigmatic than “Dan.”

So, when an amateur sleuth began digging along the banks of the Columbia River in Vancouver earlier this month, it piqued our interest. Eric Ulis, an Arizona resident, has spent decades trying to unravel the mystery of Cooper, writing a book and making several documentaries.

This time around, he thought it made sense to dig near where $6,000 of Cooper’s hijack bounty was found in 1980. The theory? Cooper probably dug several small holes to bury his clothes, his parachute and whatever else needed burying.

Of course, Ulis’ dig might have been a ploy to bring attention to his 2022 congressional campaign in Arizona. Or it might have been to bring attention to CooperCon, which is scheduled for Nov. 20-21 at Kiggins Theater (tickets cost $20).

Regardless, the myths surrounding D.B. Cooper continue to fascinate, resonating with our basic human need for folklore and legend. For millennia, folklore has served as a touchstone that connects a particular culture. The American Folklore Society (yes, there is an American Folklore Society) writes, “Every group with a sense of its own identity shares, as a central part of that identity, folk traditions — the things that people traditionally believe, do, know, make and say.”

Like the D.B. Cooper story, traditional folklore has a foundation in reality. Think of Santa Claus or Johnny Appleseed, or the tall tales that have endured about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. But unlike Cooper, most of the stories predate the media age, when fact becomes entrenched through contemporary reporting.

It is unusual these days for a story to be embellished, although the internet has made it more likely. And so we think that maybe Cooper landed safely with his newfound riches. Or that he was one of the dozen or so people who in subsequent years claimed to be the hijacker. Or that he actually was Loki, the fictional God of Mischief, as postulated recently in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Either way, our interpretation of D.B. Cooper remains infinitely blurred. And that makes it a lot of fun.