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“The Skies Belong to Us” – Part I

My good friend Tricia (a.k.a. on this blog) suggested that we start a book club of sorts.  We will both read the same book at the same time, and then blog about it with each other in mind.  As she wrote in her first post about this, we are a lot alike, and have similar tastes in many areas, including books.*

We are starting with The Skies Belong to Us, by Brendan I. Koerner.  It is a nonfiction book about a period of frequent airplane hijackings that occurred in the United States from the early 1960 to the early 1970s.  It focuses on one hijacking in particular, that of Western Airlines Flight 701, bound for Seattle.  The culprits are an African-American man named Roger Holder, and a Caucasian woman named Cathy Kerkow.  In the book’s synopsis, they are described as a “shattered Army veteran” and a “mischievous party girl”, respectively.  They somehow managed to pull off the longest-distance hijacking in U.S. history, making it across an ocean with $500K in ransom.

I picked up the book on Thursday, and have read 34 pages so far. Those of you who know me might be surprised by that, given how quickly I blaze through books, especially when they are as compelling as this one.  But, for the sake of doing justice to our club, I’m going to take my time with this book, savouring everything it has to offer.  And I can already tell that it has a lot to offer.

The first thing that struck me about “Skies” is how literary it was.  As someone who reads a lot of academic writing for work, I usually turn to fiction when I want to read for pleasure. If I’m going to read non-fiction, it has to grab me in the same way that well-written fiction does.  Koerner did this from the very first page.  He paints a rich, vivid picture of that fateful day on Flight 701, describing everything from the sight of Mount Rainier rising out of the sky, to the way a cup of Jell-O quivered in fright when the stewardess** holding it learned that there were bombs on the plane.

The second thing that struck me was the sheer “Americanness” of this story.  Tricia, you were right to ask me how about it “reads” to me, as a Canadian:  the obvious, seemingly unfettered racism; the glorifying of a war (through Roger’s eyes, in the beginning) in which many people (Canadians, Americans, and others) felt the U.S. had no business becoming involved; the roiling, boiling political unrest…  All of it just seemed so American.  And while I get supremely annoyed when Canadians smugly pat ourselves on the back for not being “as bad as the U.S.”, and I am often quick to point out that we still have lots of room for improvement, as I read about all of the upsetting things in Roger’s and Cathy’s early lives that likely shaped their later choices, I found myself getting smug (in a polite, Canadian way, of course!).  As alike as our two countries are, there are some things that just didn’t – and just wouldn’t – happen here.  And for that I am proud – and grateful.

Anyway, in the days since I began reading “Skies”, I’ve also been thinking a lot about chance and choice.  Roger and Cathy had a chance encounter when they were children, which they only remembered when their paths crossed again some 15 years later and they chose to begin a relationship.

Chance and choice both play a significant role at the beginning and at the end of Roger’s time in Vietnam.

Tricia’s father spent a year fighting in Vietnam before returning to his family alive and in one piece.  From what I know about that war, and from Koerner’s descriptions of Roger’s experiences there, things could have so easily gone another, much more horrifying, way, and she may never have got the chance to know him.

My father chose to emigrate to Canada instead of the U.S. for a number of reasons, including that he didn’t want to take the chance of being drafted into the war and end up like one of his classmates at university, who came home in a military coffin six months after he’d left. If my father had made a different choice, I might not even be here, writing this post.

Of course, I know that life is incredibly complicated, and that not everything that happens to a person can be traced directly to a particular choice or circumstance.  Just like Tricia, though, I have the sense that the “dots” in Roger’s and Cathy’s story can be easily connected from choice to choice, coincidence to coincidence, and consequence to consequence.  Whether that is due to who they are, or to Koerner’s skill as a writer, remains to be seen.


* As she also points out, we don’t have the same tastes in TV, though I think it’s more accurate to describe our tastes as, “Tricia likes television, and I’m Just Not That Into It. And while I did once have a TV relationship of which Tricia did not approve, I broke up with it last year.”  😉

** Yes, Koerner uses the word “stewardess” instead of “flight attendant”.  To me, this is another example of how he uses language to ground his story in a particular place and time.

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