A book that opens with dueling quotes from Virgil and Ghostface Killah is bound to have an expansive point of view. The Skies Belong to Us does not disappoint. Part history of The Golden Age of Hijacking (author Brendan Koerner’s term) and part story of two unlikely hijackers, all informative entertainment.
Koerner’s shows the evolution of hijacking in the United States during the 1960s from the use of threats and deception to secure a means of transport to Cuba to the use of threats and deception to secure unwieldy amounts of cash to the 1970s innovation of using threats and deception to secure unwieldy amounts of cash and transportation to Algeria. Occasionally someone will use a hijacking as a form of protest but aside from the rare instance of a mentally ill person acting out of delusion it’s all cash or Cuba.
The airlines priorities are clear: aircraft, passengers and future revenue. It’s not that the airlines would risk passenger safety to protect a 707, they’re just convinced that main concern of hijackers is, to quote Tattoo, de plane, de plane. Airlines see passenger priorities as convenience first, safety second. In their eyes, given a choice between having their carry on bags x-rayed and an unscheduled trip to Havana, passengers would rather have their inconvenience be of the unexpected nature. Koerner depicts the power struggles between the airlines and the FBI and the White House over how to stop the hijacking epidemic as reminiscent of a parent trying to get a teenager to clean his room: lots of excuses, promises and reasons why it just cannot be done.
The French government and for a surprisingly long time even the American people viewed hijacking as a form of social protest slightly more annoying than a sit-in. Only Fidel Castro, tired of having hijacked planes show up on short notice and suspicious of the hijackers, takes umbrage over the trend, setting up a “Hijacker House” to accommodate the determined tourists.
The other half of the book, that of would-be hijacking masterminds Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow is by turns jaw-dropping, hilarious and pathetic. Holder was charismatic and damaged, Kerkow was a happy-go-lucky survivor. Together they did not make a dynamic duo yet they managed to succeed where so many others had failed. Unfortunately for them, that is their only success. Holder and Kerkow weren’t brimming with possibility before the hijacking. Holder’s father wearily admits to the press that the hijacking “sounds like something our crazy son would do” while Kerkow’s co-workers express surprise that “she could follow orders well enough to be a hijacker.” After the hijacking they were sentenced to a weird international limbo that leaves them at the mercy of the Algerian and French governments and the whims of Eldridge Cleaver. From one form of powerlessness to another.
For me, the sections about Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver alone make this book essential reading. Whether he’s complaining about the high cost of international telephone calls, taking up cooking (“I like the rational, systematic way that the Chinese move on cooking. And the results are so rewarding”) or entering the cut-throat world of high fashion by reintroducing the codpiece (“They’re all accentuating your boo-boo …That’s what I’m trying to get away from,”) Cleaver provides mind-bending entertainment.
The story, pacing and structure of the book (short chapters that alternate the two storylines) make this a perfect summer read. Highly recommended for any non-fiction reader.