August 11, 1972: Skyjacked.

Another installment of Past LIFEs, in which we revisit the last few months of the original LIFE magazine, issue by issue, inspired by my grandpa’s long-ago hoard of old LIFEs. More explanation of the concept is here. Today we’ll look at the August 11, 1972 edition, which can be read here.


Before I even dive into the issue, I find myself second-guessing the headline. Does LIFE acknowledge that, if the “get-tough policy” could make skyjacking even worse, it could also make the situation better? Why are they picking one side?

It’s funny: I imagine the editors of old magazines being law-and-order types, so spinning a headline against a “get-tough policy” seems unusual. Just gonna have to see what the story says, I guess.

After the menthol cigarettes and car ads comes Managing Editor Ralph Graves’s column. He devotes most of it to memorializing a recently deceased colleague, then breaks off at the end to mention that two other LIFE contributors have just died as well. Doesn’t do anything to dispel my previously stated perception of 1972 as a land of grimness.

“The Beat of Life” begins with a grainy B&W of an FBI agent in a bathing suit, lugging a suitcase with $1 million out to a hijacked plane. There must have been cute ducklings frolicking somewhere in America the week of August 11, 1972 … but you might as well hit people over the head with your cover topic again, I guess. (Why the bathing suit? To prove that the agent was unarmed.)

Continuing the parade of underdressed noteworthies, a photo of George McGovern on the phone in a sleeveless undershirt follows. He had ducked into his office to change his shirt and, apparently, a photog insisted on following him (and LIFE insisted on printing it). To close the loop from last week’s issue, Tom Eagleton is off the Democratic ticket but has not yet been replaced.

In Nigeria, the government has taken to executing armed robbers by firing squad, and we get to watch. Um, thanks. Then there’s some camels photographed from the air and another indigestible chunk of Hugh Sidey.

Then comes a Navy recruitment ad, flaunting bennies like a new three-year enlistment term (instead of four or six); a raise to $288/month; the freedom to wear neatly trimmed beards; and, of course, the opportunity to see the world. The chance to land in the middle of a race riot at sea goes unmentioned, although in fairness to the Navy, that wouldn’t happen for another two months.

After one of those ads with the broken cigarette (remember those? Were those really supposed to suggest impotence, or was that just some far-out psychologist’s weird idea?), we come to the weekly reviews.

After long hours of watching experts bloviate during political conventions, Cyclops the TV reviewer adores a trippy PBS program called “The Fine Art of Goofing Off” (“owes a great deal to the drug culture … All the submarines are yellow, the sergeants full of pepper.”) Richard Schickel similarly finds positive things to say about several movies, all of them totally unknown to me (OK, I think I’ve heard of Junior Bonner at some point.)

Book reviewer Webster Schott also praises Thomas Harris’s I’m OK–You’re OK, but in so doing reconfirms my commitment never to read that kind of book; I’d rather be messed up. (“Books good or bad don’t change people. People change themselves, and usually in response to environment.” There’s my out.)

Page 21 offers another kind of nostalgic bliss — a full-page ad for the Volvo 145E station wagon. As mentioned in this space several years ago, the grandpa who saved the LIFE magazines also had a non-functioning Volvo 145E next to his driveway, courtesy my uncle. I drove that thing all over the place, without going anywhere, and the sight of that generation of Volvo wagon still hits the warm n’ fuzzy button. My uncle also owned a big gray delivery-type van — this one running, at least — that lived in his father’s driveway as well, but for some reason I never bonded with that one.

The weekly throwback this week is 31 Years Ago in LIFE, and it conveniently gives the editors a chance to re-run the classic World War II pinup photo of Rita Hayworth kneeling on a bed. The thought occurs to me that the generation of men who adored this photo in its original go-round — young then, middle-aged in 1972 — are probably the magazine’s core audience, and this is what’s known in the 21st century as fan service.

The Rita Hayworth negligee photo has legs, you might say. It will recur in the final month or two of LIFE, popping up again in a random and unexpected setting. I look forward to flagging it when it shows up again. It won’t be for another month or two, though.

An ad for Coors beer comes and goes, which is interesting, as I don’t think the stuff was available west of the Rockies at that time. I think Coors in ’72 was still nurturing its image as the sort of regional delicacy that people like Carl Yastrzemski, who used to smuggle cases of Coors on the Red Sox team plane, made a point of bringing back East. I wonder if LIFE printed regional editions and I’m looking at the one from out West … or whether Coors was stoking the fires of Eastern desire a little bit.

The letters are mildly entertaining though not revelatory. One, from a soldier stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, quotes The Godfather, who “made them an offer they couldn’t turn down.” I guess Mario Puzo’s most famous phrase hadn’t entrenched itself in the American consciousness just yet — or maybe the soldier simply hadn’t brought his copy with him and didn’t have it to refer to.

OK, now to the cover story. It’s basically a couple of colorful pictures padding out a relatively shallow story. On one hand is a psychologist who, having extensively studied hijackers, believes that force in dealing with them will only lead to tragedy. On the other are the FBI and FAA, who are all for cracking down. Two airline presidents and a pilot are briefly represented as well, the former in a manner that suggests their position is being extrapolated from previous public statements.

One piece of art is a particular doozy. It’s a collage. In the background are the eyes of a man; in the foreground are money, military medals, an electric chair, and a woman’s mouth. This hodge-podge is meant, LIFE explains, to symbolize the chief interests of hijackers — ranging from the desire for a dramatic death, to a longing for domineering women. The designer who executed this deserved a bonus; the editor who commissioned it, an unpaid week off.

I also find it interesting that the story makes no mention of the hijacker alternately known as Dan Cooper and D.B. Cooper, who made good (or, perhaps, bungled) his daring escape over Washington state less than a year before. Nowadays, Cooper is a veritable American legend, but apparently in August 1972 he was just one in a crowded field of criminals. I notice that the article does not mention any hijackers by name, even the man whose photo is used in the collage, so perhaps LIFE had an all-encompassing “don’t give the bastards any publicity” policy.

From there we leap wildly into tennis, which is apparently booming everywhere from Harlem to the Hamptons. Sure, why not. The best anecdote belongs to a film editor in New York City, who sometimes plays doubles until 3 a.m. on a court above Grand Central Station. Something about that sounds really, really cool.

We then get some crowd-sourcing before crowd-sourcing was a thing. In April, LIFE ran a profile of a sympathetic but overworked hospital nurse. They followed up by surveying readers on what they thought about their health care. Good concept but the results don’t particularly interest me 50 years later.

“BOBBY IS NOT A NASTY KID,” the next story is headlined. It’s a profile of chess wunderkind Bobby Fischer that begins with him sitting “naked and steaming” on the edge of a bed opening fan mail. The author labels him “an intricate and mysterious being who will probably be part of our public experience for the next 20 or 30 years.” Swing and a miss. Come to think of it, he turned out to be a rather nasty kid after all, long after youth ceased to be an excuse.

The Air Force takes a page to try to hook any reader who didn’t sign on with the Navy a couple hundred words ago. “Those who leave the Air Force take with them … souvenirs from around the world, happy memories of new friendships, a new dimension of maturity, and … the skill to do a job the whole world can use.” What the f–k is this, sleepaway camp?

Director Sam Peckinpah steps into the spotlight for an article titled “What Price Violence?” It’s what you’d expect — a hash-out of the question of whether movie violence helps society see life as it is, or whether it just serves as inspirational porn for a new generation of criminals.

Author P.F. Kluge teases a scene in Peckinpah’s next movie in which a man hangs himself in a bathroom; a page or two later we get to see it. Um, thanks, again. The headline on that page, referring to a quote from Peckinpah in the story, is “His Work Brings ‘Anxiety Dreams.'” For that population of Americans who had lost someone to self-harm, I imagine that week’s LIFE brought plenty of anxiety dreams. Well, next week’s mailbag ought to be lively.

Bobby Fischer might not have cared for the next story, but I found it the sleeper hit of the week: A reporter and photographer follow a Russian (Soviet?) Jewish family emigrating to Israel, part of a slowly increasing number of Russian Jews allowed to quit the country. It ends with a photo of the 90-year-old family elder praying at the Wailing Wall for the first time. Even in its divided and scanned-in Internet form, the picture, maybe more than any other in this week’s book, suggests what a photo magazine is truly capable of.

Finally we reach the Parting Shots ending section, which includes a truly scattershot assemblage of items. They include a promo piece for a new Edith Piaf biography (does the guy who’s still drooling over Rita Hayworth even know who Edith Piaf was?); an update on veteran golfer Gene Littler; and a photo gallery in which the reader is asked to pick out Gloria Steinem amid a herd of other young women who share her hairstyle and choice of glasses. I’m sure some young female readers were angry, but while I thought some of the wording skirted the edge of sexism, I found the basic concept charmingly irreverent.

Oh — and lest we forget this is 1972 LIFE-land, awash in grimness and darkness and violence, the issue ends with a photo of a Korean dogfight, with two dogs locked in combat in front of a crowd of attentive spectators. LIFE tries to appease us by assuring us that the dogs know when to quit, and the fights never end in death. Left unexplored is just how much damage short of death they can inflict on each other in the 30 minutes (!) a fight lasts.

Can’t wait for next week.

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