Monday, February 28, 2011
Laura Hillenbrand titled her new book well. If anyone should be broken, it would be Louis Zamperini. At age ninety-four (DOB January 26, 1917), the former athlete then WWII veteran and later pastoral staff member of the Hollywood Presbyterian Church has outlived most all his friends. The author understood. It would be difficult to imagine a human being more sorely tested; physically, psychologically and spiritually. Most anyone else would surely be, well, broken. His is an extraordinary story of “Survival, Resilience and Redemption.” He remains to this day – unbroken.
I still remember back when Leslie Green recommended that I get my hands on the new book: Seabiscuit. Reading ought to be a pleasure, and that’s what I found in Hillenbrand’s work. Hers was the inspiring story of a racehorse; but it was also a history of the Great Depression. Meticulously researched, written in an intensely engaging style it delivered rich dividends in the reading. Leslie pegged it. I couldn’t put it down. Then came the movie.
So when Paul Sailhamer told me about Hillenbrand’s newest work, I grabbed my iPhone and ordered the free eBook sample right there at Panera Bread over my breakfast of egg and sausage sandwich. I checked around the Internet on the ninety-four year old Italian who is Hillenbrand’s subject, and got a sense of why such a skilled author might choose to devote seven full years to chronicling his life. The sample was the hook, and thanks to this new technology with which I hope never to live without, a couple of clicks later, I downloaded the unabridged audio version for my regular long trips up the Central Valley and back. Hillenbrand soon had me mesmerized once more, and then sadly, the book came to an end. I will wait impatiently for her next.
Laura Hillenbrand suffers a debilitating chronic fatigue syndrome. By her own admission, the crushing condition leaves her in isolation, in a daily battle with depression. Yet, she researches and writes with a passion that is, perhaps, so compelling because it is born out of her pain. In interviews, she confesses that Louis’ journey of impossible odds, periods of torment, grinding despair, righteous rage, blinding fear and then unlikely rescue and finally life-altering redemption all reflect her own journey on a very different level. She called the writing her experience of vicarious substitution. As she recounted his life, she lived her own. “He is an ebullient, effervescent man,” Hillenbrand said, “born to be defiant.” No wonder this year that the day the new book was published, she handed him a fresh new autographed volume as her gift. In return, Zamperini gave the author his Purple Heart. “She deserves it more than me,” explained the aging warrior with a smile.
As a high school kid in Torrance, California during the depression years, the incorrigible Louis Zamperini made do. His clever thievery went mostly undetected. Meals would mysteriously turn up missing from the neighbor’s dinner table. He would gobble the hot plate of food down behind the garage in a back alleyway. Candy and cigarettes would disappear from the market shelves. Tools from the neighbor’s garage. If anyone attempted to catch the thief, in the chase Louis had a distinct advantage, and he knew it: speed. Young Louis would outrun everybody, especially the victims of his petty theft. The local police had his name; but many of them privately admired his cunning and mostly the wonder of his airborne stride. But by the time his high school coach discovered the talent Louis couldn’t find a peer. He left every competitor in exhausted angst, trailing far behind. Crowds gathered from far and wide just to witness a Zamperini victory.
He was the fastest high school student in the nation. It won him a spot on the 1936 Olympic Team. He ran in Berlin as Adolph Hitler watched.
While most of the headlines involved Jesse Owens, Louis Zamperini was more than a footnote. The case was strong: this nineteen year old would be the first human being to break what many believed to be an impossible barrier: the four minute mile. They predicted that Zamperini would to it in the scheduled Tokyo games of 1940. Pearl Harbor changed all that. Louis went to war.
Be prepared for a gripping account of the horrors of war in the Pacific. Brokaw calls it the Greatest Generation. Zamperini would take issue. He refuses to claim hero status.
The hell of war becomes Hillenbrand’s narrative, through the experience the young American from Torrance and a couple of years at USC. The bombing missions over vast ocean spaces to find tiny targets on otherwise forgotten islands; the raging air battles between rickety heavy bombers and agile enemy fighter planes, sleek, fast and deadly; the crash in the remote shark-invested waters when just three of the eleven crew members survived (Louis and his comrade surviving a record setting forty seven days adrift until they were picked up by an enemy ship and transferred for two and a half years in Japanese POW camps); and the menacing commanding officer who became his nemesis nicknamed “The Bird” – all comprise a spellbinding narrative that kept me wanting more. I won’t tell you the rest.
Except this: Zamperini suffers a debilitating, raging addiction to alcohol in the early post-war years. Today, we call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It nearly destroyed him. The turning point came when in 1948, the Billy Graham team set up a tent on Hill and Washington in downtown Los Angeles.
Read Hillenbrand’s version of what happened next.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011