Posts Tagged ‘Hillenbrand’

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

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Monday, May 4, 2009

Several years back, a good friend recommended Laura Hillenbrand’s compelling book, Seabiscuit, An American Legend.   She said that I would enjoy the author’s work as much as I would the story.  She was right on both counts. 

The story kept me engaged from beginning to end.  Hillenbrand’s style kept me there.  Leslie Green was spot on.  Hillenbrand’s prose inspires me.

It also introduced me to the world of thoroughbred horses.

According to my strict religious upbringing, dancing, drinking, smoking, profane language, movie going and gambling were all lumped together as out-of-bounds for us true believers.  As we advanced from adolescence to adulthood, one of the real challenges for us moderate-to-progressive believers with advanced academic degrees was to remain true to our roots while at the same time ignoring or even violating a bunch of those old prohibitions.  This abandonment required a refined capacity for rationalization backed up by a complex biblical hermeneutic; but we managed to make the case – to the horror of grandparents everywhere.  Many of my fellow believers have become wine connoisseurs, aficionados of microbreweries and fine Cuban cigars, die-hard fans of Dancing with the Stars and quite capable film critics.  Some salt and pepper their speech with one time prohibited vocabulary.  Perhaps deprivation enhances curiosity and then ultimately – indulgence.  All things in moderation, of course.

But gambling.  I never could get over than one.  Las Vegas always made me feel like I was walking the streets of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Casinos still trigger flashes of guilt and shame and holy trepidation.  It’s built in.  A conditioned response.   A hailstorm of fire and brimstone are the inevitable outcome for visiting such places.  It’s the way I was raised.

The racetrack is in that category.  You know, gambling.  So, I wouldn’t know much about the track at all except for the story of Seabiscuit; Red Pollard (jockey) and Tom Smith (trainer) and Charles Howard (owner).  As Hillenbrand’s story unfolds in the depths of the Great Depression, jockey, trainer, owner and horse come together and bring out the best in each other – reawakening and reviving broken careers.  They inspire a nation – and a full-length feature film.

And maybe because of Seabiscuit, thanks to the technology of DVR, I can’t help myself.  In spite of that upbringing, I check in to the Kentucky Derby every year.  I’m quite certain my grandfather would disapprove, but what a spectacle. 

It is an irresistible occasion for opulence – conspicuous consumption on a grand scale, right in there with Oscar night – a coming out party for the super wealthy.  The dress code is Scarlet O’Hara meets Tom Wolfe.  The hats.  The colorful blooms.  The celebrity interviews.  The Twin Spires.  A cool mint julep.  The deep green lawns and English country gardens – roses, calla lilies, carnations, Gerbera daisies, and tulips.  Of every variety and color.  Did I mention the hats?  Wow!  The sort a woman might wear to Buckingham Palace for a springtime lawn party.

Lerner and Lowe nailed it in My Fair Lady  – opening day at Ascot –

Ladies and Gentlemen
Every Duke and Earl and peer is here
Everyone who should be here is here.
What a smashing, positively dashing
Spectacle: the Ascot op’ning day.

So who would have imagined the script that played out in this year’s Kentucky Derby?  Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai flew in two of his horses on one of his corporate jets.  He declared his determination to win the American classic, no matter what it takes.  And he’s got all the money he needs to make it happen.  He has poured untold millions into his pursuit of the Kentucky prize.  But neither of his champions, Regal Ransom or Desert Party, both potential winners, delivered.  The prosperous Sheik has yet to attain that coveted visit to the winner’s circle.  Without a doubt, he’ll try again.

This year, the surprise winner was a dark horse, brought to the event in a trailer pulled behind a pick up truck for twenty-one hours all the way from New Mexico.  His owners purchased Mine that Bird for a paltry $9,500 and celebrated only one thing: they qualified to show in the famed Derby.  Co-owners Allan and Blach hired an unlikely quarter horse trainer – Bennie Woolley – a former rodeo rider.  Two months ago, he suffered a broken leg while riding a motorcycle.  So when he chased his winning horse into the winner’s circle in stunned disbelief, wearing a broad brimmed black silver studded cowboy hat and blue jeans, he hobbled on crutches.

Just before, on the track, Jockey Calvin Borel held back in last place up until the final quarter of the race.  Then, he cut Mine that Bird loose.  The re-play shot from the aerial view from the blimp that floated overhead tells the stunning story.  The unlikely thoroughbred sprinted his way on the inside bolting past some of the most expensive horses in the history of the event.  Several trained by Hall of Famers.  Two more flown in from Dubai.  A couple of sentimental favorites.  No one imagined Mine that Bird had a chance.  Fewer placed bets on his number.  The odds were fifty-to-one.

But off he went, like a sprinter out of a slingshot.  Like a fighter jet launched off the deck.  It was more than a gallop.  He soared.  Along the rail, he cut inside through an opening no wider than his rib cage.  And then out in the open.  He pulled away.  The raucous cheering for the favorites in the packed house dampened into a shocked dull “huh?”  Who is that horse?  What’s his nameWhere did he come from?  Can this be happening?  From under the broad, flowered hats women in sundresses frowned.  Men in colorful suits and starched collars staggered back in bewildered disbelief.

As Borel crossed the finish line he stood up in the stirrups a record breaking six-and-three-quarters lengths ahead of the second place horse, pointed heavenward and screamed in delirious delight.  A network reporter pulled up on horseback and put her remote microphone up to the winning jockey’s face and caught the unbridled celebration for all to hear.  Calvin Borel, who has already won one Derby, never imagined a second trip to the winner’s circle.  Certainly not on this horse.  Looking toward the gray Kentucky skies, the jockey who finished his schooling with the eighth grade hooted and hollered and cried, “Mom and Dad – I wish so much that you were here to see this!”

And out of the gloom of a sloppy, rainy post-crash afternoon in the Spring of 2009, in a sport forbidden by my childhood preachers and Sunday school teachers, I saw it with my own eyes in high definition: broken down trainers can try again. 

The dark horse can be the winning horse.

Money is no guarantee of success.

The winner’s circle is not for sale.

The race is only over for those who stop running.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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