I have often thought, since I listened to the audio version of “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption” last year, that if I took just a few moments every day to ponder Louis Zamperini, I’d likely be a better and happier man.
The truth, which I rarely acknowledge, is that as put upon as I might sometimes feel, I’ve rarely truly had a bad day. Pondering Zamperini’s experiences can bring that into sharp focus.
Zamperini died Wednesday in Los Angeles at age 97. The news, and the thought of his story, once again shocked me into an attitude of gratitude for all the good in my life, the realization of how petty my complaints are and a renewed recognition of what resolve and hard work can do. Experience tells me that may fade by the time I have to fight Hampton-bound traffic to get to my Smithtown home this evening after work, but perhaps it won’t.
Zamperini is celebrated for his athletic prowess, but he’s even better remembered for the misery he overcame as a soldier and prisoner of war. He left his truest mark, though, by overcoming the trauma that still tortured him for years after he shed his uniform and exemplifying kindness and service to others for decades.
Raised in California, Zamperini was a champion runner whose high school national record in the mile stood for 24 years and a national collegiate record in the mile that stood for 18. He also ran in the 1936 Olympics as a teen and finished 8th in the 5,000-meter race, an extraordinary showing for so young an athlete.
Many believe he would have been the first miler to break the four-minute mark had war and what he endured not effectively ended his competitive career.
He enlisted in 1941, right after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, became a bombardier, was sent to the Asian theater and was downed when his plane, which he and the crew knew was in poor repair, malfunctioned.
He and two other men were left adrift in a life raft. One died after 33 days. The battle to survive in that raft, fight off sharks, catch fish and birds to eat and deal with strafing and bullet holes from the Japanese planes, went on for 47.
Zamperini and the other man were eventually captured by the Japanese, and endured more than a year of starvation, emotional torture and beatings before the war ended and they were freed.
At first, after the war, Zamperini seemed to prosper. He married, made decent money doing public speaking, and even tried to take up competitive running again. But he over trained, and an injury ended those dreams. He lost money on crazy ventures. He became ever-more haunted by anger against his Japanese tormentors. He began to drink alcoholically. And he nearly lost his wife to his alcoholism, rage and despair.
But she convinced him to go to a Billy Graham crusade. The first night he hated it. It grew on him, though, and as he found solace in religion, his rage and fear faded.
Thereafter, for more than six decades, he led a life devoted to family and helping others through good works. He forgave his torturers. He was an adventurer, teacher, speaker, writer, investor, father figure and benefactor.
He found a way out of a despair he was entirely entitled to, and to a life of peace, kindness and attainment. If he can do it, I think, it seems like I ought to be able to, also.
Looking at what Zamperini overcame, what excuse can I claim.