Zamperini and Me

"During the Olympics, I tore Hitler's swastika flag off the Reich Chancellery. I thought, 'Boy, what souvenir!'"

Seriously, shoot me if I ever name-drop –– except this once…

“Zamperini and Me” is simple to explain; the late Louis Zamperini had been my neighbor.

I didn’t know he was my neighbor until we were introduced through a mutual friend, Dena, who’d petered out beneath a big tree while jogging one day. A chainsaw firing up above her head caused her to spaz and discover a then 90-year-old Louis Zamperini, 15 feet up and clinging to branches. He guided the saw through a thick limb and only took notice of her when it fell at her feet. Or so she thought.

“Hello!” he shouted, repositioning himself to see her better.

“Hi!” she answered. “Need any help?”

“Nahh, been doing this since I bought the place, thanks. Besides, young lady, you need to keep running. Your form could improve.”

And there it was: constructive criticism from a famed Olympic athlete, a veteran of the men’s 5000 meter race. Apparently, he’d watched her flail all the way up the hill.

He climbed down to meet an equal of sorts; Dena is a short, hugely stubborn Italian. The two hit it off, and before long were enjoying tea as the sunset’s glow reached Zamperini’s collection of Olympic torches in the living room of his hillside post-and-beam home.

Now, I’m already convinced that Dena’s soul is on loan from WWII infantryman turned B-movie filmmaker, Sam Fuller, but she was really on fire after that. “You’ve got to meet Louis,” I heard again and again. “He’s so great and his story is incredible. You’ll really like him.”

I didn’t know the half of it.

Consolidated B-24 LiberatorFor those unfamiliar with Zamperini’s legacy, he was a B-24 Liberator bombardier in the Pacific Theater in 1943 when his plane, nicknamed “Green Hornet,” fell into the ocean. No survivors were ever rescued; instead, he and two others washed ashore after 47 days at sea and were promptly captured by the Japanese. Back home, Zamperini had been declared KIA after first being listed as missing. In reality, he was squaring off with his enemy captors as though standing up to Imperial Japan itself. He paid for his obstinacy, too, in ways few of us Facebook grudge-holders can imagine.

Even before the war, as a USC student, Zamperini had qualified to compete in the “Nazi Olympics” in 1936 Berlin. Louis ran so fast that none other than Hitler himself insisted on meeting him. And Zamperini wasn’t about to leave Berlin without a souvenir.

Louis Zamperini_Training for 1940 OlympicsAfter two liters of German beer, he staggered before the Reich Chancellery where he again encountered Hitler exiting a car. Louis decided he wanted one of the banners Hitler passed under as he entered the building. He waited for two guards to turn their backs and made a run for it, but he was too short to grab the thing easily, so he had to jump up and down several times before he could tear it loose. By then, the guards had spotted him so he took off, flag in hand and well prepped for another long, hard run. He stopped when he heard rifle fire, but the sway of his Olympic uniform and his charming bullshit won over a ranking officer, who allowed him to keep the banner and go.

Louis Zamperini_Amazon VideoThis was the Louis Zamperini I wanted to meet. Not so much the Olympian distance-runner or the guy who survived in a plane that hobbled home with 594 bullet holes; not the guy who fought off sharks while adrift at sea or who endured as a test subject for Japanese military experiments in biological warfare; and not the guy who caught an albatross, snapped its neck, and drank its blood before using the fish in its stomach for bait. I wanted to meet the man described as “confident to the point of flippancy.” I wanted to see the me in Zamperini, to meet the guy who’d fucked with Hitler.

And meet him I did, but I didn’t find a mirror in his eyes. When Dena introduced us, I was instantly struck by my own small-mindedness.

Zamperini-for-USC-News_Photo_David Ahntholz and Tracy BoulianLouis let us hold his stolen flag; it was there for the touching, among assorted Trojan and Olympic memorabilia. It was one of those moments where proceeding very slowly feels safest; you want your host to know you’re not taking anything about the encounter lightly while you desperately grasp at the significance of the gesture, its value outside yourself.

We only visited three times, but it’s a hell of a thing to have called Louis Zamperini a neighbor. His unassuming home was filled with rich, dark brown woods –the kind that make you fall in love with bannisters, baseboards, and even paneling. There were drafty, “Jalousie” louvered windows from the 50s just like the ones in my house and a piano I wouldn’t know what to do with. I did question if someone else (or maybe twelve different people) had helped the man decorate, but either way the home felt comfortable, warm, and full of character.

Louis Zamperini_SKATEDOGSomething I found especially poignant was a telescope on a tripod. It tilted all the way up as if its counterweight had been removed, leaving it to point at nothing less than the stars. Our conversation included everything from what it was like to work with Laura Hillenbrand, author of the biography-turned-Oscar bait, “Unbroken,” to Louis’s absurdly messy desk.

Unbroken_A World War II Story of Survival Resilience and RedemptionDuring what would be our final visit, Zamperini showed us a Japanese rifle that had been warped by the blast at Hiroshima. He pointed to a large smudge on the stock in the shape of a hand: it had been a hand, flash-burned onto the wood. The rifle had been a gift. Its presenters told Louis that his return to Japan had brought them great honor. Imagine an entire home filled with such humbling items (sixty-three pound scrapbook anyone?), each with a story expressed to you by the person who’d collected them.

As far as I’m concerned, they don’t call Zamperini’s “the greatest generation” because it was the bravest, but because it rose to the occasion, which required neither bravery nor courage –just faith that there are things in life other than your own feelings. That’s how America won World War II, and that’s how Zamperini survived POW camp torture, beatings, and the mind-bending isolation of 47 days adrift in the Pacific.

The feeling of being in the same room with this guy was a mixture of awe for what he’d endured, experienced, and forgiven; a sense of human grandeur for the span of his absorption and for everything that passed through the man in his lifetime; and the smallness of all of my silly excuses.

Louis Zamperini_Sally Peterson_Wall Street Journal

 

The movie version of Hillenbrand’s book,“Unbroken,” is set to be released Christmas 2014. It was (re)written by Joel and Ethan Coen (hell yeah) and directed by another Zamperini neighbor, Angelina Jolie.

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