Tom says we could learn some lessons from Louie Zamperini

A long, long time ago, in my phony-baloney position as president of my high school's Letterman's Club, I found myself seated at a banquet table next to legendary USC football coach John McKay, who, while waiting for the banquet to begin, was reading a book about the Civil War. (John McKay was one of the funniest big-time coaches of all time. After his Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost a game, he was asked what he thought of his team's execution. He deadpanned, "I'm in favor of it.")

When I asked him why he would be reading what amounted to a history book, he stared right at me and said, "Things that really happened are always more interesting than something that somebody makes up."

Those words would shape my reading habits for the rest of my life. Probably 19 of every 20 books I've ever read have been non-fiction—and I'd like to think that I'm a little bit smarter and more open-minded person for having done so.

Over the years, I've given copies of particularly important books as gifts to people whom I am certain will read them. I've given Evan S. Connell's almost-poetic study of George Custer, Son of the Morning Star and Richard Rhodes's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb. I even sent a copy of Robert Caro's Master of the Senate to Senator John McCain so he could learn how Lyndon Johnson took care of his (and the country's) business.

The book that I've given out the most is Laura Hillenbrand's emotional powerhouse, Unbroken. It's been on the best-seller lists for more than 160 weeks and got an unwanted boost recently when the subject of the book, Louie Zamperini, died at the age of 97. It will get another this winter when the based-on-the-book movie (screenplay written by the Coen brothers and directed by Angelina Jolie) is released.

If you watch or read the news at all, you may have caught something about Zamperini. Son of Italian immigrants, he grew up in a tough part of L.A. and was saved from a life of knuckleheadedness by a freakish ability to run distance. He was a high-school champion and then excelled at USC. While most distance runners don't max out until their late 20s, Zamperini, against incredible odds, made the 1936 U.S. Olympic team while still a teenager. (Before he died, I was thinking how cool it was to have somebody who competed at the Hitler games still be alive in the middle of 2014.) He did OK, but not great, at the Berlin games, but he had to figure that his chance would come in 1940 or maybe 1944. Among other things, he wanted to be the first man ever to break the four-minute mile.

World War II broke out and Zamperini became a bombardier stationed in the Pacific. There is a passage in the book where he is running along the beach and he swears he covered the distance of a mile in less than four minutes. But it wasn't timed and he was running a straightaway and the truth is that we'll never know.

His plane was shot down and he and a couple others managed to climb into a life raft, in which they drifted on the open sea for 47 days. The Hershey company had made a nutrient-rich bar for just such an eventuality, but the guy who was picked to carefully ration the bars instead ate them all himself in a fit of panic. Occasionally, a seagull would land on the raft. If they were able to catch it, they would break its neck and drink its blood; anything to stay alive.

After 47 days (and the death of the chocolate hoarder), they drifted into Japanese territory and were captured. What followed was more than two years of the most sadistic and brutal treatment ever meted out in a prisoner of war camp. The Japanese broke every possible rule of the Geneva Convention, but Zamperini refused to cave. That part of the book is brutal stuff.

Upon returning to America after such an ordeal, he climbed into a bottle and didn't come out until he was coaxed out by televangelist Billy Graham. Weird, but true. Zamperini would spend the rest of his long, long, illustrious life helping others. He opened a camp for knucklehead kids in the mountains outside of L.A. I had knucklehead friends who went to the knucklehead camp and raved about the old Italian guy who ran it. I never put the two together until I read the book.

Considering the damage that was done to his body during the war (and the damage he inflicted on his own spirit after the war), it's amazing that he lived to be 97. I just wish he could have made it to 98 so he could have attended the premiere of the film, which comes out on Christmas Day and is said to be seriously Oscar-worthy.

In the meantime, I highly recommend that you read the book. If Louie Zamperini could remain Unbroken for as long as he did (it took pneumonia more than a month to ravage his nearly century-old body), the least we can do is honor his life by becoming a little less petty, a bit more forgiving, and maybe even a little tougher.

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