Wai Sallas draws inspiration to repair our damaged nation from his relationship with the hero of Unbroken, sports star and war hero, Louis Zamperini
He stands at the 50-yard-line as throngs of teenagers hesitantly approach him. There’s a slight hunch in his posture as if years of experience have finally taken their toll. Wisps of white hair creep out of his cardinal red USC hat while a smile beams from his face as each passing teenager finally gets the courage to say hello. Some chat with him for seconds, others for much longer. With each child, he stands strong, engaging in vibrant conversations with laughter and exuberance. You would never guess he was 90 years old. You would be hard pressed to see any signs of the 47 days he was stranded adrift in the Pacific Ocean, or the two years he was mercilessly tortured as a Prisoner of World War II. During a break from the teenage fans, he tilts his head back and lets the sun’s rays bathe over him. I make my way over and introduce myself.
“I’m Louis Zamperini,” he replied to my handshake.
It’s 2007, President Barack Obama is still Senator Obama. The nation still doesn’t know Sarah Palin, and the Tea Party is still an event from our history and not a current political party.
Mr. Zamperini would witness all these things. He would also witness in 2012 what The New York Times said was the most polarized our country has been since the Civil War. In that report The Times said “Republicans showed an unprecedented plunge in trust when Obama took office. They were at a 40-year-high water mark under George W. Bush, and then cascaded to a 50-year-low point — an astonishing 5% — under Barack Obama. And it’s not just Tea Partiers, it’s nearly all Republicans who distrust government today.
Louis Zamperini ran for our country in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He didn’t win the 5000 meter race that year, but his final lap time of 56 seconds marked him as a potential candidate to the first human to break the four-minute mile. The Fuhrer was so taken with him that he insisted on meeting “the boy with the fast finish” after the race.
Mr. Zamperini fought for our country in World War II. In 1943, his plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean and he fought to survive for the next 47 days at sea. Though listed as “killed in action,” he was actually “saved” by the Japanese Navy where he was tortured for two years. Believed to be dead, when the war ended, he came home a hero.
His story is the subject of Angelina Jolie’s film, Unbroken. An adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s book by the same name.
Is this the country Mr. Zamperini fought for?
Did Mr. Zamperini defy all odds to watch our nation be torn apart by our own growing polarized ideals?
We spoke for nearly an hour, and we would meet again at the same event for the next three years. I still see his smile and his passion for life. Our talks bounced around from one topic to the next, there was no simple transition. He loved talking about Hawaii. He could spend a day just transporting us both there and basking in the sun.
He always spoke with optimism and he cherished every moment. The Tornado of Torrance spent the twilight of his career speaking at various engagements. He favored speaking to children and felt great responsibility tied to those events.
“If you just give a talk you don’t know how many kids you are reaching, you don’t know what’s in their heart, so I would have a question and answer period because I always wanted to know how they truly felt…about life, about everything.”
I wonder how he would feel about the University of Alabama-Birmingham shuttering its football program. I try and envision Mr. Zamperini’s take on tanking in the NBA or the tongue-and-cheek “Suck for Luck” campaign that rewarded losing in the NFL. Would he feel like I do, that it’s taking away from the overall message we both feel sports share?
“Whatever you go into you should be committed. In athletics you might not be the world’s best, but if you’re committed, that’s what makes you hardy,” he said.
“No matter what sports you do or business, discipline comes first. The only discipline left is sports and coaches discipline kids and to be a champion you have to learn discipline. But they better learn self discipline or you don’t have a chance in this world.”
Mr. Zamperini had more lives than a cat. It’s probably why in his 90s he still had the passion and vigor of a 20-year-old. He kept a running tally going of his accomplishments. The first time we met, he boastfully told me he had reached 100.
“The more things in life you learn, the more accomplishments you have, the better chance you have of surviving, not just on the life raft at sea or in combat, but surviving in a competitive business world. The world today is really in high competition in regards to jobs and making a living and providing a family.”
He died in July just as my son was reaching 6 months old. I never did get a chance to speak with him about fatherhood.
As our country’s divide gets further and further apart, I fear for the future. I fear for what my son will deal with on a daily basis. As the vile and vitriol for our countrymates gets stronger and stronger I wonder where will it end. Instead of mourning the killing of New York Police Department officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani blamed President Obama for “four months of propaganda that we should hate the police.” Since the offices Ramos and Liu were killed, six people have been arrested for threatening New York Police. In St. Louis, the city and surrounding areas continue to unravel behind racial and political tension.
I’m sure Mr. Zamperini would say something to make me feel better. I’m sure he touched my life the same way he touched millions of others. His compassion, zeal, and ideals are things I take with me every day of my life. There’s one particular piece of advice he gave me that I try to honor every day.
“Find out what you want to be and go all out. The main thing is, to never give up. You learn that in the war, a lot of guys gave up and died, others just wouldn’t give up no matter what happened we knew we were gonna die, but you fight to the end. No matter what the situation is, as long as you’re alive and still kicking you just have to persevere and go for it.”
I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say our country has become more polarizing since that 2012 report. The national media thrives on salacious, dumpster-fire rhetoric that feeds the masses thirsty for more. Somewhere along the way an Us vs. Them narrative has taken hold and the tension is at its zenith. We’ve seen police officers executed, innocent children killed, and people on national television blame others who oppose their political viewpoint rather than trying to come together as a nation to find a resolution.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes sludge through the rabbit hole and find myself slinging mud. It’s so much easier to point fingers and demand change than be a part of the true change our country so desperately needs.
Maybe, instead of watching movies that depict heroes from the Greatest Generation and losing ourselves in the explosions and incredible stories we should be honoring their legacy. Not by words, but by the way we treat each other. Maybe we should not let their deaths be in vain. Maybe those who say they love our country should stop trying to change it through hate and party agenda, but rather through constructive change. Maybe we should look at our heroes of the past and ask what would they say or do? How would they react to the current state of our country? Is this the country they fought for?
At the end of each conversation Mr. Zamperini would turn to me and say; “The next time I’m in Hawaii, I’ll think of you.”
Mr. Zamperini, the next time I find myself falling down that rabbit hole, I’ll think of you.
Photo Credit: YouTube/Screen capture