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I Want to be Like Louie

He exercises two hours every day. Sometimes, he still runs. He works in his garden. For kicks he does repeats on the stone staircase that connects the terraced portions of his property.

Speed isn’t a big part of his game these days. The years and what they held for him took that away. But his strength and endurance are still awesome.

When I met him, I gave him a hug. I’m not a hugging kind of guy but I wanted to get my heart close to him.

He is that kind of guy.

Special in a way that makes you want a part of him. To walk away with something that can make you better.

Fifty years ago, Louie Zamperini bought a bungalow just below the “Hollywood” sign. That icon to the legendary storytelling talent of America is a somewhat ironic symbol standing over Zamperini’s house. Despite his proximity to the movie studios, none of them have ever found it necessary to tell his story.

Laura Hillenbrand has told it. The author of Seabiscuit, Hillenbrand came across a snippet of Louie’s life while doing her research on the horse that brought her so much good fortune.

Louie surrounded by the author and Olympic Gold Medal swimmer, John Nabor.

As a kid, Louie was a nightmare. Drinking at five, a relentless thief, a social outcast and all too familiar to the police. In today’s world, he would have been put on Ritalin. Back then, his brother put him on the track. There, he found purpose.

Louie set the school-boy record in the mile. It stood for decades. At 19, though he’d only raced the distance a couple of times, he went to the Berlin Games and ran the 5,000. A final lap (:58) was run with such courage that despite losing, Zamperini was still offered the dubious honor of visiting Adolf Hitler in his box.

After the Games, it was on to USC and another national record in the mile; this too stood for decades.

World War II came and Louie went to war. A bombardier, his plane ditched in the Pacific, he and two crew members escaped the wreck and pulled themselves into a life raft. One of them died in the boat (the one that had no faith in their chances), Louie and his pilot survived. After losing almost a hundred pounds each, they landed on a Japanese held island and became prisoners of war.

Then Louie’s life got tough. For two and a half years, he was brutalized by a sadistic guard: a man that knew no bottom to his well of depravity.  Until, the end of the war the guard did everything in his power to dehumanize Zamperini, to kill his spirit, to obliterate his dignity.

In Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken, we learn how the guard failed.

For my current employer, I went out to interview Louis. We spent six hours together, I believe I am a better person for having done so. I’ve never felt so close to true greatness.

In all of his accomplishments, none are more impressive than this: Louie lives with no resentment.

Though his athletic career was ruined by his Japanese captors. Though they beat him within an inch of his life, starved him, humiliated him, killed his friends and took away all but his hope, Louie found it within himself to forgive each and every man that had done him harm.

At 93, he is at ease. Smiles are plentiful, pettiness non-existent.

We shot the interview, we had lunch, we talked about running. With the sun going down, I changed in his bathroom for a workout in Griffith Park. He told me he used to love running up there. I said I wished we could have gotten one in together.

He laughed. I hugged him again. This time he pulled me in tight. I drove away grateful

To see the piece I produced on Unbroken for the Today Show, please click on the link n in the upper right hand corner.

3 comments on “I Want to be Like Louie

  1. Tom Dye says:

    I just finished reading Unbroken this morning. To meet and interview Louie must have been an awesome experience. Is the result of your interview available to read or view somewhere on the web? I’d love to see it.

    1. jthompson31 says:

      Thanks for reading. Unfortunately, my interview with Louie was for a larger piece on Laura and her book. So, you don’t get as much of the man as I would’ve liked. My favorite line from him was his in response to my question if he had any regrets around Laura’s book. “Only that she did such a good job bringing my friends back to life, she made me miss them so much.” ”
      Here’s the whole piece on the Today Show:

  2. Pinch says:

    Very inspiring !

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