When I was a freshman at the University of Southern California writing for the Daily Trojan’s sports section (I had the track and field beat, because, well, I was a freshman) I learned about the school’s decision to create “Zamperini Plaza” next to the track.
I didn’t know anything about Louis Zamperini. (To be fair, the book about his life, ‘Unbroken,’ didn’t come out until years later.) So really, I lucked into a story that flowed from a 45-minute phone conversation with a legend for not only USC, but for the U.S.A.
Early Thursday morning the world learned that Zamperini had died of pneumonia at 97, just in advance of Independence Day. That fits, because no one reflected the essence of the American ideal quite like Zamperini. And while the obituaries Thursday all (rightfully) lauded his achievements, to me it was his imperfections that best illustrated why we should remember him.
For those of you unfamiliar with the man as I was back in February 2004, learning about Zamperini’s life, especially as a writer, can mimic a Christmas morning where each gift is better than the last. And when you’re done and satisfied, a parent wheels another cart-full of even better presents. Only the parent is a famous stranger happily taking the time to talk to some young naïve freshman for an article in a college paper.
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He earned a track scholarship at USC. He ran in the 1936 Olympics at 19, finishing eighth in the 5000 meter. Hitler shook his hand afterward, calling him “the American with the fast finish.” He stole a small Nazi flag off a wall outside the Reich Chancellery (think: German White House) as a souvenir. He joined World War II without hesitation. His plane crashed, and he survived 47 days drifting in the middle of the Pacific. He punched a shark. He spent two-and-a-half years as a Japanese POW, tortured and beaten at times. He eventually overcame his resentment and forgave his captors. By the time I spoke with him, he’d run with four Olympic torches, including at the Nagano, Japan, Games in 1998, and still was traveling and skiing and flying planes and mountain biking. He had a great sense of humor: when talking about one Japanese guard that made his life hell who happened to have attended USC, he quipped: “He must be a third-year transfer from UCLA.”
But to me, it was the other things I learned about my gracious interview subject (who I would, luckily, later meet in person briefly) that makes him fit my feelings about July 4. Above is just the super-human stuff. The important thing about Zamperini, and really the rest of us, is the human part of super-human. We ignore that too much, sometimes.
My article, which I found in the Daily Trojan archives, started: “Before learning of his raw running talent, Louis Zamperini was a juvenile menace to the city of Torrance, Calif.” The young Italian who moved with his family from New York cheated his way through kindergarten without knowing English and got into fights all the time as a kid. He let air out of his teachers’ tires and shot pets with BB guns. He partied on the boat across the Atlantic en route to the Olympics in Berlin and gained 10 pounds, he said killing his chance to medal. After returning from the war he initially turned to drinking and bitterness.
The point: Zamperini, an American hero with a story too good for Hollywood (OK, not really; they’re making Unbroken into a movie) was far from perfect. And America, as human as Zamperini, is far from perfect too. It doesn’t require me going into the politics or details of our transgressions as a nation to recognize that we have some grave black marks on our collective past, both distant and recent.
And that’s OK. The freedom of the press and expression make us better mostly because we are free to criticize ourselves, to direct scrutiny into a mirror. You can’t fix what you don’t recognize. People want to talk about generating unity, such as the “September 12 movement” where some seek to rekindle how we were united that day. Why? We were united because something horrible happened to the country. Artificially creating that emotion, or any emotion, is impossible and pointless. That unity was easy, and though it felt good to remember that we are all on the same team and that there are good people in this country, by itself such a feeling doesn’t accomplish anything. Facing our own demons with integrity and an open ear is much more difficult than denouncing 19 guys who hijack airplanes. And much more worthy of our efforts.
Zamperini faced personal demons worse than most of ours, and became something truly special for it.
I love the U.S. and am glad I was born here. But I don’t deserve credit for that. I admit that I occasionally get uneasy at overly-patriotic events. It’s not because I don’t think we should celebrate the good, and there’s plenty of it. It’s because sometimes it feels like (and I know some people think this way while others don’t) the socially correct belief is that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world and infallible, at least relative to other nations (nations that many Americans have never visited or really learned much about). It strikes me as silly because “greatest country” is stated as fact when in reality it’s opinion (a potentially valid one, but an opinion) dependent on a lot of subjective criteria and often based on a selective and revisionist history.
On top of that, in the eyes of some the only reason America has any flaws is whichever political party that person likes to hate. America isn’t imperfect because of Republicans or Democrats. It’s imperfect because it’s human, like Zamperini. Other nations are also human. All humans face different obstacles, all have different strengths, and all humans do bad things at times, even the great ones. Self-aware humans tend to deal with problems better, as well as other humans.
I suggest that on patriotic holidays we should, individually and as a nation, work to not only celebrate our achievements, but also reflect on the entirety of us, not just the good parts. It makes our accomplishments more impressive, and gives at least a fighter’s chance to face and fix our flaws. Not the flaws we perceive opponents imposing on us. Ours.
Zamperini faced his flaws. He overcame disadvantages, found a skill, and beat adversity (thanks in part to his Olympic pedigree; he was saved from a notorious POW camp to make propaganda broadcasts). He forgave people who did horrible things to him. Independence Day celebrates an accomplishment from 238 years ago. Good friends, good ‘cue and good fireworks are great. But we should do more. Zamperini did things worth celebrating with fireworks by future generations. Collectively, we should strive for the same.