Friday, July 4, 2014

Farewell Louis Zamperini, Local Hero

  Happy Fourth of July everyone - and since red white and blue are also the colours of the Union Jack, I can wear them today and no one will suspect I'm toasting the Queen Over the Water, as it were. Not that I mind celebrating with my American friends of course.
  But a bit of sad news today - the death of Louis Zamperini, an American hero and what's more a local hero at the ripe old age of 97.

Coincidentally, I'd just written a piece about him for the Catholic Times in England. It went to press just before his death was announced. So here it is, as I wrote it.


  Our local small town, Olean,  in New York state, isn’t normally feted as the birthplace of heroes. It’s an unassuming spot and like many parts of western New York,  has seen better days.
  At once time – something like a hundred years ago – Olean was a centre for oil production, hence its rather fanciful name, which is meant to make you think “City of Oil”.
  It had an exciting period in the 1920s when some gangsters, including Al Capone, frequented the town but these days, well, it’s got a few industries,  some pretty houses, many now dilapidated, a few nice churches, a YMCA, a run-down shopping mall and a main street that was once picturesque but fell prey to “urban renewal”, losing its old theatre and many of its quaint flat-fronted shops to a Rite Aid chemists and a fast food chain.
  It’s still a good place to live, though, with some big-hearted people who would be very pleased to hear about anything that could put Olean on the map and encourage some visitors.
  And the other day I heard an interesting tale about an Olean local hero, one who I never knew was born in the town.
  One of the most popular books in America  in the past couple of years has been Unbroken , by Laura Hillenbrand. (She wrote a previous bestseller about the racehorse Seabiscuit ).
  Unbroken is about an extraordinary man called Louis Zamperini, who was born in 1917 in, yes, Olean, New York.
  It’s one of those stories that’s a dream for biographers and strikes any number of chords with the American public.
  Zamperini was the son of Italian immigrants and here I have to admit that he only lived in Olean until he was two years old and then moved to California but don’t let that spoil a good story.  Young Louis had a troubled childhood and youth, apparently smoking, stealing and drinking before he was even nine years old. Then a police officer suggested he put his skills at running away from trouble to better  use.  He pulled himself together and became a noted athlete, running  in the 5,000 metres in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He didn’t get a medal but ran the last lap so fast that Hitler insisted on shaking his hand. (Apparently he also shinned up a flagpole and stole the Fuhrer’s personal flag.)

  In 1943, during the Second World War, Zamperini was a bomb aimer. His  B-24 Liberator bomber crashed into the Pacific and he survived for 47 days on a small rubber raft, subsisting on rainwater and raw fish and close to starving to death. Only one fellow crewmember survived with him.
  As if that wasn’t bad enough, he was captured by the Japanese and languished for two-and-a-half years in a Japanese prison camp, enduring  gruelling punishments, beatings  and humiliation.
  But fate had still more to throw at Louis Zamperini.  After the war, he suffered from alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder  but yet again,  with the help of the evangelist Billy Graham, he picked himself up, became a born again Christian and was determined to become a missionary to Japan where he preached forgiveness for his former captors . (In the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, his hosts asked him to carry the Olympic flame as part of the torch relay. )
  Back in America,  he set up a charity for troubled boys and became an inspirational speaker, which he still is, at the age of 97.
  In 1957 there was a project to film Louis Zamperini’s life, starring Tony Curtis but it was never completed. But now Angelina Jolie is directing a new film about him, written by the Coen brothers. It’s due for release in America in December.
  Now Olean citizens want to honour Louis Zamperini with a granite marker and a bench and are sending out an appeal for funds.   Says the Tribute Committee, “We hope to provide the youth of Olean a real life, hometown, inspirational hero to look up to and respect , as opposed to a cartoon, comic book or video character.”
    So what if Louis Zamperini moved to California?  I’m sure he’s still a western New York boy at heart.

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