In 1949, Louie Zamperini heard Billy Graham preach, and it put all of those experiences in a different perspective. It’s those perspectives he shares in his new book, Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In, out tomorrow. In 2003, the World War II vet, Olympian, and former P.O.W. collaborated with David Rensin on his autobiography, Devil at My Heels, years before Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken would be turned into the upcoming Angelina Jolie-directed drama. The two now deliver a series of anecdotes tracing from Zamperini’s childhood to his life of service, closing with insights from his children, Cynthia Zamperini-Garris and Luke Zamperini. Zamperini-Garris was kind enough to share some of her thoughts on her father’s new book and her own experience growing up with a man who is already legendary to some – and will be worldwide by the new year.
“With the book, which is our father’s last message to the world, I hope people will have an even deeper sense of his humor, his adventurous spirit, and mostly his deep and never wavering faith and commitment to God,” says Zamperini-Garris. “With the movie, I hope people leave the theaters inspired by his unbreakable spirit, to face their own troubles and challenges with race, and discover the healing power of forgiveness.”
Having blown through Unbroken one day at the beach this summer, and eagerly devouring Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In as soon as it arrived, I had seen how Zamperini handled so many tense, tragic situations with humor and proved time and time again to be ready for anything. I was intrigued to hear whether the comedic or practical sides of her father was evident as a child. “As far back as I can remember he was making me laugh by pulling funny stunts or teasing me. The fact that he was always prepared to deal with stuff that came up, from a stubbed toe or skinned knee (mine, many times) to rescuing a stranded mountaineer or drowning child (me again) meant that I listened to all of his advice.”
“I remember the very first thing I learned from him was how to make a bandaid stick better. Want to know? By keeping your fingers pressed on the adhesive part a few moments longer so that your body heat will cause it to stick better. Not revelatory, but good, sound advice for a little girl.”
“When I had the mumps and my cheeks were so swollen and sore, it was hard to look in the mirror. Dad took his comb and combed my hair over my cheeks and put my Minnie Mouse hat on my head so I’d look pretty. He did things like that. He was so kind.”
But did Luke and Cynthia know who Zamperini was to so many people? About how he’d been a headline-grabbing athlete; how he’d been shot at, abused, and imprisoned; how he’d met Jesus? “My father bought our home and put food on the table by the telling and retelling of his amazing life story so I was well aware of what he had been through. Not the horrors but the general story. I was incredibly proud of him and felt, rightly so, that he could do anything. I was only an infant when he was suffering with PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] so I have no memories of that unhappy father. Rather I remember him as lighthearted, loving, and caring, because of his ability to let the torments of his past go once he gave himself to the Lord.”
“It made all the difference in his life. It allowed him to have a life, plain and simple. I shudder to think about his life, my mother’s life, my life had he not converted. [My parents] were very different personalities, but their shared faith and love for each other allowed them to overcome all obstacles.”
That conversion not only turned Zamperini’s life around, and saved his marriage to the first Cynthia of his life, it set up the Zamperini household for a life of faith. “I accepted Christ as a child and had a very deep and comforting faith,” Zamperini-Garris says. “My brother and I attended Sunday School at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood where our parents attended church. I felt that Jesus was like a third parent. Someone who would be there for me. Love me. Protect me. It was lovely to have that.”
I wondered what kind of impact the film version by Angelina Jolie had on Zamperini who died earlier this year, and what the legacy of his life and work would be? Zamperini had done tremendous work with youth, especially those battling with addiction and criminal activity, but how would a larger audience react? “[The film] gave an old soldier’s life so much meaning. When others who suffered through the war and performed heroic deeds ‘faded away,’ he was greatly appreciated and lauded near the end of his life. Letters came from all over the country from people suffering with terrible illnesses or tragic losses who were inspired to face their trials because of his life story. It gave his life so much meaning and purpose. What a way to go out.”
“While our family misses him so much and continues to grieve his loss, we are comforted in the knowledge that his life was long and full and his story helped so many. Our attitude is to celebrate this year as his year and take comfort in the knowledge that he is with the Lord.”
“So many [people were helped by Louie] but one that stands out is a young athlete who wrote after his passing. She woke one morning and was simply paralyzed from the waist down. The doctors told her it was some rare condition and she would never walk again. Inspired by my father’s story, she began working hours each day to try to move her legs and after a month or so she was able to stand and take several steps although she still had no feelings in her legs. That’s a miracle!”
Which is the greater accomplishment? That a simple guy from Torrance, California, with no interest in learning or running would become an Olympian? That the Olympian would survive plane crashes, sharks, abuse, and torture? That the POW would embrace forgiveness? Or that this man’s story would inspire people he never met?
The more I learn, the more I’m inspired. Louie Zamperini’s life was miraculous. And with that miracle, he pointed those who would listen back to the moment of his redemption, meeting Jesus, and invite them into the miracle as well.