My Time with Louie

Here’s an update to two other diaries about Louie Zamperini.  Those posts are here and here   The spark note version of those is: I was on vacation in Kauai. I got very sick while there and spent time in bed reading Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken.  I was so taken by Laura’s writing of Louie’s life story that when I got home, I tried to figure out a way to contact him.  After  talking with Louie, one thing led me to another….leading me to visit Louie in his home, go out to lunch at his favorite local restaurant and then plan an event in the town where I live that featured him and his good friend John Naber (5 time Olympian).   The rest is still unfolding…

The planning for Louie’s visit was a multi-dimensional project which was really fun for me to put together.  The venue, the publicity, the ticket sales, etc., were some of the tasks I needed to get done.  I was over the moon to work on this and was thrilled beyond words  having Louie and John come to Lafayette.

The event proceeds were to benefit the new library and learning center in the town where I live.  The new library is an innovative facility which hosts dozens of programs for all ages and offers a great free public resource.   Thousands of people stream through its doors every month.  The Library boasts 39,000 square feet of space and houses a technology lab, a homework center, a teen room, a children’s library, a community hall, public art installations, a classroom, along with various meeting rooms.  It is an extraordinary place.

From February to the day of the event in April I pored over details.  I was excited and nervous too.  I hoped  the event would sell out, but didn’t want to disappoint people by not having  seats left  to sell.  I felt like I was juggling hard for a good balance.  

I planned to have the program run about 90 minutes.  I wanted to introduce the event, and then run a 20 minute CBS documentary about Louie, after which Louie and John would have a 30 minute conversation segment, followed by a question & answers.   Writing the introduction to the event was painstaking but after 10 drafts, I finally got one I felt would work well.  I wanted it to be short, but I also wanted to express how this amazing event came to be.  I wanted  people attending to know that part of my connection with Louie stemmed from the war experiences my father faced.  He had been a fighter pilot, shot down and captured, had become a German POW.  He shared other traits as well that surfaced after the war.  His trouble with alcohol and quick temper chief among them.   The introduction and having Louie speak held tremendous importance for me.

Originally I planned to pick up Louie and John from the Oakland Airport on Sunday morning the day of the event.  If time permitted my husband and I would take them to lunch and then, back to the hotel for a nap.  Louie is 94 after all!

A couple of weeks before, John called to tell me that Louie and he were asked to fly to Hawaii for a special honoring of Louie on the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.  Consequently instead of flying in on Sunday morning from Los Angeles, they would be flying from Oahu on Saturday and would arrive about 9pm, not in Oakland, but in San Francisco.  

My stomach roiled at the thought.  I imagined as soon as heard the change that somehow something might run amuck with so little wiggle room for travel trouble.

But one day rolled into the next and finally the weekend was here.  I had my intro done, the venue was ready, we’d done sound tests the day before, run through the video documentary segment, I’d semi-practiced my intro.  I was pumped!

On Saturday night,  about 8pm an email popped up in my inbox from John saying they were at the airport in Hawaii, but it looked like  technical difficulty with the equipment and they were going to be delayed.  He’d keep in touch.  OMG.   An hour passed and a few more emails came in.  Still no final word on taking off that night, but the estimate was arrive around 11pm he thought and still flying into San Francisco (a good 45 minute drive from where I live).  Ok, fine.  No problem.  Time passed with a few more emails, and then a few phone calls…the estimate now was arrive around 1AM, then it changed to 1:45AM….but he said:  It looks like we’re actually going to leave tonight!  Oh good grief.  And I’m thinking holy carp….The man is 94!  He’d been flown to Hawaii two days previous, spoken to a crowd of 500 people on the USS Arizona Memorial in the middle of Pearl Harbor, been with gobs of people for 2 days back to back …and now was going to be up ALL night.  

Was I nervous?  You betcha!  I was pacing around creating all sorts of scenarios in my runaway brain.   But when John emailed to say they could take a cab or we could call a shuttle, they wouldn’t mind, I thought Hell No! Louie’s motto is :  Be Hardy!  And by gum, I was going to be just that and anything else that this even required.

We decided our best bet was to go to bed, set alarms to wake up and then go to the airport.  It wasn’t long before we were back up and in the car headed for the airport.  The good news: no traffic at 1:45AM…although we had our eyes peeled for  wayward drivers.  At the airport there was not a soul in sight.  We parked at the curb and I went inside to wait.  Within a few minutes I saw barreling towards me a 6 foot 8 man (John) with Louie right behind him, walking briskly.  WOW.  Was I impressed!  Did I mention….Louie’s 94!  

In the car we all got, and shortly, again no traffic at 3:30AM we delivered them both to the hotel.  I’d say we all hit the bed around 4AM.   Much to my surprise,  Louie told me to come by in the morning for breakfast.  I set my alarm and at 8:00am went back to the hotel.   DId I mention….The man is 94!   I wasn’t surprised when it turned out I couldn’t rouse him out of bed.  I giggled all the way home.  Later we met for lunch at the hotel once John and he had gotten more than a couple hours of sleep.

When I got to the Performing Arts Center where the event was to be held, I was so excited.  Everything was in place, the registration and seating of the crowds went well — more than 400 people attended.  I was pacing around when  John told me “Karen, I know just how you feel.  It’s how I felt when I’d get ready to race in the Olympics.  You’re getting your focus, drilling into the energy you’ll need to do a good job…”  He said “Look at Louie, he’s getting ready too.”  

Louie was sitting in the corridor outside the main theater.  His sky-blue eyes were fixed on a place far out in space and both his legs were bouncing rhythmically.  His thumbs were tucked into the waistband of his pants and though he looked relaxed and ready I could feel his power and intensity.   I loved looking at Louie and being with him.  That alone made me feel I could do anything.

Finally it was time.  When the house lights went down, I was startled to be looking into dark space even though I knew 400 people were staring back at me..  I couldn’t see anyone.  I’ve done other public speaking before but never had the lights be staged that way.  It was eery for me and I learned that I need to see people to feel connected to the audience.  But even though I felt uneasy in those moments, the feedback was that my intro went fine.

When I was done, the CBS documentary rolled.

When the house lights came up,  John and Louie entered the theater from a side door  as I said “Please help me welcome Mr. Louie Zamperini and Mr. John Naber to the stage…”  In unison, the entire crowd stood up for a rousing ovation that lasted several minutes.  What a moment it was.   For the next 30 minutes John and Louie talked about Louie’s life.  His running career, his wartime experience, his marriage, and trouble with drinking, his discovering his faith, his hardiness, all with his amazing brand of humor and grace.  He remembers EVERYTHING!  Details so fine you cannot believe it.  THE MAN IS 94!!!!  Did I mention that?  LOL.   After their conversation, they took  questions from the audience.  In every instance Louie was able to spontaneously talk and answer all that was asked of him down to the finest details.  He has an amazing sense of humor and had the audience busting up laughing….I mean really laughing hard out loud.  I was on CLOUD 9.

When the program finished, about 80 people had bought a special ticket to meet Louie (another part of the fundraiser for the library), so we went into an adjoining room where he shook hands with and talked to every single person.  Each got a photograph with Louie as well.  My brother had flown in for the event and helped take the pictures since he’s a professional photographer.  My daughter also helped with that element as she too has a knack for photography.  

When that meet and greet culminated, we took Louie and John back to the hotel where we all had dinner along with a couple of very close friends and a local runner who is aspiring to join the British Olympic team for the 2012 games.   One of the standout highlights of my time that day was watching Louie’s face as Tim described his own running of the 5000 meter race and how difficult and awesome an effort it is to compete in that distance.    Tim himself is a sub-4 minute miler which is exactly what Louie was destined to be at age 19 until he left to go to war.  When Tim was describing the way his legs went numb during the final laps of the 5000 meter and the pain he endured to finish the race, Louie’s face shone with memory, nostalgia, knowingness, loss, love, awe and more, all at once.

I will long remember all of my time with Louie and that moment in particular.   Louie has always been known as “lucky Louie”….I can surely understand why, but that day, Louie wasn’t the only lucky one.

And as one last piece of good luck…I’m flying to see Louie again in July … He says he’s going to show me around the haunts of Hollywood…all the “secret” out of the way places.   Lucky, indeed.


In Memory of my Father & Unbroken: Louie Zamperini’s Story

Before my Dad died in July of 2010, I spent years asking him to write or tell his WWII stories.  It became a kind of joke when I’d call home to Connecticut from California.  Before my Mom died in 1997, she’d answer the phone and we’d chat.  I’d hear my Dad bellowing in the background  “Tell Kage, I’m just about to start my story.”  Or he’d say “Tell her I’ve written a few pages but still have a lot to sort out.”  Then he would get on the phone chuckling and we’d laugh about the fact he really hadn’t gotten around to putting words on the page.   Well, he’d made lists, and started perhaps, but the story, I’ve come to understand these many years later, was so big at the time, he didn’t know where or how to start.

After he died, I found notes all over his house of lists he made that captured the ideas he wanted to write about.  And he finally was able to do so years after I started asking him.  His story was captured through interviews on DVD, he was on the local news, and spoke at high schools, for veterans groups.  The full writing of his story has yet to be done.  It may be that in the years to come I try to cobble together what I know, with the information I have from him, and at least put that in words on the page.

He was a gifted writer, and I would say now with the benefit of hindsight, that he wanted his writing to be perfect, to capture the details of an unbelievable time and story and though he tried, he wasn’t able to quite get the whole story in one telling.

Three weeks ago, I flew with my husband to the island of Kauai to celebrate his 62nd birthday with his twin brother Bob and his wife Jennifer.  In our excitement we hoped that I would not catch the respiratory bug he had been fighting for a week.  But the day we arrived, I became as sick as I’ve been in many years.

Being in bed quite a bit gave me an unexpected  time to read which led me to start the book Unbroken written by the extraordinary author Laura Hillenbrand about the life of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner, WWII bombardier pilot and Japanese POW.  His story recounts and includes a singular time in our history and chronicles a dizzying sequence of death defying circumstances that Louie survived.  It is beyond all imagination and a compelling, hard to put down read.

When I returned home a week later, having finished the book, I was swept away by Louie’s life.  I could think of almost nothing else.  It became a singular fascination for me and I felt desperate to hear his voice.  I understand now that I think I was partly searching for my Father’s voice and that reading Louie’s story had unearthed many memories for me.  I was fascinated by the fact that I had been in the very place (Hawaiian Islands) where Louie had been taught to fly, and not so different from where he spent 47 days in a raft lost at sea.  The coincidences seemed unreal to me.

After some research and good luck, I was able to reach Mr. Zamperini.  After explaining my reason for calling to the person who answered the phone (John, a good friend of Louie’s and 5-time Olympic medalist) and explaining my connection to Louie’s story through my own father’s service and his recent death, I was allowed to speak with Louie.  My mind raced and I had to stop myself from shaking.  We had a sweet conversation about why I was calling, about how he was doing and how excited he was by the story Unbroken being such a hit.  He was articulate and sharp…not bad for 94 years old!  He was humble and gracious.  I will never forget those moments.


The rest of the good news is I’ve arranged for Louie to come to Lafayette to speak.  The date of the event is the day after my Dad would have turned 88.    We are dedicating the special event to the memory of Tom and my parents (my Mom and Dad both served in the war; and to Tom’s Dad who died in October who also served).   The event will benefit our local library foundation.  Even that fact, benefitting a local library seems like poetry.  Doesn’t a library conjure up the essence of freedom?  The access to information unfettered?  I’m just in awe at the universe and how it unfolds sometimes.

I’m over the moon.   Can you believe it?   I have to keep reminding myself to breathe.  Just breathe.



There was apparently a group of female pilots who flew domestic missions to free up male fighter pilots to go to the front lines. They were known as the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and they paid their own way through flight school, were paid less than male cadets, and of course received no veteran’s benefits after the war. But these women are finally getting their due, being nominated for a Congressional Gold Medal.

I have hopefully linked to the CNN story that has all the details. On Memorial Day I like to remember all of the veteran’s and their service. My grandfathers served in Korea in the Marines and my great-grandfather served in WWII. He later came home and told of being in the prettiest church in Italy with scenes from the Bible painted on the ceiling! One of my great uncles lost his spot on a professional baseball team to go to war. So thank you to all of you, God bless you and keep you. Thanks to all of our brave service men and women still serving! We honor your service and sacrifice!…


Julia Child, WWII spy

I love Julia Child. When I was a kid, PBS was the only channel I had free rights to, so I often ended up watching Julia Child’s show before Sesame Street or Mister Rogers or Electric Company. She was riveting – that towering frame, that fluting voice, her insouciant skill with massive friggin’ knives. I can still recall the heavy thwack of her cleaver powering through a chicken and hitting bottom on the wooden cutting board.

Twenty-eight years later, I still have that wide-eyed love for the woman. Not only was she a cracking writer, lover of travel and adventure and all around good-sport, she was also one of my earliest war-stories as a journalist (scroll down to the end of this post for the story. I’m fond of retelling it, but it’s a bit long and not too germane to this particular post.). I ran through her memoir, My Life in France at double speed and with much affection. In it, she references having served in the precursor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services, during World War II, but only mentions it briefly, in the context of it being the time in her life when she met her beloved husband, Paul.

Well, it looks as though Ms. Child was more than just an office manager for the OSS – she was a spy!

WASHINGTON – Famed chef Julia Child shared a secret with Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and Chicago White Sox catcher Moe Berg at a time when the Nazis threatened the world.

They served in an international spy ring managed by the Office of Strategic Services, an early version of the CIA created in World War II by President Franklin Roosevelt.

The full secret comes out Thursday, all of the names and previously classified files identifying nearly 24,000 spies who formed the first centralized intelligence effort by the United States. The National Archives, which this week released a list of the names found in the records, will make available for the first time all 750,000 pages identifying the vast spy network of military and civilian operatives.

I can’t get into the archives yet, obviously, but according to this entry, the famed master of French haute cuisine whipped up a number of recipes in the OSS as well.

Soon after the United States entered World War II, Julia felt the need to serve her country. Too tall to join the military (she was 6’2“), Julia volunteered her services to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was the forerunner of today’s Central Intelligence Agency. She was one of 4,500 women who served in the OSS.

She started out at OSS Headquarters in Washington, working directly for General William J. Donovan, the leader of OSS. Working as a research assistant in the Secret Intelligence division, Julia typed up thousands of names on little white note cards, a system that was needed to keep track of officers during the days before computers. Although her encounters with the General were minor, she recalled later in life that his “aura“ always remained with her.

Julia then worked with the OSS Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section, where she helped develop shark repellent. The repellent was a critical tool during WWII, and was coated on explosives that were targeting German U-boats. Before the introduction of the shark repellent, curious sharks would sometimes set off the explosives when they bumped into them.
From 1944-1945, Julia was sent overseas and worked in Ceylon, present day Sri Lanka, and Kunming, China. During these last two years in the OSS, Julia served as Chief of the OSS Registry. Julia — having top security clearances — knew every incoming and outgoing message that passed throughout her office, as her Registry was serving all the intelligence branches. During her time in Ceylon, Julia handled highly classified papers that dealt with the invasion of the Malay Peninsula. Julia was fascinated with the work, even when there were moments of danger.

I can totally see this – the woman had great charisma and curiosity as well as an adventuresome spirit. How awesome is that?!

Now, my Julia Child story: when I was a newbie reporter, my first job post-college in 1999 was with the Associated Press. In the run-up to the Year 2000, the various AP bureaux were charged with creating a package of features looking back on the past 100 years. As Ms. Child lived in Cambridge, somebody decided that the AP should do a story on her views of what’s changed in cooking over her lifetime. Her agent was contacted and it was agreed that she’d be happy to speak with AP. I happened to be working a rare day shift and picked up the phone during a particularly busy moment. At first, I thought it was a joke as these fruity, swooping, fluting words came over the phone “This is Juuuuulia Child. I was told to call you.“ I nearly fainted with excitement, but this was just the beginning.

I asked Ms. Child what she thought were some of the biggest changes in her lifetime, and got the following response, paraphrased except where italicized: “Well, you know, in the 1950s, people used to use an awful lot of gelatine to cook with, something you don’t really see anymore. I remember going to a dinner party and being served a Jell-o mould shaped like a banana with whipped cream at one end. Awwwwfuly phallic you know. So that’s changed for the better.“

I.Am.Dying. Shaking with laughter, snot streaming out of my nose because I’m holding the giggles in. But there was more to come… Ms. Child then went on to talk about the great internationalisation of cuisine and that people are exposed to different cuisines more often. She was, apparently, calling me from Tokyo. “I’ve just had the most exquisite sushi, you know. And I must say, I enjoyed the sake very much tonight. Have you ever had sake? You must try it, my dear.“

I.Am.Officially.In.Heaven.At.This.Moment. I am talking about phallic Jell-o moulds with Julia Child, who is tipsy on sake. I tell you, it was the most fun I’ve ever had on an interview and that was nearly nine years ago. God bless you, Julia.