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.