Louis Zamperini died Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 97. You may remember Zamperini from Laura Hillenbrand's bestselling biography of him, Unbroken, which everyone read and then yelled at you to go read. There are many completely insane things that happen in Unbroken. Zamperini becomes a famous collegiate track star at USC. He shakes hands with Hitler (but in a funny way, not an evil way). He enters World War II and has his plane shot down. He spends 47 days adrift at sea only to be "rescued" by Japanese troops who immediately imprison and abuse him. He survives years in prison camp only to return home traumatized. He becomes an alcoholic. He finds Jesus and stops being an alcoholic. And then he lives for seven more decades.
But out of all those insane things, here is the most insane tidbit. While Zamperini and two of his surviving plane crash castaways were adrift at sea, they were strafed from above by a Japanese bomber. Zamperini took cover underneath their tiny raft, only to encounter a shark below. It was like a child's idea of the ultimate peril—to be attacked simultaneously by an airplane and a shark. Here is the money passage:
The shark kept coming, directly at Louie's head. Louie remembered the advice of the old man in Honolulu: Make a threatening expression, the stiff-arm the shark's snout. As the shark lunged for his head, Louie bared his teeth, widened his eyes, and rammed this palm into the tip of the shark's nose. The shark flinched, circled away, then swam back for a second pass. Louie waited until the shark was inches from him, then struck it in the nose again. Again, the shark peeled away.
Keep in mind that Zamperini did all this while underwater and without access to, you know, air. There is also nothing to suggest he was wearing goggles at the time. I'd like to see the statistical probability of hitting a shark dead on the nose twice while staring into salt water with a rain of bullets coming down on you. There is an Unbroken movie coming this winter. If it isn't two hours of underwater shark-punching, I will be upset.
I often think of death as a terrible thing, for the young and the old. An awful fate, no matter how it occurs or to whom it occurs. Someone dies, and I am sad because they had the misfortune of experiencing death. But in the case of Louie Zamperini, I can think of no greater prize for his remarkable tale of survival than a peaceful, eternal rest. This is a man who earned his death. He endured 97 years on this planet, many of them spent at the far margins of experience, and I imagine that death suits him as a proper reward. No more sharks. No more fighter planes. No more torturous labor from The Bird. He can sleep now. God rest his soul.
Photo via AP