Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Louis Zamperini Stranded at Sea, Lucidly Hallucinating, Unbroken

Louis Zamperini Hallucination at Sea; soldiers stranded; pacific ocean
WWII Soldiers Stranded At Sea
(Unbroken by Hillenbrand)
I'm nearly finished with Unbrokena fascinating account of World War II told through the lens of Louie Zamperini, the Olympic runner turned bomber who was stranded in the Pacific and kept as a POW for two and a half years in various Japanese territories. It's a harrowing account of persistence and endurance told (often a bit too simplistically for my taste) by the Sea Biscuit author Laura Hillenbrand. I would have preferred a first-person narrative through the eyes of Mr. Zamperini rather than a somewhat distant tale from the perspective of an unknown, impersonal narrator. Still, the story is riveting solely due to the facts at hand, facts that would take an ingenious imagination (not to mention a heart of darkness) to fabricate. Kudos to Ms. Hillenbrand for her journalistic endeavors, those meticulous steps which have preserved such a remarkable story.

Of all the details that pour through the story, the voyage upon military issued rafts across the perilous ocean gripped me most. Here we have helpless, starving soldiers who know they are floating ever-further into enemy territory, soldiers who must brave the elements and the fear that bubbles up inside of them ever hotter and harder to handle each day. Yet they persist. They must. And as they do, they learn the limits of their bodies and the expansive possibilities of their minds and their souls.

The following is an excerpt from the novel that is a must-read and, in my opinion, something we can all learn from and use:

They were, as Coleridge wrote, "as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean." It was an experience of transcendence. Phil watched the sky,  whispering that it looked like a pearl. The water looked so solid that it seemed they could walk across it. When fish broke the surface far away, the sound carried to the men with absolute clarity. They watched as pristine ringlets of water circled outward around the place where the fish had passed, then faded to stillness. For a while they spoke, sharing their wonder. Then they fell into reverent silence. Their suffering was suspended. They weren't hungry or thirsty. They were unaware of the approach of death.
As he watched this beautiful, still world, Louie played with a thought that had come to him before. He had thought it as he had watched hunting seabirds, marveling at their ability to adjust their dives to compensate for the refraction of light in water. He had thought it as he had considered the pleasing geometry of the sharks, their gradation of color, their slide through the sea. He even recalled the thought coming to him in his youth, when he had lain on the roof of the cabin in the Cahuilla Indian Reservation, looking up from Zane Grey to watch night settling over the earth. Such beauty, he thought, was too perfect to have come about by mere chance. That day in the center of the Pacific was, to him, a gift crafted deliberately, compassionately, for him and Phil.
Joyful and grateful in the midst of slow dying, the two men bathed in that day until sunset brought it, and their time in the doldrums, to an end.
Louie found that the raft offered and unlikely intellectual refuge. He had never recognized how noisy the civilized world was. Here, drifting in almost total silence, with no scents other than the singed odor of the raft, no flavors on his tongue, nothing moving but the slow procession of shark fins, every vista empty save water and sky, his time unvaried and unbroken, his mind was freed of an encumbrance that civilization had imposed on it. In his head, he could roam anywhere, and he found that his mind was quick and clear, his imagination unfettered and supple. He could stay with a thought for hours, turning it about. 
The ocean was featureless flatness. He looked up. Above him, floating in a bright cloud, he saw human figures, silhouetted against the sky. He counted twenty-one of them. They were singing the sweetest song he had ever heard. Louie stared up, astonished, listening to the singing. What he was seeing and hearing was impossible, and yet he felt absolutely lucid. This was, he felt certain, no hallucination, no vision. He sat under the singers, listening to their voices, memorizing the melody, until they faded away. Phil had heard and seen nothing. Whatever this had been, Louie concluded, it belonged to him alone.

We will never know whether or not what Louie saw was real or not. I believe him when he says that he was lucid, for these stories have been told time and time again by people deprived of sleep and of food, both of which Louie was managing without. I would love to hear that song that they played. Let this be a reminder to us all about how much of an impact our environments do in fact have on us. They pull at us like strings on a puppet. They hypnotize us and make us forget that we have the final say about where we choose to dock our bodies. For me, I find art, music and literature to be inspiring reminders that I am more free than I sometimes think. When I read a good book or watch an inspiring film, I am reminded that I am creating the world around me, and that society is a tame-able trickster who wants rights to my mind.

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