One of my favorite mental exercises is arranging meetings among people who were in proximity at some point in their lives, people who would have compelling conversations. Here is one example of three men who covered some of the same life territory. Who are they?
Louis Zamperini. One of the greatest books I’ve ever read was Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner from Southern California who was shot down over the Pacific in World War II and survived seven weeks at sea, only to be captured and tortured by the Japanese for two years. Masterfully researched and written, Unbroken renewed my faith in the power of the written word. Zamperini is still alive at the ripe age of 96.
Scotty Bowers. This morning I finished a rather different book, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, by Scotty Bowers. Published last year, Bowers’ book slides through his early years on an Illinois farm, a move to Chicago during the Depression, enlisting in the Marines and combat on Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, and his post-war move to Los Angeles as a gas-station attendant, hustler, bartender and no-fee arranger of sexual liaisons for the rich, powerful and famous. Bowers is still alive at the ripe age of 89, soon turning 90.
John Basilone. I learned the story of John Basilone through watching the HBO mini-series “The Pacific,” about the Marines in World War II, told through the experiences of several actual soldiers. Basilone won the Medal of Honor for his actions on Guadalcanal, holding off 3,000 Japanese troops with a squad of 15 men. Only two survived, along with Basilone. He toured the U.S. selling war bonds, married a member of the Marines Women’s Reserve. He requested a return to combat and after several tries was granted that request. He was killed on the first day of the Battle of Iwo Jima. Also killed on Iwo Jima: Bowers’ brother Don.
I knew about Zamperini and Basilone, but I needed Bowers to spark the imaginary discussion of two very old men and one who is forever 29. Bowers’ book, which had a thundering wave of publicity and a counterwave of questions about his veracity and lack of self-insight, interested me for reasons different from those who wanted to dish the dirt on secretly closeted celebrities and royalty. What I found most compelling was the early section on his wartime experiences. He glides over them, with some real tears shed for his brother and others killed, then gets back to the serious business of sex.
Bowers rides through life on the surface, bouncing along on waves with seemingly no harm done by anything in life. But combat in the Pacific is a very different experience from sex in the mansions of Hollywood. How did the war change him, what did he experience? Could his path have crossed with that of John Basilone, as they both fought on Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima?
Bowers wrote with maddening lack of detail about Guadalcanal,
We Marines shared a camaraderie that is unique in America’s fighting forces. We went through so much together that watertight bonds were formed. We thought of each other as brothers, and those deaths affected us all on a very personal level . . . I was fortunate to still be alive and unhurt. I was one of the lucky ones.”
For all his sexual libertinism, Bowers was a confirmed teetotaler, never touching a drop. Zamperini, however, back in Southern California after the war and drifting, became a serious alcoholic. Unbroken details the terrible impact of alcoholism on his relationships and marriage. A turning point came when he attended a crusade held by evangelist Billy Graham in late 1949 and became a dedicated Christian who walked away from the drinking. The conversion led to a career as an inspirational speaker and manager of a camp for troubled youth. He still lives in Hollywood, and can’t be far from Bowers on Kew Drive in Los Angeles. So for almost 70 years, Zamperini and Bowers have practically been neighbors, the Christian and the hustler, two men who did their duty and then pursued very different paths in life. What would they talk about? Their health, maybe, their experiences in the 1940s. From reading about them, I doubt either has regrets in life.
They would provide good company to John Basilone, winner of the Medal of Honor, who left a safe position stateside and a loving wife to be with the Marines in Iwo Jima, including brothers Don and Scotty Bowers. He will be forever 29. Perhaps a day in the company of men in their 90s would be enjoyable, three old soldiers sitting in the sunshine above the California hills, putting aside any differences to share their bonds and respect. While Zamperini and Basilone might have some qualms about Bowers’ career decisions, I could see them agreeing with Bowers’ reflection on the troop ship home in April 1945. Let’s give him the last word:
During the entire voyage I could think of little else but the desire to play as hard as I could. Needless to say, that included getting as much sex as possible. I wanted to do anything and everything I could to put the horrors and miseries of battle behind me. Like just about every other soul on board that ship I needed to purge myself of all that had happened. Every single of us was impatient to go ashore. Life took on a new dimension, becoming more precious than ever. The war had taught me an incalculably valuable lesson. After I had seen all those young guys stacked up dead or blown to pieces in that vicious conflict I realized that one of the most important things of all was to stay alive and to rejoice in the gift of every single day.
Whatever Bowers did in the rest of his life, those thoughts show a human touch that could connect him to his fellow soldiers, enjoying the sun.