Giants in Their Days, and Ours

A few weeks ago, I learned of the passing of James Miller of Mission, Texas, the father of my best friend growing up and an anchor of Mission’s civic life since the early 1950s. He was 93 years old. This news came the day after I finished reading the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, about the extraordinary life of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who survived a Pacific Ocean plane crash and horrific treatment by the Japanese as a prisoner of war, and then a post-war descent into alcoholism. He not only survived but underwent a moral regeneration and continues to enjoy life daily – to keep up with him, just visit his website.

The book and the passing will forever link James Miller and Louis Zamperini in my mind. They grew up in the 1920s and 30s, served their nation ably, took what life dished out and bounced back up. I know other men like them, in their late 80s and early 90s now, who returned from the Pacific and Europe to build families and businesses, contribute to their communities, enjoy their grandchildren and appreciate every day of life.

They’re modest about what they do. One man I know, Eric Leiseroff, had the last bar mitzvah in Dresden, Germany in 1938, just before Kristalnacht. He and his mother left Germany on what might have been the last train out to Portugal in mid-June 1941, arriving in New York after the Germans invaded the USSR. Three years later, Leiseroff returned to Germany in the US Army, where his native German speaking skills made him a valuable intelligence GI. After V-E Day, he joined a team hunting down and interrogating members of the SS. After declining an offer to remain in Germany under cover as a spy, he returned to the US, found a job as a paper salesman that he held for 57 years and married. He and his wife just celebrated their 62nd anniversary. 

“I had a boring life,” he says. And yet for members of my generation, an incredible one. 

I last saw Mr. Miller and his wife Mrs. Miller (Esther by first name, but they were ALWAYS Mr. and Mrs. Miller to me) when I returned to Mission for my 35th high school reunion on June 2011. A trip to the Millers’ home always highlighted my journey to the past. I usually took a spin through Mr. Miller’s office, where pride of place went to a portrait of him as a Coast Guard officer in World War II. We’d drink tea, nibble on cookies, catch up on the news of the sprawling Miller family, of five children and enough grandchildren and great-grandchildren to populate a small village. My adventures in the Northeast always interested and amused the Millers. During one visit, I said, “I hope you don’t mind that I put a ‘Hillary for President 2008’ bumper sticker on your car,” I joked, and they responded with mock indignation. We’d take photos, say good-bye and I’d leave, always admiring the Texas sunlight filtering through the sturdy mesquite trees in the front yard. 

For all their modesty, these are tough old guys, survivors of times and challenges I can barely imagine. No human should endure what Louis Zamperini did, years of abuse followed by years of self-destruction with liquor. How he survived and how he ultimately—and abruptly—conquered his demons was so mesmerizing that Unbroken renewed my often-flagging faith in the power of reading books. The older I get, the more I skate through books, struggling to emotionally connect with either novels or non-fiction. Especially in novels, I often can barely care about the characters. The characters don’t matter, the books’ style and trendiness count for more than coherence or basic readability (perhaps I should take more care in my reading selections). But Hillenbrand writes with total clarity. Every sentence makes sense; every sentence relentlessly propels the story ahead with Dickensian cliffhangers that dared me to not immediately read the next chapter. 

Now I’ll try to put the reading lessons to work on a real writing project. I’m signed up November’s National Novel Writing Month event. I’m already way behind – easy rationalizations include weather, no power, other work commitments, need some more excuses? – but I’ve got ideas in my head and I just need to push them through my fingers. If Laura Hillenbrand, who suffers from a severe case of chronic fatigue syndrome, can writer an incredible book about Louis Zamperini, who beat everything that King Neptune and the Japanese Empire could throw at him and keeps chugging along in his mid-90s, then I can surely rouse myself to pound out some pages. These old guys knew how to keep going, maybe I can draw some inspiration from their examples.

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