How do Louie’s childhood prepare him for his later success, as a runner and as a survivor of his war experiences?
Louie had a tough-and-tumble boyhood. He would often get in trouble for his mischievous adventures. He was far from an angel. Even as a two year-old child, he jumped off a moving train. Later, he routinely stole things, got in fights, and broke rules. No one would have predicted that this troublemaking boy would end up becoming a national hero, celebrated for his war service and for his running achievements.
Louie’s later success can be partly attributed to his boyhood, because his early life helped him develop grit and resilience. Louie’s troublemaking ways helped him nurture abilities to work his way out of difficult situations, including abilities to steal and to outwit others. Louie’s childhood was not protected from danger. Louie was able to live fearlessly, using quick thinking to work his ways out of situations, to escape and to win.
Louie also had a supportive, loving family backing him, including his older brother Pete, who was responsible for steering Louie toward running. Even though Louie was so often in trouble, he was always embraced by his family. Their status as Italian-American immigrants newly arrived in California is partly what gave Louie so much freedom but also what held them strongly together. Thoughts of his family, and of his mother’s cooking, help Louie survive the war.
Louie had once been among the slowest runners his age, but with training he and Pete discovered that he had undiscovered talent. Again, Louie was an underdog who understood fierce competitions and who was not afraid of a fight. Louie had natural endurance and discovered that he was an endurance runner. Later, his endurance would be an essential part of his ability to survive the war.
What challenges do the men face on the sea journey, and how do they survive?
Louie, Mac, and Phil survive a plane crash. Even before they face the challenges of the raft, they start with the trauma of that crash. Limited food rations on the two rafts present the next most pressing need. Over the next 47 days, the men have to find ways to survive. Of the three men, only two survive.
The men have to figure out how to secure food and water. Mostly the men starve, with little opportunity to secure food. At times, though, food does arrive fortuitously in the forms of a few seabirds that land within reach. They also have some success at catching fish, even sharks. Of course, they cannot drink seawater, so they hope for rain and develop ways of catching rainwater. Still, for Mac’s body, the food and water are not enough. He does not survive.
The men are under constant danger, with circling sharks, the sun, the weather, and even the later attack of a Japanese plane. The men have to work hard to stave off the sharks, who become extremely aggressive at times. When the Japanese plane shoots at them, they even have to jump out of the rafts. They have extremely limited energy to do this. When the attack comes again, only Louie has the energy to jump again.
The men also stay alive by taking care of their minds, to stay sane and optimistic. They repeat recipes, sing songs, and more. They do not share any pessimistic ideas, maintaining a tone of optimistic belief that they will be rescued. They also do not discuss the plane crash, even though Louie suspects that Phil, the pilot of the plane, probably thinks about it.
What challenges does Louie face after the war, and how does he overcome these challenges?
Louie’s homecoming is celebrated by the entire nation, making Louie a celebrity. At the same time, however, Louie begins to suffer inwardly, from the emotional effects of the war. Louie first experiences anxiety when he returns to his family home. When his family showers him with accumulated gifts from the holidays he has missed, Louie feels overwhelmed. He shocks his family by his reaction to the record they play, of the radio message he had made in Tokyo.
Louie begins to be haunted by nightmares. In his dreams, he sees the Bird and experiences again the extreme suffering of the previous years. This inward battle with the Bird causes Louie to feel anger and to desire revenge. Over time, Louie even begins to construct a plan to return to Japan in order to murder the Bird.
To deal with his anxiety and other emotions, Louie also begins to drink excessively. He drinks at all hours of the day. Alcohol so preoccupies Louie that, when he and Cynthia later make a return trip from Florida, Louie fills the entire backseat with alcohol. Alcohol does not stifle Louie’s rage. The marriage of Louie and Cynthia begins to crumble as a result of Louie’s problems, to the point that Cynthia plans to divorce him.
In a low point of his life, Louie experiences a religious conversion while listening to the preaching of Billy Graham. In a moment, Louie is able to see his life as blessed by forces that wanted him to survive. He remembers a desperate promise he had made to serve God, and in that moment his life changes. He is able to let go of his anger and of his desires for alcohol and other vices. He is changed in that instant.