My bank account was still pretty flush, a good starting point to prove the old adage that it takes money to make money. In fact, visions of glory filled me, and I became downright optimistic. Because of the postwar boom, everyone talked about making money, of “working the angles” in “fast deals.” I wanted in on the lucre. I had to make up for lost time, avoid the mundane, find the action. Why should I have to crawl through the years on a regular paycheck like my father? I was restless. I wanted to make it big, and quickly.
War surplus was an obvious choice. I bid on thirty Quonset huts and immediately sold them to the movie studios, who wanted as many as they could get for storage. When supplies ran out I switched to wartime iceboxes in need of small repairs and made a profit. With a friend, I went into a business called the Ready Phone, a crystal-based ancestor to today’s mobile. Again, I made money.
“See how easy it is when you have the cash and know the right people?” I bragged to Cynthia. “Pretty soon you’ll have a bigger house than the one you grew up in.” I wanted to prove to her parents that their daughter had made the right decision.
“I don’t need a big house, Louie,” she said. “But we should buy a small one and get out of this apartment.”
“Wait a while,” I said. “This is working capital. Soon we’ll be living off the interest.”
Cynthia was skeptical but indulgent. I knew she liked the flexible working hours my entrepreneurial career afforded. My “office” was at home, and there’s nothing a young couple in love likes to do better than spend time together.
As my cash flow increased so did my appetite for more. I got excited when two USC buddies, both business majors, said they had a corner on some D8 Caterpillars in the Philippines. Seven thousand dollars would hold them for shipment; if I invested, I’d double my money in six weeks. They showed me signed affidavits to verify the deal. Cynthia came to a business meeting and afterward had reservations, but I overrode her objections. “You heard them,” I said. “You saw the proof. We can’t miss. I want in on this.”
Our representative was a Japanese gentleman from Hawaii. “No problem,” he said, a few hours before leaving to close the deal, my cashier’s check for $7,000 in his pocket. “Everything’s under control.”
CONFIDENT OF A rosy financial future, I threw myself into plans for an adventure cruise to Acapulco with Harry Read on his new diesel-powered, two-masted schooner, the Flyaway. We advertised for a crew and, after a shakedown run, took off in early February.
We made our destination and on the return got as far as Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of Baja, heading for the Tres Marias Islands, about eighty miles off the coast—one island was a big prison for Mexico’s worst criminals—before we got caught in a Tabasco, or a white squall, so violent that it sheared the three-quarter-inch rudder pin and shredded our sails. To regain control we had to open up the lazaret to get to the rudder and try to shove an eye bolt into the hole while the Flyaway took on water. Our crew was too green to do much, so I took charge of hauling down the sail while Harry handled the pin. We rode out the storm but flooded the boat inches above the floor, shorting every onboard electric device: the icebox, the radio, the pump, even the engine.
Worse, we’d been blown nearly a hundred miles off course into the doldrums. Familiar territory to me. The sea was like glass. Hot. No wind, nothing. Fortunately we had food. Before the storm we’d anchored at an island and two natives had rowed out to meet us. We gave them apples and oranges for their kids, and before we left they returned with buckets of lobsters and coconuts. For a few days, while I busied myself sewing the sails and we tried to figure out what to do next, everyone feasted on langoustines by the potload, and drank vodka and coconut-milk concoctions with a squeeze of lime. When one of the crew asked me if, after drifting on a raft for forty-seven days, being lost at sea again scared me, I said, “Nope. Between the lobster and the liquor, I could do this for forty-seven years.”
After a week we got a little wind and made for land. I could smell the dirt and trees even before we sailed into the lagoon at a little village called Puerto Vallarta. I’d never heard of it. The only access then was by air or sea. The inhabitants gathered on the shore and told us, “We haven’t seen a boat from America for twelve years.” The mayor received us with a gracious welcome.
I got a message to Cynthia that I was all right, and she told me my disappearance had made the front page of the Los Angeles Times.ZAMPERINI, L.A. WAR HERO, MISSING ON BOAT AT SEA. When I finally got home, Cynthia had more news: some bad, some good.
The bad news: our Hawaii representative on the Caterpillar deal had spent my money on himself and his family. I’d lost every cent of my investment. I hired an attorney and sued and eventually the man had to pay me back a little every month, which was fine, but that left me without a lump sum to reinvest elsewhere.
The good news: Cynthia was pregnant.
I WAS OVERJOYED and dismayed. How could I bring a baby into the world—especially now? I’d lost money. We lived in a dingy apartment. Every few days our neighbors down the hall would argue loudly, and every Sunday night a radio upstairs blared until all hours. Fuses blew out regularly and more often in the winter from the electric heaters that supplemented the gas radiators.
I didn’t hide my fears or concerns from Cynthia, though I probably should have. She’d toss and turn at night, worrying about my worries in addition to her own. At times she’d let her mind drift back to the easy life she’d given up with servants and loving, protective parents. Then suddenly she’d shrug off her regrets and melancholy and hug me. Yet I could still feel fear in her embrace, all of which left me guilty and bitterly ashamed. I did my best to reassure her and told her often that I wanted to give her comforts and a life she’d never dreamed of, but somehow we both knew that deeds rarely followed my words.
Desperate, I turned again to prayer, though secretly, because how could I pray openly when I had for some time done my best to convince Cynthia she shouldn’t go to church and live by someone else’s philosophies and rules? I’d managed to keep her away from worship for two years, and I knew she wasn’t happy about it. Now there I was, pacing night after night, always asking God why he had again forsaken me. “After all I’ve been through, surely I’m entitled to some compensation. You performed miracles for me before, so help me now.” What kind of help did I require? “Return my money and help me double it so I can support my family decently.”
I usually felt better in the morning.
RATHER THAN HELP myself and look for a job, I waited for God to take care of me. After all, I’d always been Lucky Louie. I grew certain that my mistake had been in not praying sooner. Meanwhile, I continued to put my faith in fast-turnover, get-rich-quick schemes. I had high hopes when a friend asked me to help organize a motion-picture company in Egypt, but that fell through. A member of the opposition party in a shaky Caribbean government wanted my help with a revolution. He already had several B-24s and needed only pilots, navigators, and bombardiers. The pay was one thousand dollars in advance and another thousand on completion. While I thought it over, the revolution failed. Next, I got involved in a scheme to launch the first passenger-boat service to Tahiti, but while waiting to make my fortune, the yacht got repossessed.
Then a surefire deal came along. The uncertain manner in which licenses to hunt and fish in Mexico were obtained had always inconvenienced American sportsmen. Through a series of introductions I met a wealthy and influential businessman from Mexico City who had connections to Enrico Romay, Mexico’s secretary of the navy. Together, they agreed to grant me the exclusive right to sell the licenses in America. Even Cynthia believed our prospects were good and that we’d make lots of money, but when my partner drove to Mexico to get the necessary signatures to seal the deal, he died in a head-on collision with a Mack truck. Poof. No more deal.
Broke and angry, I left town for a couple of days. While I was away, a friend who worked at a little record company called Capitol phoned to tell me to immediately buy all the Capitol stock I could. The next day it went sky-high. The day after that I found out about his call—and his good fortune. He’d bought at noon and sold at six times the original price only hours later.
The truth, so obvious to others, finally began to dawn on me. No matter how hard I prayed, I could no longer avoid failure. Lucky Louie had disappeared, and God wasn’t listening. I’d have to struggle on my own to stay alive.
ON JANUARY 7, 1949, our daughter Cynthia Battle Zamperini, immediately nicknamed Cissy, was born. We were very happy, but my mother-in-law, who had come for a visit, marred the occasion by saying, “Louie, this is no place to raise a baby. There’s no yard, the sun only shines in the window for ten minutes a day. Promise me you’ll move.” Mrs. Applewhite, who had rented a dreary little room across the street, cried often at our pathetic surroundings.
She meant well, but I wanted to explode.
“I’m doing the best I can,” I said stonily. “I’ve just had hard luck.” I tried to explain, but the more I did the more upset she became. Any minute I expected her to pack up Cynthia and the baby and steal them back to Miami. As it turned out she was the only one to leave, but afterward Cynthia grew morose. I couldn’t blame her. Forced to stay home with the baby, she complained of feeling like a mole living underground. One day I walked in from a business meeting to find bottles of cologne, hand cream, and powder smashed on the floor. Pictures hung sideways, some broken.
Cynthia burst into tears. “I just got fed up. That’s all. I’ve had it!”
Again, I couldn’t blame her. Or myself. “I’m trying.”
“Louie, you just have to find a job. We can’t go on worrying like this week after week.”
“I go to one place and they ask if I’m qualified to be an oil engineer,” I said. “What can I say but the truth: no. Another place asks for a degree in a subject I don’t have.”
She almost spat at me: “You don’t need a degree…to dig ditches. I know you don’t want to work for someone else, but you may just have to. Temporarily.”
I ignored her pleading and good sense, mumbled evasively, and changed the subject. But inside I seethed. Couldn’t anyone understand my turmoil? My problems? My disappointments? How could I give her all she deserved on a weekly paycheck?
THE GROWING STRESS at home made my nightmares worse, and with that my drinking. I lost my temper often and fought even more than usual. The anger that later filled me with the greatest remorse was the rage I felt when Cissy cried. I loved her so very much and got up every night to feed and change her, but with my nerves so on edge, every whimper cut into me like a knife, and made me feel like I was failing not only myself but her. One afternoon, with Cynthia out shopping, I stayed home to watch the baby, hoping she’d sleep and I could get my work done. The apartment was peaceful for a few moments, but then she opened her eyes and cried, louder and louder.
“Stop it! Stop it!” I yelled from across the room. Cissy only cried harder. Not thinking and out of my mind with frustration, I picked her up and shook her when I should have hugged her. “Stop! Stop!”
Then dimly, as if from far away, I heard a voice say, “Louie!”
Cynthia was home. I turned around to see her in the doorway, her face drained of all color, terror in her eyes. She dropped her packages and snatched the baby. “You might have killed her!” she screamed.
“Oh, my God,” I whispered, as I slowly returned to sanity.
It never happened again, but sometimes I’d wake up in the dark, soaked from another nightmare, to find Cynthia weeping in bed. “I don’t know, Louie,” she’d say when I’d ask what was wrong—as if I didn’t know. “I love you and you love me and we have a beautiful baby, but even if we had all the money in the world to go with this I think something would still be missing. I don’t know what it is, but I know something’s missing.”
What could I say to that? Then her mood would vanish and we’d spend part of each day arguing about finances—and worse. One day, out of the blue, she said, “If this keeps up, Louie, I may have to leave you. You have to come to your senses. I can’t do anything to please you. You act as if you hate me.”
“I don’t hate you,” I barked. “I just don’t like you reminding me that you think I’m a failure.” I also wanted to say that I loved her and was more frightened of her following through with her threat than I’d ever been of daily beatings by the Bird, but I couldn’t find the courage.
ONE AFTERNOON, WHILE leafing through our desk calendar, I discovered a mysterious notation penciled in by Cynthia: “Take inventory.” I didn’t know what it meant, and that worried me. Inventory of what? Clothes? Possessions? Our marriage? I reviewed our fights—there were so many—looking for the one incident that might have caused her to take such a step. Then I got it. Last Christmas Eve, before Cissy had been born…
As we’d dressed for a party Cynthia said she wanted to stop at a church on the way, and she wouldn’t let up no matter how much I argued against it. When we got into the car, she insisted again.
“Be quiet,” I said. “We’ll be late for the party.”
“I will not,” she snapped. “There’s a church on the next block. I haven’t been for two years because you didn’t want me to go. Now I don’t care. I’m going in for a few minutes, like it or not.” I glared at her, then slammed on the brakes in front of the church and said, “Okay. Fine. But if you’re not back in five minutes, I’m going to the party without you.”
I watched Cynthia, pregnant, struggle up the steps, then looked at my watch. My head pounded as each second passed. I couldn’t explain my hatred of religion, of God, to her. She wouldn’t understand. She’d say I was foolish. I just wanted to get to the party, have a few drinks, forget her whims and my misery. Why was she suddenly all fired up about church in the first place? What was the big deal?
The car door opened and Cynthia got back in. She didn’t look at me, but she was calmer. “I just said a quick prayer for us, Louie. That’s all.” Then she stared out the window while I drove, convinced because of my own failures with prayer that Cynthia had also wasted her time.
BY THE END of 1948 I finally ran out of money. To pay my bills I borrowed a thousand dollars from a friend and offered my car as collateral. I said I’d pay him back by a certain date or he could take the car. Meanwhile, Cynthia went to Miami with Cissy to see her parents, and as I dreaded, she returned determined to get a divorce. Our situation, she insisted, was hopeless. I didn’t have a steady income. I’d been “taken” by different people. I drank. I was angry. Unstable. She loved me, but that was no longer enough.
I didn’t want a divorce, but I was caught in a self-pity trap. All I could say was, “Well, you’re entitled, the way I’m doing, but I can’t do anything about my situation.” I was too proud and too ashamed to ask for help—even from my family. Inside I knew that she was absolutely right.
I’d failed her. I’d failed my family. I’d failed myself.
ALTHOUGH CYNTHIA HAD said we were through, she didn’t rush to leave, and we went on much as before. In September 1949 a new neighbor moved into the apartment building. A nice young man, serene and friendly, he immediately revealed a strong attachment to religion. While I worked on my latest deal, he spent time talking with Cynthia. His visits didn’t deter her from divorce, but they seemed to soothe her nonetheless. One night he invited us to go with him to hear an evangelist who’d set up a huge tent on the corner of Washington and Hill Streets in downtown Los Angeles. I knew I was a rotten failure and a sinner, but when this guy started talking about church and God, I felt like he was pointing his finger at me. I didn’t want to have to listen.
“It’s not for us,” I said curtly. He did not press the point. When he left, Cynthia did. “I’d really like to go,” she told me. “I’ve heard about this evangelist, and I’m curious.”
“No,” I said. “Absolutely not.” I knew that Cynthia, who had been reared in a devoutly Protestant household, was sincerely concerned about our spiritual welfare; despite my own antipathy toward religion and my stubbornness about her attending church, I respected this in her. Yet to go to a tent revival with people moaning and wailing and shouting…nonsense.
I been around holy rollers before. When I was a kid they’d come to town but weren’t allowed inside the Torrance city limits. Sometimes my friends and I would sneak out to the site at night, lie on the ground, and peek under the tent to watch these crazies make a spectacle of themselves—foaming at the mouth, groveling in the sawdust, screaming in a frenzy. Some of them even got on their backs and raised their hands and feet up to the Lord. That’s why they called them holy rollers.
We’d go back and tell the priest, and he’d warn us off. “They’re demon-possessed. Keep away.”
A few days later our neighbor asked us to accompany him again, and this time Cynthia decided to go on her own. We were getting a divorce anyway, so what was the difference? I went to a party instead.
Later that night, swaying from too much booze, I came home to find Cynthia beaming. She seemed different. She actually smiled and acted calm, and frankly it felt eerie and vaguely disturbing.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I went to hear the Reverend Billy Graham,” she said.
“And?” I said, bored but tensing for a fight.
“And it was wonderful. Not at all the way you’d imagine it.”
“How do you know how I’d imagine it?” I slurred, sensing danger.
“Oh, Louie. You know how I always say there’s something missing in our lives? Now I know what it is. For the first time I have peace in my heart.”
“Great,” I sighed, dismissing her. “That’s great. I’m tired. Let’s go to bed.”
“No, Louie. Listen to me. I’ve accepted Christ as my Savior.”
I didn’t know if I should cry, laugh, or yell. Cynthia was smarter than this. Only old ladies and kids fell for this nonsense. I said nothing.
Cynthia just smiled. I went to bed.
THE NEXT MORNING nothing had changed, except that Cynthia was all over me to go to a meeting. I wouldn’t bend. “You know how I feel about it,” I snapped. “Leave me alone. I don’t understand it and I don’t like it.”
“You don’t understand it because you don’t understand yourself,” she replied evenly.
Cynthia and our new Christian neighbor began to work on me, and all I could do was to stay as far away from them as possible. I figured they’d get the message that I wasn’t buying it and would give up. Eventually they eased off, maybe because Billy Graham was supposed to fold his tent and leave town by week’s end. But Saturday night Cynthia told me that Dr. Graham would be in town for another three weeks by popular demand, and she tried to persuade me again.
“Billy Graham doesn’t preach all the time,” she said. “He talks about many things, like how many scientific facts can be found in the Bible.”
“Science?” I asked. I should have known better. Cynthia knew science fascinated me. Once she’d piqued my curiosity, she didn’t let up.
That evening Cynthia asked me again to take her to the meeting. What could I do? Reluctantly I relented.
THE SIGN OUTSIDE the tent read: GREAT LOS ANGELES CRUSADE—6,000 FREE SEATS. I studied the picture of Dr. Graham by the entrance. Holding an open Bible in one hand, he seemed like a serious young man. Otherwise, he was hardly my picture of an evangelist, and my impression was confirmed inside when, after some hymns, a man introduced Dr. Graham and he walked purposefully onstage.
Tall, handsome, clean-cut, athletic, he had clear blue eyes and seemed even younger in person than in his photograph. He stood erect, shoulders squared.
Cynthia stared at the stage, captivated and radiant. I settled back in my chair prepared to close my ears at a second’s notice. I may have come out of curiosity, but I was determined to resist being influenced in any way.
I expected Dr. Graham to start right in with the fire and brimstone, but to my surprise he spoke only about one person: Jesus Christ. And he did it with boldness and conviction. If nothing else, I had to admire his spirit. He didn’t scream nonsense, like the holy rollers I’d seen, but read strictly from the Scriptures. Fine, so he was a decent guy, but I still wasn’t buying. Plus, I had trouble following along and got restless.
“Where’s all the stuff about science?” I asked my wife.
“Be patient,” she said. “Just listen.”
The more I listened, the more I became convinced that Cynthia had tricked me into coming; this was no casual lecture, and it was least of all about science.
“There is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not,” Dr. Graham said. “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”
No, this was not about science at all. This was a sermon on sin—and it might have been directed at me. I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I hated being reminded. The Bible was meant to give comfort, not make a person uneasy. Was Dr. Graham trying to say that good deeds didn’t get you to heaven? Well, the heck with him and his big tent. I’d performed many kind acts. I was generous and gave to the poor even when I couldn’t afford to. I loved my family and was a faithful husband. I’d get to heaven my own way.
Then Dr. Graham said, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us,” and I sat straight up in my seat. How had he known what was in my mind? Then he said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
My anger vanished and fear replaced it. I grabbed Cynthia’s arm forcefully and said, “We’re going. Now. Don’t ever take me to a place like this again.” I almost ran out of the tent, dragging her behind me.
That night I couldn’t sleep; the nightmares came, worse than ever, driving me crazy, ruining my life. The Bird’s face and Satan’s face were indistinguishable as the heavy belt lashed at my head again and again. In the morning I brooded and ignored Cynthia’s almost constant urging to return to the tent that night. But she wouldn’t give up. After arguing for hours, I agreed to go back, “under one condition: When that fellow says ‘every head bowed and every eye closed,’ we’re getting out of there.” I figured I could handle it as long as I had that escape clause.
AGAIN WE LISTENED to hymns, then Dr. Graham spoke about the emptiness of material wealth and its inability to buy salvation, which itself was a gift from God. “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
Sure, I’d been involved in get-rich-quick deals, but what was so wrong about making money legitimately? Think of all the good I could do with the money. I squirmed in my seat while Dr. Graham quoted more Scripture:
“That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”
That really got me mad, but then I thought about the war. On that life raft, bobbing up and down in the ocean, hungry, thirsty, desperate, all I did was pray. Even if I’d been an atheist instead of a half-lapsed Catholic, I’d have prayed. That’s just the way it is. When there’s no further hope, men always look up. The thousands of prayers I’d said, and the thousands more in prison camp for two and a half years, came back to me in a flood. During the war I’d probably prayed more than Dr. Graham and his family had in their entire lives—“Lord, bring me back safely from the war and I’ll seek you and serve you”—and yet when I’d come home alive, I completely dismissed my promises because no one could remind me of them except myself. Now I felt tremendous guilt.
“When you receive Jesus as your Savior,” Dr. Graham continued, “you are regenerated by the spirit of God. Your life is transformed. You are a new person in Jesus Christ. Remember, Jesus doesn’t want part of your life, He wants all of your life. He wants you to repent of your sins and then completely and totally surrender your life to Him and follow Him.”
Surrender? Tall order. Not for me. All I wanted to surrender to was the overwhelming desire to escape the tent forever. I couldn’t stand the self-recrimination. I had to get out. I needed a drink.
I was about to get up when Dr. Graham read a verse that stunned me to the core:
“And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He that hath the Son hath life, and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.”
A great weight pressed on my chest, my throat tightened, I gasped for air. As a kid I had always believed that Christ was the Son of God, especially around Christmastime, but I knew I did not have the Son of God in my life. Not really. Not by a long shot.
“What kind of life are you living?” Dr. Graham asked. “Are you satisfied with your life? The Bible says for all that sin, they can serve the glory of God.” Just then, my whole rotten sinful life passed before my eyes and I began to get an inkling of what I feared I had to do.
Only I didn’t want to do it. Why? Men prefer darkness to light. How could I give up the parties and the liquor and living for the moment and the fun?
Dr. Graham answered that question, too. “Many people reject Christ because they feel they can’t live a Christian life. Well, nobody can live a Christian life—without help.” I thought when you accepted Christ you had to be perfect, but he said, “Christ has promised to help you. He said, ‘I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness. If you have problems in life, cast all your cares on me, for I care for you.’”
Boy, I thought, this is pretty good. I don’t have to be perfect. The Lord will help me. And yet, when Dr. Graham gave the invitation to any and all to come forward and accept Jesus as Savior, I could not budge. I would not budge. I felt suddenly like the angry young boy I’d once been, full of resentment at being forced to run the 660 for my junior high class, yet crouched at the starting line, butterflies in my stomach, waiting for the gun to go off. “On your mark…”
“Don’t you want to go forward?” Cynthia said softly. I refused to look at her. I could feel the sweat on my forehead and neck, and my heart beating fast. Again, the anger came and I wanted to lash out. “Get set…”
“Let’s go,” I told Cynthia. I grabbed her hand and pulled her up. “I’ve had enough.” I walked down the row, squeezing between people’s knees and the chairs, dragging my downcast wife behind me. Finally, I got to the aisle. I stepped onto the sawdust path and knew it was my crossroads of decision. I fought against it, perhaps harder than I’d ever fought, but in the end I made my decision, turned right, toward Billy Graham, released Cynthia’s hand…
I WALKED FORWARD and realized that my decision was like running a race. On the track I always felt 100 percent different after the gun went off than I did before. Only while running did all my worries and doubts disappear and leave me simply committed, my only thought how am I going to win? I had to use strategy, call on my training and my body to perform. Boxed in, pushed out, whatever the pace, but I’m in the race.
This was a different race but a race nonetheless. A race for life. My life.
A young American Indian fellow met me by the stage, and I followed him to a prayer room behind the curtain. I wasn’t alone; other men and women in transition were on their knees or talking quietly to their counselors. I knew then that I would not turn back. I’d struggled to come this far, and I would commit myself to whatever happened next.
I dropped to my knees and for the first time in my life truly humbled myself before the Lord. I asked Him to forgive me for not having kept the promises I’d made during the war, and for my sinful life. I made no excuses. I did not rationalize, I did not blame. He had said, “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved,” so I took Him at His word, begged for His pardon, and asked Jesus to come into my life.
I waited. And then, true to His promise, He came into my heart and my life. The moment was more than remarkable; it was the most realistic experience I’d ever had. I’m not sure what I expected; perhaps my life or my sins or a great white light would flash before my eyes; perhaps I’d feel a shock like being hit by a bolt of lightning. Instead, I felt no tremendous sensation, just a weightlessness and an enveloping calm that let me know that Christ had come into my heart.
WHEN I FINALLY opened my eyes and looked up, my counselor said, “Do you know you’re saved?”
“I know it,” I said.
“How do you know it?”
“You said that ‘whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ I called upon his name, and I’m saved.”
“Do you really believe it?” he asked.
“I don’t have to believe it,” I said. “I know it.”
He held up a pencil and said, “Now that you’re a Christian, that’s you. If you try to stand alone, you’re going to fall. The Lord says, ‘Cast all your cares upon me’—in other words, lean your entire weight on me—‘and I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness.’ Always remember, that pencil is you, and once you get away from the Lord, you’re going to fall.”
I prayed for another fifteen or twenty minutes, and the counselor walked me back out front. “I’ll be praying for you,” he said.
“Thank you so much,” I said.
I found Cynthia waiting in the audience, and she threw her arms around me. I looked at her and knew in my heart, as if it had always been so, that I was through drinking, through smoking, through with everything. My lifelong desire for revenge had disappeared, including my need to get even with the Japanese and the Bird. I didn’t know what the future held—would I be rich, poor, whatever?—but that didn’t matter. “I’m through with my past life,” I told Cynthia. “I’m through.”
She smiled, lit with the light of the miracle she knew had occurred.
THE BIBLE SPEAKS of the Word of God as a seed. Sometimes it’s planted by the wayside, and nothing grows there. Sometimes it’s sown among the thorns and represents the person who makes the decision and then goes back to his old life of bars and chasing women or whatever. A third seed is sown among the rocks. There’s sand and dirt between the rocks, and when it rains you’ll see a stalk of green coming up. But on the first day with sunshine it wilts because there is no room for roots.
The fourth seed is planted on fertile soil, and finally it takes hold and has a chance to grow and live. That’s what happened to me.
I had a lot of liquor at home. My father-in-law was an importer, and once he’d accepted my marriage to Cynthia he’d given me a three-hundred-year-old bottle of cognac. A collector’s item. Also Clicquot champagne. Pommery wine. I poured it all down the drain—except the cognac, which I returned. (I still had my senses!) I threw my cigarettes in the trash. Cynthia and I talked and prayed. When she saw me emptying the bottles into the sink, she was on cloud nine. She knew I’d undergone a real conversion.
“Now I’m not going to get a divorce,” she said.
THE NEXT MORNING I woke up and realized I hadn’t had a nightmare about the Bird. And to this day I’ve never had another. It was as if a doctor had cut out that hating part of my brain. I remember the facts, but the violent emotions are gone. I never even had to resolve to “work on it.” Before, as much as the hate poisoned me, I think it gave me a kind of satisfaction. I believed hating was the same as getting even, but those I hated didn’t even know my feelings. All I did was destroy myself with my hate.
After breakfast I told Cynthia I had to be alone. I took my army Bible, a New Testament that all servicemen had by order of President Roosevelt, and walked half a mile to Barnsdale Park. I’d tried to read it before but threw it aside, not understanding. I sat under a tree, said a prayer, opened up the Bible to John 1:1, and started reading: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…
For the first time in my life the beautiful story made clear sense. I began to cry, overwhelmed by the emotion. For many years the Bible had been a mystery to me, but now it was an open book. This was the clincher: how could I suddenly understand the Bible when I never could before? How often had I picked it up and put it down because I couldn’t make heads or tails of what it was all about? But with the Holy Spirit as my interpreter, the meanings were obvious.
I sat on that bench all morning and thanked God for my life from the day I was born, for all that I’d been and been through, all that I’d lost, all the times I’d tried to change and failed, all the times I’d prayed to survive and had. Otherwise I’d never have known Christ. All things work together for the good. The Lord had seen to it that I’d made it through every life-threatening situation and lost in every business venture because that’s what brought me to the tent. Now I knew that God’s hand had always been upon me and had prepared me for this moment.
VERY FEW PEOPLE really understand the difficulties of accepting Christianity. The picture painted by the well-meaning is that after a conversion God gives the new believer a steady diet of happiness and all is immediately well. Nothing of the sort is true. On the contrary, like every other sincere person who is striving to believe in spite of having so long lived another way with a mind conditioned to cynicism, I had to go through a period of despondency, doubt, and painful self-examination. Often I’d sit in the apartment for hours, without speaking to anyone. This was my trial period, during which I descended from the elation and satisfaction into the valley of despair. And unlike the war, when I had faced obstacles and overcome them, this time I did not have the same self-confidence. Then I’d taken survival-training courses, knew I was in great physical shape. Now I was simply a baby. That’s why they call it being reborn.
The Christian life is not easy. You’ll always get a guy who stands up and says, “Ever since I became a Christian, my life’s been a bowl of cherries.”
I’ve always turned to that guy and said, “You know what you need? You need Christ. Christian life isn’t about a bowl of cherries. It’s a struggle, and that struggle keeps you dependent on Him.”
Cynthia stood faithfully by waiting for me to rebound, and as my new humility took hold, I went to the Veterans Employment Service downtown and applied for honest work. No more “deals” for me; I’d dig ditches if necessary.
I didn’t know it, but that wasn’t God’s plan. My experience best fitted me for a different job.
FIVE NIGHTS AFTER my conversion I went back to see Billy Graham and met him and Cliff Barrows, the choir director, platform emcee, and radio-TV program director who started with Dr. Graham that year in Los Angeles. I told them my story and confirmed, “Yes, I’m converted.” I could tell by the way they looked me over that they had some scheme in mind—and I could guess it pretty well—but I said, “No man will ever get me on the platform preaching like Billy. I’m just going to be a regular Christian.”
The next week Barrows bought me a train ticket to Modesto and convinced me to give a testimony. I couldn’t very well say no. “What do I say?” I asked.
“Just tell them your war story and how God put you through this and that, and what happened to you at the tent.”
He sent me to his dad’s church, but the church had burned down, so they erected a tent. My first testimony was in a tent, under Cliff Barrows’s father.
The very week I found Christ, two other well-known men did the same. Jim Vaus, the wiretapper for mobster Mickey Cohen, and Stuart Hamblen, the singing cowboy and owner of the famous racehorse El Lobo. They joined me in spreading the Word.
When publishing baron William Randolph Hearst, who owned the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and many other papers, heard of these high-profile conversions, he was so impressed that he called Examiner editor Joe Pine and said, “Blow up Billy Graham,” meaning do a story and give him front-page publicity.
Until then evangelism hadn’t been news, more of a dirty word. That coverage made Dr. Graham famous overnight.
Later I spoke to a big crowd of Examiner carrier boys and their families at the Biltmore Hotel. Joe Pine was there. He said, “We’ve got Jewish people here. We’ve got this and that. But Louis, when you get up and talk, be sure and give them the gospel.” Joe Pine was, evidently, a Christian. He also said, “You have many friends on the paper”—originally the sportswriters—“and we knew you were having a problem. When Hearst called me and said to blow up Billy Graham, it was the best news I could have received.”
“Boy, am I glad Mr. Hearst talked to you,” I said.
“Who do you think talked to Mr. Hearst?” he countered, meaning God.
When the Examiner splashed Billy Graham, the Los Angeles Times did, too. Then it hit Life magazine and went worldwide, and I got invited to speak everywhere, expenses paid. I could also collect an offering. I made a few bucks here and there, but getting around was difficult, since I had defaulted on my loan and lost my car. Then, at a meeting, I met a guy who had a little hamburger joint in Glendale. He said, “I’m getting a new car, Louis. I’ll sell you my DeSoto coupe for a hundred and fifty bucks.” A bargain. It had good tires and ran like a top. Now I had a way to get to more meetings and soon I found myself back in the spotlight like in the old days—only altogether different. Some friends later accused me of accepting Christ for the new publicity it brought, but they were dead wrong. It was thrilling to know I was on the right side for a change. Had I cravenly sought publicity, I certainly wouldn’t have thought or planned to kneel and cry in the sawdust in a dingy tent to find it.
I FORGAVE THE Japanese, I quit drinking, I quit smoking. My only struggle was when I went to parties with my friends. Most of them didn’t think my new religion would last.
I was at a Hollywood get-together at the house of some guy who invented backache pills. My friends stood around drinking with their usual enthusiasm, and they kept urging me to join them. I said, “No way,” but they had trouble accepting my new resolve. I understood. When you’ve known someone so well for so long and suddenly he turns his life around, you’re tempted to look for a practical, understandable answer first. No one considers the spiritual answer off the bat. I didn’t expect my transformation to go down easy, but as the Bible says, a smooth sea never made a good sailor. I believe that to this day.
Later I sat on the floor with the actress Jeanne Crain and some of her eminent show-business friends and witnessed to them—meaning I told about my conversion and answered their questions. They all listened because Billy Graham had made the headlines. Some gave me their cards and asked me to call and tell them more about my experiences privately. Then I went into the backyard, where my old cronies implied I was “chicken” if I didn’t drink. I left then, feeling rather low.
Later that night one of my buddies called and said that the guys pushing me to drink was just “a trick” to see “if that religion of yours was real or just a gag. I know they were pretty rude, but when you left, several of the same guys said, ‘Man, I wish I had the guts to do what he did.’”
I knew that along with their natural curiosity they had doubts about what had happened to me—was it real? would it last?—and his news gave me new strength and vigor. I decided then that while I’d continue telling my story to whoever would listen. Rather than preach I’d just plant the seed, live an impeccable life so people could see the difference in me, and let God grant the increase.
It was all in His hands now—as it had always been.