The power of a story

If you have followed my blog for any period of time, you know I love to read.  I love to travel to new places and times and learn about the challenges people have confronted.  I have recently “heard” some powerful stories and wanted to share them with you.

The first is “Togo” – it’s not a book but a recently released movie about the diphtheria outbreak that threatened to devastate Nome, Alaska in 1925 – especially the children.

Many may remember hearing that a team of dog sleds combined to bring an antitoxin serum to the remote community – a run of over 700 miles in the harshest possible conditions.  (This feat spawned the annual Iditarod dog sled race.)

The main characters are Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian immigrant and renowned local “musher,” and his lead sled dog, Togo.  This team did far more than any other team to deliver the serum, including a daring run across the frozen Norton Sound to save precious time.

I was familiar with the story – some may have seen a previous movie “Balto” – but two things stood out powerfully in this story.  First, how challenging and brutal it was just to live and survive in Nome in 1925!  The cinematography transported you back to that time and place – incredible.

Second, I was struck by how a group of mushers took on the challenge to deliver the serum their community desperately needed – at grave risk to themselves.  Leonhard and his wife, Constance, did not have children and easily could have stayed in their remote cabin, safe from the epidemic.  But he and Togo answered the call – and it nearly cost both their lives.

My second powerful story was set in the skies above Europe in World War II.  The book, “A Higher Call” by Adam Makos, takes you intimately into the lives of two pilots – a German fighter pilot, Franz Stigler, and an American bomber pilot, Charlie Brown.  Fatefully, the two meet over northern Germany on Charlie’s first bombing mission – when his B-17 is shot to pieces, yet miraculously continues to fly.  Franz could have easily shot down the now defenseless bomber, yet instead, he escorts it safely past the German anti-aircraft guns.  Had this action become known to his commanders, Franz would have been executed.

Like with Togo, two things powerfully impacted me.  The first was the personal detail in depicting the trauma and death experienced by the WWII flyers.  I was shocked to learn that the casualties suffered by the bomber crews over Europe nearly equaled those of the Marines in the Pacific Island Hopping Campaign!  Makos takes you into the ready rooms and planes with these crews as time and time again they overcome their stress and fear to go aloft and do battle.

Second, Franz and his family had a strong Catholic faith, which put them at odds with the Nazi Party – and nearly cost them their lives.  Additionally, Franz was aligned with a group of chivalrous pilots who “mutinied” against the Nazi-leader of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering.

Amazingly, both Franz and Charlie survived the war and were reunited in 1990.  They became good friends and helped each other overcome the traumas of the war.  You can see their interviews on YouTube.

Much closer to home, but still powerful, is our own Human Services Department’s “Story Corps.” For the last few years, employees have gathered over lunch every month or so, to listen to the stories of their colleagues.  These deeply personal stories serve two very important functions for the team.  First, they broaden and deepen their understanding of their teammates – both the challenges they have been through and the unique perspectives they bring to their work.  Second, it is a critical reminder that we all have a story, some very different than others.  As our case managers provide support to those most vulnerable in our community, this understanding is an important foundation.

I have attended two recent Story Corps meetings – hearing the powerful and unique stories of Elsa Jaramillo and Lucky Bradley. I really appreciate their sharing.

I’m writing this blog having just participated in our 2020 Point-in-Time Count.  I was out from 9:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. with amazing professionals and volunteers in cold and rain to gather the stories of many in our community who are experiencing homelessness.  But those stories will have to wait until next week’s blog.

Hope you have a safe and dry weekend,