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There was only one piece of mail that day.
The high school dropout cracked open a beer and stared at the letter.
He cursed under his breath as he looked at the return address… the U.S. Government.
After another swig of his beer, he snatched the letter and opened it.
He’d been drafted.
The year was 1951, and World War II was over… but the Korean war was just getting started.
The man holding the letter had grown up during the Great Depression and then endured World War II. During those dark days, the only thing his family had to cling to was a promise from the media and Washington:
Don’t worry… World War II is “the war to end all wars.”
The implicit idea behind the pact was simple: after this war, we’ll figure out a way to prevent this kind of fighting. After the madness, rational thought, diplomacy, and collaboration will return and prevail. But those promises were broken, and now there was another war demanding new draftees.
Days later, the man was in the Army. He worked as a projectionist for training films. On weekends, he would go to Seattle to see a girl he was dating.
It was on one of these trips that he found himself as the sole crew member catching a ride in a Douglas AD bomber. They were heading from Seattle back to the San Francisco Bay Area. As the bomber climbed into the air, the rear kept ripping open. As gusts of wind blew through the aircraft, the man fought to keep the plane door closed. Next, the oxygen system failed. The man attached a breathing mask to his face as his palms began to sweat. Then, the intercom system cut out. Moments later, the pilot burst out of the cockpit. His face was pale white, and he told the man that their fuel system had just failed.
The pilot and the co-pilot would have to make a crash landing at sea off the California coast.
Turbulence rocked the plane as he stumbled through the cabin and grabbed onto a life raft. Minutes later, his stomach lurched. The old bomber was falling through the sky at an alarming rate.
Without warning, the bomber’s underbelly smacked into the first waves from the ocean and then bounced back up into the air. Glass shattered, and the next bounce on the stormy sea was the plane’s last. Saltwater poured inside. The man lept into action. The cabin door was jammed shut and wouldn’t open. Behind the door, the pilots were yelling for him to save himself. They had an escape hatch and would be fine, but he was on his own…
The man cursed as the saltwater now rose past his waist. With the water reaching his chest, he fought to keep the broken cabin door open. He felt the icy seawater on his neck as he wrapped the cords of a life raft around his hands. After a deep breath, the water rose above his head, and he pushed off the door frame of the sinking bomber and out into the sea.
On the ocean surface, waves crashed against his face. He pulled the cord to puncture the CO2 cartridge in the inflatable raft. Minutes later, he lay gasping for breath on the yellow raft.
The pilots were nowhere to be found and he remembered their words… they would be fine, he needed to worry about saving himself.
Taking stock of his situation, he looked around and saw a faint light in the foggy distance. He checked his compass to ensure it was in the direction of land, and then leaned over the raft and paddled with his bare hands.
Shivering uncontrollably, he kept dipping his hands into the icy water to propelling himself forward. As he approached the light, he could make out several small buildings. When his raft came close enough, he leaped over the side and pulled it in. Laughing and cursing, he pulled the raft up onto the beach and laid back onto the pebbles of the northern California shore. His smile widened.
He looked up and down the shore but couldn’t see any sign of the pilots. He ran towards the buildings on shore, which turned out to be a radio station. The host inside didn’t believe him at first, but once he saw his life raft, the host agreed to radio the Coast Guard for help.
Within the hour, the coast guard retrieved the two pilots.
The near-death experience opened his eyes. How would he honor that gift of life?
Years later, his service was complete and he left the military. The tall and lanky man decided to move to Los Angeles to find the next adventure.
By this point, he was older, married, and had kids. He tried college, but it didn’t work out.
During the days, he worked as an apartment manager, dealing with tenants and fixing whatever was broken. At night, he worked as a gas station attendant.
One evening, a businessman drove through to have his car serviced.
As he wrapped up the job, he noticed the businessman staring at him intently. The man extended his hand with a card and said:
“If you’re looking for work, why don’t you come and see me on Monday? We’ll meet at the west entrance to the Universal lot?”
Eager for a new opportunity and more money, the tall man took the card and nodded. “See you Monday.”
The next Monday, at the Universal lot, the tall man paced as he waited.
The guy who gave him his card snuck him in with the help of a receptionist. He read a few lines, went home, and didn’t think anything of it.
Weeks later, he got a callback. Soon, he was getting minor parts in small films.
At night, by order of his directors, he took acting classes to get rid of all his “bad speech” and “lazy” habits.
Few thought he was a good actor, and he only got minor roles in westerns.
Eventually, he turned to his other love: music.
There he started to develop a persona as a country western singer. He was making a bit of money touring and performing, but the albums never broke into the Billboard Top 100.
Soon it was clear that music was much harder than acting, and he turned back to taking roles in films. They went okay, but soon tragedy struck. One of his closest friends and business manager died and his career stagnated.
The tall man’s breakout didn’t come until a few years later when he played a San Francisco Police Inspector and delivered the lines:
“You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”
Dirty Harry was a hit, and sequels followed, along with one of the most immortal lines in film history:
“Go ahead, make my day.”
The tall man is, of course, Clint Eastwood.
After Dirty Harry, he set up a production company and soon began acting and directing films. His cadence and output were astonishing, averaging close to one film each year.
Clint Eastwood has shaped American culture in a powerful way.
His prolific acting and directing haven’t stopped. Today, Eastwood has acted in or directed more than 67 films.
Eastwood’s work and life embody Americana and the idea that life is complicated, but by trusting your instincts, showing up, and consistently putting out new work, you can break through.
That’s his story, what’s yours going to be?
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