It was this week more than seventy-five years ago, that one of the most harrowing personal dramas of the Second World War played itself out on a watery stage in the Central Pacific Ocean. Carrying a classified communication to General Douglas MacArthur, Eddie Rickenbacker and his crew ditched their plane into the water after straying off course.
News of the incident caused a sensation. Captain Rickenbacker, a Medal of Honor recipient from the First World War, had been the most lethal fighter pilot in the world; had helped start a commercial airline; had founded his own automobile company; and owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. To say that he had a household name would be an understatement.
Rickenbacker took charge of the survivors who were now clinging to a nine-foot life raft that was being circled by ten-foot and longer sharks. Yet, that wasn’t the real danger, absurd as it sounds. Thirst and starvation were the enemies.
To keep up morale, Rickenbacker, who wasn’t especially religious, suggested a daily reading from a New Testament one of the men had. On the eighth day, after this morning “devotional,” there was desperate talk among the crew about cutting off some of their digits to use as fish bait. It was then, out of nowhere, that a seagull landed on Eddie Rickenbacker’s head!
Able to “hear a pin drop on the water of the Pacific,” the crew watched with famished eyes as Rickenbacker captured it. The survivors ate the gull’s flesh and used its remains to catch fish. With an immediate rain in the evening, Rickenbacker and his crew were provided the sustenance to survive.
Max Lucado added an interesting addendum to this story. He wrote that Rickenbacker, on the beaches of Coconut Grove, Florida, many decades later, would sometimes take a bucket of shrimp with him on the warm evenings. Hundreds of sea gulls would join him, and he would toss shrimp up to their hungry beaks. It was the old Captain’s way of remembering and saying, “Thank you.” He was grateful for the grace that made the rest of his life possible.
All great religions teach gratitude, but one need not be “especially religious” to embrace its benefits. Research shows that grateful people are generally more healthy, experience less anxiety, and have a more positive outlook on life. But we instinctively know this already. Just look at the first complete sentence most of us teach our children to say: “Thank you.”
One of the old hymns we sang in the churches of my youth went, “When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed; when you are discouraged, thinking all is lost. Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”
That’s a good place to start. Count your blessings, your good fortunes, and the inexplicable mercies of life. Name them one by one — big, small, and in-between — and you won’t able to stop yourself from saying, “Thank you.”