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Lost in Shangri-La

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Growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, I had a good friend in grade school and high school named Mary Dennise ("Dennie") McCollom -- who is my friend to this day. As children, we were told that Dennie's father was dead, that he had died in World War II, that her mother had never remarried.

What I did not know were the circumstances of her father's death, although she did mention later a detail or two about how his plane had crashed in a remote valley of Dutch New Guinea nicknamed "Shangri-la" and how his remains were still there in the wreckage in that faraway place.

When I thought of Dennie's father, years later, as I studied and wrote poetry -- I sometimes imagined that Dennie "immortalized" him in her memory the way James Tate, in his famous poem about his own missing father, "The Lost Pilot" -- set the mysterious figure circling above forever:

... when I see you,
as I have seen you...
spin across the wilds of the sky...
James Tate, "The Lost Pilot"

But Dennie's father, Robert McCollom, did not disappear, or circle forever. Now the extraordinary particulars of his death and the deaths of his companions, as well as the survival of his twin brother, John McCollom, with two others, are the riveting "plot" of Lost in Shangri-la by Mitchell Zuckoff -- "a true story of survival, adventure and the most incredible rescue mission of World War II" -- just out from Harper-Collins.

On May 13th, 1945, twenty four American servicemen and WACS stationed in Dutch New Guinea (once held by the Japanese, liberated by the Americans in 1944, though the Japanese remained close by, making the location a key point in the Pacific theatre) boarded a transport plane. They were taking a little "R &R" -- an afternoon sight-seeing flight over a beautiful interior valley surrounded by mountains, called "Shangri-La" and they planned to be back for dinner.

They never made it. The plane ended up crashing deep in jungle-like terrain -- with just three people surviving: a WAC corporal, Margaret Hastings, whose legs were badly burned, a sergeant named Kenneth Decker, whose head bore a terrible open wound -- and John McCollom, a young lieutenant, who was uninjured -- despite the fact that, after the crash, he ran back twice into the burning plane to try to save others, including his twin brother.

McCollom's quiet bravery, his patience, his calm assessment of danger and clearcut decision-making seem "shadowed" by the certainty that his twin, Robert, would have acted in exactly the same way. Dennie's father lies dead in the burning wreckage, as the amazing narrative of the book begins -- yet the reader feels that he somehow continues to live "through" his twin brother -- from whom he had been inseparable in life.

What happens to the three survivors becomes a wild and suspenseful adventure (they are faced, on one hand, with reputed man-eating headhunters -- and Japanese troops on the other) -- but the adventure remains touched by the elegiac, an abiding sense of loss for those left at the crash site, as the three struggle to remain alive.

What happens has to be read in this moving carefully-reconstructed account, not randomly summarized, but I will simply say, again, that John McCollom remains, in the spirit of his twin, a hero throughout. There is one other individual, a tribal leader named Wimayuk Wandik, who also seems heroic. When other tribesmen consider killing the "sky spirits", who have come, just as old legends foretold, to "change the old way of life" -- Wimayuk Wandik defends these visitors "from the sky". Rather than destroy what seems like a threat, he welcomes the idea of the new -- he believes in the future -- and he helps give the three "sky people" safe passage.

A photo in the book of Dennie McCollom Scott hugging her uncle John many years later (her uncle "gave her away" when she married) is pure joy. Her father was lost, but he survived through his twin. And through this unforgettable story, beautifully documented with photos, journal entries and personal memories -- we recover a piece of lost history.

We recover inspiration -- We believe, if only for a little while , that people are kind and decent -- that the future holds promise. And that, if we live -- we must live in peace.