Sunday, April 28, 2019

Remembering Danny Fast

Looking back, I can't quite understand why Danny Fast was my friend. He was, after all, twenty years older than me, and when we first started spending time together I was just a little boyyounger by several years than my eleven year son old is today.

I know why I was his friend, though: Danny was a celebrity.

See, Danny grew up like I did on a missionary center in the middle of the Amazon Basin of Peru, South America: running barefoot through the jungle, paddling a dugout canoe around Yarina lake, and fishing for piranhas with a bamboo pole. He went to the same elementary and high school I did, knew a lot of the same people, and had a lot of the same experiences.

Danny (left) as a teenager.

But Danny's parents were also Bible Translators for the Achuar language group, so he spent a lot of time out in villages in the deep jungle. When he graduated high school and the time came for him to leave Peru for good like the rest of us missionary kids—to fly off to the United States where his mother had grown up, or to Germany where his father had—Danny just said, "No."

Sure, he spent a little time in his parents' home countries, working at this and that odd job (once at a summer camp he terrified the rest of the employees by running across poles strung high up between the trees for their ropes course, without a harness or a rope), but mostly he was back in Peru. The muddy waters of the Amazon ran too deep with Danny, and he could never quite shake the rich, humus smell of the jungle that was lodged somewhere deep within his spirit. So Danny spent as much time as he could out in the jungle with the Achuar people he grew up with and loved, and when in the early Eighties the National Geographic Television show came looking for a guide who spoke both English and Achuar, Danny was pretty much the only man for the job. So he took a couple of pudgy American botanists out into the jungle, where they swatted at bugs and asked him questions, attempting to explore the naturally-derived medicines of the Achuar. 

The episode aired, someone copied it to VHS, and we all got together in the library in front of the tiny communal television to watch Dannyour Danny—tell the world the sorts of things that no other television star ever could or would.

For Danny, it was a one-off. In the years to come, when the National Geographic people contacted him for a repeat or Oil Company representatives asked him to be a liaison for them with what I think it's fair to call his people, Danny politely refused. He could've made a killing off his special knowledge, ferrying wide-eyed outsiders into his private world. But Danny knew that this would jeopardize his relationship with the people, and it wasn't a sacrifice he was willing to make. 

Danny was and always would remain a man of strong character, and I always got the feeling that he was a little embarrassed about the whole National Geographic thing. 

For us little missionary kids, though, it made Danny the biggest celebrity we'd ever known.

It wasn't just that he was on TELEVISION, which was still a mystical-magical-glowing-box-of-wonderment to a gaggle of kids who'd only ever seen it at the library and when we were back in the U.S. on furlough. It was also that Danny was living the dream. We, too, loved our jungle home, and dreaded the day when we would age out of the Missionary Kid Program: Thanks for keeping things lively, kidstime to go back to the States or Canada or Germany or whatever other foreign country we've always told you was home.

Not Danny. Danny was in it for the long haul. 

So why was he my friend? I mean, not exclusively—Danny had time for all the little kids, and generally seemed to be more comfortable with us than he did with our missionary parents. But he and I did spend a fair bit of time together, a trend which continued over the years. Was it because my mother had directed him in a high school play before I was born (Our Town—he played the lead)? Or was it because he saw something of himself in me?

I'd like to think that the latter had something to do with it, because Danny was a very good man. 

I say "was," because Danny Fast died yesterday. 

I'm pretty broken up about it.

So I'm doing what I know how to do, which is to write about that brokenness and most of all about him. There are so few very good men in the world, you see, and the more people who know about the ones who do exist, the better. 

There are a lot of reasons why I say that Danny was a very good man. 

His loyalty to the Achuar is pretty high up on the list. He dedicated most of his life to them. As their communities grew and needed ways to sustain themselves without resorting to selling out to the outside world, Danny worked to develop sustainable fish-farming projects they could run without outside interference. He developed a better clay oil lamp that would burn oils they could extract from local seeds. He developed a lot of things, and whenever he was away from the Achuar for whatever reason, Danny was always thinking about new ways that he could help them better their lives.

Danny, like the rest of us missionary kids, was a man born to straddle worlds. That he did it so well and for so long is a testament to his character. 


One thing Danny did when I was little is he took me fishing. He also taught me how to build a fire and keep it hot. In fact, he taught me more than I can remember... my older brother says he taught us how to build a bird trap that worked, but the memory of that has faded with a thousand other things, a thousand other small moments. A thousand other conversations in which Danny, a man of deep thought to match his deep convictions, would philosophize with me about the world and our place in it. 

When I was a little kid, the grownup missionaries didn't know quite what to make of Danny. What did he really think about the world? Was he even really (thunderclap) a Christian? But that didn't worry me. Danny was a kind and gentle man, and we stayed friends all through my elementary and high school years. 

When I was fourteen, my family moved into the house next door to his parents' house, and when Danny was back in from the tribe he would live in the little place appended to theirs, which was essentially just a big screened in room with a concrete floor and a hot plate and Danny's hammock. 

Danny never had much in the world: a duffel bag; his hammock; and some booksDanny always had a few books on hand. No, he didn't have muchbut I still think he was one of the wealthiest men I've ever known. 

One cool morning when I was fifteen, Danny and I carried my family's fiberglass canoe down to the lake. Then he brought down the little 3.5 horsepower outboard motor (easily, with one hand) and we launched out into the mist that was beginning even then to burn off the surface of the water. We were headed for the little stream that ran from the far end of the lake out to the Ucayali river, one of the headwaters of the Amazon. Even with the outboard motor it was a trip of several hours in each direction under a blazing hot sun, and I was worried we'd run out of fuel or the outboard would break down. Danny just laughed. We had our paddles, after all, and he was used to paddling for days on end, out in the deep jungle as he traveled between villages. Out where the only sound was the steady schwip of the wooden paddle blades and the hiss of the water off the prow. 

Our goal was to harvest the bark of a tree that Danny had heard could be found in that stream, and I think maybe just to get away for a while from the "civilization" of our square-mile missionary center. 

I can't remember what we talked about on that trip, or if we even talked about much. I just remember feeling honored, as always, to be spending time with one of my heroes. 

That's what Danny was to me. A hero. 

When I graduated high school and prepared to leave Peru to make my own trek to a country that would take more than a decade to begin to feel like home, I gave Danny one of my prized possessions. It was a wide-brimmed army surplus hat that my grandmother had given me. I wanted him to have it, I think, in part because it was important to me (both my maternal grandparents had been in the U.S. Army during WWII), and in part because I wanted a piece of me to stay there, with him, out where there was peace and silence and the world carried on much as it had before either of us had winged over oceans to make the Amazon our home. I kept in touch, a little—a letter or two, I think—but not much, because how do you keep in touch with a man who travels the river where no electric lights shine? You can't send an email from a hammock strung between the poles of a thatched hut in the Amazon. 

In 2008 I moved with my then-wife and baby child from British Columbia, Canada to North Carolina. Shortly thereafter, I was divorced. It was a brutally dark time for me, but one bright shining star was that it brought Danny Fast back into my life. Danny and that hat of mine, which he'd carried back from the jungle all faded and worn and presented as a gift to my young son.




Danny had left the jungle he loved and came to North Carolina to live with his sister and brother-in-law, to care for their ailing and widowed mother, Ruby. He moved into a small loft room, still with his hammock and still surrounded by books. 

I took to going over there in the evenings, just to sit up with Danny. He now went by Dan, but long habit often had me still calling him Danny, and he graciously forgave me. We talked, as always, about anything and everything. He always had some new project he was working on: a thin-bladed paddle he'd coated with fiberglass that he was itching to give to a friend back in Peru, or some new tool he'd crafted for his gardening. Danny was a prodigious gardener, and often he grew things that reminded him of Peru, like the yellow peppers from seeds that had been brought from Peru, that he used to make a delicious Peruvian-style sauce. 

Our conversations always went longer than I think either of us intended, as did Danny's stay back in the United States. Anyone who knew him knew he couldn't wait to get home, but his mother's health kept deteriorating and she kept needing more and more help. Several times a night he had to get up and help her go to the bathroom. During the days he cared for her as well. For years this went on. Years and years without a good night sleep.

Danny shrugged this off. He said he power-napped during the day. He said he got used to it. But I could see that it took a toll. 

On a few occasions we took his brother-in-law's canoe out on the Catawba, to paddle for an hour and a half upstream and then an hour back down. For me, it was back-breaking work. For Danny it was a chance to shake out the cobwebs. We were silent a lot, enjoying that same paddle-schwip and the birdsong. Watching the breeze ripple the water and ruffle the leaves. 

Here's Danny on the Catawba one day in 2010, when the leaves were just beginning to change for autumn:


an afternoon on the catawba from josh barkey on Vimeo.

I took out my camera as an excuse to grab a break without admitting that my arms were turning to jelly. Danny paddled as he talked about the wealthy people of Charlotte, and about the incredible cost of their rat-race lives. It was a rat-race Danny never had joined, and never would join. 

I snapped his picture that day, and it's the profile picture that's left up on his Facebook account. 

Ha!

The thought of Jungle-Man Danny with a Facebook account makes me laugh through my tears as I write this. But he loved people and I guess he saw it as a great way to keep in touch with them. Both here and, increasingly, back in Peru, as many of his old friends got Facebook accounts as well.

The world of Peru was changing without him, as he was spending nearly a decade performing an act of selfless, quiet heroism. Taking time, now and then, for me.

Once we brought my son along on one of those canoe trips, and Danny borrowed my camera and returned the favor, snapping what remains one of my favorite pictures of the two of us. 





It was a good time, and I am glad we got to share it. But eventually, the inevitable happened. Danny's mother succumbed to old age and passed on, and Danny was at last able to return to his jungle home. 

I suppose I could've tried a bit harder to keep in touch.

But things were different now. Divorce had turned me in on myself in a lot of ways. I'd written too much about it online and Danny had called me on it. He'd suggested I stop, and I hadn't. He was right and I was wrong, but it took a long time to admit that to myself (and I never quite admitted it to him). I'd grown harder, too, and more cynical about the faith of my childhood, while Danny's faith had deepened and taken a more overt role in his life. I felt uncomfortable about this. 

So although I kept an eye on Danny's occasional social media posts from this or that Amazonian Frontier town where he'd found an internet cafe and posted a few pictures on his latest supply run, I did not write to him. I did not let him know that I missed his presence in my life. In fact, I'm not sure I ever really let him know all that he'd meant to me and how much I admired him. Everybody who knew Danny admired him, but I like to think I had more of an obligation than most to tell him that.

It is a hard thing, letting down your hero. 

Maybe that's why a couple months ago, when I heard he was back in the U.S. because of some mysterious ailment that the doctors couldn't seem to diagnose, I put off going over to see him. 

I told myself it was because I had a newborn in my house. I told myself I needed to protect my child, and exposing myself to some mysterious Amazonian ailment was not a wise choice for a responsible father to take. 

Perhaps this is the truth.

Perhaps I was just waiting for him to feel better, and would've gone over there soon. Any day now.

But perhaps I was a coward. Perhaps I did not go visit my ailing, lifelong friend because I was afraid to look in his eyes and see disappointment. To see sadness at me for the sometimes biting things I've written on this website about the childhood community where we both were raised. A place I still do love, but sometimes have picked at for its inconsistencies and hypocrisies. 

I'm not ashamed of that, really. Writing honestly about my past requires me to sometimes say some unpleasant things, and although I doubtless could have at times said them in kinder, less arrogant ways, I do think it's okay that I have said them.

No, I am not ashamed of that. 

I am ashamed that I did not ever go to visit Danny. 

A few days ago his mysterious illness caused a stroke. He was hospitalized and slipped into a coma and then, yesterday morning, Danny Fast died. 

A very good man has died, and I feel like the worst man in the world.

I would like to be a good man. I would like to be a Christian—a "little Christ," as the first followers of Jesus were mockingly called by outsiders who observed their Upside Down Kingdom waysand I have asked myself repeatedly over the years how best to do that. I can't come up with a better answer than Jesus himself gave in his parable of the Sheep and the Goats: 
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ [emphasis mine]
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
So that's a Christian. 

A Christian is a man who crosses the ocean, leaving the place and the life he loves to care for his ailing mother. He's a man who loves selflessly, and cares for the people who most need him. Even when it costs him. Even when it hurts.

Yesterday, I lost a man I loved without even taking the opportunity I had to say goodbye. 


Yesterday I bawled long and hard and with a deep, deep sense of shame. I cried until the pressure built in the back of my eyeballs and I felt they would burst from my head. I cried deep, wracking sobs. Tears of grief, and tears of shame. I did not visit my sick friend... perhaps the most minimal sort of sick-visiting that I could have done. And I cried tears of shame because after he was gone, in my grief I made it all about me. About my feelings. About my loss.

I used to like to say that nobody should ever call themselves a "Christian," because Christian is something other people call you, shaking their heads, when they observe all the weird little, backwards, Jesus-y things you do. 

Things like Danny did. 

So tonight I'm staying up late to write and cry and tell you, who've read this far, about a Christian I once knew. A man who, like the itinerant nomad Jewish carpenter he followed, never had much in the way of worldly possessions and spent his life freely for others. 

Danny Fast is one of the greatest men I've ever had the privilege to call a friend. 

I am writing this as a form of penance, but it's also a way of bearing witness to a life lived well, as a real Christian in a world where that moniker is often glitzed up and paraded around as a political talking point or an ostentation.

I wish I could be more like you, Danny. Maybe someday I will. 

I'm sorry.

I love you.

I wish I had been more of a little Christ to you.

Forgive me.

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