It was a dark, gray, bitter-cold afternoon. I stood alone in my kitchen. The phone fell from my ear. There was no scream. There were no tears. There were no clenched fists. There was nothing. Nothing, but complete silence. Utter numbness. Hollow. Void of life. My friend Danny Pearl was dead. On February 21, 2002, after four grueling weeks of working with friends and family to try and secure his release from his captors, our greatest fear had come true. Danny was gone, taken from this world in a manner so unjust, so inhumane, so unconscionable there is no word for it.
Although the official date of Danny’s death is February 1, it wasn’t until three weeks later that his friends, family, and the world learned of it. In less than a month, Danny had captured the attention of a global audience. His face was as familiar as a celebrity’s. For a myriad of reasons, people connected with Danny and his story. They saw in him all that was right in the world. They saw in his horrific end everything that was wrong in the world. I was not surprised by how accurately the media was able to portray Danny and the qualities he possessed. He was not your ordinary dude. Danny was special.
Danny and I met in Atlanta in 1991, shortly after he had moved to town to take his first job with the Wall St. Journal. He and I put a band together, fast became friends, and remained close up until his tragic death eleven years later. We shared a lot in common – a love of soccer, Frisbee, good beer, folk art, hiking, and cycling to name a few. We also shared a love of music and a belief in its power to connect people. Danny was an easy going, laid back guy with a smile that could light up a cave. He loved people. He possessed an undying loyalty to friends and family. He was the kind of friend who would have done anything for you. He was the consummate optimist.
Shortly after Danny left Atlanta and moved to Washington, DC our friend and band mate Dave was getting married. Despite a hectic work schedule with the Journal, Danny flew down one week before the wedding to attend Dave’s bachelor party – a weekend of music and camping in the north Georgia mountains. There were maybe a dozen of us going. We gathered at my house early that Saturday morning, camping gear and instruments in tow. The weather was less than ideal. It was monsoon-like outside. There were grumblings of canceling the trip and hanging out at the house instead, hardly a worthy consolation. Danny insisted that staying home was not an option. He rallied us like a University of Georgia pep squad, firing off a litany of reasons why we had to head to the mountains despite the weather. The rest of us were ready to throw in the towel, but Danny single-handedly convinced us to go. And go we did. The rain never let up. The tents leaked. The creek flooded. The wind blew. But we soldiered on with purpose. We hiked in the rain. We picked all night. We drank beer, played cards, laughed endlessly, and defied all logic in being there. We had the time of our lives. Exhausted and soggy, Danny flew back to DC on Monday morning. Four days later he flew to Florida for the wedding.
That’s the kind of friend Danny was. He was one of a kind. He lived on the sunny side, always beaming with a smile that was uniquely his own - that same smile in the photo taken on his wedding day that was plastered on the airwaves when he went missing. He was a ray of light, a shred of hope in a world that is arguably losing its way. Armed with an insatiable curiosity, an enlightened sense of right and wrong, and an uncanny appreciation for all things, Danny’s journey was a life-long quest for the truth. But unlike many truth-seekers, Danny’s quest was to find the truth so that he could share it.
Those who killed Danny celebrate his death as a victory, as some kind of notch in their twisted belt of hate, violence, and all things innately counter intuitive to the core of human morals. They may have taken his life, but they did not take his spirit. They did not take away the things that he stood for. They were gravely mistaken to think that they could. Ten years later, that is truer than ever. I am blessed for knowing Danny Pearl and a better person for it. I will cherish forever the times we shared together. Those memories fuel me. They keep me alive, positive, hopeful. They inspire me to work harder, to understand more deeply, to be a better person. As I stood alone in my kitchen on that dark, gray, bitter-cold February afternoon, I knew I had to do something. I owe our friendship at least that.
Todd Mack is a writer, musician, and producer, and owner of the Off the Beat-n-Track recording studio in Sheffield, MA. He is also the founder and executive director of Music in Common, a non-profit organization whose mission is to strengthen, empower, and educate communities through the universal language of music. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.