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Loss and Redemption

By all accounts Dan Eldon was an extraordinary young man. But at 22, he was stoned to death in Somalia. A new book--a compilation of his many journals--is a testament to his life and to the family that loved him.

January 07, 1998|THOMAS CURWEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

". . . a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous. . . ."

Machiavelli, quoted in "The Journey Is the Destination"

Time scrambles across the pages of Dan Eldon's journals. Past and present blur in violent abutments of colors and words, visions of love and danger, much as they did for Kathy Eldon in the fall when she visited Mogadishu, the place in Africa where a mob murdered her son four years ago.

" . . . and from the roof [of the Al Sahafi Hotel] we listened to the story of how the journalists would watch the gunfire and the artillery, while listening to Edith Piaf and chewing khat," she recalls. "We were surrounded by [our escorts], loaded down with ammunition clips, watching for snipers. We were not in grave danger, but there is the potential that anything can happen. . . ."

Sitting in her West Hollywood apartment, the city below an image of hazy, benign congestion, Kathy can still feel herself hurtling through Mogadishu on a long overdue rendezvous with her son's ghost. She wanted to stand where he had been stoned, see the street, the earth and sky that he had last seen. Four years have done little to change that spot. The battered city, with its potholed streets and bullet-pocked villas, is still in pathetic ruin.

Few books capture loss and redemption as stunningly as "The Journey Is the Destination: The Journals of Dan Eldon," the legacy of an extraordinary young man who died at 22, his life curiously realized, and the mission of a family who loved him dearly. Leaf through its pages--each a ragged collage of drawing, scraps, scrawling and photographs that Dan feverishly assembled from age 14 until his death--and you see him, along with his sister, Amy, and their friends, as they followed the bright, dazzling trajectory of their youth. These are teenagers and young adults playing at life in a world that has forgotten how to play, and the more you look, the more you will remember something you might have forgotten, something akin to a riff in an old song, liner notes to the album, something punkish, something irreverent and relevant at the same time.

But for Kathy Eldon, the hypnotic message is not so much a memorial to her son but a catalyst for the creative expression it might unleash in others. For four years, Kathy has lived with these surrogates (there are 17 journals; "The Journey Is the Destination" is a compilation), crossing the country with them, turning their pages with publishers, film execs and museum curators. Finding a home for them was not easy, but a momentum developed. First, they were exhibited in her hometown, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, then they were published in DoubleTake magazine and recently exhibited in a New York City art gallery; today there's the hardcover (published by Chronicle Books), a documentary and a film being planned and a conversation with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which might add the journals to its permanent collection.

"Dan was just a kid, asking all the important questions," says Jan Sardi, who was nominated for an Oscar for writing "Shine," and who recently completed a screenplay based on Dan Eldon's life. "Dan had an ability to lock himself onto the immediacy of life, and yet at the same time was aware of a struggle with the darkness, a struggle in which he tried to find his way through."

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"Dan Eldon was a freelance photographer who had been working in Somalia for Reuters since June 1992. He was born in London in 1970 and grew up in Kenya. He said he 'attended Mogadishu University, studying how not to get your head shot off.' "

From the second edition of "Somalia," a photo essay published by Dan Eldon

He had the looks of a young Sean Penn but without the tough-guy pretense. A smile, a shock of hair, an impish look in his eyes gave him an innocence, both beguiling and playful.

"I see him on the boardwalk at Venice Beach." Sardi is describing a possible scene from the movie, which he hopes will begin filming this year. "He's trying to raise money to help refugees from Mozambique, and a policeman pulls him aside for selling without a license. The cop is African American, and Dan instantly charms him, talking about his own Masai friends and asking about the cop's background: 'a twist of that, a dollop of that.' And before you know it, he's getting out of the ticket."

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