An American Dreamer

He swung and missed at every ball, and never blamed the bat. And every time he stepped up, he believed – he believed this time was different.

Tim at the base of Mount Yasur

Vanuatu seemed made for Tim Drefahl, and he for it. He wasn’t the typical Peace Corps volunteer. Older than most, much younger than the rest, he struggled to find his place in the fraternity. Perhaps it was his outsider status that made him a true friend for some of us and a devoted, caring member of his adoptive family in the Maskelyne islands.

In his first real foray outside the confines of Reaganite California, Tim found himself bewildered by the sarcasm and piss-taking of his newfound expat mates. He struggled and, as he always did, adjusted. By his second year here, he was leaning into the banter, trying gamely to give as good as he got.

No such struggle was required in his integration with ni-Vanuatu society, not at first. His love for the people of the Maskelynes and his devotion to their development gave focus to his unquenchable determination. An American Dreamer to the last, he KNEW that, with a liberal application of sweat and willpower, anything could be achieved. No matter what the world threw at him, no matter how he struggled to find his stance, this was one lesson he never un-learned.

Tim could be thick, occasionally breath-takingly wrong. He was awkward, often comically lacking in timing and sense. But he was true. Few people can be said to be genuinely pure of heart, but this man was one. And the world, with its piercing subtleties and sharpened edges, made sure that he paid more for every lesson.

Tim never learned caution and never lost hope. He stumbled into success and failure with equal resolve and unending faith in the rightness of his cause. It was his misguided clarity, ultimately, that closed Vanuatu’s door to him. Contracted to work in the administration of donor funds on a project close to his heart, he butted heads continually with departmental staff. No battle was too small. Right was right and wrong was wrong and that was it.

He was too Good. He succeeded too well. His project stayed on track, more or less, but winning so bluntly guaranteed that he would not work here again.

His exile from Vanuatu was purest misery. Alone and nearly friendless, he kept himself going through a year teaching English in Korea with the promise of return. But an extended vacation was the most he could muster. The world, as usual, exacted its price. The realisation that he could not make this his home nearly broke him.

He never stopped fighting, though; we knew he wouldn’t. Back to the US, then to Seoul for a time, just long enough to find a new passion: The city of Osaka, Japan. A clownish barbarian at the gates, he threw himself into this new exploration with blind enthusiasm. Appropriating friends like a pinball gaining points, he bounced and stumbled and clutched his way toward work, a home, a place of his own.

But the world does not reward the quixotic. Courage untempered by caution is brittle indeed. The causes are unclear, but on the 22nd of June, Tim was admitted to hospital with severe head injuries. He lingered for a few weeks, and on July 13th, 2010 he died.

“I miss you,” wrote one of his newfound Japanese friends, “I’m very sorry that I couldn’t save you even though I was near you.”

There are many in Vanuatu who feel the same.

The world is not gentle to the innocent, but no matter how it battered him, Tim Drefahl never let it win. Vanuatu offered solace for a while and, on an island ringed by an azure lagoon, there are people who will never forget his duty, his devotion, his love.