The Faith No One Could Teach Me


Modern Screen; April 1951

by Dan Duryea

"When illness threatened my life I felt that God had let me down. Slowly I learned that He moves in a mysterious way to perform His wonders."

My breath was coming in quick, short gasps. I was breathing so hard and with so much difficulty as I walked through a Philadelphia street that all of a sudden my legs seemed to buckle under me! Gasping for breath, I seized the ledge of the building nearest me – an office building, and for 15 tortured minutes, I clung to that ledge as though for dear life.

At the end of the 15 minutes I found that I could walk again. Slowly, and with hesitating steps, I made my way inside the lobby of the building. I wondered if I would stand or fall. Some deep pride inside me kept me from calling for help. When, at the end of a few minutes, I found I was still on my feet, I inched my way slowly toward the office where I usually worked. It was only about two blocks away from the building to whose ledge I had clung for support, but those were the longest two blocks I had ever walked in my life. When I reached the Katz Advertising Agency, where I worked, I called my wife, Helen, on the phone.

"Helen," I said, "remember how I had to sit down and rest for 20 minutes after I played baseball last Sunday, and how I could dance only once around the floor on Saturday night and then began to breathe too hard? The same thing happened to me again today on my way to the office."

"You just sit there," Helen said, "and wait for me. I'll drive right down."

Helen was pregnant at the time, but it never occurred to her that she should spare herself. In about half an hour she had reached the office where I worked. Then she drove me to see Dr. James Cunnie, who had been looking after her.

He took my pulse — it was 132, though I had not been exerting myself in any way. Normal pulse would be 74. He looked quite grave as he said, "Well, Dan, you've strained your heart. You'll have to get right to bed, and rest in bed for at least a couple of weeks."

"A couple of week?" I asked incredulously. "Why should I need that much rest? There's never been anything wrong with my heart."

"Just the same you've strained it. You've been overworking, haven't you?"

I admitted that in my eagerness to get ahead, I'd gone after advertising with all the energy and vitality I had in me. I had poured everything I had into my work.

It was difficult to go to bed and do nothing, but I had no choice. The doctor told me frankly that if I didn't rest, I would be flirting with death.

So I went to bed and stayed there. Helen waited on me hand and foot. We were living on an upper floor then, so she had to run up and down constantly.

We were both following the doctor's orders literally, yet three days after I went to bed, a terrific pain developed in my left leg. The pain was so sharp and cruel that we called Dr. Cunnie again. This time his face was even graver.

"Your heart," he said, "is not strong enough to pump blood through your system, so the blood refuses to go all the way through the system. A blood clot has developed. You'll just have to keep resting, and we'll hope that the blood clot doesn't move to a vital spot."

As I learned, blood clots do move. In a short time the sharp shooting pains in the my left leg had moved to the right leg. Usually when a blood clot moves around the body that way, it hits the heart somewhere in its circuit — and you're a goner.

Dr. Cunnie knew how great the chances were that I would not come out of this particular experience alive. "It's a miracle," he told me, "that the blood clot made this complete circuit of your body passing through your heart without fatal results."

My bout with heart trouble 16 years ago was the beginning of a miracle which completely transformed my life.

Today I have no sign of heart trouble. I can get all the insurance I want. Every six months I pass the required complete physical examination, although for ten years I was blacklisted by all insurance companies.

I regard my bout with a strained heart, and its effect on my life, as nothing short of miraculous. Not a day goes by but I give thanks to God for striking me down with an attack.

However, there was a time when things looked so dark and I was so miserable that I couldn't help wondering, "Why has God permitted all this to happen to Helen and myself? Why is Fate picking on us?"

I had been brought up in a church-going, God-fearing family. Every Sunday my mother sent me to Sunday school, where we watched colored religious slides and listened to stories from the Bible. As the minister told us of how Jesus walked on water and performed the miracles of the loaves and fishes, healed the lepers and cured the blind, I wondered, "Could these things really have happened?" When I went home and asked my mother, she said, "Yes, they all could have happened, son, exactly as the minister described them."

Still I continued to wonder. Perhaps, at times, I even wondered whether there was a God or not. It was not that my mind was filled with doubts; it was just that much of what I was taught in Sunday school was beyond the grasp of a child's mind, and filled me with wonderment.

I was never quite sure that there really is a divine power guiding our lives, till I personally went through the experience which taught me complete faith.

In this respect, I think I was like most people. Ask the average man if he believes in God, and he will say "Yes", but that is a different thing than going through an experience in which God's guidance reveals itself almost miraculously.

I have two boys, Pete, 11, and Dick, eight. If I were to tell Pete today that there was a person who walked on water, and that the sun stood still at the command of Joshua, and that the whale swallowed Jonah, and that the Red Sea rolled back at the command of Moses, I wonder if he would believe it?

I'm not comparing what happened to me to any of these major miracles. But so far as my own life is concerned, the whole sequence of tormenting events — eventually turned out to be practically a miracle.

You see, I had always wanted to be an actor. But my father had pointed out quite sensibly that it is very hard to earn a living as an actor. Therefore, he had suggested that if I wanted to get married and raise a family, I'd better go in for something at which I could earn a steady buck.

That's what I had done. That's why I was pounding the pavements selling advertising space.

Then came my heart strain. Instead of lasting a couple of weeks, as the doctor had originally suggested it might, it dragged on for months. Each day of that time Helen climbed those steps for me. Then one midnight, she shook me gently awake. "Dan," she said, "I've got to get to the hospital."

I had been lying in bed for almost three months. All that time Helen had done everything she could for me. I dragged myself out of bed on trembling legs, and drove her to the hospital.

The nurses later told me that when we got to the hospital, they wondered who was the patient — Helen or I. They got her to the delivery room and then I collapsed on a couch outside.

When it was all over, the doctor came into the room where I sat, my face mirroring my anxiety.

"Helen will be all right," he said.

"And the baby?" I asked.

"The baby," he said, "is dead. It was dead when we reached it. In this particular case, there was one chance in a thousand that such a thing might happen. I'm sorry, Dan, that it had to happen to you and Helen."

Rebellious thoughts crowded my mind. It was at this moment that I thought, "Why is God picking on us?"

What hurt most was the thought that possibly Helen's taking care of me during my illness was partly responsible. It was bad enough that the baby was dead. Why should a kind God have visited one trouble after another on Helen and me?

Few human beings are wise enough to understand and accept what happens unquestioningly. In this dark moment, I almost lost faith.

The future looked dark, desperate, and uncertain. I had been out of work for almost three months. My wonderful boss had continued to pay my salary, but I couldn't expect him to go on doing that forever.

In ten days Helen was out of the hospital. But we seemed to be faced with an almost insoluble problem. I wasn't sure if I could ever go back to work. The doctor said, "Perhaps, if you go back to work, everything will be all right. But your job is very strenuous. I'll be frank with you. You need more rest, Dan. You should go out to the beach in Florida and lie in the sun most of the day. If you don't take this additional rest now, you may have another heart attack."

I went to my boss and told him the story. "That's all right, Dan," he said. "Go to Florida. I'll keep you on at half salary. When you're completely better, you can decide what you want to do."

My boss was George R. Katz — a find man. Whenever I go East, I look him up. He's part of the miracle of what happened to me, a wonderful guy and a great friend.

My wife and I drove toward Clearwater, Florida. Along the way, people told us that it was no use looking for a place in Clearwater — the rents were sky high. We thought we'd see for ourselves.

A block away from the beach at Clearwater we came to a frame shack. Outside it was a sign which said, "For rent. $25 a month." We had ten dollars left. I knocked at the door, and asked for the owner.

"That's me," said the man who opened the door.

"Well," I said, "we'll take this place if you can let us have it for $20. I'll pay you $10 now, and $10 next week."

Under ordinary circumstances, perhaps he would have turned us down. Even though the place was a broken-down shack with no windows, just screens, he could have gotten $25 for it, if he'd held out for another tenant, but he took the $10.

We stayed at the beach for about six months, and at the end of that time I felt strong and energetic again.

Still, I didn't know for sure whether I could go back to work in the advertising business or not. I tried it for a week, and I knew that if I kept on, I might have to repeat the tortuous experience I'd already been through. When I talked the matter over with Mr. Katz, he said, "You'd better get out of this business."

I talked to my dramatic coach at Cornell University, Alexander M. Drummond. I told him how I'd always wanted to be an actor and how my father had talked me out of it.

"He was right, Dan," Mr. Drummond said. "Don't try to become a professional actor. The chances are all against you."

When I told Helen about all this, she said, "Dan, do whatever you think best. Whatever you decide to do, I'm with you every step of the way."

We moved to the country outside New York City. I figured that I could go to New York three times a week to look for a job in the theater. If I were lucky enough to land one, it would be for evening only. Then I could spend all day in the sun.

I tried every way I knew to get a job. I pounded the pavements almost as hard as when I'd been looking for people to buy advertising space. I wrote dozens of letters. In each letter I asked for an interview.

I tried pull, too. I was not passing up anything. And in the end — let's be honest about it — it was pull that got me my first job in the theater.

I knew Sidney Kingsley, the playwright. I met him one day, and told him I was looking for a job. He had written the play Dead End, and he sent me to the manager to ask for a walk-on part.

I was such a babe in the woods about the theater that the moment I knew I had the walk-on part at $40 a week, I signed a year's lease on an apartment in White Plains. If I had been more familiar with the percentage of flop plays that open on Broadway, I wouldn't have dared sign on that lease. But Dead End ran for 84 weeks.

It was during this amazingly successful run that I began to reflect on the chain of events which had led to Dead End, the beginning of a bright new street for me.

It occurred to me then that God had struck me down when I was doing work for which I wasn't intended, in order to make me get into the field in which I should have been all along. He was guiding me through all these experiences.

My wife and I say our prayers on our knees with our two children every night. We thank Him every day of our lives for what He has done for us. My sons go to Sunday school, as I did. Maybe they'll think some of the things they hear about are incredible, but looking back on those things in later life, perhaps they'll find, after their own personal experiences, that they're not really so incredible.

I've gone to church many, many times, yet I don't believe it's necessary to seek God in church. I belong to no special church. Mine is the story of a man who almost lost his faith, and got it back through a personal experience. All the religious sermons a minister could preach would never convince me as much as this personal experience did. But I have gone to churches in every city in which I have lived, seeking ministers whose sermons would be intelligent and inspirational.

We live a quite life today. Recently we bought a home at Lake Arrowhead. At night I sometimes go out by myself to see if our boats are still moored correctly. The I stand there and look around at the beauty of the lake and the woods in the moonlight.

The miracles of God are everywhere. The faith I almost lost in my darkest hour now sings a happy blessing in my heart.

The End.