IT'S 7 P.M., AND DAN LAWRENCE IS ON the air on radio station KHUM in Ferndale, Calif. "Welcome to the DMZ—the digital music zone," he tells his estimated 150,000 listeners. "It's Digital Dan, the deejay with the chip...and, yes, I am a real person."
Fans who aren't familiar with Digital Dan might need that last assurance, since the voice they hear sounds like HAL, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. That's because Lawrence, who lost his voice to squamous cell cancer, types his words onto a laptop computer, which then converts them into digitized speech. He is a deejay without a voice.
He is also, ironically, a deejay who wouldn't be on the air if he had one. Last March station manager Cliff Berkowitz happened upon Lawrence, a part-time carpenter and electrician at the station, as he was demonstrating his talking computer. Intrigued by the novelty of it, Berkowitz asked how he would like to go on the radio. "His eyes lit up and he flashed a thumbs-up sign," says Berkowitz. "I had him interviewed on the air, and there was a tremendous response."
Within a week, Lawrence, 45, had his own weekly show, mixing recollections of combat in Vietnam with music from the '60s and '70s. Soon he was on twice a week, becoming the station's most popular deejay. "He has tremendous passion for the music, and he's very opinionated," says Berkowitz.
Lawrence's cancer first appeared in September 1992 as a buzzing noise (a tumor was pressing against nerves leading to the ear) that soon turned into an excruciating earache. After radiation failed to stem the disease's advance, Lawrence underwent surgery that removed most of his tongue and his voice box. Unable to make recognizable sounds, he bought a computer with a program designed to help deaf people communicate—and began his transformation to Digital Dan.
The oldest of three sons of a logger and a legal secretary who divorced when he was 9, Lawrence grew up in and around Eureka, in the heart of Northern California's redwood country, then moved to West Germany when his mother married an Army sergeant. In 1969, at 18, Lawrence was drafted and sent to Vietnam as a helicopter mechanic. "I was shot down twice," he says.
After two tours in Vietnam—earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart—Lawrence returned to the U.S. He worked as a carpenter, a lumber mill hand and a computer technician, and married and divorced three times, all the while carrying the weight of his Vietnam experiences. "I didn't trust anyone," he says. "I preferred to be alone most of the time."
In 1984, Lawrence was hired by the Ferndale Repertory Theatre to build sets. Given some stage roles, he finally got control of his rage. "People there took me for what I was," he says. "It was better therapy than any Army shrink I ever talked to." It also helped that he met Leslie Fergusen, now 53, a bookkeeper and artist, at the theater company. The two moved in together in June 1992 and had four good months before the cancer struck. "I was devastated," says Fergusen, a divorcée with a 27-year-old son. "Dan was the strong one."
As he battled his cancer, Lawrence realized that it might be a final, deadly legacy of Vietnam. He remembers hauling 50-gallon drums of Agent Orange in the helicopters he served in, and even inhaling the defoliant when it was sprayed near his base. "I thought if I didn't think about it, it couldn't hurt me," he says. The Veterans Administration granted his request for combat-related benefits in August.
Facing an uncertain future—the five-year survival rate for his kind of cancer is, according to his doctor, 20 percent—Lawrence refuses to back away from life. He has returned to college to study computers, and he and Fergusen plan a November wedding. "I have stared death in the face before and kicked his ass," he says, "and I will do it again." The words, though typed on a keyboard and given voice by a chip, carry the ring of conviction.
LAIRD HARRISON in Ferndale
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