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R.I.P. MISTER ROGERS (2/27/03)

War and terrorism loom large in the headlines, the economy's in the shitter, but an event has just transpired that is of such monumental sadness that I can scarcely utter it: Mister Rogers is dead.

It's at times like these that I really hope there's a Heaven, if only so that Fred Rogers can be ushered to the front of the line and God can say, "See, this is what I'm TALKING about."

When Wifely first imparted the news this morning, I didn't react immediately. I knew Mister Rogers was old, so old that he even predated Sesame Street, and so the thought of him kicking the neighborhood bucket wasn't all that shocking. It wasn't until I got home this evening and saw the various tributes on every possible station that it hit me.

Specifically, it was the story about his car being stolen near his home in Philadelphia, only to be returned shortly thereafter, cleaned and vaccuumed, with a note saying, "Sorry, we didn't realize it was yours." I don't know why, but that really brought it home for me. I mean, is there a single other human being in history who could inspire such an act? I think not.

My relationship with Mister Rogers is rather involved, as I've noted before, but suffice it to say that the man practically raised me. Not that Mom & Dad were just sitting around eating Bon Bons, but I spent a heck of a lot of time planted in front of that old console TV with my neighbor Fred.

We sang songs, learned about woodworking, visited industrial plants, discovered the joys of the potty, and spent an awful lot of time in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. I wanted a little red trolley so bad I could taste it, but was perfectly happy to receive a red sweater of my own, oversized as it was. You've never watched the Neighborhood until you've watched it in a red sweater & sneakers.

And call me a fool, but I will count myself a very lucky feller if I die with even nearly the clean slate that this man had. No child porn busts, no tax evasion, no legends of off-camera temper tantrums or illegitimate offspring. The man was an oak. An oak in a cardigan.

Call him a square, call him a pansy, whatever, but realize this: In nearly a half-century on television, Mister Rogers was never anyone but himself. Now that takes cajones. And he wanted every kid to have those same cajones. Sure, he phrased it differently, but that was the central message of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: You should be happy being you, and fuck those people who say otherwise.

A perfect example of the need for such a message is found when I recall conversations I've had with others about Mister Rogers. Several of the men I've spoken to insisted they thought he was gay, so they didn't watch him. Now come on. I didn't know what gay was when I was young enough to watch Mister Rogers. I know what happened there. Someone's dad was so worried that the kid would grow up and forsake football for flower arranging that they cast the only mild-mannered, intelligent man the kid knew of as a bad example. Fuck that guy.

Seriously, I worry a little about kids watching TV without Fred there to let them know they're OK. Sesame Street's gone the way of the focus group, and Rogers appears to have no suitable successors. The Teletubbies take orders from little loudspeakers hiding in the flowers, for Chrissake. And don't look at me, I hate other people's children. And Fred would tell me that's OK. It's me he likes.

With the death of Mister Rogers, one of the world's great individualists has passed. But he's left behind an army of pupils who remember his lessons well, and will hopefully pass them on personally to the generations to come. Now I'm off to the trolley, except mine's got winos. We can't all be Mister Rogers, but that's OK.

Really, it is. Rest in peace, old friend.

In memory of Fred McFeely Rogers (1928-2003)

Mo' Thoughts