Sometimes a piece of writing just punches me in the gut. Tom Junod’s 1998 article for Esquire Magazine, a sort of biography of Fred Rogers titled “Can You Say Hero,” is one of those pieces.
(Or you can go here if you’d prefer to pay Esquire for the privilege.)
I think it’s probably my favorite bit of non-fiction writing, and it’s written in a way that fiction writers can still learn plenty from. While it has the advantage of profiling a wholly remarkable man, it’s not really about Mr. Rogers. Sneakily, it’s about Tom himself, and the profound impact that spending time with Mr. Rogers had on him.
Junod is a craftsman writer. A lot of the magic of this story lies in the technical execution — the structure and the choice of words — at least as much as the actual content they’re conveying.
We’ve looked before at great hooks and how they can pull the reader inexorably into a story. This one is phenomenal.
Once upon a time, a little boy loved a stuffed animal whose name was Old Rabbit. It was so old, in fact, that it was really an unstuffed animal; so old that even back then, with the little boy’s brain still nice and fresh, he had no memory of it as “Young Rabbit,” or even “Rabbit”; so old that Old Rabbit was barely a rabbit at all but rather a greasy hunk of skin without eyes and ears, with a single red stitch where its tongue used to be. The little boy didn’t know why he loved Old Rabbit; he just did, and the night he threw it out the car window was the night he learned how to pray.
It starts with the classic storybook opening, and a simple declaration: there’s a little boy, and he loves Old Rabbit.
That leads to the vast, meandering second sentence, eight commas- and semicolons-worth of evocative description of Old Rabbit through the boy’s eyes. In that sentence, I know what Old Rabbit looks like. I know how it would feel, held close; how it would smell.
The last sentence of the opening paragraph introduces the conflict and the tension of the story. It’s a tension that won’t be resolved until the final paragraph.
Once Upon A Time
The story is littered with the trappings of children’s stories. Junod uses the phrase “once upon a time” liberally, to the point where he gives it a bit of a nod and a wink with “ON DECEMBER 1, 1997—oh, heck, once upon a time.”
He gives the impression of a breathless child’s rambling story by starting sentences with conjunctions and piling clauses upon clauses. Like Lemony Snicket, Junod helpfully defines words for his audience, doing it as much as an excuse for poetic emphasis as for actual definition.
Thunderstruck means that you can’t talk, because something has happened that’s as sudden and as miraculous and maybe as scary as a bolt of lightning, and all you can do is listen to the rumble.
These little things are responsible for a lot of the voice, but they’re surface ornamentation. The deep structure of the story is that of puzzle pieces, slowly fitted together to form a larger picture.
The story is a sequence of short vignettes – some from Tom’s time with Mr. Rogers, some from his past, some from stories about Mr. Rogers, picked up along the way. But these strands weave together, one referencing another, referencing another; building up in layers.
When we get to the end, it makes perfect sense. It fits. Every part of the story fed into that moment, in the same way it feels like all of Tom’s time with Mr. Rogers led to that moment in his own life.
The story doesn’t begin with Mr. Rogers. It begins with a boy who has lost his stuffed rabbit, and prays that it will return to him. The first time, the rabbit is found. The second time, it is not. A microcosm, perhaps, for how people fall out of faith.
It’s only when Mr. Rogers asks Tom if he ever had a puppet or toy or stuffed animal that we learn (or confirm our suspicion) that the boy at the start of the story is Tom himself. The rabbit becomes the through-line of the story.
We’re reminded of it a third time, when Mr. Rogers talks to a little girl with a stuffed Rabbit. Junod makes sure it’s front-of-mind. It’s the same reason he leaves the question unanswered, “What kind of prayer has only three words?”
We don’t find out until the very end; the end of the story that started with the boy and the rabbit.
While I appreciate the structure of the story, it would be negligent to not mention the joy to be found in Junod’s delightful little turns of phrase.
The place was drab and dim, with the smell of stalled air and a stain of daguerreotype sunlight on its closed, slatted blinds…
And then, in the dark room, there was a wallop of white light, and Mister Rogers disappeared behind it.
…this skinny old man dressed in a gray suit and a bow tie, with his hands on his hips and his arms akimbo, like a dance instructor—there was some kind of wiggly jazz in his legs, and he went flying all around the outside of the house…
…in front of all the soap-opera stars and talk-show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are….Ten seconds of silence.” And then he lifted his wrist, and looked at the audience, and looked at his watch, and said softly, “I’ll watch the time,” and there was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn’t kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked…and so they did. One second, two seconds, three seconds…and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier, and Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said, “May God be with you” to all his vanquished children.
What is grace? I’m not certain; all I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella.