King Friday XIII won’t be calling to wish me Happy Birthday tomorrow.
He did call for thirty years. Every November 26 from 1971 to 2001. Then on November 26, 2002, he didn’t. That turned out to be the day his creator, voice, and manipulator Fred Rogers was learning that stomach cancer would kill him very soon.
Perhaps I should explain.
Fred and I had a lot of silly sessions. Our intense work on scripts or other weighty matters for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” sometimes required a break, so we’d get silly together. And one day I began musing about whether Friday the 13th was King Friday XIII’s birthday. We decided that, well, of course it is! There is at least one Friday the 13th every year, and even better, some years there are two. And who is more deserving of having two birthdays in a year than the pompous and self-important King Friday XIII.
So the very next time Friday the 13th rolled around, I called Fred’s office and told his beloved assistant Elaine that I wished to speak to King Friday. When Fred came on the line, he was fully in character as the King, whereupon I formally intoned, “Good day, your highness. This is your loyal subject Eliot calling to wish you glorious felicitations on your natal day.” The King received my greetings with dignified gratitude, made a little small talk, inquired about the wellbeing of my family, and satisfied that all were well, concluded the call.
And that’s how it started. That next November 26, our phone rang at home, Patti answered it, stammered uncharacteristically for a moment, and said, “Why yes, yes, your highness, he’s right here” and handed me the phone. “It’s King Friday, for you,” she said. King Friday XIII expressed glorious felicitations to me on my natal day, and we were off to the races.
For thirty years, we kept up this loving nonsense. It became a matter of honor to track down the honoree wherever either of us might be on a Friday the 13th or November 26. I once reached Fred on a Friday the 13th when he was aboard a fishing boat off Galveston, Texas. He once reached me on a November 26th while I was hiking in Ireland. Whatever it took…
After Fred died, I couldn't let our tradition die completely. I took to calling his wife Joanne on those special days, instead. I doubt that she ever noticed that my calls came on Fridays the 13th, and I never made mention of it. We were longtime good friends anyhow, and each call was precious in its own right, even if it also had a private special meaning to me.
With each passing day my appreciation grows for the simple gesture of keeping in touch. While the advent of social media has inundated its devotees with a tsunami of toxic messaging along with the grace notes, I have belatedly come to appreciate that those grace notes are the constant currency of the younger generations. They are far more in touch with each other, in every way, than my peers and I ever were.
And the emergence of Zoom during the pandemic has transformed the ability of families and other loved ones of all generations to be with each other across the miles. That instant connection--communion, really--made me realize that we have long stifled ourselves by assuming we need to flog our bodies miles and miles and miles just to see each other’s faces and say, “I love you”. How many times have you heard--or felt--the lament of not being more in touch with a loved one before they up and died? No. Just pick up the phone or use FaceTime or set up a Zoom and let the embraces flow.
Truth is, all my self-important busyness notwithstanding, I really don't have anything better to do than that. And who knows, one of these days I might even put pen to paper and mail off a note in a stamped envelope to someone just to say hello and I hope you’re fine. May be a shocker. An actual letter? Probably be the first time in many decades for both of us.