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Deaths
Poem: Four Detestable Children

2003-02-27

oday is an unexpected day of mourning. As many of you undoubtedly know already, children's show host Fred Rogers passed away, rather suddenly, from stomach cancer. From everything I have heard about him, he was a genuinely sweet and caring man, although I expect his feelings about children were somewhat different than mine. As far as I can tell, Mr. Rogers viewed children as tiny miracles, each moving toward their own unique and potentially terrific destiny. My own feelings about children are considerably more ambivalent, as demonstrated by this poem:

Four Detestable Children

Billy Murkin, sweet and mild,
Once hacked to death an infant child
And then explained to Officer Pruett
That he wanted to see
If he could do it.

The Thompson boy had a great desire
To take a match and start a fire;
All perished in the orphanage
As the wicked boy laughed
And the fire raged.

The Lowells grew quite tired of tacks
Which they placed upon the railroad tracks,
So they hoisted up a drum of tar
Killing all but one
In the dining car.

Sammy Hawkins and his brother Pete
Thought they would catch fish to eat.
Sam set his rod down on the ground
And pushed in his brother
To watch him drown.

Each stanza is loosely based on a true story, which demonstrates that as much as children might be miracles, they can also be machines of death. I remember reading stories about lethal children of the Victorian era in the pages of Johnny Marr's Murder Can Be Fun years ago, and each of Marr's true stories ended similarly. The children would wait on the witness stand, fidgeting, disinterested as a jury handed back their death sentences; Later we would see the same children, weeping gently as a noose was placed around their neck, still seeming uncertain as to the events that colluded to their own hanging. I do not imagine that Fred Rogers addressed himself to such children, and I am curious as to what he would have thought about them. I am certain he would have viewed them with great sympathy, and this is why Fred Rogers was a better man than I, and why it was right for him to host a children's show, while it is strange for me to do so. These stories of long-dead children and the blood they spilled often leave me curious, at best, and, at worst, they strike me as funny.

I sometimes joke that when I am in a moral quandary, I ask myself, "What would Mr. Rogers do?" In this instance, I do not need to puzzle about the answer: He certainly would not have written a comical ditty about homicidal tots.

I also found out that the father of my friend Leslie died yesterday. Several years ago, when I moved back to Minneapolis to work as a theater critic, Leslie and I had a lively email relationship. Her father was quite sick then, and she had moved to St. Louis to tend to him while he waited a transplant operation. I would email Leslie mean-spirited little stories I had written and my nasty little poems, and she would read them to her father, who, she reported, enjoyed them greatly. I never met the man, but I spoke to him once on the telephone, a few months ago, and he immediately remembered my poems and stories.

I did not know him well enough to compose a poem in his honor, and anything I wrote would be unlikely to honor him anyway -- I have glanced through my poems that deal with eulogies and the like, and they are all sadistic beyond what the occasion requires. So instead I will offer up a toast to his memory. I ask that you join me in raising a glass to him, and, as the Irish used to say, let's hope that he has food and rainment, a soft pillow for his head, and may he be 40 years in heaven before the devil knows he's dead!

Aw, hell. Let's offer that toast to Mr. Rogers as well, although I imagine the devil already knows he's gone and is gloating at the thought of a world without him. After all, who will be left to treat children with the same astounding care and dignity? Not me, that's for sure.

(Edited on February 28 to add: Reading an old Esquire article about Fred Rogers today, I got the answer to my question of how Mr. Rogers would have addressed the question of children's violence. His answer was as follows:

"ON DECEMBER 1, 1997—oh, heck, once upon a time—a boy, no longer little, told his friends to watch out, that he was going to do something 'really big' the next day at school, and the next day at school he took his gun and his ammo and his earplugs and shot eight classmates who had clustered for a prayer meeting. Three died, and they were still children, almost. The shootings took place in West Paducah, Kentucky, and when Mister Rogers heard about them, he said, 'Oh, wouldn't the world be a different place if he had said, "I'm going to do something really little tomorrow,"' and he decided to dedicate a week of the Neighborhood to the theme 'Little and Big.'")

Cheers!

© Max Sparber. Click for republication information.

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Posted by UkuleleKing at 3:42 p.m.

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