In the late 1980’s, I spent one of my favorite summers driving the Monorail at Disneyland. It was a ton of fun being high above the park; driving guests from the Original Disneyland Hotel to the Tomorrowland Station and then back. As the driver, I was seated up front in the “nose cone” of the train. It wasn’t very big, but allowed up to 5 guests to sit with me. Guests generally had to wait quite a bit longer to ride in the front of the monorail– it was a coveted place to sit because it was private, quiet, and offered a panoramic view of the park. The wait was a deterrent–rarely did I see guests more than once and generally speaking, the monorail was more about fun than it was about transportation.
Celebrities and dignitaries were a different story however. Often these people and their families were escorted into Disneyland via the hotel entrance and my nose cone. The chances of seeing them multiple times as they entered and exited the park was much higher. The summer I turned 18, I had the joy of driving one particular family multiple times as the visited the park early Sunday mornings. The Hanks/ Wilson family would show up at my glass air-suctioned door with baseball hats pulled down tight and smiles open wide. Their combined laughter and enthusiasm was infectious, and as Rita made sure every one was seated, Tom always greeted me by name, looked me in the eye and gave me a big toothy beautiful smile. Tom’s booming joyful voice would ask me how I was, make small talk, then ask me a question about the specifics of my job, like “How fast have you really got this thing going when no one was watching Summer?” or “If you could take this thing out on the open mono-road, where would you take us?” The questions were always funny and I loved getting to banter with him.
In the last few years I’ve seen both movies about Mr. Rogers. The first one, a documentary, taught me a whole lot about Fred Rogers, a gentle man I had spent quite a bit of time with while at my babysitters house before I became old enough to go to Kindergarten. The second one, staring Tom Hanks as Fred, suprised me–almost unsettled me and left me longing to see it again–to let it touch even deeper. I didn’t realize that the movie was going to contain such painful themes and be more about Fred Roger’s effect on others, than a bio about his life. Now knowing Mr. Roger’s better, I should have expected that his movie would not shy away from deep human truth, but would bring validation for hurting hearts both with simplicity and kindness. This movie was exceptional. I watched Tom Hanks disappear into Mr, Rodgers without even realizing it. The movie touched something in me that made me want to be a better, kinder, more open, giving and loving human. This Mr. Rogers had a real effect on me, but as the weeks have passed, I have come to realize that it wasn’t just Mr. Rogers. You see, before I had gotten to know the real Fred Rogers, I had already spent the summer with the real Tom Hanks. I believe that I felt his performance so deeply because, in my experience, Tom Hanks had already been the in-the-flesh Mr. Rogers to me. You see, we had already met and I knew the truth I was watching played out on screen.
As one of hundreds of Disney cast members, Tom Hanks made me feel special. Each time he and his family came, he spoke my name and I instantly felt seen. As he asked me questions, he contradicted that terrible childhood teaching that told me I shouldn’t be seen nor heard– that I wasn’t important. His eyes said I was someone worth talking to, worth getting to know–both intelligent and interesting. And his smile…seriously, that Tom Hanks smile! When he smiled at me, I felt seen. I went away from these moments with joy believing I might actually be as wonderful as Tom Hanks seemed to think I was.
I think that’s exactly what Mr. Rogers did for the world too. He saw us all. He reached out and told us the truth, assured us that we weren’t alone and then sent us away believing that we were more than we had imagined we were. Thank you Mr. Hanks for being Fred in my life. I feel the positive impact of your generous influence on me even today.