I Know You Are, But What Am I?
In the last week, two men who featured heavily in my teenage life died.
One of them is likely very familiar to you. Paul Reubens, better known as his alter ego Pee-wee Herman, revolutionized Saturday-morning children’s television with his show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. The other man, Ronnie Meyers, is someone as unknown as Reubens was recognizable.
Pee-Wee’s Playhouse debuted in September of 1986. I was about to turn 18, and in my second year of college. Our dorm had one television, in the common room, and the show immediately became must-see TV for those of us who were up before noon on Saturdays. We were a generation familiar with the format, having been raised on shows like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and New Zoo Revue. But Pee-wee was unlike anyone on those shows, and the humor was both more ridiculous and slyly more subversive than anything we’d ever seen.
Pee-wee himself was an enigma. He was clearly supposed to be an adult, but he behaved like a child. When it came to sexuality, he existed in a state of veiled queerness. Several of the female characters had obvious, sometimes overt crushes on him, to which he responded with either obliviousness or outright distaste. He seemed much more excited by visits from shirtless lifeguard Tito and tight-shorts-wearing soccer player Ricardo, even if he also didn’t seem to know exactly why their attentions thrilled him.
As a still-closeted young man, I perhaps saw Pee-wee in a way my straight dormmates didn’t. Like Pee-wee, I was shy and nerdy and weird. Also like him, I’d attracted the attention of one or two girls who found my nonthreatening personality charming, or at least a potential relief from what they were used to, and who had started using words like “boyfriend” and “dating” in our conversations. I sensed that this would eventually become a problem, and didn’t know what I would do about it, but for the moment I could avoid it by escaping into the world of the Playhouse, where Pee-wee was surrounded by a cast of friends who allowed him to be exactly who he was; who celebrated his strangeness and got joy from it.
Before Pee-wee, there had been Ronnie Meyers. I first encountered Ronnie when my family moved to the small town in which my father had grown up. He was there on my first day of fifth grade at my new school and remained a constant in my daily life for the next seven years. In many ways Ronnie was indistinguishable from the great majority of my male classmates in that tiny, rural town. He came from a poor family, with a home life marred by violence and difficulty. He was interested in sports, and rock music, and in getting laid as often as possible.
But Ronnie differed from his friends in one important respect—he never, not once, was cruel to me for not being like them. Where the other boys identified immediately that there was something about me they disliked, and labelled me with the word they found the most shameful, Ronnie never did. While we weren’t exactly friends, he was also not one of my tormentors. Several times he actively defended me. He routinely picked me for his team when chosen as a captain in gym class. And when encountering a group of boys where I saw that he was among them, my panic was less because I knew the possibility of danger was diminished by his presence. Also, undoubtedly, I had a little crush on him in the same way Pee-wee had crushes on Tito and Ricardo.
I had no contact with Ronnie once I left for college and didn’t look back. But I thought about him many times over the last almost 40 years. Of everyone in my high school, he was the one who reminded me that people can choose to be kind, can choose to look beyond what their friends tell them they should think and how their backgrounds encourage them to behave. He gave me hope.
The friend who told me about Ronnie’s death added that the cause was likely associated with addiction. Apparently, life had been unkind to Ronnie and he had responded by escaping into drugs and alcohol. Although he tried to leave the small town that had him trapped, he came back to what was familiar, and eventually it killed him.
I know what it’s like to be told that you’ve made a difference in someone’s life. I get letters and messages from readers of my books telling me this. I’m always appreciative, even though most of these people I will never know beyond those shared words. And I think about it a lot while working on new things, wondering who needs to hear something uplifting, or see someone like them reflected in a story.
Reubens is certainly not the first pop culture figure from my teenage years to pass. Nor is Ronnie the first classmate of mine to die. But as they passed within days of one another, they’ve become linked in my memories in a way I hadn’t thought about before. If Ronnie helped me survive my school years, Reubens’ Pee-wee took over and shepherded me through the next stage of coming out and embracing who I was. Neither, of course, knew that they’d played any role in my journey.
I wish now that I’d told them.▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author. Visit Michael at michaelthomasford.com.