The truth about the Mr. Rogers' military rumors

It's about as evocative an image as can be imagined: Fred Rogers, perched at the top of a guard tower, staring down the scope of a high powered rifle. He adjusts the sights ever so slightly, his tattoo-covered arms steely in their well practiced movements. He spits out the nub of a cigar that's been crammed between his teeth for the last ten minutes and wipes the sweat from his brow, lamenting the fact that you never really get used to the heat in Vietnam, then lines up his target. "Hello, neighbor," he whispers as the crosshairs hover over his target. After that, there is nothing but the sound and smell of hot death.

Chances are, this all sounds at least vaguely familiar, thanks to the Internet age and an early-2000s enthusiasm for seeing how many times "FWD:" could appear in an email's subject line. For the record, though, there's a relieving truth to be told about the decidedly Rambo-adjacent rumors surrounding Fred Rogers, the host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and godfather of common decency.

The Mister Rogers rumors are a neighborhood of make believe

Difficult though it may be to believe, Rogers was never a military sniper, or a military anything. While the Vietnam war, his supposed playground of death in the long-running urban legend, he was busy, you know, being Mister Rogers. From 1963 to 1967, he had his first children's television show, broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood started running in 1968, and kept going until 2001. During that time, he was also working as a Presbyterian minister. That didn't give him a lot of time to ponder over who drew first blood.

According to a biographical article posted by the National Archives, Rogers registered for the draft at age 20, but was deemed unfit for service two years later. And for all of the rumors the world wide web has spread about the sainted Fred, it's also made it possible to do a three second Google image search and realize that no, his arms weren't covered in tattoos.

So why have lies about Mister Rogers become so pervasive in the years since his passing? The answer is pretty simple: people are the worst.

Fred Rogers: a great neighbor in good company

Look, if the last few years have taught us anything, it's that at any given moment, we are an early morning Twitter check away from having our pop culture heroes redefined as deviant movie monsters, but Fred Rogers seems to have been the exception to the rule. In the decade and a half since he passed away, the becardiganed icon has somehow held up when viewed through the lens of history, presumably because, plot twist, he really was just an excellent guy. And to paraphrase the great philosopher Norman Osborn, the one thing the internet loves more than a hero is to see a hero fall. 

Maybe that's why rumors about Mister Rogers' skullduggerous, clandestine lifestyle have been so prevalent over the years. The legends of his Call of Duty-worthy military service have been circulating for over a decade, sometimes bringing Captain Kangaroo into the mix in sort of a children's television Expendables mash up. Rogers' fictional tattoos almost always make an appearance. And of course, there will always be the oft-recirculated stills of Fred staring down the barrel of the camera, holding his middle fingers up to the heavens, grinning from ear to ear. Direct your outrage elsewhere, he was singing "Where Is Thumbkin?"

Rogers is far from the only children's TV personality to be plagued by internet rumors over the years. Big fat lies about the actor or actors who played Barney have made the rounds, stating that they killed themselves in the costume, overdosed, or were caught smuggling drugs in the outfit's tail. A particularly juicy story debunked by Snopes stated that the man in the dinosaur costume was a convicted child molester, and that his stint as a lavender tyrannosaurus was a part of his sentence, which makes sense in a dystopian, Black Mirror poetic justice kind of way.

And of course, there was Steve Burns, the man who facilitated Blue in his pursuit of Clues for the first six years of the program. After his departure, Burns was rumored to have died of a heroin overdose when, in reality, he was busy recording a pretty killer indie album with the members of the Flaming Lips.

Not everyone waltzes into family friendly entertainment with a squeaky clean reputation, of course. Let us never forget that Bob Ross spent several years pointing out subordinates' happy accidents in the Air Force as a hard-nosed drill sergeant.