Yesterday, I posted this to Instagram.
My caption said that I could tell just by looking at those two guys that they used to be cool.
That’s a reference, a call back, to something that happened when I was sixteen. I’ve written about it in at least one of my books, and it’s come up at conventions over the years. But I gather from 24ish hours of comments at Facebook and on Instagram that many of you don’t know what I was talking about.
Allow me to tell you a story that I just love to tell.
When I was a kid on the Enterprise, I idolized Frakes. I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to do everything he did. I wanted to be as cool, as kind, as confident, as Frakes was. Because I looked up to him so much, so did Wesley Crusher. Like, Wesley does The Riker when he sits in chairs because I thought it was cool that Frakes did The Riker when he sat in chairs. Nobody ever asked me about it, but I was ready to defend that choice with my dying breath. Those times Wesley and Commander Riker were on some assignment together were my favorite, because it meant I got to spend my whole day with him at work.
Anyhow. One day, we wrapped at the same time and I just about plotzed when Frakes asked me if I wanted to walk to the parking garage together. Like just imagine. You’re in high school and the coolest person you know, the person you IDOLIZE is just casually like, “hey, want to hang out?” I grabbed my backpack, made sure I had the keys to my car in my pocket, locked my dressing room behind me, and we walked across the back lot, to the garage, together.
I can’t recall exactly what we talked about. It was probably stuff that happened at work that day, and I feel like he asked me about Depeche Mode, which was my absolute favorite band in the world at that time. What I remember like it just happened was how good he made me feel. Frakes made me feel seen. He made me feel valued, and loved, and worthy. I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but he made me feel the way a loving father makes his kids feel.
As you know, I did not have a loving father. I had a bully. And it sucked. So the time I got to spend with Frakes was like water to a captain who is dying in a cave on some asteroid or whatever.
So we got to the garage, and it turned out that even though our call times were hours apart, we’d parked right next to each other, a few spaces up the ramp from our captain. Frakes pointed to Patrick’s Jaguar. “You know he got that because the car you bought was slightly better than his, right?”
I had heard this around the set, and it was as hilarious as it was unbelievable. But it was true. In 1988, Patrick bought a pretty standard Honda Prelude, and I bought a ridiculously pimped out Honda Prelude si4WS. In TNG lore, it has become known as “Wil Wheaton’s Slightly-Better-Than-Patrick Stewart’s Prelude”.
I told him I had heard that, and that I felt a little badly about it. Again, he pointed to Patrick’s fancy, expensive, luxury car. I wish I could recall his precise words, but he said something about Patrick going all-in on a fancy car, to ensure he didn’t get shown up by the Teen Idol again.
The walk to the parking garage was brief. Like, maybe five minutes. In that five minutes, Frakes was just so kind and gentle with me. He treated me like a peer, like a person he cared about, like a person he genuinely liked. I felt so safe with him, like I could tell him anything.
I never, ever, not once, felt any of those things from the man who was my father. The man who was my father made a choice when I was young to withhold all of those things from me (he gave them freely and generously to my brother and sister so I know he had them to give), and at sixteen years-old, it was getting harder and harder to pretend that he didn’t treat me differently than he treated my siblings. I began to believe that there must be something wrong with me, and if I could just figure out what it was, I could earn his approval and maybe his love. SPOILER: I could not, because it was never about me. It was always about him.
So Frakes and I are standing in the parking garage and I don’t want to get in my car and go home. I want to stay there and talk with this adult who treats me like I’m a good person who is worthy and valued and seen. And before we part ways, I want to convey to Frakes that, if he were my age, I would want to hang out all the time. I want to communicate to him that he’s a role model for me, that he’s made me feel so good about myself, and that I valued the walk to the garage he’d invited me to be part of with him.
So I gather up all my courage and communication skills, and I say, “I can tell just by looking at you, that you used to be cool.”
Frakes laughed that wonderful, boisterous, joyful laugh of his and said, “What do you mean ‘used to be’?”
I was mortified. I was an awkward nerd (yeah, WAS) and I wasn’t good with words in the best of circumstances. I stammered and sputtered and tried my best to explain what I meant. I don’t remember what was said, but I remember that he got it. He knew what I meant, and he received it with kindness and grace.
The next morning at work, we were all on the bridge, the entire cast. We were either just finished with or about to start a rehearsal, and Frakes told the entire cast and crew what I’d said in the garage. EVERYONE laughed … and here’s something really important: nobody was laughing AT me. Everyone was laughing at the idea that Frakes, who was beloved by everyone with good reason, “used to be cool”, according to the kid.
I remember that I didn’t feel embarrassed or humiliated or stupid. I felt a little sheepish, but I didn’t feel judged by anyone.
Can I just tell you how different that was from how I felt at home? For as long as I could remember, the man who was my father would single me out for ridicule, humiliation, and embarrassment. He reveled in making me feel small, unworthy, stupid, and not just worthless to him, but objectively worthless. He laughed and laughed and laughed when he did these things. My brother and mother joined him. Only my sister did not. Guess who remains in my life from my family of origin?
One of the things I’d learned in my family at home was that I couldn’t speak up when something upset me. My parents always turned what someone (usually one of them) had done to me into something that I actually deserved, or was somehow my fault. So the very, very few times I spoke up to my mother about how much her husband was hurting me, it was a big deal. It took courage, and effort. It was also a total waste of courage and effort. “Oh, he’s just teasing you,” she would say. “Try not to be so sensitive,” was a popular bit of unhelpful advice. And always, ALWAYS, it was somehow my fault that he hurt me.
I imagine that’s a bit of a trigger for some of you reading this. I see you, and I’m sorry.
One of the things I saw for the first time that morning on the bridge, while my Star Trek family laughed together with me, was that what the man who was my father did wasn’t “teasing” like my mother said it was. It was bullying. It was hurtful. It was cruel. It was a choice to humiliate and ridicule me for his own gratification. He never did it to anyone else. He only did it to me. And it was her choice to ignore it, enable it, and make it somehow my fault for being hurt by his cruelty. I would spend over two decades in denial about all of this, but that morning, I saw it clearly for the first time.
For months after that day in the garage (indeed, to this very day), Frakes would joke with me about how he used to be cool. He told the story at conventions when we were together, he asked me to tell the story when we were in mixed company. And he always gave me a little shit about it, in a loving, gentle, dare I say fatherly way. And whenever he did, I felt loved. I felt like I was in on the joke, because he made sure I was. For 35 years, we’ve told this story, and it always brings joy to us both.
I look at that photo of us together from yesterday, and I can almost imagine what it must be like to have a dad who loves you, who makes you feel like you’re enough, who wants you to succeed and is proud of everything you’ve worked so hard to achieve.
I am so grateful for my Star Trek family. I am so grateful for this memory.