Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tears in Mayberry : a requiem for Andy Griffith

Mayberry, North Carolina was surely one of the most cheerful places to grace the silver screen. If you ever dreamed of---or miss---life in small towns before cell phones, wi-fi, prescription pills and meth, I have to tell you that what made the Andy Griffith show resonate so, in its family-friendly stories, is that hint of truth about it. Oh, not a place to confuse with Heaven, and filled with its own quiet desperation, day dreams and foul-ups, to be sure. But you just know you didn't have to lock your door, and if anything out of the ordinary happened in the night, you'd know Sheriff Taylor would come around and do his best to make heads or tails of it. Now, I grew up in a time and place that was the twilight of that timeless place, and the smell of cut grass and summer days hot as a fire cracker. It was a jarring transition, but as a boy I remember what it's like to have neighbors bring over extra bushels of vegetables from the garden when they'd grown more bounty than they could eat, and watched Mama make home-cooked meals for sick people (to be Southern is to love people with food). If Shannon, Georgia, U.S.A. was more complicated, following the pathos of Viet Nam and the counter-culture and the onrush of the modern world, it at least smelled and sounded like Mayberry, and had plenty of modest, decent people to go around---just as gracious to your face and maybe a bit too hard on one another in gossip. It was a place where sanitized, corn-pone humor still had a place in a genteel exchange, and while we may not have had the comic timing of the Andy Griffith Show ensemble, the kinds of laughs you could have with anyone were not so different. You just might illustrate a point by comparing something to "that time on Andy Griffith."
You could never count on television to instill the values you need to see by example, but I cherished the fair-mindedness and patience of Sheriff Taylor. That ubiquitious program had a way of placing the presence of loved ones passed on and times gone by in the living rooms of baby boomers and their children. However hokey the contrivances, there was real heart to The Andy Griffith Show, with its sympathetic single father and curious young son, with its goofy array of unbelievably benign comic characters. However dark the world may have been in its silence and ignorance, this little television program distilled, in a charmingly secular fashion, the paragon of Southern hospitality and virtues, for while its simple people may not have always been wise, they were apt to see the error of their ways. Right along with them was the good-hearted, compassionate Sheriff, with his own share of mistakes, and his continuous tolerance for his hapless best friend, Deputy Fife. It's funny how there's something in this passing that brings out in each of us our own little old person, our own inner country person, to say things like "they don't make 'em like that anymore"---something in our reverence for a simplicity with ease and grace.
In my exuberance for flashier heroes, I may have forgotten the influence of Andy Griffith's character, in the type of reliability, generosity, fair-mindedness, and open-hearted patience with which he was written and portrayed. I can tell you I've seen every episode of that program about a dozen times, and somehow end up watching it again each time Mama comes to California to visit. It's not so much the simplicity of those times---and when was anything so simple as that which could be resolved in 22 minutes of Golden Age of Television programming? It's about being straight-forward...about listening to people...avoiding ridiculing them for their problems, while you, with them, try by grace to see the light. I enjoyed Andy in "Matlock," too---one of the shining lights of older, lead actors on television. It was one of those last television programs I watched with the whole family, just as I realized maybe I watched TOO much t.v. and needed to live a little more life! Even a person as young as I was may have caught the Mount Airy, North Carolina native in "Rustler's Rhapsody," the drama "A Face in the Crowd" (from 1957) and "No Time For Sargeants." He was a lifelong Democrat and a Grammy-winning Gospel singer. He died this morning at 7 a.m. in his home in North Carolina. http://soundcloud.com/c-lue-disharoon/ceci I got a bit choked up recently when I decided to cover a song called "Country Comfort," missing my own grandmothers and the way of life that still whispered to me of its days in my boyhood. There is something very valuable there, related to getting back to the land and not living so extravagantly, playing with toys made straight from nature, and the kind of virtues related to working with your hands beside the seasons, which I wish to distill and pass along. I could recite more Andy Griffith show plots for you than I really should, with names like Thelma Lou and Otis and Goober and Gomer and the Darling Family, but maybe we can reminisce over such things, as we used to say, on down the road. But for all the kind characters I enjoyed in those reruns that brought my whole family together around supper time, there was no greater giant than Sheriff Taylor, the gentlest patriarch and friend to all. I celebrate the work of this fine actor, and join you in a wistful tear, for while never will we see his like again, there's something in Mayberry that deserves to live forever. So, "in the sweet bye-and-bye," then, Mr. Griffith.

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