In Memoriam Mayberry
By Andy Smith - Columbia, South Carolina, USA -
27 February 2013
He hadn’t done any significant work in years. A cameo in a Brad Paisley music video, an oddly cast role in a modestly successful if awkward romantic drama, and the handful of on-air political endorsements: all prove underwhelming by comparison. The twilight of his life -- the beginning of which one might mark at the conclusion of Matlock in the early 1990s -- was spent largely in a kind of semi-veiled reclusion on the North Carolina Outer Banks. And, he was, after all, 86.
Rumor had it that Andy Griffith, like his Mayberry co-star Francis Bavier (Aunt Bee), hadn’t aged as gracefully as his alter ego on the show might have. He shunned visitors, associating only with a close circle of friends and his third wife.
Not to put too fine a point on it, his having had a third wife was not very Sheriff Taylor-esque.
So, why did his death on July 3rd last year prove so difficult a pill to swallow? Why did my heart sink -- with the undeniable sense that an irrevocable loss had occurred, a permanent link to something, severed -- when I read the headline?
Don Knotts’s death had preceded Andy’s by several years; Jim Lindsey’s, by several months. Even the recent death of Doug Dillard, whose role on the show as one of several bluegrass-picking mountain-dwelling rubes helped propel the genre into the American mainstream -- sandwiched as it was between the 2012 deaths of two other folk legends (Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson) -- could be said to have been almost as noteworthy a marker of the passing of an era in American (particularly Southern) broadcast, musical, and cultural history.
But, no; this time something was different. This time Andy had died.
It’s hard to point to exactly what it was about The Andy Griffith Show and its title character that so grasped my attention as a child, what about it so formed my moral imagination. It’s true -- I grew up in a place not unlike Mayberry, in the foothills below the North Carolina blue ridge. There were only a few stoplights but at least as many dysfunctionally-functional governing and civic organizations; we had colorfully-nick-named elders, idiosyncratic though workable combinations of law and mercy, and a location within an hour’s drive of Mt. Airy, Andy’s childhood home and the model for the fictional Mayberry. So, there might have been a natural affinity. But, few of my friends from home watched enough of the show to form much of an opinion, much less to be able to state emphatically which episode was the best ("Citizen’s Arrest") or to name Mayberry’s half-a-boy (poor Horatio). None shared my passion. If pressed, most around town would eschew associations with Mayberry, opting to point out our then-booming fiber-optics production or our proximity to the up-and-coming banking center, Charlotte. Evidence notwithstanding, we most certainly weren’t to consider ourselves rubes!
I persisted, though. The show became an anchor; Andy, a mentor.
In retrospect, it’s clear that part of Andy’s character’s appeal was that he was as much a philosopher (in the true lover-of-wisdom sense of the word) as he was a hick sheriff. At times he seemed to have just as much insight into human psychology, in a traditional sense, as a starets speaking of the passions. In the episode "Opie’s Hobo Friend," Andy exposes and then refutes the manipulative hedonism of a ne’er-do-well, David Browne, who’s drifted into Mayberry and, among other things, convinced Opie to shirk his responsibilities (by ditching school) in order to indulge in a little live-for-the-day fishing. Fishing was a hobby to be enjoyed at the proper time; Opie’s seemingly minor infraction here, though, was a shirking, Andy realized, that clearly had the potential to become habitual.
David Browne (on his influence on Opie): Who's to say that the boy would be happier your way or mine? Why not let him decide?
Andy: No, I'm afraid it don't work that way. You can't let a young 'un decide for himself. He'll grab at the first flashy thing with shiny ribbons on it. Then when he finds out there's a hook in it, it's too late. Wrong ideas come packaged with so much glitter, it's hard to convince him that other things might be better in the long run. All a parent can do is say, "Wait. Trust me," and try to keep temptation away.
In one brief exchange, we see a clear acknowledgement of the often hard-to-ascertain distinction between genuine eudaimonia and a fleeting happiness derived from a sin that snares. Andy notes the difficulty he, as a father, an elder, faces in trying to slowly, progressively right the ship that’s so easily sent off course by so unassuming an influence as an aimless drifter, an errant logismos. The path to the well-ordered soul, as Andy implies, is neither easily taught nor easily assimilated -- and the perils are numberless. But, Andy is quite clear -- there is a path, a well-worn one. And, we do well to heed those who’ve laid and followed it.
Andy once said the show’s main theme was love. This strikes me as odd. Not because the show was not primarily characterized by love (indeed it was), but because our understanding of love seems to have changed so markedly since the show’s filming. To point out that love was the defining characteristic makes the show seem even more quaintly sappy than the somewhat false perception it has engendered through the years -- and it makes the show seem cheap. But, love, properly understood is a mighty and fearful thing. Love, the way Andy seems to have been using it here, is not overly sentimental; love -- charitas -- requires, in this context, a certain ability to view the neighbor with objectivity and a certain willingness to be truthful to the neighbor in light of that objective view, come what may. This meant, for example, that Otis the town drunk was recognized as such -- and he was relegated to certain roles in society that accommodated his struggle with this particular sin. He was most certainly tolerated -- though this was a healthy tolerance that recognized the objective reality of the vice being tolerated. Otis was not falsely liberated to do what his desires would have him do, simply because certain particular passions were inflamed by the largely uncontrollable combination of his life situation, temperament, and weaknesses. His actions always had consequences -- consequences that often provided comic relief to the show, relief that was in turn typically joined with undercurrents of instruction about the tragedies and glories of the human condition.
There were, correspondingly, ample helpings of grace. As part of the delicate balance between rigor and mercy, Andy always seemed to bear in mind that charity -- this objectivity toward the neighbor -- demanded attention to the other’s humanity, to every human being’s (even Otis’s) having been made in the image of God. Otis’s humanity and Andy’s benevolence were never more clear than upon Otis’s awakenings in jail -- his having once again slept off his stupor through the night. Invariably he would let himself out of his cell with the key that had been hanging on the wall within his grasp, all along. The key was made available from the start; but, his sobriety (his coming to himself) coupled with this mercifully-applied penance (this easy yoke) triggered true liberation.
If the show’s main theme was love, perhaps a close second was humility. Just as objectivity toward the neighbor defines love; objectivity toward the self, neither engaging in grandiose contortions of emotive "self-expression" nor wallowing in the mire of one’s own self-pity (which is to say self-absorption), could be said to be the marker of true humility.
Andy clearly displays this characteristic in an early episode in which Opie befriends Mr. McBeevee, a telephone line repairman who happens to be working in a particularly forested part of town. Opie’s story of his friend becomes increasingly unbelievable -- especially to Barney, but even to Andy -- as Mr. McBeevee is said to “walk in the tree-tops” and work with his “many hands” (a euphemism Mr. McBeevee uses for the tools on his toolbelt). This is especially so given Opie’s recent penchant for carrying on about his imaginary pet horse, Blackie. Barney is incredulous: “Sooner or later he’s gotta find out he’s living in a real world and there just ain’t any Mr. McBeevees." Andy is almost as skeptical but just before giving Opie a whippin’ (the recompense for lying) he thinks better of it in an incredibly poignant father-and-son scene. It’s a scene which leads to another wherein Andy’s smoking a cigarette (one of the few times he does this in the show) clearly signifies intense rumination on the ethical quandary he believes himself to be facing: does he trust his son or should he rely on his own reasoning? Andy responds to Barney’s rather leading question about whether he believes Opie’s story, saying “No.” But, then Andy follows: “But, I’ve asked him to believe many things that, to his mind, must have seemed just as unbelievable.” Andy realizes that when it comes to understanding the complexities of his relationship with his young son, his son’s perception of the world (which clearly perplexes Andy), and indeed his own day-to-day epistemological faculties, the only response that is both loving and humble is to trust. Andy’s approach to these paradoxes is to move forward unknowingly: solvitur ambulando. Andy is, at episode’s end, overjoyed to learn that Mr. McBeevee is a real repairman and that his trusting his son is evenly matched by his son’s own integrity.
It’s noteworthy that the show always presents those with a utilitarian ethical framework (the various mayors of the town and state inspectors, for example) as, in the end, misguided. Those who have relied on appeals to virtue and first principles, love and humility (rather than calculated reason and ideology), on the other hand, are generally vindicated. The show’s best characters and most memorable situations have all the depth and texture truly proper to the human state -- in other words, there are always subtle appeals to higher things. Ultimately, this is what allows Andy to trust his own conviction about the core of Opie’s personhood in the question of Mr. McBeevee’s existence, but to doubt and ultimately chasten Opie’s discernment in the case of the transient hobo.
To be clear, I suffer no delusion that Mayberry ever actually existed. And I’ve long recognized that, more often than not, my own hometown proved to bear but a faint shadow of Mayberry’s glory.
Andy Griffith himself once said that the show, even when in production, presented an overly idyllic picture of small-town Southern life. He noted that it was set in the 1960’s (the era of its filming) but even then it struck people as though it were utilizing a moral and social framework borrowed from least 30 years prior.
Isn’t that, in part, the point, though? Aren’t we always longing for a more pristine past, insofar as past is a way of saying a time transcending time? If our faculties are clear, we remember something more perfect. The iconic nature of reality suggests that things on this plane of existence, though broken, point to more perfect realities on another. A priori. Perhaps The Andy Griffith Show’s appeal to some is not simply that it’s quaint or pure or indicative of a ‘simpler time’ (though, it may be these things) but that it represents for them an intermediary step along the path of that correspondence between experienced reality and the Reality that lies behind it.
Perhaps, what Andy did was reveal eudaimonia -- and glimpses of the Kingdom -- inflected as it has been, in this case, with the melodic dissonances of a Southern accent.