Andy Griffith and the Pleasing Myth of Mayberry

I have an old friend I've known forever who, like me, is a late-middle-aged North Carolina native. He says when his time comes and he's standing at the Pearly Gates, he hopes Saint Peter says to him "Come on in. We've got two dozen black-and-white episodes of 'The Andy Griffith Show' that you've never seen."
That's the kind of impact that the late Andy Griffith had on North Carolina's psyche. Many of us aging Tar Heel Baby Boomers are hoping that the afterlife is an eternity of watching Andy, Opie, Barney, Aunt Bee and the good townsfolk of Mayberry, and never getting tired of them.

The fictional town Griffith created for his show presumably was based on his hometown of Mount Airy, a small town north of Winston-Salem near the Virginia border.  Mayberry supposedly was about 60 miles from Raleigh. In truth, however, Mayberry could have been -- and probably was intended to be -- any one of dozens of drowsy little county seats, mill towns, mountain hamlets and fishing villages across the state.
Before the state's remarkable population growth of the 1980s, North Carolina basically was one big small town. When one Tar Heel encountered another Tar Heel in another state, a conversation likely would ensue. It happened to me in Atlanta in late September1984, when I attended the Braves' last home game of the season with a friend from Chapel Hill. My friend was a transplanted Yankee from Massachusetts married to a North Carolina girl who was in law school at UNC.

It was a chilly night, and I was wearing a UNC sweatshirt as my friend and I stood in a concourse chatting before the game. A 60-ish man and his wife saw my sweatshirt. They were total strangers, but they smiled and walked over to me like they'd spotted an old friend in a crowd of strangers. The man told me where he was from and we struck up a conversation. My Massachusetts friend watched in bemused fascination. When the conversation broke up and we went to our seats, my friend was smiling and shaking his head in disbelief. "You good old Tar Heels," he said. "Never met a stranger."

And that was how Andy Griffith touched North Carolina. He tapped into that small town, back-home familiarity that was such a part of living in the state before its burgeoning growth spurt.

Anyone who grew up in Williamston, or Roxboro, or Mount Gilead, or Yadkinville or Windsor or Burgaw or Buxton or Bryson City or Albemarle knew Mayberry's colorful but ordinary residents. They were the same people who operated barber shops, gas stations and moonshine stills in our hometowns. They sang in the church choirs and coached the Little League baseball teams. They led Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. They had similar hobbies and enjoyed similar entertainment. They canned pickles and sat on front porches playing guitars. They took pride in their skills, and even if they weren't quite as good at something as they thought they were, their neighbors didn't spoil it for them by telling them the truth. Once in a while they got drunk on a Saturday night, but they were in church, with their hangover, the next day.

They were gentle people. If they sometimes were clannish and suspicious of outsiders, they were as a rule friendly and welcoming to visitors--sometimes to their own disadvantage. They were generally well-behaved and respectful of their neighbors, though not above some occasional gossiping about them. If Mayberry residents did step out of line, government authority was represented by Sheriff Andy Taylor, an affable, joshing lawman who was a little bit smarter than he let on. He was willing to play the Southern rube when necessary, but in the end he was always there with handcuffs and a big grin after he'd outsmarted the bad guys, who usually were from out of town and often from somewhere Up North. Andy refused to carry a gun because he'd known the people he was policing all his life, and rather than use force, he wanted Mayberry residents to behave themselves because they respected the law and knew he'd treat them fairly. And Andy always seemed to know instinctively when to strictly enforce the law and when to bend the rules to be a little more accommodating of common sense and human nature.

With Andy's guidance, the people of Mayberry always figured out the right thing to do when they were confronted with one of life's moral quandaries. When Andy was wrong, he admitted it and made amends. And while Andy went to church every Sunday and often applied Biblical teachings to his law enforcement, he did not wear his religion on his sleeve. The show's religious values were in the background, always implied but seldom stated and certainly never forced on others.

 So Mayberry became North Carolina's pleasing myth, a flattering fun-house mirror whose distorted reflection made us look a little better than we really were. The state felt so good about the image crafted by Andy Griffith that a statue of Sheriff Taylor and his son Opie walking to the fishin' hole was erected on public grounds in downtown Raleigh. It was an honor usually reserved for war heroes and beloved statesmen.

Like all myths, this one is truthful enough to endure. But a myth ultimately is false, and there are holes in the Mayberry myth if you care to look for them.

"The Andy Griffith Show" first aired on CBS in 1960 at the beginning of a decade that became more tumultuous with each passing year. But the dramatic changes wrought by assassinations, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War didn't touch Mayberry. Edgier, topical new comedies such as "All In The Family" reflected the tensions of the early days of the culture wars.
"The Andy Griffith Show" ended in 1968 as the turbulent decade was reaching its crescendo. By this time the show was being broadcast in color, but it was a pale imitation of its black-and-white glory. Don Knotts -- the brilliant but troubled actor who played the officious, bumbling Deputy Barney Fife -- left the cast after the fifth season. Without Barney to stir the pot with his good-intentions-gone-bad, the show's stories and characters settled into a saccharine blandness. Hence my old friend's hope that the episodes he sees in the afterlife will be in black-and-white and include Barney.

Still, if the show's later episodes aren't as memorable as those first five black-and-white seasons, I don't think Andy Griffith's legacy is in any danger of fading. A few days ago, my cousin Judy and I rode up to Mount Airy to get a pork chop sandwich at the Snappy Lunch -- mentioned in at least one episode -- and soak up the Mount Airy/Mayberry ambience.
Mount Airy ignored their famous hometown son for decades. The town could afford that while its economic base was still healthy. But textile mills and furniture factories closed and jobs dried up. And Mount Airy finally realized that it was ignoring a gold mine.

So the town's Main Street has become essentially a Mayberry theme park that is pulling in a steady stream of visitors. As Judy and I were leaving the Snappy Lunch, a tour bus began unloading passengers who gathered outside the restaurant's entrance. Meanwhile, dozens of tourists browsed the Main Street shops, most of which had displays related to "The Andy Griffith Show."

So it's clear that people in North Carolina and beyond still want to believe the myth of Mayberry. They want to believe that somewhere there's a charming little town where people solve their problems by using a few simple rules, some common sense, and a loyal and abiding affection for their neighbors.
So what if there's no such thing as Mayberry? "The Andy Griffith Show" wasn't a documentary about life in small town America. I'm not the first person to say this, but I think it was a classic morality play gently urging us to try to be a little better in our daily lives. Mayberry is what we could be if we'd just try a little harder.

The photo at the top of this post shows Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts), town drunk Otis Campbell (Hal Smith), and Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) in a scene from "The Rehabilitation of Otis," which aired on 'The Andy Griffith Show' in 1964.

1 comment:

heartweaver said...

This is a fifth dimension. One of my other favorite series began this way. As a lover of harmony and pleasantries juxtaposed with magic and fantasy the series were not too far apart. Mayberry and John or Mabel Q. Citizen with a wish or quandary. Fish or visit The Twilight Zone. Your choice or maybe both. Great tribute article.