7/31/2012

The Parable of the Dugout Roof

Years ago, when I got out of the Army, I'd been conditionally accepted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The condition was that I had to earn a foreign language credit before I'd be formally accepted at UNC.

So I enrolled at Belmont Abbey College for one semester to take a French course. I decided to take a full academic load, so I also took courses in American literature, Southern literature, and astronomy.
There were several reasons why I enrolled at Belmont Abbey. First, the college actively sought veterans and gave a small tuition discount to vets. And it had a good academic reputation, and that was an inducement.

But Belmont Abbey also is a Catholic college, and like many Protestants, I was curious about Catholicism. I grew up in a small Methodist church, but, to borrow a phrase from my late friend, Jim Shumaker, I like to spread myself around ecumenically.
So I did a semester among the Benedictine monks at The Abbey. At that time, about 40 percent of the faculty was monastic. So even though the college is in Belmont, an old mill town in the heart of the Piedmont textile country, the presence of the Catholic monastery and the monks made The Abbey -- at least in my mind -- an unusual and even exotic place.

I remember a spring night when the weather suddenly changed from cold to warm, and fog rolled across the campus. I was walking back to my dorm room. In the near distance I saw two monks in their dark robes, hoods covering their heads, seeming to glide through the fog, moving from the light into the foggy darkness. It struck me that what I was seeing was something straight out of the Middle Ages. It was eerie and fascinating.
Three of my four instructors were priests, and two of those priests -- Father John Oetgen and Father Matthew McSorley -- lived in the monastery.

Father John was from Savannah and had studied at Oxford University and UNC-Chapel Hill. He taught Southern Literature, or, as he sometimes called it, "Grit Lit." He introduced me to author W.J. Cash's seminal work, The Mind of the South, a perceptive examination of Southern culture and thought that has become a classic since it was published in 1940. And Father John also introduced me to the works of Flannery O'Connor, a master of Southern gothic literature.
His command of his subject was remarkable. I recall him standing at a lectern in the classroom and giving hour-long lectures without once faltering or consulting notes.

Father Matthew, who'd earned a graduate degree in literature from Villanova University, taught the American lit course. He liked the essays I wrote in his class and encouraged me to develop my writing skills.
But I also greatly enjoyed talking to Father Matthew and the other priests about many topics. I was greatly impressed that the priests seemed to me to use reason and intellect to make their points and avoid emotion.

One spring afternoon I went for an ambling walk around the Belmont Abbey campus with Father Matthew. My experience in the Army had had a dramatic effect on how I perceived the world, and at the time I'd only been a civilian for a few months and was struggling to readjust. I wanted to get Father Matthew's take on what author Douglas Adams referred to as "life, the universe and everything" and how I fitted into this big picture.
Father Matthew listened to me talk about my doubts, uncertainties, hopes and plans as we walked along a gravel road. As we approached the college baseball field, we both fell silent for a few moments, and Father Matthew clearly was thinking about something.

He stopped along the first base side of the ballpark, which was surrounded by a low chain-link fence. "Pick up three stones," he told me. For some reason, the fact that he called them "stones" instead of "rocks" impressed me. So I picked up three stones from the gravel road. They were slightly smaller than the palm of my hand. He did the same.
"I'll bet you that you can't hit that dugout roof in three tries with those stones," he said.

I looked at him like he was crazy. The dugout was maybe a hundred feet away. The roof was a large, flat surface. I'd played baseball all my life. I didn't think I could possibly miss.
"Go ahead," he said. "I'll bet you can't do it."

He was, of course, right. Three tries, three misses. After my third throw had sailed over the dugout, Father Matthew made a clumsy, lunging, underhand toss and dropped a stone smack in the middle of the roof.
"OK," I said. "I assume there's a lesson here. What am I supposed to learn from this?"

"Well, I've done this many times with many young men," he said. "So I have the advantage of having had a lot of practice and you were trying it for the first time."
"But you were clearly concerned about how you looked when you threw those stones," Father Matthew said. "You showed beautiful form, but you missed every time. On the other hand, my technique was awkward and clumsy and not at all pretty to watch. But I hit my target.

"So the lesson here is that you should be more concerned about results and less concerned about image and appearances."
Father Matthew died two months ago at the age of 91. More than 35 years have passed since he taught me what I've come to call "The Parable of the Dugout Roof." I don't think a week has gone by since then that I haven't recalled that moment. Yet I still struggle sometimes to live up to that lesson Father Matthew taught me.

The photo at the top of this post was taken from an online posting of the 1970 edition of The Spire, the yearbook of Belmont Abbey College. It shows Father Matthew McSorley, at the far right of the photo, teaching a class at Belmont Abbey. The photographer is not identified.

7/04/2012

Andy Griffith and the 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 has come 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 and mill towns across the state.
And that was how Andy Griffith touched North Carolina. Anyone who grew up in Williamston, or Roxboro, or Mount Gilead, or Yadkinville or Burgaw or Bryson City 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 attended the same churches as we did. They had similar hobbies and entertainment. They canned pickles and sat on front porches playing guitars, and once in a while they got drunk.

They were gentle people who 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'd known the people he was policing all his life, and he seemed to instinctively know 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, the show's religious values were in the background, always implied but seldom stated.

So Mayberry became North Carolina's pleasing myth, a flattering mirror we could gaze into and feel good about ourselves. The state felt so good about the image crafted by Andy Griffith that a statue of Sheriff Taylor and Opie walking to the fishin' hole was erected on public grounds in 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 it's easy to see the holes in the Mayberry myth.

"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 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 -- who played the officious, bumbling Deputy Barney Fife -- had left the cast after the fifth season, and the show's stories and characters had settled into a saccharine blandness.

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 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.
After largely ignoring Andy Griffith for decades, Mount Airy finally realized a few years ago 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 my cousin 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 beyond North Carolina 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 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, town drunk Otis Campbell, and Sheriff Andy Taylor in a scene from "The Rehabilitation of Otis," which aired on 'The Andy Griffith Show' in 1964.