I’m in a hotel room. We are on the fourteenth day of a book tour and I’m starting to forget which city I am in. Is this Birmingham? Or am I in Huntsville?
I’m past the point of trying to figure it out. Last night I awoke in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and I walked straight into a cinder block wall because I forgot I was in a hotel.
Right now I am watching “The Andy Griffith Show” on TV. This episode is one of my favorites. Barney joins the choir, but his singing voice is godawful. Thelma Lou, Barney’s girl, visits Andy when she learns that Barney is in the choir:
THELMA LOU: Barney’s gonna be in the choir?! My Barney?!
ANDY: That’s right.
THELMA: But Barney can’t sing.
ANDY: I know.
THELMA: He’s the man I want to marry, the man I want to be the father of my children…
ANDY: But he can’t sing.
THELMA: Not a lick!
Pure gold. This scene is a knee slapper, no matter who you are. But if you’re a shameless Andy Griffith fanatic like me, this is the scene you want re-enacted at your funeral service. And you just hope the funeral congregation all says, “Not a lick!” in perfect unison.
I’ve seen this episode a hundred thousand times. Maybe more. I can quote the dialogue by heart, right along with the TV. Which drives my wife bat-dookie crazy.
She always says, “Why do you watch that show if you know every word?”
I usually wave her off and continue helping Andy remember his lines.
A few years ago, I had an exclusive one-on-one interview with Betty Lynn, the actress who played Thelma Lou. She’s in her mid-nineties now. I rented a car and drove eleven hours north to Mount Airy, North Carolina. I booked the cheapest hotel I could find. In hindsight, I wish I would have spent a few extra bucks on a better room because I had to share the covers with a cockroach the size of Tom Brady. And he snored.
Betty Lynn’s assistant told me to arrive early at the Andy Griffith Museum on Rockford Street. So I parked downtown and I walked the old streets with the same giddiness a boy might have when he’s on his way to prom. There was a little bounce to my step.
I stopped at a farmer’s market by the courthouse and bought some pink flowers. They weren’t roses, but some kind of exotic flower that costs more than a three-bedroom beach cottage. When I heard the price, I told the florist they were for Betty Lynn.
The lady said, “Well goodness, I wish you woulda told me before I charged you, I woulda charged you double.”
When I got to the museum there was a huge line of people waiting to get in. Kids, adults, elderly people, men of the cloth, politicians. And they were all holding black-and-white photographs of Betty Lynn, waiting for her autograph.
A lady announced that everyone would have to wait because Miss Betty had a one-on-one interview with a certain derelict redheaded writer.
I saw about three hundred folks snarl at me, all at once. I fully expected someone to shove a potato in the exhaust pipe of my rental car.
When Miss Betty’s wheelchair rolled into our private room, I noticed her brilliant red hair before I saw anything else.
Like I mentioned earlier, I am a longtime redhead. My mother said that when the doctor handed me to her, the first thing he said was: “Uh-oh, you know what they say about redheaded babies and preachers, don’t you? They aren’t happy unless you shove food in their mouth.”
My mother loves to tell that one at family get-togethers.
When Betty Lynn saw me, her first words were, “A redhead! Look! Red hair!” And I got warm all over. I started to stammer. I did not expect to get so nervous in front of this woman, but I was trembling.
A few of the museum employees told me that I was blushing. Yet another problem that we fair-skinned redheads suffer from.
I handed Miss Betty the flowers and she thanked me. She smelled them. I couldn’t believe how outgoing she was. I’ve never met a ninety-some-year-old lady who was so animated and spunky. She wheeled closer and she kissed my cheek.
I saw camera flashes go off. When her lips hit my cheek, time and space froze.
I have been watching Betty Lynn on television syndication since I was old enough to fill a diaper. I know all her lines by heart, almost every scene, and almost every episode. I can tell you which house in Mayberry she lived in. Which vocal parts she sang in the Mayberry choir—soprano. I can’t tell you what her skeet-shooting cousin’s name was (Karen Moore).
She touched my red hair and said, “Look at you.”
And I was no longer in my body. I had gone to be with Jesus.
To tell you the truth, the rest of the interview was a blur. Though I did ask her to say a few famous lines for me. I’m sure everyone asks her to do this same thing, but she was gracious enough to do it for me.
She said, “Barney’s the man I want to marry, the man I want to be father of my children…”
“But he can’t sing,” I said.
Then, Betty Lynn and every other human being within earshot yelled in perfect unison, “NOT A LICK!”
As long as I live, I will never forget that wonderfully perfect day in Mayberry.
I only wish I could remember which city I’m in right now.