Today, I watched “The Andy Griffith Show” all day long. I had the day off, so I visited Mayberry.
I started with the very first episode, when Andy welcomes Aunt Bea to Mayberry. I watched a handful of others until it was time for bed. The last episode I watched was the one where Barney joins the choir. A classic.
Over the last twelve hours, I’ve seen it all. I watched the Mayberry Bank almost get robbed—twice. I’ve seen Barney muff things up with Thelma Lou. I tasted Aunt Bea’s god-awful pickles.
And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, Andy taught Opie to stand up to a bully.
During my childhood, the Andy Griffith Show came on the local station every weekday at five o’clock. Our TV only got three channels, and two of the stations came in fuzzy.
So I watched Andy Griffith each afternoon until I’d practically memorized the dialogue, the closing credits, and even the commercials between segments.
Commercials like the one with Coach Bear Bryant advertising for South Central Bell. “Have you called your mama today?” Bear would say. “I sure wish I could call mine.”
And the advertisements which all featured some unfortunate kid named Mikey, eating Life cereal at gunpoint.
And of course, there was the commercial with “Mean” Joe Greene, blatantly tossing his sweaty football jersey into the face an innocent child who was just trying to offer him a Coca-Cola.
My childhood was not an easy one. After my father took his own life, I was a lonely boy who watched a lot of TV. I think I was trying to escape my own world by living inside a console television set. I enjoyed all the classic reruns.
“Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke,” “Twilight Zone,” “I Love Lucy,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Batman,” and I pledged my eternal love to Barbara Eden. “The Beverly Hillbillies” were okay in a pinch. “Green Acres” was okay. And the “Partridge Family”? Gag me with an electric harpsichord.
But Andy was everything. He was my hero.
My family was in shambles. I was a kid with a proverbial black mark on his forehead after my father’s dramatic departure, a kid who seemed to only invoke pity from people who knew his story. And I always seemed to feel embarrassed.
But at five in the afternoon, I lived in a black-and-white town where life was good. Where Barney was my uncle, and Aunt Bea made fried chicken for Sunday dinner. Where a sheriff took me fishing and made me feel like I belonged.
Last year, I visited Andy Griffith’s hometown in Mount Airy, North Carolina. I kicked around town for a week and had a famous time.
I visited Andy’s old barber shop, I sat in a ‘62 Ford Galaxy squad car and chewed the fat with a few local tour guides. I even interviewed people who knew Andy personally.
I interviewed one such elderly couple. They were busy doing yard work during our conversation. The old woman wore a straw hat and leather gloves.
“Yeah, I knew Andy,” said the woman. “A great fella, sort of an outsider when he was growing up, ‘cause his family was poor. Lived over by the water tower, on Haymore Street.”
I visited Andy’s childhood house and left a postcard in the mailbox. I hiked along the river where he fished as a boy. I put a jar of dill pickles on Aunt Bea’s grave in Siler City.
And that Friday, I visited the Andy Griffith Museum for an interview with Betty Lynn, the actress who played Thelma Lou. Her assistant rolled her wheelchair into the room. Betty was elderly, but her hair was still persimmon red. I gave her a dozen pink roses.
“For me?” she said, smelling them. “Oh how marvelous.” And her voice sounded just like the same Thelma Lou I grew up with.
Then, the 94-year-old actress kissed me on the cheek and called me “handsome.”
Handsome. I kid you not.
“Andy was wonderful,” she told me. “Whenever I did scenes with him, it never felt like acting ‘cause he was the same on and off camera. That’s rare in showbusiness.”
She actually used the word “showbusiness.” Pinch me.
Later that day, I ate a pork chop sandwich at the Snappy Lunch, and I watched the sun go down over Mount Airy, sitting on my truck hood.
My heart has been in Mayberry since my early years. And it still is, I guess. I know it is only a make-believe town, but it is real to me. And to this day, I can’t enjoy modern television because nothing compares with it.
Reality TV is a joke. Cable news ain’t for me. I don’t care to watch primetime celebrities learn how to dance the Salsa for cash prizes. And I don’t mean to be critical here, but whoever came up with the premise behind “The Bachelor” has the emotional depth of chicken salad.
But I get Andy. And though I never knew him, he seems to understand me. And when I see that familiar jailhouse, or hear Barney Fife’s tenor voice, I am no longer that lonely child who once sat before a television and wondered if anyone would ever love him. But I am the friend of the local sheriff. And I matter to someone.
I love you, Andy Griffith. And I always will.