Mount Airy, North Carolina—blue mountains in the distance. Rolling farmland. Picture-perfect downtown. The home of Andy Griffith is just like it always was. Small. Sweet.
I’m on a park bench, holding a bouquet of roses. I’m waiting for my one-on-one interview with the oldest surviving Andy Griffith Show cast member, Betty Lynn—better known as Barney’s girl, Thelma Lou.
An elderly woman is gardening beside me while I wait. Her hands are covered in soil. Her husband is with her. Shirley and Bob Perkins are in their eighties. They’ve lived here since the earth cooled.
I ask if they ever met Andy Griffith.
“Met him?” Shirley elbows her husband. “Why, Bob’s distant kin to Old Andy.”
I ask what “Old Andy” was like.
“Oh, he was exactly like on TV. Don’t listen to nobody who says otherwise.”
When our conversation ends, Shirley says, “Before you leave town, get a pork chop sandwich from Snappy Lunch, there’s always a long line, but it’s worth the wait.”
I’m escorted into the museum. Ninety-one-year-old Betty Lynn rolls into the room in a wheelchair. Her hair is red, she sports a yellow blouse and yellow pocketbook. My heart sings.
I hand her the bouquet. She kisses my cheek. Yes. My cheek. My very own cheek. She kisses this. With her lips. I’ve had a crush on Thelma Lou since boyhood. Now that I’m with her, it’s gotten worse.
“Tell me about Andy,” I ask.
“Old Andy?” she says. “Those were the best years of my life. I still watch the show and laugh.”
Her personal story is a good one. She tells it, using a trademarked cheerful voice that is unaffected by age.
“Who woulda ever thought?” she goes on. “Little old me, the new face of Mayberry.”
She lets me ask a million questions until our interview ends. She kisses me again. I become lightheaded, my cheeks get hot. We pose for a photograph.
And I am no longer a man, but a boy. I am the kid who had a pitiful and broken family. A kid who watched the Andy Griffith Show, sitting only twelve inches from a television screen.
A kid who once prayed that Heaven would let him wake up in a black-and-white colored small town named Mayberry. A place where fathers don’t die, and young mothers are never sad.
Before she wheels away, she adds, “Have you heard about the pork chop sandwich at Snappy Lunch? It’s worth the wait.”
I wander down Main Street. The sun is high. I’m on Cloud Nine, shaking hands with strangers, whistling a tune, touching my cheek.
The town is loaded with tourists. I meet an elderly couple from Oberlin, Ohio. A family of eight from Bel Air, Maryland. A young man and his girlfriend from Saint Joe, Missouri.
I see the Mayberry Courthouse. I prop my feet on Andy’s desk. I visit Wally’s Filling Station—where I play checkers with a six-year-old named Rachel, from Toledo. Rachel cheats.
I visit Floyd’s Barber Shop.
“My father was the REAL Floyd,” says white-haired proprietor, Bill Hiatt. “Daddy cut Old Andy’s hair.”
Old Bill is a lot like Old Andy, kindhearted and chatty. His barbering father was a good ole boy. When the show became world famous, Bill’s father became a permanent fixture in town.
“Daddy musta shaken hands with every tourist,” Bill goes on. “EVERY-body wanted to meet the real Floyd. We think he posed for over a million photos.”
His father died at age ninety-two. The funeral was televised on two stations, mentioned on the National news, the BBC, German television, Dutch television, and perhaps, but not definitively, the Vatican.
I pose for a picture with Bill. A woman from Okeechobee, Florida, takes our photo.
Bill bids me farewell by saying, “Don’t forget to try the pork chop sandwich next door, it’s worth the wait.”
So, by God, here I am. Waiting. I’m standing in a long line outside the Snappy Lunch. The single-file line winds past three storefronts, and it’s growing.
The couple ahead of me is from Arab, Alabama. The couple behind me is from Greensburg, Kansas. Other states are represented, too. Maine, Wisconsin, Michigan, Texas, Arkansas.
I find a free barstool in the diner. My waitress says, “Lemme guess, pork chop sandwich?”
A mind reader.
She brings my food. The fried pork is hot. The bun is soft.
I eat it and remember a little boy who made a prayer a long time ago. A childish request, asking Heaven to remove him from a sad little life and drop him in Mayberry, USA. I’d given up on that boy. And I’d given up on that town. Until today.
“How was the sandwich?” my waitress asks.
It was worth the wait.