Sylacauga, Alabama—this is your quintessential American town. Old buildings, lots of Baptist churches, and Mama Ree’s restaurant, which serves fare so good you’ll wonder if Granny isn’t in the kitchen.
This is the hometown of Jim Nabors, better known as Gomer Pyle from the Andy Griffith Show.
Earlier today, I toured the city. There is a lot to see.
There’s the Comer museum on Broadway Avenue. They have a room dedicated to Nabors memorabilia. There you can see photos, news clippings, and costumes from the town’s own native son. Up the road is the high school Nabors graduated from.
And of course, Sylacauga is known for more than just Gomer Pyle.
Firstly: it’s one of the only places in the world that produces bedrock marble so pure it was used in the construction of the Lincoln Memorial, and the United States Supreme Court Building.
Sylacauga also boasts the first documented case of an outer-space object falling onto a human. It happened one autumn day in ‘54. A meteorite the size of a grapefruit crashed through a farmhouse roof and hit Mrs. Ann Hodges, who was napping.
It didn’t hurt her too bad, but they say she was fussy for several days thereafter.
Don’t get me wrong, I love meteorites and marble as much as the next guy. But I am here today to track down Gomer Pyle. I am looking for glimpses of a world once inhabited by Andy, Barney, Opie, and Aunt Bea.
The truth is, Andy Griffith raised me. After my father died, we lived with my aunt and my cousins in Georgia. Back then, I was a redhead boy, trapped in a house with six females and 1.5 bathrooms.
Every month, for a span of three to five days, these women would become very grumpy—AT THE SAME TIME. Then, they would gang up on me, threatening to behead and roast me on a barbecue spit if I didn’t get outside.
So I disappeared a lot. To pass the time, I read comic books, played solitaire, drew pictures, wrote stories, and planted kudzu in my aunt’s backyard.
A boy without a father is a ship without a compass. I was adrift upon the Sea of Life. Under confident in every way. But.
Every day at 5 P.M. I was born again because Andy was on TV.
When the whistling theme song came through the television speaker, everyone knew dadgum well to leave Sean Dietrich alone.
Andy taught me a lot of crucial lessons. He taught me how to defend myself against bullies, how to tell the truth, how to be a good loser, and the paramount importance of using plenty of Brylcreem.
When I was a young man, most of my friends started traveling a lot after they graduated. They racked up millions of airline miles and saw the world.
My friend Danny, for instance, moved to France to find himself. My friend Eric said he discovered himself by backpacking across Kathmandu, then hiking El Camino in the same year.
But I was nothing like them. I was a young man who once read a Don Knotts biography, then traveled to Morgantown, West Virginia, to visit where he grew up.
Just last year, I made a pilgrimage to Mount Airy, North Carolina, to visit Andy Griffith’s childhood home. I laid a penny at the foot of his bronze statue. I ate a pork chop sandwich at the Snappy Lunch with the same reverence of a Holy Eucharist.
And this evening, I shook hands with a few people who knew Jim Nabors. I heard precious few stories about his childhood, and I met someone who remembered how well he sang in high school.
And even though I’m not from Talladega County, hearing those things made me feel like I had found home somehow.
To tell you the truth, my life hasn’t been all that interesting. I haven’t done much. I’ve never been overseas, never owned a car with low milage, and I have never eaten escargot.
But I have enjoyed the little American hamlets that remind me of an era that evaporated. And that is enough for me.
Because no matter how old I get, I will forever be a redheaded child, seated before a General Electric console television, wishing I was Opie Taylor, and wishing Andy was my paw.
Sylacauga was magnificent. No, it was more than that.
It was Mayberry.