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July 8, 2012

MIKE LUNSFORD: We had no better friend than Andy Taylor

TERRE HAUTE — The world is a sadder place now that Andy Griffith has died, but at least we still have Andy Taylor.

Griffith, the lovable and wise father figure to so many of my generation, died at age 86 in his North Carolina home on July 3, and I couldn’t help but think that morning last week when my son called to tell me the news, that I was thankful that I will still be able to listen to Andy sing “Church in the Wildwood” with Barney on the Taylors’ front porch, watch him fish for bass with his son, Opie, out on Myers Lake, and see him forever walking the streets and checking the doors of a Mayberry that we wish still existed.

For me, “The Andy Griffith Show” has always been a haven of rest. It may sound a bit sentimental, even odd for a grown man to admit, but after particularly hectic days at work, or just when I feel a little down, I find myself migrating toward our family room to watch a few reruns of a show that take me back, at least for a little while, to my childhood, to a black-and-white world where Andy Taylor could solve all problems, smooth over arguments, and make us laugh, at least for half an hour at a time.

There will never be another television show like Griffith’s. The world seems to take itself too seriously these days, and even though Andy Taylor was sheriff at a time when a war in Vietnam raged and our cities burned in anger, his show was a constant reminder over its 249 episodes that there is always a time for laughter, for family and good friends, and for taking the time to sit and rest a while. For those reasons alone, it remains, to me anyway, indisputably modern.

I grew up with Andy and Barney and Aunt Bea and Gomer Pyle. I was only 4 when the series debuted in October 1960 as a spin-off of “The Danny Thomas Show,” and, for most part, I remember watching the first-run color episodes at my grandparents’ house on Monday nights. By the time Griffith left the show in 1968, and it morphed into “Mayberry RFD,” I was already catching its early years in re-runs. I have been watching and re-watching them ever since, sometimes spending hours around a Christmastime table quoting the show’s scripture chapter and verse with my equally enthusiastic sister, Lora, a card-carrying Andy Taylor loyalist if there ever was one.

Griffith was an amazing talent. Had he never become Andy Taylor, we would still remember him as the fame-hungry “Lonesome” Rhodes in “A Face in the Crowd,” or as the toilet seat-saluting Will Stockdale in “No Time for Sergeants,” or for his “What It Was, Was Football” routine, a monologue my sister and I snickered to on a record we lost years and years ago. I think we also had a few old Spike Jones records.

These days, I use several episodes of Griffith’s show in an honors English class for a unit I call “Man and His Sense of Place,” for surely no character in the history of television was more comfortable in his own skin than the small town North Carolina sheriff who refused to wear a gun because he wanted to appear friendly. Many of my students have seen the show before, but more and more of the seniors I teach have never seen a single episode, have never heard of “Checkpoint Chickie,” Ernest T. Bass, “Miracle Salve,” or know that Barney bought his first car off of “Hub Caps” Lesh, who thought she’d gotten “… three hundred clams from the sucker of the world.” I love remedying that situation.

One of my favorite episodes, called “Class Reunion,” first aired in February 1963. Like many of the best, it was written by Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, although Griffith’s artistic fingerprint was on every program. “Class Reunion” shows my students why growing up and staying in a small community like Mayberry need not be a sign of weakness or a lack of ambition. As we follow one storyline in which Barney fondly recalls Ramona Wiley and her yearning for him in high school (she supposedly wrote him a note that read: “Barney beloved, the tears on my pillow bespeak the pain that is in my heart”), Andy briefly rekindles his flame for first-love Sharon DeSpain, who had left her home town to live a successful life in the big city. Andy eventually tells her that he doesn’t need to go elsewhere to live his life; Mayberry has everything he wants. “It’s a good place to raise children, a lot of good friends, a good place,” he tells her.

At the top of my list — I wrote an entire column about this episode over six years ago — is “Man in a Hurry,” which first ran in January 1963; it too was written by Fritzell and Greenbaum. In it, a Raleigh businessman named Malcolm Tucker faces car trouble in Mayberry. It being a Sunday, Tucker soon discovers that he can’t get his car fixed, that the town virtually shuts down on Sunday afternoons, and that the one available phone line is occupied by the aged Mendelbright sisters, who spend hours discussing their sleeping feet. Tucker is driven to distraction, and at one point declares, “You people live in another world.” In the end, after a memorable moment on Andy’s front porch when even the preoccupied businessman is caught up in the simple beauty of the old hymn that Andy and Barney sing in harmony, we see Tucker, a half-peeled apple in his hand, asleep in a rocking chair, apparently content, at least for a while, to let the world pass him by. It is an image of peace and contentment rarely, if ever, seen on television today.

If you already know that Briscoe Darling gets choked up when he hears “There Is a Time,” that Floyd Lawson once hit Charley Foley in the nose over an unpaid shave, that Otis Campbell passed the “Barney Fife Peter Piper Nose-Pinching Test for Drunks,” and that Clara Edwards won the blue ribbon for her pickles at the county fair (her secret is allspice) 12 years in a row, then I imagine that you’re missing Andy Griffith a bit right now. Those of us who love the show are bound to miss him.

But, in a lot of ways, Andy Taylor, who became a friend to so many of us, will live forever.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com for more information about his books.

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