By Brian M. Howle
Back during this year’s Fourth of July celebrations, it happened yet again. Someone within my earshot – quietly and discreetly – gently admonished one of their young in the midst of the large gathering awaiting the Murrells Inlet fireworks show. I watched with interest, because I don’t have much faith in that particular means of parenting. Sure enough, the child continued to misbehave – only to receive another hollow, meaningless admonition.
An elderly couple had set up camp beside our viewing spot, and the husband leaned over to his wife and whispered, “Too bad that child’s never seen Opie being disciplined by Andy.” When I noticeably laughed out loud, his startled eyes quickly jumped to mine – and then eased into a wide, understanding smile that spoke volumes of oneness between us without speaking a word.
I’ve mentioned my fondness for the The Andy Griffith Show many times over the course of writing this column. In particular, about a former co-worker – fresh out of college – who took on the task of interrogating everyone in the office to illicit intelligent reasons for watching The Andy Griffith Show. Seems she found the show to be dated, doting, cornpone, unrealistic and bordering on ignorance glorified, with no socially redeeming values at all. Appropriately, after she approached me for my opinion, she never returned to work.
Yes, the truth will set you free
Now, I am in no way condoning the unwarranted infliction of abuse and pain on any child, under any circumstance. And my friends and I all knew that no matter where we were, there was an unspoken understanding among our parents. See, it didn’t matter if you were at a friend’s house, far from your parents’ edicts and control – because your friends’ moms and dads had the green light to discipline you in the same manner in which your parents did.
Of course, in today’s world our parents and teachers would all be sent away to prison for child abuse. And my mother and over half of my teachers – and principals – would get life.
But when a youngin’ has the palpable threat of getting their little hide tanned – for blatant disregard of parental or adult instruction – well, one tends to come around a tad quicker.
More importantly than that, they come away with an appreciation of consequence for their actions, and a healthy little fear of wrongdoing. And for the most part, everyone I’ve known who had such an upbringing came out of it in once piece. The challenges of adulthood may have brought on issues that proved to be too much to bear, but the current vogue of blaming one’s childhood for all of one’s troubles is just a crock.
Fortunately, I have the perfect example – my old hometown of Andrews. I have to admit that the mythical town of Mayberry’s southern locale was a plus – as far as getting Neilsen ratings from viewers in communities not far removed from Andy’s hometown. And so, it wasn’t a long stretch to put ourselves in many of the settings which the fine folks of Mayberry encountered weekly. More bias on my part lies in the fact that Opie and I are the same age. Sometimes the parallels were scary, but most times they were reassuringly comforting.
Besides being a champion of values and morals – while making us smile – The Andy Griffith Show was one of the first spin-offs. The pilot episode was actually an episode of Danny Thomas’ Make Room For Daddy, with backwoods, homespun Andy nabbing the city slicker for speeding within the posted sanctuary of Mayberry. Griffith’s folksy southern drawl and common sense personified had already won over viewers with his performance as the affable, unflappable Will Stockdale in the 1958 movie, No Time For Sergeants.
The show premiered on Oct. 3, 1960 in glorious black & white, with the infectious whistling theme song that makes you tap your foot and invariably whistle along – as Andy oversees Opie’s rock-skipping prowess on the lake before they cast their lines in the local fishing hole. It was entitled “The New Housekeeper,” where Aunt Bea wins over Andy and Opie, after she moves in to take care of the boys. (Unlike Disney’s in-your-face reality trauma of Bambi, the loss of Andy’s wife/Opie’s mom was acknowledged, but left uninvestigated.) I was hooked.
Because Aunt Bea was a compilation of dozens of women I knew: aunts, teachers, grandmothers, friends’ mothers – all very southern, all very feminine, and all very proper. Andy was the ultimate role model for the everyman and every child: understanding, honest, kind, fair, firm, handsome and funny. And Opie was just a cute kid, who happened to be my age – so there was my connection. And it all unfolded, every week, in a small, tightly knit southern town – a familiar, comforting set of circumstances that seemed to mirror the lives of those around me.
Most episodes reflected (at the time, it was amazing) so many situations I encountered in my daily travails. “Opie’s Charity” (#9, Nov. 28, ’60) brought out Andy’s exasperation when Opie ponies up a whole three cents for the Underprivileged Children’s drive. After that show, I made it a point to never go less than a quarter for the collection plate on Sundays (For the younger readers, a quarter was equivalent to about $500 in 1960).
Practical applications for me abounded from Mayberry. “Opie & The Bully” (#34, Oct. 2, ’61) taught young Opie and me about self-confidence, self-defense, when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. “Opie & The Spoiled Kid” (#85, Feb. 18, ’63) showed the pitfalls to pettiness, rudeness and self-centered egotism – and, in an epilogue not frequently heard of today, how parents ultimately are responsible for their children’s actions.
There were many episodes where Opie learned from Andy’s example. “A Medal For Opie” (#52, Feb. 12, ’62) instilled the spirit of sportsmanship, following Opie’s poor behavior after his last-place finish in the 50-yard dash (Talk about your lost concept in today’s sports world). “Mr. McBeevee” (#65, Oct. 1, ’62) put Opie’s honesty on trial, with his stories of a magical, singing man with a shiny hat who descended from the trees to bestow him with small gifts. The adults were all concerned that Opie’s “imaginary friend” was getting out of hand, and it brought the little tyke to tears because no one believed him. It turned out to be a jovial, Irish lumberjack working the forest on the edge of town. And it showed how parents, teachers and adults in general need to understand that sometimes a child’s interpretation of real experiences needs not be questioned.
An episode that bears directly on what’s basically wrong with Americans today was “The Ball Game” (#194, Oct. 3, ’66). Andy incurred the wrath of the town when he called Opie out at home plate in a baseball game against hated rival Mt. Pilot. But he made the call, and he stuck by it – proving that even when his own son’s (and the town’s) team and dreams were at stake, sometimes what is right and true outweighs selfish desires.
As we got older, Opie’s path and mine crossed in Twilight Zone eeriness. Occasionally, it was just too obvious for me to grasp. “Opie’s First Love” (#221, Sept. 11, ’67) showed a crushed Opie, when a girl accepts his invitation to a big dance – then rejects him for another boy (If VCRs had been around back then, I would have taped this show and watched it twice a day until I got the drift). “Opie’s Group” (#229, Nov. 6, ’67) was a direct reflection of my “posse” at the time. Opie and his friends form a rock band, and with it comes the adulation of the girls, the adrenaline of the performance, and the inevitable nosedive on the report card (Obviously, Opie and his friends weren’t as handsome, gifted or studious as us).
The episode that would eventually be a precursor to my adult career was “Opie’s Newspaper” (#154, Mar. 22, ’65), where an entrepreneurial Opie publishes his own newspaper for the citizenry of Mayberry. When things get a little slow, he decides to boost sales by printing the myriad of gossip he overhears around town (Was the National Enquirer around back then? Or did they steal this concept from Opie?).
There were some episodes that, well, didn’t exactly parallel my life. “Opie Loves Helen” (#129, Sept. 21, ’64) featured the lad with a case of Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher,” when he experienced enraptured puppy love for Andy’s lady, history teacher Helen Crump. Let me be perfectly clear – Opie and I did not share this particular experience.
Also, “Opie’s Ill-Gotten Gain” (#104, Nov. 18, ’63) produced a true conundrum for the kid: As a reward for receiving straight A’s on his report card, he gets a new bike. However, when he learns the grades were a mistake, he decides to run away from home rather than disappoint his proud father. Umm … I’m pretty sure I would have kept quiet.
And as for the classic “Opie’s Drugstore” (#239, Jan. 15, ’68), where responsible Opie is left in charge of the local drugstore while the owner is away? Trust me … there are friends of mine who will suffer rib injury from laughing when they read this, just imagining the possibilities of this juxtaposition.
But for me, there are two episodes that epitomize what television programming could be, in a perfect world. “Opie the Birdman” (#97, Sept. 30, ’63) was a poignant tale of poor judgement, worse behavior and subsequent consequences. Opie, after being specifically told not to by his dad, kills a mother bird with a slingshot in his yard. He immediately regrets his action, but is still subjected to his father’s punishment: his bedroom window is opened, so that he can hear the woeful chirping of three orphaned baby birds (This episode was personally painful for me, as I had done the exact same thing the previous summer – only with a BB gun. Don’t tell me a 9-year-old can’t fathom a guilt trip). But he atones for his misdeed by raising the birds until they were able to leave the nest. The great message here was, listen to your parents; but even if you mess up, you can still make amends if you dedicate yourself to accomplishing your goal.
And the episode that sums it all up? “Opie’s Most Unforgettable Character” (#219, Apr. 3, ’67), where a perplexed Opie wrestles with angst, when he attempts to write an essay about his father. On the one hand, there are tons of good things to write. But how do you write about your father, honestly, without having the prejudice of trying to avoid displeasing him? Will others think it to be factual, or simply a fluff piece to please Andy? He comes to terms with his feelings and composes a wonderful essay, and in doing so finds his steady compass in life.
I could write volumes upon volumes about my dad, and never come close to imparting on the world what a class act he has always been. The adjectives for his virtues are endless – honest, fair, supportive, kind, wise, compassionate, firm, corny, funny, reliable, loving, responsible and reverent – all mere beginnings at expressing how lucky I am to have such a man in my life. But back then, I found a simple way to do so.
So when we loaded up dad’s Piggly Wiggly delivery pickup at the crack of dawn and headed down to his hunting & fishing club on Jack Lake near Jamestown, I always jumped out where the boat was tied up and scooped up a nice, flat rock to skip out across the glassy water, through the morning mist that rose from its shimmering surface.
And, together, we whistled Andy’s theme.
The previous article was originally published in the July 15, 2005 issue of Alternatives NewsMagazine.