Wednesday, July 4, 2012

In Search of America—Mayberry, NC and Fairview, NJ

I promised myself I wouldn’t do this because it seems sappy and kind of mentally ill, but one day after learning of Andy Griffith’s death, I find that I am sadder than I was at my own father’s passing, and the urge to write about it can only be eased this one way.

Let me begin by saying that I did not know Andy, except through his work, which was substantial and diverse. From his early years as a successful standup comedian, to his brilliantly dark portrayal of the troubled “Lonesome Rhodes” in Budd Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd to the Gomer Pyle prototype Will Stockdale in No Time for Sergeants, Andy Griffith’s talent ran far deeper than his easy screen demeanor would have an observer believe.

But it was the Andy Griffith Show, and the creation of Mayberry, for which I and millions of others will always remember and love him.  

In 1960, the show’s pilot premiered as part of Danny Thomas’ hit show Make Room for Daddy. I was 8 years old. My father and mother had divorced two years earlier, and my own Dad was already on the downward alcoholic spiral that would eventually kill him. My mother, a single parent at a time when such a thing was a rarity, had her own demons chasing her. The mental illness which would hospitalize her in eight years was already manifesting itself in violent ways toward my sister and me. Lost and constantly in fear, some of these television characters became my family and comfort, the sanity I needed in the midst of the chaos in which I was living.

Up until Make Room for Daddy, Bonanza, and the Andy Griffith Show, sitcoms revolved around nuclear, well-adjusted, and prosperous families--- three things I had little or nothing in common with. As much as I wanted to be a part of that type of family, I can clearly remember being resentful, jealous, and ever more alienated from my peers as I watched the Andersons of Father Knows Best or the Stones of The Donna Reed Show. They had sane, working parents who took the time to care for and love their children. I had crazy #1 and crazy #2.  Keep in mind that back then, we didn’t have the Internet or cable TV. We had 7 TV channels to choose from. That was it. With no role models at home from which to learn the lessons of life, I (and I suspect a good deal more from my generation) turned to the infant television for my morals, ideals, and guidance. Maybe it wasn’t the best choice, but it was the only one available.

As much as I liked Danny Williams (Danny Thomas) and Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene), I still felt a distance from them; both were successful with plenty of money, and both were men. Though they were both single parents, their prosperity made their lavish lifestyles distant, foreign, and unattainable in my eyes. None of them had the simple charm, wit, love, and values as Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, North Carolina.

1960 was the beginning of the Kennedy administration. The entire country was caught up in the glamour, beauty and pageantry of Jack, Jackie, Caroline and John-John. It has been romanticized to nearly mythical status over the decades for good reason. The Kennedys were young and beautiful. They represented the best vision of what post-war America could be to the baby-boom generation that was beginning to mature and be aware of its surroundings. America was on the verge of becoming Camelot; a fictional utopia where even the elements bow to the whims of the king. The Kennedys had movie star status and everyone wanted to be one.        

For me, the child, Camelot was in the opening credits of the Andy Griffith Show.  Andy himself once described it as “all about love” and that is exactly how I felt listening to that simple, whistled melody and watching this loving father and his son strolling along a dirt road to the fishing hole. I remember thinking gee; this guy took off work to fish with his son. How cool is that?  I used to love to watch Andy’s patience as Opie stopped to skim the rock across the pond. More was said in that 30 seconds about love, passing down the joys of childhood, and the things that really mattered in life than in anything the Kennedys ever did.

Like my hometown of Fairview, New Jersey, life in Mayberry was simple by design. Unlike Mayberry however, Fairview was composed mostly of immigrants and first generation Americans. Life was simple and everyone knew everyone. Like Floyd’s barbershop, the old Italians in my neighborhood would congregate in either Libo’s (pronounced Lee-bo) or Romano’s barbershop and solve the world’s problems. Two blocks away, instead of Ellie Walker dispensing prescriptions and ice cream sodas, we had Mr. Raymond Platoni’s Drug Store and Mary and Tony Famigliaro’s Candy Store handling the chores. Brothers Butchers supplied the meat and Willy’s Fruit Stand (owned by Nunzio Caruso) supplied the produce. On Sundays, after an hour of being tempted by the aromas of fresh baked goods wafting through the stained glass window of St. John the Baptist Church on Walker Street, the parishioners would stream out quickly (but not so much as to seem irreverent) and rush to get the magnificent crullers and jelly donuts at Schenkel’s Bakery before they were sold out. One block up and down Anderson Avenue, the delights of Vito’s Bakery and Pedoto’s Bread awaited those with a more ethnic penchant.

Aside from language and culture, the people in Fairview and Mayberry knew what they had, and except for the Mayors of each town, there were few who wanted to change it. No one was rich, but everybody worked. Kids as young as ten had paper routes, shined shoes, worked in bakeries, wherever they could to earn money for themselves and their families. We had feasts, carnivals and parades, just like Mayberry. Instead of baseball, we played stickball in the street. In the summer, instead of the pond, we had Smokey, the old fire house guy to hose us down occasionally or the local kiddie pool or as we liked to call it, Pop’s Piss Pool Park.

Like Mayberry, we had our 'characters', those folks to whom life wasn’t all that kind. Where Andy had Otis the town drunk, we had Gustavo, who was brain damaged at birth. He would walk up and down the streets of Fairview, grunting, waving and smiling in his own harmless way to anyone who paid attention to him. And while I’ll admit that he scared the bejeezus out of us as kids, we came to watch over him as we got older and he didn’t. We made sure that no on bothered Gustavo. No one had to tell us to do so. That’s just what you did in Fairview. Like Mayberry, we watched out for our own.

What was missing for me in those years was a real life Andy Taylor. I wanted so much to be like the other kids who had parents that loved them, but I wasn’t that lucky. In Andy, I found a warm loving father whose discipline methods didn’t automatically include a metal vacuum pipe or being dragged to a lit stove burner, an aunt who didn’t lock me out of the house from time to time, but who made great pies and lousy pickles. I didn’t have extended family members like an "Uncle" Barney, who loved me like I was his own. Instead I had an uncle who felt he could beat me when he thought I was out of line. That was my mother’s idea of a ‘manly’ influence in my life.

In Mayberry I found peace and contentment on the front porch at night, just enjoying the quiet which was punctuated by the occasional song from Andy’s guitar. And when it was bedtime, I could be assured that my parent would not be dragging me out of bed by my hair in the middle of the night because I forgot to empty the garbage. When there was trouble in Mayberry, it usually involved Ernest T. Bass or the Darling Family coming down from the mountains. Even the moonshiners loved and respected Andy. When there was trouble in my house, someone usually got hurt.

As I said earlier, I didn’t know Andy Griffith. From all accounts he was a genuinely nice, kind soul in real life. I’d like to believe that. And I’d also like to believe that he knew there was a little bit of Mayberry in all of us; that somewhere deep in our hearts we yearned for the simplicity of life and the joys of knowing love, neighborliness, and kindness in our daily lives. I believe that is why, more than fifty years later, the Andy Griffith Show endures in popularity to this day and Camelot is a distant, dying memory.

The real Mayberry was based on Andy’s home town of Mount Airy, North Carolina. I’m told that there is a museum there dedicated to the show. I have considered making a pilgrimage there. But I’m afraid I’d be disappointed, because there probably won’t be a 5 and 10 cent store, but a Wal-Mart. And a CVS or Rite-Aid has probably replaced Walker’s Drug Store. Wally’s Filling Station probably has a mini-mart now that doesn’t even repair cars. Naw, nothing stays the same, I guess. But thanks to my surrogate Pa, Andy Griffith, I can remember life the way I had hoped it would be. Thanks to Fairview, New Jersey, I had most of it.

Rest in peace Andy. 

1 comment:

  1. Good post. I grew up inFairview as well. Sorry about your childhood family memories. At least there were shows on the air that portrayed a different approach to family than what you had as an example. Sometimes what you see on tv is the only indication there is a different way to live.