Andy in Oz

 TALKING TO MYSELF: 3 July 2012  Andy Griffith died today, and many Americans who grew up wishing that they, too, lived in Mayberry, are grieving. Before Sherriff Andy Taylor, however, there was Will Stockdale, the role that would establish Griffith as an acting legend and pave the road to Mayberry. Stockdale, the Georgia farm boy who brought the Army Air Corps to its knees, was created by Mac Hyman in his best-selling novel, No Time for Sergeants. Today, Hyman’s daughter, Gwyn Hyman Rubio, herself a well-known novelist (Icy Sparks and The Woodsman’s Daughter) lives in Central Kentucky. She frequently tells the story of how Griffith snagged his life-changing role.

Convinced he was born to play Will Stockdale, Griffith called the Hyman’s home in Macon, Georgia, and literally pleaded with her father to come and see him perform his comedy routine in an Atlanta area club. Reluctant, Mac Hyman finally relented to get Griffith off the phone. He made the trip to see Andy perform, ended up endorsing him for the role, and the rest is history. In 1956, Griffith was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Stockdale, and in 1958, he re-created the role in the movie version. If you haven’t seen this classic film, try to locate it on Netflix. Perhaps, the cable stations will also be re-running it as a tribute in these weeks after Griffith’s death. Over a half century later, it still makes me laugh out loud.

In 1960, two years after No Time for Sergeants closed on Broadway, Griffith arrived in our living rooms as television’s Andy Taylor. If Sherriff Taylor is now an American icon, as the newscasters say tonight, then his fictional world of Mayberry, North Carolina, is the idealized American town. Aaron Rueben, the creator and producer of The Andy Griffith Show, believed that Mayberry became a sort of Oz within the American psyche. When Rueben died two years ago, I wrote an essay about  -- Oz.



            Last week, Ernie and I made the seventy mile trip from Lexington to Owenton to tend to a little business.  We had several stops on our do-list, not the least of which was meeting up with a friend.  We wanted to give her a copy of an old picture of particular interest to her family, and she in turn had several she wanted Ernie to see.   His hobby is computer restoration of historic photographs, and we both are local history buffs, so we make time for such encounters whenever and wherever we can.  

            We got away from home later than planned, so we missed her at lunchtime at McDonalds.   Through the miracle of cell phone communication, however, we caught up with her on the sidewalk in front of Stuart Bowling’s insurance agency on Owenton’s courthouse square.  

            It was a bright, clear day, and we stood and talked on the empty sidewalk for twenty minutes, maybe longer. Finally, we made our good-byes, and proceeded to an office down the street.  We’d been there about thirty minutes when someone rapped on the door.

            It was Stuart Bowling holding out a phone to my husband.

            “I believe this is yours,” he said.  “Someone found it on the sidewalk near my office and brought it in to me to see if it were mine.  It wasn’t, but I dialed “home” in the phone’s directory, and got your answering machine.”

            We were so flabbergasted --Ernie had not yet missed his phone – that neither of us thought to ask Stuart how he knew where to find us.  We simply took in thanking him as profusely as we could.  Cell phones, even an older one like Ernie’s, are expensive.  And he’s come to rely on having a phone in his pocket.  Its absence for the day or so it might take to purchase another would have been unsettling.  

            The story could end here with a public acknowledgment of our gratitude to the nameless person who found our phone and to Stuart who brought it to us.  Both went out of their way to be helpful when no one would have known the difference if they hadn’t bothered.  It didn’t surprise me though.  It’s what comes naturally to Stuart and to most people I grew up with in Owen County.        

            But the story doesn’t end there.  I posted a brief account of Stuart’s good deed on my Facebook status that evening.   By morning my inbox was flooded with near thirty comments all ending in exclamation points.  (I should mention here for the unconnected that the exclamation point, driven into exile by English teachers a generation ago, has been granted asylum at Facebook.  It’s the workhorse of social networking.)    

              “Amazing! That is KY for you!!”  an expatriate wrote.  “Awesome! What a lovely place!” another said.   And so it went, one after another.  Had Stuart and the anonymous passerby landed our plane safely in the freezing Hudson River, I don’t think the Facebook comments could have been more effusive or incredulous.  Has a simple deed of kindness and honesty become so rare, I wondered? 

            Coincidentally, I ran across the obituary of Aaron Rueben a few days later.  I didn’t recognize his name, but like most Americans I’m familiar with his life’s work.  Born in 1914, he grew up in Al Capone’s Chicago, and got an early start as a comedy writer in radio for the likes of Milton Berle, George Burns and Gracie Allen.  From the 1950s through the 1980s, he was associated with many of television history’s most successful series.  He’s best remembered, however, as the producer of  “The Andy Griffith Show”  -- a cultural touchstone that still airs regularly in re-runs 50 years after its 1960 premiere. 

            "I'm frankly surprised at this show having become an icon,” Ruben said in an interview with Morrie Gelman in the Archive of American Television.  “My theory,” he went on to say, “is that the Griffith show is like the grown-ups' Oz. It's the land of, 'Oh, wouldn't it be wonderful to live in a town with no drugs, no crime, no gangs, no violence, [ where] people greet each other, people are kind to each other.' . . . That's why grown-ups love that show."

             I’m reminded, however, that the Wizard of Oz turned out to be an illusion, and that Oz was plagued by the Wicked Witch and her evil monkeys.

            So even in Mayberry – even in Owenton – bad things happen that wouldn’t have to happen.  Drug and alcohol abuse are as familiar to small town Kentuckians as to big city dwellers.   Crime, even the violent sort, spreads like kudzu throughout the highways and byways of our country.  Our own locally grown sage, Wendell Berry, writes of American culture, "We have pretty much made a virtue of selfishness as the mainstay of our economy, and we have provided an abundance of good excuses for dishonesty."

            I’m not sure how much you or I can do about that.  But we can try to live by the Golden Rule.  We can say hello.  We can be kind.  Thank you Stuart – and Aaron Ruben - for reminding us.

© Copyright by Georgia Green Stamper 2012