In the episode of The Andy Griffith Show titled “Opie the Birdman,” there is a moment that may be the sweetest in all of television history. In it, Sheriff Andy Taylor’s young son, Opie (I’m not going to go into a lot of background here, on the assumption that, even a half-century after the show first aired, almost everyone in America still knows who Andy and Opie Taylor were), acquires a new slingshot. Not heeding his father’s warning to be careful, he fires a rock into a tree in the Taylor’s front yard and kills a songbird — thereby orphaning three hatchlings chirping away in a nest in the tree.
When Andy discovers what has happened, he confronts Opie, who is sulking in his room. “Are you gonna give me a whipping?” Opie asks. Andy tells him no, and instead goes to the bedroom window and opens it, to the sound of plaintive chirping in the night. “You just listen to those baby birds chirping for their mama that’s never coming back,” he tells the boy.
Thusly impressed with the magnitude of his transgression — recall that Opie had lost his own mother — Opie takes it on himself to raise the young birds until they are ready to fly. He names them Winken, Blinken and Nod. He puts their nest in a cage on the front porch and feeds them daily with worms he digs from the yard. When he frets over whether they’re ready to fly on their own, whether he’s done all he could, Andy — who, in the subtext, surely is reflecting on the difficulties and doubts he’s encountered in raising a motherless child — reassures him, telling him, “You’ve done all the right things.”
The big day comes at last. Standing in the front yard, Opie releases the birds one-by-one as Andy watches. When the last one has, indeed, flown away, the boy turns to his father.
“Cage sure looks empty, don’t it, Pa?” he asks.
“Yes it does, son,” Andy replies. “But don’t the trees seem nice and full.”
This is the essence of The Andy Griffith Show, and of the man himself, who died just a few hours ago as I write these words. Andy Griffith and his alter ego, Andy Taylor, saw and appreciated the Great Truth of life — that it is hope and despair, beauty and ugliness, joy and sorrow, living and dying, all bound up into one God-given package. There was nothing contrived about the show; it drew humor — some silly and slapstick, some wistful and pointed, much side-splittingly hilarious, all as gentle as a spring rain — from character, rather than set-ups and punchlines. It wasn’t amusing; it was, and is, funny.
It did something else, too. In a way that was never heavy-handed — at least during the show’s first several years on the air, when it was at a sustained peak of quality — and only rarely cloying, the fictional town of Mayberry presented a sort of model for human relations, offering object lessons in the way people should treat one another, the expectations we should have of each other. It reinforced the social contract. It gently — that word again — advocated a set of values that was parochial and ecumenical at the same time. It was a show about being good.
It was also a show that encouraged us to laugh at ourselves, individually and collectively. On one episode, the townspeople are unnerved by the presence of a stranger who seems to know a little too much about them. They press Andy to run the man out of town, but he demurs.
“If I was to run everybody out of town that acted a little odd, why, we wouldn’t have too many people left,” he tells his constituents. “In fact, I probably have to reach around and get a good hold on the seat of my own britches.”
Among people who are not devotees of the show — the unbroken consistency of whose life in reruns probably is exceeded only by I Love Lucy — there is a tendency to dismiss it as so much cornball, the mildly comic misadventures of a hick sheriff surrounded by a cast of hayseeds, rubes and half-wits. Let me be gentle, too, and suggest politely that they are missing a good deal.
Since becoming a father for the first time eight-and-a-half years ago, I have come to appreciate even more the relationship of Andy and Opie — the very realistic ways in which the father-child relationship is presented, the very real ethical dilemmas they fact, individually and together. I can’t tell you how many times, dealing with one child-rearing challenge or another, I have found myself reflecting on some moment from a 50-year-old television show and then doing the right thing.
I’ve also been gratified to find my kids, ages eight and six, enjoying the show — and without any push from me, other than popping in a DVD and saying, “Hey, why don’t y’all watch this?” We were watching an episode together a few weeks ago — I think it was the one where Andy, Barney and Gomer go into the (reputedly) haunted house — when my son turned to me and said, “You know, Dad, Andy is a lot like you.”
The lump in my throat at that moment was almost as big as the one I got this morning, when I heard of Andy’s passing. The world is emptier, but I’m sure the cosmos seems nice and full.
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Write him at email@example.com