Monday, July 6, 2009
© 2008, The Institute for Applied Common Sense
Several years ago, I attended a conference sponsored by a professional association at a high end resort in Florida. An incredible buffet dinner was scheduled for one evening, to which everyone was looking forward.
I arrived just as the food was being taken away.
Upon my arrival, everyone inquired as to why I was so late. When I informed them that I felt compelled to watch two episodes of the Andy Griffith Show, they all howled with laughter.
Their laughter grew even louder when I mentioned that, in my opinion, one could learn more about life from that show than perhaps any other show on television. (Interestingly, my Father tells me that it was also the favorite show of my Mother, who passed away at a relatively early age.)
I saw an episode of the show yesterday, which reminded me of the manner in which this simple show, about life in small town America, has provoked many a thought throughout my lifetime.
It was the story of Ed Sawyer, a clean-cut, well-groomed stranger who arrives in Mayberry. Throughout the episode, Ed is always dressed in a conservative business suit, articulate, respectful, polite, and there is nothing visually alarming about him. In fact, he could be the poster boy for virtually any All-American organization or movement.
The first scene in the episode unfolds as Ed enters Floyd’s barbershop, where Barney Fife is in the chair getting a shave. Several other citizens, including Andy, are also present.
Ed engages them all in a pleasant, upbeat conversation, calls them each by name, and exhibits a degree of familiarity which causes the shop’s occupants to become uncomfortable. As he leaves the shop, all heads turn to follow him down the street, and they all exit to watch his next move. Almost immediately, there is a suggestion by Barney that Andy commence an investigation of this suspicious and “peculiar” stranger.
As Ed proceeds down the sidewalk, he encounters a double baby stroller parked in front of a store, where the mother is looking through the shop window. Ed greets the two twins, their mother, and then poses questions which suggest that he can distinguish between the two boys at this early stage in their development. The suspicions grow.
Ed next proceeds to the local rooming house, and when offered one room, he declines because of an incident which had occurred in the room, arguably about which few would have known. Although he has never stayed at the rooming house, he then proceeds to request a specific room, by number, which although green in color, has a cheerier décor.
At this point, Barney is beside himself, and inquires whether Ed speaks German. Fortunately, Andy, the voice of reason, intervenes and initiates a conversation more normally associated with welcoming a visitor to one’s town. At the same time, Andy poses a number of questions in an effort to get to know this fellow better, since he is also experiencing some degree of discomfort, although unarticulated.
Later that afternoon, Ed approaches Andy and seeks his advice and assistance. It appears that the local gas station is up for sale, and Ed is considering buying it. Andy suggests that perhaps Ed might be moving a tad too quickly, and that he should take the time to get to know the townspeople a little better.
He further suggests that the town’s citizens might regard Ed’s sudden emergence on the scene as “peculiar,” without some “warming up.” (By the way, I learned the word “peculiar” from this show, which was used with some frequency on episodes airing in the 1960’s.)
Ed then segues into how much in love he is with Lucy Matthews, who he has never seen. However, he is familiar with all of her physical attributes, and he inquires of Andy as to why she does not answer his calls and knocks on her door. Lucy soon walks in to lodge a complaint, to which Ed responds that she is just as pretty as he suspected. It is at this point that Andy feels, as the town’s sheriff, he must get to the bottom of this behavior, since it threatens to disturb the town’s peace.
Ed admits that his behavior might strike some as odd, but provides a very plausible, if not immediately obvious, explanation. Ed explains that Joe Larson, a long-time resident of Mayberry, was an Army buddy. While serving together, Joe received the local Mayberry newspaper, and Ed found himself reading the paper on a daily basis.
As time moved on, he began to feel that he “knew” the citizens about whom the articles were written. He further explains that over time, he began to envy Joe, because Joe was from Mayberry, a place that Ed admired, and Ed was from, well, “Nowhere.”
Ed further explains that over time, he began to wish that Mayberry was his hometown, and he eventually convinced himself that it was. When he saw the ad in the paper that the service station was up for sale, he regarded it as an opportunity to fulfill a dream.
After Ed leaves the courthouse / jail, Barney rushes in and proclaims that Ed has finally “overplayed his hand.” When Andy inquires as to what Barney is referring, Barney states that Ed has been hanging around Lucy Matthews’ house and actually crossed the line by ringing her bell.
Andy suggests that insufficient grounds exist to justify an arrest, to which Barney replies that he pulled in three 12 year olds the preceding Halloween for ringing doorbells unnecessarily.
He further exclaims that Ed doesn’t even have the excuse of being out for trick or treat. Deputy Fife then inquires as to whether Ed speaks Spanish.
Of course, Ed’s efforts to integrate himself into the community go terribly wrong. That’s even after Andy makes everyone feel pretty small and provincial after facetiously suggesting that they all were justified in their prejudicial attitudes toward this stranger, just because he was an unknown, peculiar, and somewhat different.
Ed realizes that this really isn’t the place for him, and leaves. And the town lost a potentially energizing and illuminating individual.
This 40 plus year old episode of the Andy Griffith Show made me think of several things this weekend. First, the power of the visual media came to mind, along with its potential to expand the minds of its viewers, particularly young viewers, as well as its power to narrow.
Second, it reminded me of the 30 year period when I lived in Southern California, and I interacted with all sorts of people of different races from different parts of the world. Virtually everyone was a stranger. Upon returning to North Carolina, despite the fact that North Carolina is the number one state in terms of percentage increase of Hispanics, I noticed the lack of interaction between whites and blacks on the one hand, and Hispanics on the other. Asians operate many mom and pop businesses in the black parts of town, but the social interaction ends there.
At several public meetings in my hometown, I have mentioned that despite what one may think of our immigration policies, many immigrants are here, and we need to engage them and integrate them into our society, with the goal of deriving the best that we can from their involvement. Each time I have broached the subject, many citizens in the room have lowered their heads and looked at the floor without responding.
In recent months, I have tried something different. Every time I have encountered Hispanics, I have taken the initiative to walk up to them and start a conversation. Each time, without fail, they have been pleasant folks and almost ecstatic that someone outside of their group took the risk to engage them. It has always been a rewarding experience, although guarded it may have started.
Third, this episode also struck a chord when I learned of Senator’s Obama’s reference earlier this week to the efforts of his opponents to label him as different, and thus necessarily something that we should fear.
Our fear of the unknown, caution, and prejudice, even that racially based, appear to be hard wired to ensure survival and ease of negotiation in a complex world. But we also have a bigger brain which should enable us to think and reason beyond our biggest primal fears.
Some criticism has been leveled against the Andy Griffith Show over the years because of its conspicuous absence of blacks in a show based in a southern city. However, Andy Griffith himself sure made up for that during the airing of his Matlock series.
Be that as it may, my hat is off to the Andy Griffith Show, and particularly its writers, particularly considering the era in which the show was first viewed. Perhaps more of you will have the opportunity to view the Ed Sawyer episode before the upcoming presidential election.
© 2008, The Institute for Applied Common Sense
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