MAYBERRY, N.C. — Former sheriff Andy Taylor died here last week. Mayberry is in mourning.
Sheriff Taylor was one of the last links to another, simpler time. Before there was a traffic light or drive-through banking here, before we got our first cellphone tower or Wi-Fi connection, before the Dairy Queen, the Wal-Mart and the Subway were built out on Route 89, before color was invented, back when people still appeared to one another in shades of black and white, Mayberry was a very different town in a very different America.
Over the years, some have criticized our town for the things that made us different. It has been noted, for instance, that Mayberry somehow managed to be a town in the South in the 1960s without a single African-American citizen, much less a civil rights movement.
But that’s hardly the only thing that bypassed our town. Mayberry never heard about the Cuban missile crisis or the Vietnam War, never knew anything about birth control pills or LSD, Malcolm X or Betty Friedan, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. President Kennedy being shot and killed in Dallas? That awful news never made it here.
The worst thing that ever happened in Mayberry was maybe when that little old lady swindled Barney Fife into buying that clunker of a used car. Or when Aunt Bee’s homemade pickles tasted terrible and nobody could bring themselves to tell her. Or when little Opie killed that mother bird with his slingshot and Andy made him raise the orphaned young ones.
It will be hard for a nation as thoroughly wired and utterly connected as this one to conceive that there was once a time and a town so far removed from the world outside that things such as those counted as crises. But there was. And when the crisis was resolved — as always it was, sensibly, fairly and with a touch of good humor — there always remained enough time, even on a workday afternoon, to slip down to the fishin’ hole and drown some worms.
The days drifted into one another with a comforting familiarity, you knew who you were and what you were about and you sat content in that knowledge on the porch after church, sharing a howdy with passing neighbors, letting supper settle and contemplating a second helping of cobbler. If you were lucky, maybe Andy would bring out his guitar and sing.
He presided over Mayberry with just the right touch, often gently amused, sometimes a little flustered, but rarely out of sorts. He kept the excitable Deputy Fife from accidentally shooting himself with the one bullet he was allowed to carry — in his pocket. He steered young Opie toward honorable manhood with tough love and tender wisdom. He suffered fools without complaint if not quite gladly, enforced the law with a grin and a wily people sense that hardly ever required a gun. And he had the good manners never to gloat when some city slicker who’d presumed to outsmart him wound up on the receiving end of the lesson.
Now, he is gone. You cannot say you are surprised — he was 86, after all — but just the same, it hits you in a soft spot. There are those who will say Andy wasn’t real, but he was. Real like the laughter of good friends and the simplicity of wisdom.
Mayberry was real, too — as real as the desire sometimes to escape the tyranny of What Is. It sat just outside of time, at a crossroads of nostalgia and need. There was a dirt path in the woods near town that led to a fishing hole. Sheriff Andy used to go there often with his little boy, to the whistling of a bucolic tune lifting above the North Carolina pines.
You cannot remember when you did not know that tune. But somehow, you fall asleep in black and white on the front porch dreaming of cobbler and awake in color with a Dairy Queen, a Wal-Mart and a Subway doing business out on Route 89. That long-haired fella from that Beatles group was right.
Yesterday came suddenly.
(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)