Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The World That Could Have Been According To Andy Taylor

I used to live in Mayberry. For the dozen years we were there our Virginia hometown epitomized the feel of that fictional TV hamlet, a place where people stopped to talk, treated each other right and everything always just seemed to be okay. It was actually Reston, but we joked about the similarities.

Like lots of kids in the 1960s, I also grew up in Mayberry, at the knee of a quiet hero.

Andy Griffith's sleepy southern town was an island in the storm. There was little strife or crime. There was a mayor (his boss) and successful businessmen who controlled commerce. But Griffith's Sheriff Andy Taylor was the glue which held it all together, the one person everyone relied upon and turned to. And they were correct to defer to him: Taylor invariably prevented idiocy and excess while promoting common sense, all the while speaking softly and carrying no stick.

Taylor was a lawman who never carried a gun or raised his voice. He was a single father whose son's upbringing meant more to him than anything. Taylor didn't have to wear this on his sleeve, because the opening credits of The Andy Griffith Show reminded us every week, as Taylor and son Opie (future filmaker Ron Howard) sauntered, fishing poles in tow, to the creek (on what must have been a work day, since Taylor was in uniform). Sheriff Taylor was a faithful mentor to a ridiculous apprentice — Don Knotts' Barney Fife — whom nobody else took seriously and from whom Taylor invariably hid the truth of his own ineptitude in an effort to bring out the best in his well-meaning deputy.

Before we knew what a samuri was — and against the backdrop of shoot'em up Westerns which dominated the big and small screens — Taylor exemplified the restraint and wisdom of these swordmasters, who sought to offend no one and to prove their extraordinary abilities only when necessary. Taylor had no swagger, but he managed to keep the peace, solve every one of the few crimes committed in Mayberry and was masterfully persuasive using only simple, southern tones and words of one syllable. He never lied and never said too much. He was never wrong and never made an issue of it. He was Vulcan before Mr. Spock.

More than any of the matriarchs and patriarchs of the other big 1950-era family dramas — Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show — Taylor showed men that men could be men without being MEN. It was a great metaphor for post-war America, but sadly did not become the cultural template for our male heros, which became more Clint Eastwood than Zatoichi.

Taylor was an early example of what is sadly not the norm in leadership: He brandished wisdom rather than physical strength, valued temperance over reflex, did not take himself seriously and proved that if you wanted to be heard, you whisper.

Heros based on these traits are still written, though as ironic exceptions to the rule. We prefer — and thus emulate on some level — heros with hair-trigger tempers, a shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality and the death — literally or figuratively — of one's adversaries. Taylor was measured: Rather than once and for all making an example of the recalcitrant town drunk by putting him away for a long time Taylor always just let Otis Campbell sleep it off the safety of a jail cell. When a con man was wooing a gullible Aunt Bee, Taylor spoke to the suitor in unthreatening language on the front porch after a lovely home-cooked meal. With an unrelenting smile and that easy drawl, he left no doubt that there would be a marriage, and isn't that a wonderful thing. All the while cleaning his shotgun.

The one flaw in Taylor's character? He was marriage averse. He dated a schoolteacher for years, and his young son could have benefitted from having a step-mother (no offense to Aunt Bea). Taylor hardly a bachelor's life, but he was drawn in the old school manner which treats marriage as a state to which women must aspire, and men studiously avoid.

That's too bad. But the flip side was that Taylor showed a father could be a hands-on parent without compromise, a nurturer whose professional and personal live were entirely in sync.


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