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Sheriff Andy Taylor in possibly the only image of him looking like someone in law enforcement in the otherwise idyllic town of Mayberry. Sheriff Andy famously didn't carry a gun, but he evidently had one at his office in case any (probably black) ruffians turned up. Photo from The Andy Griffith Show.

Mayberry Redux: A Reality That Never Was

Abby Zimet

We assume you're all psyched for this week's Mayberry Days, the annual festival celebrating the wildly popular, tepidly reviewed, deeply disingenuous Eisenhower-era TV show about small-town life during  America's "simpler times," when "neighbors were neighbors" as long as they were white and nobody locked their doors. For those of you less ancient than the rest of us, Mayberry was the mythical home of The Andy Griffith Show, which ran from 1960 to1968 but evidently still lingers in the wistful minds of those who best enjoy "being around their own people," who tend not to include black, poor, gay, trans, Jewish, Muslim or any other garden-variety "others." The genial Griffith played the genial sheriff Andy Taylor, a widower who lived with his genial Aunt Bee and was raising his genial son Opie in a genial small town in North Carolina modelled on Griffith's real hometown of Mt. Airy. With no crime in those halcyon days, the sheriff refused to wear a gun, so he and the other townspeople - goofy deputy Barney Fife, goofier mechanic Gomer Pyle etc - spent most of their time dealing with issues like bullies, speeders, pickles and inept barbers while basking in "the general good, old-fashioned welcoming spirit," even as the Vietnam War, civil rights violence and nuclear tensions swirled around them in the real but pointedly distant world.

Rest assured: Over 50 years after the show was canceled, Mt. Airy continues to keep grim reality at bay, at least during this week's Mayberry Days. Billed as "a festival for the whole family," it offers solace for fans who "long for the days when life was simple and the sheriff didn't carry a gun." Thousands of visitors come to "enjoy a bottle of pop while playing checkers," relax to music by bands "playing the same songs that Andy grew up with," and visit local landmarks like the Andy Griffith Museum, Old-Time Music Heritage Hall and Siamese Twins Exhibit. Celebrating an enticing, albeit imaginary place "where everything seems right," one former child actor on the show notes, "This is a place my wife and I can walk down Main Street, sit on a bench, eat ice cream, without a care in the world." The festival's lure of facile nostalgia for fans who find themselves in a troubled, multi-colored, inequitable, deeply divided world is so pervasive it has a name - The Mayberry Effect - and a documentary. “They feel good about themselves, being around their own people," says its director. "It helps them walk into the future knowing they have people who feel just like them, even if it’s about the weirdest thing.” Predictably, that "conservative feedback loop" gets more and more delusional as bleak, raucous reality intrudes, which it lately has a habit of doing.

Today's Mt. Airy, whose monument "In Memory of the Confederate Soldiers of Surry County" was erected next to the courthouse in 2000, still faithfully reflects the white supremacy of "forever Confederate counties" in a state with a violently racist past. Proving they haven't moved far from a former mayor's 2017 remark that seeing a black kid  "with pants at their knees" makes him worried "what kind of effect will that person have on society" - other town pols resigned but he was re-elected - the county's all white, all male commissioners voted earlier this year to make "grassroots change" by removing 12 Coca-Cola vending machines from county offices to protest the company's stated opposition to Georgia's new voter suppression laws. In their 3-2 vote, local pols also blasted "this counter-culture wokeism, left-leaning liberal Marxism" and angrily charged, "Coca-Cola needs to pay the price," which apparently the 37 workers at the county’s Coke bottling plant did. At a later meeting, after one resident noted anyone blocking economic development in a place with an average income of $37,000 is "a moron," they reversed their vote. Still, most of the commissioners opposed the board chair's signing onto a county NAACP statement that acknowledged systemic racism and vowed to do better, even after a study found that 94% of the state's black teens had - shocker - experienced racism.

Meanwhile, the county has seen opioid overdoses soar 40% in the last year and statewide COVID cases and deaths spike dramatically, with growing numbers of kids on ventilators. With just 43% of Surry County residents vaccinated, some are hearkening back to Mayberry, following the popular mantra there's an episode of "The Andy Griffith Show" for everything: See the episode where Sheriff Andy gets farmer Rafe to take the tetanus shot. The only problem, notes CBS' Ted Koppel: The show "captured a reality that never was." In honor of this week's nostalgia jubilee, Koppel went to Mt. Airy to see why each year thousands of people fondly revisit a fictional town representing the fictional "simplicity" of fictional good ole days. He finds "Mayberry is doing just fine": The town "isn't doing a whole lot to undermine the illusion," and those who come for "good wholesome fun" to escape "our godless society" find just what they're looking for in a make-believe world of dazzling cognitive dissonance. Gently and genially, he tries to burst the bubble, but they are having none of it. He talks to black residents happy to have returned to family there; one smilingly recalls the time in the 1970s when she was politely served a sandwich but told she had to eat it outside. He asks a busload of tourists how many feel the last election was fair; one hand goes up. The rest  earnestly argue the Capitol riot was by leftist troublemakers, BLM is burning cities every day, the former guy is the best - "I love that man!" - and the press really is the enemy of the people. Not least, says one stranger to irony, for the mean way they portray Southerners as "a bunch of dumb idiots." 

Abby Zimet

Abby Zimet

Abby has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, hauling water and writing before moving to Portland. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. 

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