By SEAN DIETRICH
He was born the same year Ty Cobb retired. The same era The Bambino was selling Old Gold cigarettes in the back pages of “The Saturday Evening Post.”
It was a period in American history when cowboy movies were silent, radios were loud and Charles Lindebergh was still considered to be a little off.
The boy was born to Carl and Geneva, two average North Carolinians in an average house in an average town. They lived modest lives. They lived beneath the water tower, for crying out loud.
He was their only child. He got all their attention.
“I loved my father,” he once said. “He lived to be eighty. He smoked cigarettes every minute of his life.”
His father had a notoriously wet sense of humor. He was the kind of guy who tended to be popular in places like barbershops, feed stores and any place where old geezers play checkers.
Years later, when the boy started performing his one-man comic routine before Rotary Clubs, civic leagues and Elks Lodges, the boy admitted that his brand of hayseed humor came from simply impersonating his old man.
His mother, Geneva, was known by her friends to be sugar sweet. She was born just over the North Carolina state line in Old Virginny.
To get to her hometown you’d have to hop on the Blue Ridge Parkway and head north from the Carolinas. After about an hour you’d arrive in the meadows of Patrick County.
If you veer onto County Highway 602 and follow it into the sticks, eventually you will find the remnants of a tiny mountain hamlet so remote they have to mail-order sunshine from the Montgomery Ward catalog.
It is here where an ancient general store/post office still stands. It has white clapboards and a rusty Gulf Oil sign out front. The structure was built in 1892, and still does business today.
You can still go inside and buy el-cheapo tourist crafts, or apple butter that was cooked on site. The boy’s maternal grandparents once bought their groceries here. For over a century, it’s been called the Mayberry Trading Post.
The trading post is only walking distance from Mayberry Creek, and the Mayberry Presbyterian Church. Long ago, the Mayberry Creek Community was sort of like a town. Today, it’s just a wide spot in the road.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 54 years since Mayberry went off the air. Since then, the show has become even more popular than it was in the 1960s. Each year, reruns bring in an estimated 36.9 billion minutes of viewing time from American and international audiences.
Simply put, this show still has lots of fans.
Take me. I am a lifelong fan. A few years ago, I visited the boy’s childhood home the way many slightly unstable fans do. It was a dinky house. My wife and I spent the night there.
To be honest, it was strange, knowing I was staying in the home where he grew up. His height chart was likely inscribed on one of these door jambs. These were the same kitchen linoleum floors where he used to ice skate in his stocking feet. This porch was where he cleaned his fish. This was the exact toilet where…
Well, never mind.
My wife and I slept in his bedroom. That night, I stared at the same ceiling he stared at. I imagined what he was like as a kid.
What kind of guitar did he play? Was it a Silvertone, purchased from the back of the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog, for $11.75?
How about the first time he got his heart broken? Did he sit in this kitchen with his father, who smoked 20 miles of Luckys while his son wept? Did his dad say, “There are plenty of fish in the sea, son” the way dads have been saying since Eve?
I grew up watching him on television just like everyone else. I had no father, so he stepped in and raised me, although he never knew it.
His show was on every day. Twice. Once at 5 p.m., and again at 5:30. I sat cross-legged before our RCA console and cranked the volume so loud that our tweed speaker distorted. I was there with him. I was in Mayberry. And he loved me. I knew he loved me. Because that’s just the kind of guy he was. And that’s the kind of man I aspire to be someday.
Happy 96th birthday, Andy Griffith.