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Pyle: Wise words from a real Sheriff Andy

Published July 6, 2012 4:55 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

That giant black telephone — with a dial, a cord and a label that said it was the property of American Telephone & Telegraph — would sometimes ring at my house, summoning us to a call from some doofus who would say, "Is Gomer there?" laugh, as if he were the first person to ever be so clever, and hang up.

It offended me deeply. How dare somebody make fun of something as personal as my family name?

But my father, though he had a life-long enmity toward telemarketers, took it calmly. He even liked to watch "Cousin Gomer," as he smilingly called him, first on "The Andy Griffith Show," then on the spin-off "Gomer Pyle, USMC." He giggled at the character's confusions and his earnest beliefs in quaint sayings and folk remedies handed down to him from "Grandma Pyle."

I protested. My father was a very smart man. College educated, at a time and place when most people weren't. Very well read. Made his living as a public administrator, which meant being smart. And he took great pride in the intelligence of his children, at least as far as such a thing can be measured by good grades in school. How could he stand to watch such a fool, especially when his name was a basic part of the joke?

Oh, calm down, my father said for about the thousandth time in my childhood. "Gomer's a good soul."

And, truly, he was. Not worldly. Not clever. Not inventive. But, and this was much more important, not mean. Not deceitful. Not trying to take advantage or push anyone around.

In defending Pvt. Pyle's right to be himself, and not be looked down on, my father was less a Gomer than an Andy.

Like Andy Griffith, the actor who died last week at the age of 86, and Andy Taylor, the character he played on TV, first in the early 1960s and in endless reruns since, my father was a product of, and an official of, small towns.

But rather than embody the stereotypical image of the provincial, judgmental, even xenophobic, small-town inhabitant, the mythical Sheriff Andy Taylor and the real City Manager George Pyle drew from their heritage a kind of grounding that allowed them to suffer fools because, really, they aren't fools. Just individuals with their own ways of doing and looking at things.

McCook, Neb., where my dad was city manager for roughly the same period of time that "The Andy Griffith Show" was on its first run, must have been bigger than Mayberry, N.C.

McCook had more than two police officers. Unlike Sheriff Andy, they carried guns. Unlike Deputy Barney Fife, their guns had bullets in them. I assume.

They didn't have radios, though. When an officer was needed, they'd turn on the big light on the roof of the Municipal Auditorium and expect the cop on the beat to call the office. (Only much later did anyone think it should have been called the Bat Signal.)

There were also a few firemen — who, in my memory, mostly played ping-pong and watched University of Nebraska football and basketball games on an incredibly fuzzy TV — and a grave-digger, who later went to college and became a city manager himself.

And it was less surprising that the town in southwest Nebraska was completely white, while the pallid complexion of every person in Mayberry, or any part of North Carolina, seems odd.

At least it allowed for there to be one Southern sheriff on TV in the '60s who wasn't the cause of race riots. Whose basic philosophy of life seemed to be, way before Rodney King, "Can we all get along?" Whose basic words of wisdom were the same ones I remember from my small-town background.

Now, everybody, just calm down.

gpyle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @debatestate