“How can you watch that stupid show?” I asked my father, in great pre-teen exasperation.
It troubled me no end that my old man — a smart guy who read The Atlantic, Albert Camus and all 11 volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s “The Story of Civilization” — could happily sit there and tee-hee at such simple-minded dreck as “Gomer Pyle, USMC.”
Of course the reason that show — and not, say, “The Beverly Hillbillies” — bothered me so much was that people who wanted to annoy me would often, sometimes within seconds of hearing by surname, start calling me “Gomer.” The implication being that anyone with such a silly name must be as stupid and clumsy as the unlikely Marine who had once been the personification of the small-town bumpkin in “The Andy Griffith Show.”
They never compared me to Ernie Pyle, the Pulitzer-winning wartime newspaper columnist, or Howard Pyle, the artist and illustrator of epic stories. Not just because it wouldn’t be an insult, but also because it was unlikely that any 9-year-old in 1965 had heard of either one of them.
Dad waved me off. He couldn’t be absorbing the great minds of civilization all the time.
Besides, he said, “Gomer is a good soul.”
It took awhile — and the passage of the character into TV Land history — for me to grasp what my father was saying.
Gomer Pyle, as played by Jim Nabors, was not the sharpest tool in the shed. The humor of the show was built around the fact that he hadn’t been anywhere or done anything and that his childlike understanding of the world never changed, even as it frustrated everyone around him.
But Gomer was sweet and honest and was one of those people of whom it was said, “He wouldn’t hurt a fly.” Which — no disrespect to members of The Corps — probably made the Marines a poor career choice.
The show was silly, pre-disillusionment fluff. Everyone was white. Nearly everyone was male. Despite what was happening in the real world, a show set on a Marine base made absolutely no mention of Vietnam. Not even in a tasteless “Hogan’s Heroes” don’t-mess-up-or-you’ll-be-sent-to-the-Russian-front manner.
The other day I received in the mail some clippings from recent Salt Lake Tribune Opinion pages, each carrying various red Sharpie markings indicating my correspondent’s serious disapproval of arguments that the refugees presenting themselves on our southern border should be objects of pity and concern, not fear and alarm.
I can only gather that the person who sent the samples is of a certain age. Because he actually sends letters through the mail. And because he apparently thinks that the best way to insult me is to scrawl “Gomer” next to my name and visage.
If I were still 9 years old, that might have stung a bit. But now I see that it is impossible to imagine Gomer at a Make America Great Again rally or, if he found himself at one, to picture him with anything other than that confused look on his face. He never possessed the level of anger that would make him comfortable in such a place.
If he were posted to the Mexican border, even in full battle dress with a rifle at the ready, there is no way Gomer would be able to turn away a refugee family that was clearly no threat to anyone. (Though he could be tricked into sending them to a detention center after hearing some evil official — whom he would not perceive as evil — describe it as “a summer camp.” Just as he might be deceived into showing small-town sympathy for a real terrorist who pretended to be lost and alone.)
Popular entertainment provides more worthy role models that embody kindness, intelligence and strength. Mister Rick. Marshal Dillon. Captains Kirk and Picard. The Doctor. And each of them, I trust, would agree that a great problem of our time is that the studied cruelty that personifies the current administration is perceived as a qualification, while the kindness that was the soul of simple characters such as Pvt. Pyle is derided as stupidity.
I’ll stand with Cousin Gomer, thanks.