The parents of baby boomers have been called the greatest generation. I don't want to debate that here, but I do want to say that while the fathers of the Greatest Generation had to face the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the insanity of the Cold War, and a host of major civil rights issues, as a group they didn't do a very good job being fathers. Many of them were emotionally distant, unyieldingly judgmental, and workaholics. Far too many of them also destroyed their families with booze, early death, or affairs with younger women. They were good men, but they were confused -- or maybe it's better to say they just didn't know any better. Their fathers (our grandfathers) had also been troubled men. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, one of the Greatest Generation, "So it goes."
My generation of men, however, is the first generation that has had the benefit of self-actualized moms. We watched them become empowered in the 1970s (and deal with their husbands leaving them). And we also watched Andy. He presented a profound mix of manliness, intelligence, gentle humor, and -- most importantly -- a fearlessness when it came to empathy and emotional connection with everyone. As Sherif Andy Taylor, Griffith showed his son Opie (has there ever been a more lovable and innocent kid on the screen?) so much affection and love without ever giving up an inch of his masculinity. Even today it's a marvel to watch Andy Griffith play that special character. He was the paw we all wanted. He was the dad we all knew we needed to become. And, I think, he was also the father that our own fathers wanted to be...but just had a hard time becoming.
Griffith's character didn't just stop in his relationship to Opie. His best friend (cousin?) Barney Fife (played by the staggeringly hilarious Don Knotts) was a wimp and, essentially, an idiot. Besides getting himself into trouble, he was often a magnet for bullies and tough guys. Andy stepped in and pretty much always showed how you deal with that kind of jerk. Andy also demonstrated how to love and support other men who might not be as strong or confident -- men who chatter like fools and act like idiots, but are good-natured and sweet nonetheless. His friendship with Barney was a pretty good template for all of us to follow.
Andy was, in fact, beloved by the whole town of Mayberry. He showed us how to be a compassionate leader without upsetting others who didn't know any better. And the way he dealt with women -- widower that he was -- may well have ushered in the women's movement a good decade before it would have come otherwise. Here was a man full of love, honesty, and integrity who respected the women of Mayberry almost to a fault. Here was the good soul that was hidden inside all the Boomer dads of America that women knew might step up if only their men weren't so selfish and emotionally protective.
The picture I paint here of our fathers is perhaps harsh. Things are never so black and white. There were certainly men in the 1960s -- fathers -- who knew how to show love and connect with their families. In some ways, I suppose, most men tried as hard as they could. I know my dad did. Maybe all Andy Griffith offered was the channeling of that desire most men had to be the perfect man, the perfect father.
In the end, though, the generation of boys who grew up watching him be Andy Taylor were the ones who benefited the most. So many of my friends are now profoundly amazing dads, knowing how to show love and how to accept it. We, of course, have our own problems. But we each have Andy inside of us -- even if we don't know it -- giving us permission to show compassion and empathy to our children, our wives, co-workers, and neighbors. We aren't afraid to show emotion. We hug long and hard. And we even know how to talk about our feelings...sort of. Heck, even John Boehner isn't afraid to cry in public.
So, the loss of Andy Griffith should give all of my generation pause. There was no greater scene in our lives than the one that started and ended that show (as I remember it). Andy and Opie headin' off to a fishin' hole. Just the two of them, trundling like magpies through the woods. That was a scene I got to live (along with my brother) several times in my youth with my own dad. It didn't happen enough, but it did happen. It never occurred to me until today that I got to watch it on TV five times a week for most of my early life and that in one way or another I've now lived out that scene with my own sons hundreds if not thousands of times in one way or another.
Rest in peace Andy of Mayberry. You were an American treasure, and you shaped this country like few other actors ever have. You may be gone, but your Mayberry Soul is deep inside so many of us. It's what gives me hope for America here in the 21st century.