It was a great day for a picnic … or a baseball game. The sun hung there above the horizon like a hanging curveball, warm and inviting, and the air was as still as a sleeping cat curled up in a laundry basket of freshly dried towels. A spring day so perfectly placid often portends a storm, and in this case, as I stood there in right-centerfield flanked by my center fielder, Andy, and my right fielder, Rees, I was afraid the storm was just about ready to rage in the form of a furious rally by the Braves, the leaders of the Mountaineer Little League Farm League and proud owners of a 7-2 league record.
Our team, the Cubs, had jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first inning, but the Braves had the bases loaded with two outs. A base hit here would plate at least two, and probably three runs, cutting significantly into our lead.
I cannot credit film critic Roger Ebert, who died just a couple of weeks ago after a lengthy battle with cancer, with instilling in me a lifelong love of movies. I was already in love with movies before I saw Gene Siskel and Ebert’s show “Sneak Previews” in the late 1970s. Growing up in Sparta, I had seen movies in the old Sparta Theater and at Twin Oaks Drive-In. I went every chance I got, loving how the movies transported me from my small town and tightly circumscribed life into places and times and adventures I could have never dreamed of otherwise.
It all started with a simple book fair at the middle school. My daughter, inspired perhaps by viewing the trailer for the movie about 12,000 times during the past few weeks, bought a paperback of J.R.R Tolkien’s classic The Hobbit. She couldn’t wait to see the movie, but as the daughter of an English teacher, she naturally wanted to read the book first. Bless her.
We had been dreading it all week, and now, as we stood there on a brisk Friday morning waiting on the school bus in front of our mailbox, my seven-year-old son and I had time to confront the reality of it: a weekend without the women.
Mother and daughter were leaving for the weekend to go on a Girl Scout camping trip, leaving the boys to fend for ourselves for approximately 48 hours. What would we do without them? Would we remember to eat? Keep the house in reasonable order? Attend to basic hygiene?
On any given Saturday morning for the past 20 years, I would roll out of bed, crank up the coffee machine and some Rolling Stones, throw on some running shorts and a tank top, and head out to the gym, eating a chalky protein bar on the way, the Clash or Elvis Costello urging me on along Highway 209. For a certain species of human being, the gym is like that old television sitcom “Cheers,” a place where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came. Just think of treadmills as barstools and protein shakes as draft beer, and you’ll get the picture.
I loved Andy Griffith as much as it is possible to love someone you’ve actually never met. In some very important ways, he was like a second father to me. Like a lot of young boys do, I worshiped my own father, even though I didn’t see him much. He was a long haul truck driver, home on the weekends and playing cards most of the time even then. He loved us and provided for us, but he just wasn’t home very often or for very long.
My daughter has arrived at an impossible age — impossible for her, impossible for me, impossible for her mother, impossible for her brother. If this age were a dinner, we’d send it back to the kitchen. If it were a car, we’d invoke the lemon law and demand another.
I’ll admit that I have never been much of a cat person. It’s because I am a little selfish, I guess. When I come home at the end of the day, I like to have a pet who is happy to see me. When I come home at the end of the day, my miniature dachshund goes completely mad. He’s happier to see me than a teenage girl seeing Paul McCartney in 1964. In other words, he adores me, and I like that.
That’s just not how cats roll. In fact, cats don’t roll at all. They don’t roll, and they don’t do tricks, at least not the tricks you want them to do. They do what they like, especially if they are older, as accustomed to wielding power as an old mafia don. You keep company with a cat for very long, you eventually come to realize that you are actually more his valet than he is your pet. You live to serve your cat.
Maybe it is just my history with cats. I had one aunt who had a cat that mauled me when I stepped on her tail as a toddler, and another aunt who had a Siamese cat named “Princess” (of course) who was said to eat children. My aunt brought the cat home from Winston-Salem once and told us, “I’m sorry, kids, you can’t really touch or even go near Princess. She’s temperamental.” If we even ventured into the same room with Princess, she would arch her back and hiss menacingly, then crouch like a cheetah getting ready to pounce, causing us to dive over furniture like little soldiers avoiding gunfire.
With all of this as context, you can imagine how pleased I was when I met my wife years ago and discovered that she owned a cat that she had curiously burdened with the name “Bubbie Thomas” (pronounced “Toe Moss”). I had two dogs, an enormous lab/shepherd mix and a pit bull, and now a cat was going to be introduced into this environment? How was THAT supposed to work?
“Is he temperamental?” I asked her. I figured I had learned my way around cat euphemisms the hard way.
She told me that Bubbie was a pretty laid back cat. I had never heard of that and didn’t really believe her. I will never forget the first time I saw my two-year-old daughter reach over and lift Bubbie off the ground as nonchalantly as picking up a sack of flour and then stand there proudly with her pudgy little arms locked together just under his front arms. It looked as if she were about to perform the Heimlich Maneuver on him. Poor Bubbie had the look you sometimes see in the eyes of people who have been held hostage for a long time, a look of pure resignation with just a drop of hope, a look that said, “I’d sure like to escape, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon, is it?”
I had never seen anything like this in a cat before. I would come to understand eventually that Bubbie was kind of the “anti-Princess,” a cat that would never harm a child, even if the child pulled on his tail, tweaked his ears, or dragged him around in a wagon with a heavy towel covering his entire body, save a whisker or two. “Time to take baby shopping,” my daughter would say, and Bubbie would be off on an imaginary shopping trip. He would probably be trying on jackets, necklaces, and hats soon, and these indignities he would endure as patiently as any monk.
A few years later, when my son was born, the entire cycle began again, and then a few years after that, we brought home a miniature dachshund puppy who, the minute he was first able to pry his own eyes often after having been born, perceived that everything he saw was part of his new kingdom. Though he was no bigger than a cigarette, he was an alpha dog from the start, and within just a few months he and Bubbie began waging a three-year war for control of the home.
Though my general preference for dogs is well-documented, I was heartened to see Bubbie stand his ground against “the black menace,” as we came to call our dachshund. The dog would come racing around a corner or lunge from the sofa, dive-bombing poor Bubbie, who would react surprisingly quickly, considering his advancing age and slowing reflexes. He would hiss and raise a paw like Muhammad Ali fending off a Joe Frazier jab, then throw a rapid fire series of his own jabs.
Eventually, these two worked out an inexplicable truce, and each night they would wind up sprawled out next to each other like a couple of tiny dead cowboys on the sofa while my wife and I watched television or worked on our laptops.
As Bubbie continued to age, he began having some difficulty jumping on and off furniture, and lately he had been losing some weight. We took him to the vet last Friday as a precaution, thinking they could give him a steroid or something to increase his appetite. He was 14 years old, but we figured that with some love and care, he had a few more golden years left in him.
I was on my way to a meeting when my daughter called from the vet’s office and said with a voice choked with trembling bravery, “Daddy, I have some bad news. They’re putting Bubbie to sleep.”
I wheeled around immediately and sped as fast as I could to the vet and got there literally just in time. Bubbie was laid out on the table, barely conscious. My wife, barely able to hold back deep, heaving sobs, was holding and stroking his head. I held her with one arm and petted Bubbie with the other. His eyes were open, but he was completely limp, completely at peace, ready to go.
“He has a terminal disease,” said my wife. “They said it’s just going to get worse and worse.”
When it was over, my daughter could not be consoled, and I could do absolutely nothing to help her except sit on the bed and watch her whole body shake with wave after wave of the first pure grief she had ever had to endure. Memories of Bubbie swarmed the room; we couldn’t wipe them away, couldn’t find comfort in them, not yet. I knew that day would come, but she didn’t, and I couldn’t find the words to convince her.
“Why does it have to hurt so much, Daddy?” she said.
“Because we loved him so much,” I said. What else could I say?
“I never want another pet,” she said, and then screamed, “NEVER! NEVER! NEVER!”
One day, she will. Her broken heart will heal, as broken hearts must. One day, we will be able to talk about all the times she carried Bubbie around in her little arms, her head smushed against his, smiling and holding on for dear life. But not today. Today, we just manage to navigate around that big hole in our home where Bubbie used to be, trying not to fall in.
Godspeed, Bubbie Thomas. We’ll thank you for the memories as soon as we are able. Holding you tight, never letting go.
Here in the South, if you are of a certain age, you have two families at least. The first is the family you’re born into. About that, you have no real say in the matter. Your second family consists of the people who, like you, grew up watching “The Andy Griffith Show.” Like you, they believe that Mayberry is a real place, even though they know it isn’t, and yet it still is, really, just as real as the actual place they grew up, perhaps more so in some important way.
If that last sentence makes sense to you, you’re probably one of us. That means you probably know all the episodes by heart, even the ones shot in color after Don Knotts left for the bright lights of Hollywood. It means that you know the real names of the actors who played the important characters, and just about all of them were important. Andy and Barney were the main characters, of course, but any member of the family knows that Frances Bavier (Aunt Bea), Ron Howard (Opie), Howard McNear (Floyd the barber), Jim Nabors (Gomer), Hal Smith (Otis), Betty Lynn (Thelma Lou), and Aneta Corsaut (Helen Crump) were every bit as crucial to the show as Andy and Barney. These were not just one-dimensional supporting characters but fully realized, vividly fleshed out human beings with indelible personalities of their own. In any given episode, one of them might be the protagonist instead of Andy or Barney. Any one of them could easily carry the show for as many episodes as the writers wished, and each had turns at being “the star.”
Aunt Bea relishing her “kerosense cucumbers.” Opie raising his baby birds. Thelma Lou refusing to be in Barney’s “hip pocket.” Gomer trying to repay Andy for saving his life. We know and remember every episode. In a way, they have mixed in among our own childhood memories, since many of us first saw these episodes as children and have seen them countless times since. Watching reruns of the show is, for us, akin to pulling out the family photograph album and remembering when. We love getting together with other members of “the family” and reminiscing.
“Remember that time when Andy and Barney were trying to help Goober get a girl?”
Ah, yes, Goober Pyle, played by George Lindsey. Goober was introduced to the show in 1964 as Gomer’s slightly less sophisticated cousin (“Goober ain’t stupid,” said Gomer. “He’s ugly, but he ain’t stupid.”). Goober worked at Wally’s filling station and almost always sported a beanie with turned-up edges that made him look like Mayberry’s court jester, which he was, but only at times, because none of Mayberry’s characters were ever that simple, just as real people are not.
As a young fellow, I often identified with Goober, who was shy and uneasy around girls, always relying on jokes and impressions of movie stars like Cary Grant or Edward G. Robinson in an attempt to impress them, always measuring himself against more experienced, worldly competition and coming up short, always awkward, hesitant, and uncertain. In spite of this, onward he plunged into the dense thicket of romance, armed only with the dullest butterknife to try to clear a path and find his way. That’s EXACTLY how I felt as well, inept and awkward, but propelled forward by forces I could neither comprehend nor resist. Over and over I stumbled, but, like Goober, I kept flailing away.
As Barney Fife put it in his pep talk to Goober, “Andy’s got a girl, I’ve got a girl, all God’s children got a girl.”
If Goober could find a girl, maybe I could, too. If Goober could keep trying, why shouldn’t I?
There are a lot of great Goober moments in the show, but my favorite may be an episode late in the series in which Goober forgets his razor on a camping trip, comes back with a scruffy beard, and then becomes convinced that he has become an intellectual because Andy, Floyd, and Aunt Bea tell him he looks “different,” and Goober longs more than anything to be different, to be as wise, successful, and self-assured as anyone else. Heavily influenced as he always is by the power of suggestion, Goober becomes overconfident to the point of being unbearable, pontificating on any and every subject to any and every person until Andy finally explodes (he was more irritable in the colored episodes, I submit) and tells him to shut up. Goober is chastened, fairly limping out of the barbershop in humiliation. But then we see him again at the weekly meeting of the town’s history club, offering a tentative and mercifully brief remark on the industrial revolution, followed by a self-effacing comment and that trademark grin.
Once again, Goober had gathered his pride, courage, and determination, and plunged ahead into the wilderness of human interaction.
Just a few short days ago, George “Goober” Lindsey died after a brief illness at the age of 83. He joins Don Knotts, Hal Smith, Frances Bavier, Howard McNear, Aneta Corsaut, and Jack Dodson, among others, who have gone on to that Mayberry that, in a way, exists in everyone who is part of this particular family, the Mayberry that is permanent and unchanging, the Mayberry where there is always time to make homemade ice cream on the porch on Sunday after church, where you can catch up on the local gossip in Floyd’s Barber Shop, and where on a warm summer night, you can hear Andy strumming his guitar all the way to the end of Maple Street.
While I can appreciate that many citizens get caught up in this so-called “March Madness” every year, I no longer have the time to cast anything more than a sideways glance in the direction of the NCAA basketball tournament. Where I once followed every dribble and rebound of the tournament from start to finish, spending every available hour — and most of my hours were all too available in those days, which is the whole point — obsessing over my brackets and trying to will my favorite teams on to the next round by sheer force of concentration (not to mention the wearing of my lucky hat), I now rely on late night recaps on ESPN or the status updates of my Facebook friends to keep me abreast of the tournament.
In other words, it floats in the orbit of my consciousness, but barely so. For me, real March Madness is pressure washing the deck, while trying to find time to get my son’s bat speed up to par for his transition from T Ball to Farm League this season, when he will be adjusting to machine pitches. Then there is tax season right around the corner, and the yard is threatening to get out of control already, and I have a stack of papers to grade. We’ve got to get the house in order for that get-together we’ve been planning, and that basement has been waiting to be organized for months. I’ve got to get my wife’s car over to Asheville for servicing, and now here is the guy to spray for bugs.
It is always something when you are a grown-up with grown-up responsibilities. I envy those that have the time to think about a basketball tournament, I really do. I wish it still meant that much to me, but I just don’t have the time or energy for it.
Pest Guy: “How are you, Mr. Cox? Had any problems with pests this month?”
Me: “No, just a random spider or two. I killed one in the bathtub Wednesday. So, who you got in the Final Four this year?”
Pest Guy: “The Heels, Kentucky, Missouri, and Syracuse. You?”
Me: “I got Ohio State beating the Orangemen. I don’t see them getting there without Melo. I got Missouri, but I don’t love that bracket.”
I followed the pest guy around the house while he sprayed under the deck and around the hedges, debating the relative merits of our Final Four picks as well as the prospects of North Carolina teams. We agreed that Duke looked pretty vulnerable and that N.C. State would be a nice darkhorse team this year if they took good shots and avoided turnovers.
By the time the pest guy left, I had to jump in the car and get it over to Asheville to get a sensor replaced, the one that tells you when the air pressure in your rear left tire is low. On the way over, I had about a thousand things on my mind, not the least of which was, did we really need to spend $200 on a sensor to tell us that the air pressure in our rear left tire was low? Who has time to think about a basketball tournament when questions such as these become part of your life?
I finally arrived, got the car into the garage, and asked the guy if he could just turn off the warning light without replacing the sensor if we would assume full responsibility for the inflation of our tires.
Sensor Guy: “No sir, we cannot really disable that light on the dash for you. Plus, your car wouldn’t pass inspection.”
Me: “I see. It just seems a little silly to me, what with air pressure gauges and eyesight and everything, that we should need a sensor to tell us that we need air in our tires. Anyway, you think Roy’s got the Tar Heels ready to go?”
Sensor Guy: “Yeah, I’d say he does. If they stay focused and play defense for 40 minutes.”
Me: “Think they can take Kentucky? I guess Obama does.”
Sensor Guy: “Yeah, I saw that. I hope God is not a Republican.”
Me: “The Republicans say He is. The Heels may need some divine intervention to score inside on Anthony Davis.”
I had the sensor installed and drove home, stopping off for gas and a sandwich. The guy at Subway noticed I was wearing my lucky N.C. State hat.
Subway Guy: “Go Wolfpack!”
Me: “I heard that. Let’s just hope CJ Leslie can stay out of foul trouble.”
Subway Guy: “I heard that. You want pickles on this?”
I took my sandwich and made a quick cell phone call to my friend, Tim, for an update on the afternoon games. When I got home, my wife and children were downstairs watching Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
Them: “Hey, Daddy/Honey!!! Want to watch this with us?”
Me: “How much longer will it be on?”
Daughter: “It’s almost over.”
Me: “Don’t you guys have homework? Honey, did you remember you were going to pick up some pork chops at the grocery store for that new recipe?” Wife: “Yes, I remember. What’s wrong with you? You seem antsy.”
Me: “Me, antsy? Nah, just got a lot on my mind.”
I went upstairs and logged in on my laptop to check the scores on ESPN. I turned on some Miles Davis and tried to calm down a little. I graded a couple of papers, fed the dog, watered the plants, went to get the mail. Just how many frickin penguins did Mr. Poppers have?
Finally, the family emerged en masse from the family room, and I jumped out of the chair like a pop tart shot out of a toaster.
Wife: “Is there a game on?”
Me: “I think maybe there is. I’m just gonna watch a little TV and try to relax. I’ve just got too much going on this week, I guess.”
Wife: “Uh huh…”
Me: “Don’t forget those pork chops!”
I suppose, in the scheme of things, it is fine to enjoy such things as “March Madness” the way it should be enjoyed, as a pleasant and minor diversion from the crushing responsibilities of being an adult. As long as I am wearing my lucky hat, everything should work out fine.