RIP Andy Griffith

It took me a while to get into Andy Griffith.

By the time I was old enough to stay up for prime time viewing, The Andy Griffith Show had already morphed into the tepid Ken Berry spin-off, Mayberry RFD. I never quite warmed to the “Perry Mason by way of Cracker Barrel” routine of Matlock. Oddly, my introduction to Mr Griffith probably came with Salvage 1, a kooky show (but not a comedy!) about a salvage expert who builds a space ship out of junk parts and manages to get it to the moon and back.  And while I liked that show(!), he didn’t especially stand out for me.  Anyway, as a kid I was all about the futuristic adventure of Star Trek and glamorous globe-trotting with James Bond; down-home, “country” shows were all Hee-Haw junk in my book.

It wasn’t until high school and syndication that I was able to watch The Andy Griffith Show, but by then I’d changed enough to enjoy it, because by then I was old enough to understand the appeal of nostalgia.

Yes, I know you can’t feel nostalgia for a place you didn’t live and a time you were too young to remember (if you were alive at all), but the beauty of Mayberry was that it could have been any small town, and for millions of viewers it was theirs.  For me it was the small Virginia town where I spent my earliest years, and which — after a passage of years and miles — my hazy memories had rendered as idealized and near-mythical as the backlot sets of Mayberry.

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The real appeal of the show for me, though, was in the relationships between the characters, especially the father-son dynamic of Andy and Opie, which was touching and real without — at least for my money — tipping over to maudlin.

Andy Taylor was, for me, a lot like Ward Cleaver; a good dad who made his share of mistakes, and often ended up with egg on his face, but whose heart was in the right place.  By the 70s,  sit-coms woudl shift their focus away from the parents to the kids; the stars of the shows were precocious pre-teens, and the dads — to the extent they got any screen time at all — just showed up to play straight man and act hopelessly befuddled by pretty much everything.  This is a trend that continues to the present, with no end of cable shows on Disney and what-not starring nominal “kids” who live essentially as little grown-ups, with parents who are mainly absent and when they do show up, an annoyance.  (Delivering two lessons modern generations have embraced all too readily: One, Never involve your parents in your life because they just don’t get it, and Two, perpetuate childhood as long as you can, because “grown up” is worse than dead).  For me, those older shows proved there’s lots of comedy potential in parent-child relations without making the parents into cardboard caricatures, or kids into smart-mouthed trouble-makers (though they were around then, too. See “Dennis the Menace”).   Andy and Ward often wandered in over their heads when it came to being dads (who doesn’t?) but they were never played as buffoons.

Ironically, one of the scenes I remember best from the Andy Griffith Show was actually about the folly of excessive nostalgia.  Andy, Opie and Aunt Bea are sitting on the front porch one summer night and the exchange goes more or less like this:

ANDY: “Opie, when I was a boy on a hot day like this, the ice man would drive his wagon through town and we kids would all run along behind it, trying to snatch off a hunk of ice to chew on.  Of course we’d usually get a piece of straw in there with it, but it still tasted great.  You know, something’s gone out of life since then…”

BEA: “Yes…Typhoid!”

The message — if any — being that it’s easy to overlook the down side of the “good old days,” and to forget that, after all, back then we were all working towards and dreaming about our future…which is now.  Better to enjoy the day at hand than pine for the one that’s gone.

Or something.  But it’s still hard not to yearn for a time when life was slower and simpler, when the “social network” centered on the annual town picnic and  “friending” someone involved actually meeting them, when all it took to keep the peace was a sherrif and a deputy with only one bullet between them (and that one kept in a shirt pocket), when the only resident of the jail was “the town drunk” and being drunk was pretty much harmless, when families talked to each other over dinner every night and then moved out onto the front porch to talk some more.

Yes, it’s hard not to pine for those things even if you never actually experienced them.  Maybe especially if you didn’t.  Even though we know Mayberry wasn’t real, we feel it should have been, so we massage our own memories until our home towns are Mayberry, when none of them really were.  As newsman Maxwell Scott says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

And so as he embodied the protector of Mayberry and its values, we can mourn the loss of Andy Griffith, the actor.  But since he was only ever an idealized symbol in the first place, we needn’t say goodbye to Andy Taylor.  He’ll live on in reruns, as will Mayberry itself, not so much a real town, in Griffith’s words, as “a state of mind.” Meanwhile as a dad, I’ll keep trying to give my kids what I had; a great childhood that, looking back as adults, they’ll remember being even better than it was.

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Remembering Richard

On Sept. 17, I lost a longtime co-worker,  mentor and friend to cancer.  His name was Richard Brumfield.

Richard was a complicated guy, and just to make it even more complicated, he was also a simple guy.  A Marine veteran who spent 23 years in the Corps’ COMCAM division, filming combat in Vietnam and later Beirut, Richard would nonetheless never have struck you as the “military type.”  He certainly wasn’t what you’d call spit-and-polish or gung-ho, though his training did tend to come out in the way he’d call our clients “sir” and “ma’am,” in that way military men and police officers tend to do, even in retirement.

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Pretty much from the day he joined our staff, we picked on Richard as the “old man” of the outfit, though he couldn’t have been much older when he started than I am today.  It probably had more to do with his demeanor; he could certainly come off as a “keep your frisbee off my lawn”-type crusty curmudgeon.  Anyone who spent any time around him, however, knew it was all bluster; he was a total marshmallow under that prickly exterior.  I never knew him to give less than 100% to any job, or to turn down a request for help from a co-worker no matter how much it might have inconvenienced him or how late it meant sticking around.  Every year he put together a special video for local high school graduates who were dealing with cancer and I’m positive he never wrote up a bill for any of his work.   And rumor has it, though I’m not supposed to know, that even as he was dealing with constant pain and the long ordeal of chemotherapy and radiation, he took time out to write a letter to the president of the university praising his coworkers here in the department.

Richard dropped out of high school before he joined the Marines, but you’d be hard pressed to find a guy better-informed on almost every subject.  Working at a university, we did video projects for doctors and professors from all disciplines, and as we interacted with them, he’d always ask insightful questions that got the experts talking and thinking, and put them totally at ease (since the one sure way to an academician’s heart is to express interest in his or her field).  Often his questions led to a more fully realized film, but more than that it relaxed the “talent” to the point where they turned in a better performance, because now it was no longer about “how do I look” and “that camera is scaring me”…now it was an opportunity to share their interest with a wider audience; they could concentrate on what they were saying and not how awkward it felt to be saying it to a cold, unblinking, mechanical eye.  It was a process I watched unfold a thousand times, and I never quite decided whether he was really that interested in so many things, or if it was just the shrewd strategy of a gifted director.  Either way, it was always impressive to witness.

Working with a guy for twelve years and spending time with him in the office, on the road or at conferences, you get a lot of opportunities to chat.  Once you’re done with the mad dash of setting up for a shoot, there’s often a lot of waiting around for things to happen, so you talk about whatever you can think of just to pass the time.  Consequently I know that Richard was a troublemaker as a kid, and once drove a motorcycle through the halls of his school (which may have contributed to that early departure).  I know he taught film at UCLA, despite — again — his own lack of a degree and a less-than-welcoming reception from the decidedly anti-war crowd enrolled there when he arrived in the late 60s, looking every inch the Marine.   I know he had a knowledge of and appreciation for vintage films and film stars, which made for many interesting conversations and — when I wasn’t careful — something of an education.   He had hilarious stories of working with Henry Winkler (a snob) Robin Williams (a druggie) and Geraldo Rivera (a narcissistic phoney…surprise!).  The star who most impressed him was Judy Garland, whom he once got to met, briefly, and of whom he was clearly in awe.  He had an encyclopedic knowledge of camera and editing techniques, and — again belying the “old fart” label — a keen interest in where video was headed in the digital age.  It never ceased to amaze me how he seemed to know about every new development in video before anyone else heard about it, especially given how much time he spent playing poker on the internet.  When did he find time to learn all that stuff?

I also know, of course, that he loved his family, and doted on his grandkids.  And that he was scared, in the last year or so, of what was ahead for him, and them.   He kept it together for their sake, but I knew he was freaking out underneath it all, as who wouldn’t?  In spite of ever-increasing pain levels and diminishing mobility, he kept dragging himself into work as long as humanly possible, and I think it broke his heart to finally give it up.

During Richard’s illness, I learned an interesting thing or two about the government’s official stance on Agent Orange, the Vietnam-era defoliant blamed for so many illnesses over the decades.  As a veteran, all Richard had to do to collect V.A. benefits (or to start the ball rolling, anyway) was to prove (1) that he served in Vietnam during the conflict and (2) that he had cancer.  With those two facts established, the government will rubber-stamp your request in the certainty it was Agent Orange that did you in.  Of course, if you happen to be a Vietnamese citizen with cancer, or with a child with birth defects, the official answer is, “There’s no proof Agent Orange causes any of that.”

There was another take-away from the whole sorry affair, and that is that everyone should be intimately involved with their own health care.  Don’t assume your doctor knows all; if you have a test, ask for the results, and if you’re not getting answers that make sense to you, get a second opinion.

It’s a very strange thing, working closely with someone for so long and then realizing one day they’re gone.  Every day I come across a file he crammed in some unlikely place, or a folder or label with his handwriting on it.  I’m torn between the desire to reorganize things the way I always wanted them to be anyway, and the reluctance to alter the few things left that reflect his influence.  At this point, his phone’s pretty much stopped ringing, and soon the day will come when people stop asking me about him, or sharing condolences.   And someday, if I’m here long enough, it’ll be hard to even remember what it was like when he was here.  It’s a natural process, but it’s still somehow offensive to imagine in the early stages.

Speaking of condolences, that was the one part of this whole thing that most caught me off-guard.  I was not prepared to have people seek me out to tell me how sorry they were; after all, I’m not family.  I found it very touching that people would think of how it was all affecting me, although ironically I think it didn’t really hit me that hard until they did so.

Richard’s funeral service was both low-key and impressive, featuring as it did a Marine Guard to act as pall-bearers, play Taps and present the colors.  Since he wasn’t really the religious type, it was held at the graveside, with what appeared to be a “rent-a-preacher” delivering a respectful if generic eulogy; I got the distinct impression the minister’s familiarity with Richard was fleeting at best.  Similarly, I was hoping for more from his obituary, and found the one or two mentions on the web (at USMC sites) even more cursory.  Surely a guy as storied and well-traveled as Richard deserved something more involved, or even profound?  Which I guess is what drove me to start this post, though it occurs to me I’ve achieved only the “wordy” part.

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I guess the only thing to add is that Richard was a sort of father-figure to a lot of the student workers here, some of whom were separated from their families by whole continents.  They seemed drawn to him for some reason, and sought out his advice.  It occurs to me he played a “mentor” role to me, as well, having been the one to sweet-talk management into transferring me to the video department when I was disillusioned with my previous position.  This despite a lack of any real experience in videography on my part.  Thus he joins a line of teachers and mentors who’ve influenced my life and career, and for that alone deserves mention here.  Not that it was an entirely altruistic move on his part, mind you; before that, he was a one-man department, and he needed the help.

More than that, I’m pretty sure he was lonely in that office, physically separated from the rest of the staff by a long(ish) hallway.  Lately I can sympathize with that feeling, as it’s certainly been a lot quieter in the last few months.   In fact I’ve been struck by just how large a space it is, though of course the office is exactly the same size today as it ever was.  It’s just that a very large presence has left it.

Rest in peace, Richard, and Semper Fi.

RIP: Old School Heroes

culpI was upset this week to learn of the death of Robert Culp, one of my favorite TV actors.  I probably first encountered him on “Columbo,” being one of a handful of actors whose strong performances kept him coming back again and again to match wits with Peter Falk as a series of brilliant — but ultimately overconfident — killers.

It wasn’t until “The Greatest American Hero,” however, that I became a fan, thanks to Culp’s terrific turn as FBI agent Bill Maxwell, the crusty, Conservative, Commie-hating  crimebuster who took schoolteacher Ralph Hinkley under his wing and tried to turn him into his own secret weapon against the underworld.  With his cocky swagger and biting sarcasm, Maxwell seemed to reflect Culp’s own persona to a degree, and he quickly evolved into one of those supporting characters who ends up stealing the show.  Later I made it a point to seek out “I Spy,” the show he’ll probably be best remembered for thanks to its cultural significance in the context of race relations (okay, and for being a good show).

Anyway, Culp’s death comes just a week or so after that of Peter Graves, who I grew up watching on “Mission: Impossible” as the unflappable “born leader” prototype Jim Phelps.  With his prematurely white hair, solid jaw and squinty eyes (not to mention that amazing, authoritative voice), Graves exemplified for me the old-school hero type who seem to have vanished from the cultural scene in recent years; what for lack of a better term I’ll call “The Grown-Up.”

graves2Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that movie and TV heroes used to have a certain gravitas to them born of maturity.  They were psychologically stable, morally centered and utterly capable.  As characters, there was usually some mystery to their past, but you could intuit (and were sometimes told) that they had a past in the military (usually the Korean War), that they had worked their way up the ladder as beat cops or foot soldiers, that there were adventures and romances and tragedies in their earlier years that made them into the men they were.  Through force of personality as much as any conferred rank, they were leaders of men, commanding the respect of those under them.  They were grown-ups.

We used to like our heroes to be grown up.  I remember reading about how Jeffrey Hunter landed the role of Christ in the big-budget epic “King of Kings,” only to have certain critics, noting Hunter’s baby face, rename the flic “I Was A Teenage Jesus.”  It was a liability then to look too young, but now of course the reverse is true.  The perfect age in Hollywood now is around 20, it seems, and the longer you can sustain that look, the longer you’re going to work.

Mission: Impossible is a good example.  For the DePalma film in the 90s, Jim Phelps is marginalized (and ultimately, disgracefully, villainized) in favor of his youthful protege Ethan Hunt, played by that perpetual teenager Tom Cruise.  In the early scenes of the film, Hunt’s teammates are wiped out, but not before we see they’re all kids like Cruise (Emilio Estevez was in there and I forget who else), making the Impossible Mission Force look more like the Breakfast Club.

Star Trek is another example.  In the original show, James T. Kirk was already the youngest man to captain a starship at 34 years of age, but in modern terms that would make him a comparative Methuselah, so he’s re-imagined as a boy wonder who earns the center seat in his mid-20s, essentially as a graduation present for making it through the Academy.  In the 60’s, there was that effort to balance the desire for a youthful, handsome leading man with the need to give him some gravitas; Kirk had served in Starfleet for at least eleven years already working up the ranks, and along the way earned an impressive collection of citations and medals.  For today’s crowd, however, all that matters is youth and talent; start citing your past accomplishments and people will eye you suspiciously as they calculate how many years you must have behind you.

Maybe this is just another grumpy old man rant, but I do wonder what kids today find admirable in their fictional heroes.  For me — and I don’t think I was alone — a big part of it was that air of maturity.  Guys like Kirk and Phelps and yes, even Bill Maxwell in his way…guys like Steve McGarrett and Steve Austin were men, not boys.  They bore the weight of responsibility, they were confident in their beliefs, they saw their duty and did it.   I always figured that’s what happened when you grew up; you turned into a guy like that.

Now of course I look back on those same performances and think, “He’s younger there than I am now!” …and yet I still think they’re grown up and I’m not.  So it’s not just a question of age.  Personality, then?  Just individual charisma?  Or is that no one is really that grown up, ever, but some guys are better at faking it?

At any rate, it’s disturbing to reach an age where your childhood heroes start dropping like flies, not due to excess and folly like Errol Flynn, or tragic violence like George Reeves, but to the one foe no one can beat; time itself.  It’s kind of depressing to realize all your old heroes are of an age where they’ll be checking out sooner than later.  Just from a narcissistic point of view, it forces you to realize you’re getting on yourself.

Au Revoir, Daddy Bill

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I lost my grandfather on November 21st.  Actually, I lost a lot more than that.  I lost a friend, a mentor, a debate partner, an inspiration and one of the pillars of my world.

When my arrival made him a grandfather in 1965, William Allen Dayberry was only 44 years old, the same age I am now.  Understandably, he thought he was too young to be addressed as “Grandpa” or “Grandad,” so he asked to be called “Daddy Bill.”  I tried, but the best I could manage was “Dadda Bull.”  He didn’t complain, so that’s what I — and later my little brother — called him until at some point in our teen years it became “Granddaddy.”

Looking back, we were unusually blessed to have such a young grandfather, not only because we got to hold onto him so long but also because when we were small he was still fit enough to horse around with us, take us camping or take us along with him on his jobs, which were always fascinating.  He worked for many years as a painting contractor, honest physical labor often in the outdoors in all seasons.  It was hard work, really, but to a little boy it was almost glamorous, heading off to work in a noisy panel truck filled with paint cans, tarps and extension ladders, wearing a white “uniform” and getting to paint and climb.  The scraping wasn’t so much fun, though.  I’m still not sure what he got out of my “help” besides the company; to find an “assistant” less mechanically inclined than myself, he’d have had to recruit from a species lacking opposable thumbs.  But again, he didn’t complain.

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Granddaddy didn’t have a lot of formal schooling — he quit school at 14 to help support his family — but all his life he was in love with learning.  Over the years, he taught himself a lot about electronics, aviation and other subjects.  I remember how much he enjoyed The Towering Inferno, not because of the special effects or any of the A-list stars but because the whole conflagration came down to an entirely plausible wiring snafu.  Similarly, he liked John Frankenheimer’s film, The Train because freedom fighter Burt Lancaster kept thwarting Nazi Paul Scofield’s efforts to abscond with a train full of stolen French artworks through acts of sabotage that were not only ingenious but also totally credible.

But then, he loved just about anything to do with trains, poring over written histories of the great passenger and freight lines, reciting songs and poems about famous routes and wrecks, building model engines and cars and collecting vintage lanterns and spikes and other memorabilia.  From an old train station he once salvaged a telegraph device, rigging it up to send messages from his workshop in the basement to a receiver upstairs in the den, to the consternation of my grandmother.  I can still hear him singing “The Wreck of the Old ’97″…I guess it made impression because of the local references (“It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville and a line on a three mile grade…”) or maybe the grisly ending (“He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle, scalded to death by the steam”).

Music was another of his passions; he had a phenomenal collection of swing-era jazz recordings and an encyclopedic knowledge of the songs and the men who wrote and performed them.  Growing up I couldn’t have named the Rolling Stones for you, but brother I knew who Fletcher Henderson was, and Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Bunny Berigan and Jack Teagarden.  His enthusiasm was infectious; to this day, I put Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” right up there with McCartney’s “Yesterday” as one of the most perfect feats of songwriting ever.

Granddaddy’s laughter was also infectious.  I remember how much fun it was to watch Laurel and Hardy, Pink Panther movies, Benny Hill or cartoons with him, because he’d laugh so hard it made me laugh, too.  He was the “life of the party” type, not only funny himself but genuinely appreciative of, even delighted with other people’s sense of humor, and possessing a general positivity that made people want to spend time around him.

He was also a fantastic whistler, and no matter how hard he was working I remember him whistling away like he didn’t have a care in the world.  That and the laughter convinced me as a kid that he must have been the happiest guy on Earth.

I’ll also remember our camping trips.  You could always tell our campsite because he’d hang a plastic dropcloth over the picnic table to protect our food and camp stove from, well, nature. I remember him driving his van up the winding roads of the Blue Ridge Parkway with my brother Tim in the back on a lawn chair as it slid to and fro (“Turning to the right! Lean to the left!”).  Once I asked about a sign on the side of the road that read, “Beware of Fallen Rock” and he was only too happy to “explain” it to me.  “Fallen Rock was an Indian brave,” he told us, “in love with the chief’s daughter.  To win her hand, the chief sent him on a dangerous mission to capture a bear.  The bear tore his head off and now his angry ghost wanders this mountain, looking for his head.”  I don’t think I slept much that night, convinced every sound I heard was old Fallen Rock skulking around our campsite.

This deadpan joshing is one of the few traits I know I inherited from Granddaddy.  Laura is forever calling me out for telling the kids some ridiculous tall tale or other, I guess just to amuse myself (“Don’t tell them that, David, they might believe you!”).  The week before Granddaddy died, we took the kids down for a visit and he was still at it.  Told that Jason had earned his Bobcat badge and was on his way to being a Tiger Scout, he said, “You’re a lucky boy.  When I was  young they didn’t have Tigers, so I had to be a Muskrat.  I was trying to work my way up to Possum, but I messed it up so bad they demoted me to Skunk.”  Jason looked at me with a “he’s kidding, right?” expression and I knew exactly how he felt.

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The kids knew him as “Big Daddy,” taking their cue from my nieces, who got here first.  Fair enough, as he was always a father figure and “Big Daddy” had a distinctly Southern quality to it, as he himself did.  I’m grateful they got to know him; he always had a way with kids, probably because they could always see the kid in him, no matter how old he got.

Granddaddy was 88 years old when he passed away, though you’d hardly have guessed it if you met him.  He was one of those larger-than-life people who’s just so full of life, so engaged that it’s hard to accept it when they’re gone, no matter how old they are.    I was going to write that it’s hard to let go, but then I realized there’s no real reason I should.  He may not be around physically for me to visit or talk to, and I’ll surely miss calling his number and hearing him answer, “Mmmmyyyellow?”, but in a very real sense he’ll always be with me; in my thoughts and memories, in the mannerisms, interests, values and sense of humor he passed down to me, in my genes and those of my children.  He’ll be there when I hear those old songs, or when I see a train or hear its whistle.  And as one of those old songs said, they can’t take that away from me.

So it’s au revoir, Grandaddy, but not goodbye.  Until we meet again, I promise to try — though it’s never been as easy for me as it seemed to be for you — to keep looking on the bright side, to make the most of every day and to always find something to be grateful for. Today it’s that you were my grandfather.

RIP Les Paul

I’m late with this, but I couldn’t let the passing of Les Paul go without comment. Unquestionably one of the virtuoso guitarists of all time, Les was also a brilliant innovator and inventor who pioneered the use of overdubbing, tape delay and multi-track recording and devised one of the first solid-body electric guitars. In short, he pretty much shaped the sound of popular music through the latter half of the 20th Century, and today.

Les Paul lived an amazing 94 years and kept playing right up to the end. Here’s a clip of him from 1991, still in top form at the age of 77. Harps are nice and everything, but Heaven’s got to sound a little cooler now.