Let There Be Light

When I was a youngster, my idol was Opie Taylor, though not for reasons you might think.

Remember the opening of “The Andy Griffith Show,” with Andy and Opie walking along that country road with fishing poles on the shoulders?

And when Opie picks up a rock and throws it, and how Andy just shakes his head?

And how just a few steps later Opie does it again, throws another rock into the pond where they will likely soon be fishing? And Andy again just shakes his head?

We don't know what Andy was saying to his son, but he wasn't smiling when he said it.

In my still-developing young mind, what I read into Andy's demeanor was anger.

“I told you to quit throwin' them rocks into the pond, you'll scare away all the fish!” I had Andy saying. “You keep on throwin' them rocks into the pond and you're gonna get a whippin'!”

And what does Opie do?

The little imp, my hero, he throws another rock into the pond. And laughs.

Beaver Cleaver hardly represented any of the kids in my neighborhood. We would've beaten up any kid called “Beaver” every chance we got.

Opie Taylor, now he was different. A true rebel, which he proved in some of the early episodes in the series; later, as Ron Howard grew up and the country, in turn, got more rebellious, Opie morphed into just another milquetoast TV kid — vanilla whereas he had been pure boysenberry.

Later, much later in fact, I read the show's opening much differently. Andy wasn't angry with his son — he was proud!

“Would you lookit that throw!” he's saying, shaking his head in admiration. “Hum hum hum, I do declare that's as good a throw as any boy's ever made into that pond, or into any other pond around these parts!”

And whether the admiration was genuine or feigned, it didn't matter. Even if he was faking it, that's just what a good father does with his son.

That different interpretation came at a low point when I was missing my own father more than I wanted to let on. He had died at that point when our relationship had just begun its ineluctable shift from father-son to man-to-man, when each of us started to see the other differently.

We had bonded over, of all things, my growing disenchantment with playing organized basketball. On a backyard court or down at the park I could happily play all day and late into the night — and often did, with my dad having to come look for me to come home to supper or sometimes even to bed.

Organized games at school weren't the same. Partly this was because I wasn't playing with the same teammates. At the park or a neighbor's court, I mostly played with the older kids; at school, I was forced to play with my own age group, at least until high school.

Up until I woke up one morning to find myself old, I'd always preferred the company and friendship of men my senior, in years and experience; my best friend in high school had been a teacher, in college my advisor, early in my career an elderly publisher.

In school, when we played away games I always road back home with my dad, never on the team bus, which also drove a wedge between me and my classmates.

I didn't care.

My dad had never had the opportunities to play organized ball, or even backyard games for that matter. He came from a poor family and had had to get up long before sunrise to do chores before school and hurry home after school for more work until it was too dark to see.

His grades suffered; the only real chance to rest he got was at school, and he took full advantage of those opportunities. He once joked he slept better in a chair than a bed.

His home life wasn't quite Dickensian, but from what he related on those long rides home it came close enough.

As soon as he could he joined the navy; that, he said, saved him. It was during World War II, and within no time at all he was on some Pacific Island, learning how to type up a duty log in between the occasional enemy attack.

For me, he wanted a different life — not so much easier as just different.

I think the memories of those long rides home in one of the many old Chevy pickups he favored were the reason I kept playing after may dad's death at 4:58 p.m. on Jan. 11, 1973, at the age of 48, in the middle of my eighth-grade year, from an accident hurrying home from work to be at one of my games.

I didn't play that night, I didn't want to ever play again. I couldn't imagine playing and then not having that ride home in a old Chevy pickup.

But my playing basketball was something we had in common, me on the court not really having much fun, him in the stands and, truth be told, probably not having much fun either.

We both would have preferred doing something else, being anywhere else, than in that gym.

That shared misery though dissipated on our rides home as we sat together in that old pickup, our breath fogging up the windows, our talk bringing two men closer together.

Gayle R. Robbins is editor and publisher of The Sun-Commercial. He has some 30 years of experience in the newspaper industry and has been the recipient of numerous industry awards for reporting and editing. He can be reached at grobbins@suncommercial.com.

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