Few television shows have retained their popularity as long as “The Andy Griffith Show,” which ran for 249 episodes between 1960 and 1968, and continues to play in reruns more than 60 years later.
The program was set in a simpler time in a small North Carolina town called Mayberry, an overt reflection of Griffith’s hometown of Mount Airy, North Carolina, in the foothills of the Appalachians.
Like most TV programs from the 1960s, the show was virtually devoid of Black characters despite being produced during the heyday of the civil rights movement.
Griffith later said that he regretted not having more Black actors on the show, and some have observed that was one problem even Andy could not have begun to solve in a half-hour program.
But I digress.
I have friends who can recall an episode from the show dealing with just about any situation, and I was slow in realizing that Andy’s homespun wisdom might even address the problem of persuading people to bare their arms for the COVID-19 vaccine.
I picked it up from News & Observer columnist Sara Pequeño, who happens to be a native of Mount Airy. Pequeño wondered whether Andy could convince many of the vaccine holdouts in her hometown, where just 43% of Surry County residents are fully vaccinated, 14% have tested positive for COVID-19, and 192 have died.
It turns out that Episode 24 of Season 2 was called “The County Nurse,” and it dealt with Andy doing his best to convince farmer Rafe Hollister to get a tetanus vaccination.
Rafe claimed that he didn’t need any such thing: “I ain’t never been to a doctor in my life. When I was born, I had my mama. When I die, I’ll have the undertaker. I don’t see no sense in clutterin’ up things in between … I ain’t never been jabbed and I ain’t fixin’ to be,” Rafe said.
Visiting the farm and talking to Rafe about medical advances didn’t work. Not surprisingly, Barney Fife’s high-pitched scolding didn’t help, either.
Was there any hope? Andy finally sat down with Rafe and agreed that Rafe was right. He finally understood, he said, that Rafe had chosen to reject the shot in a bid for immortality.
Rafe smiled and nodded, then asked “What’s that mean?” Andy then suggested, in simpler language, that Rafe was setting himself up as a sacrificial martyr. One day he was bound to get cut by something rusty out on the farm, or perhaps bitten by an animal. He’d be sure to become infected with tetanus, but he was willing to get the disease and die in pain as a warning to others.
Andy waxed eloquent about the elaborate funeral they would hold for him, and said if he wasn’t too broken up, he might even sing a dirge for him. He then grabbed his guitar and broke out in a plaintive lament: “Dig my grave with a silver spade …”
“Too bad you won’t be there to enjoy it,” Andy said. Soon Rafe was quite eager to go and get his shot (see the clip here).
Sadly, things that worked out in Mayberry don’t always work in the real world of today.
Despite overwhelming evidence that COVID-19 is a sneaky and insidious killer, and that vaccines offer extremely high levels of protection against death, millions of Americans are in Rafe’s corner, insisting that “I ain’t takin’ no shot.”
And many of them are dying, setting example after example that have no discernible effect. In August alone, four popular conservative radio talk show hosts who had criticized vaccination efforts contracted the disease and died – but did any of their listeners learn from their deaths?
Vaccination rates are up some, but not enough. President Biden has enacted vaccination mandates in a clear-minded attempt to protect the public and prevent needless deaths by bringing the virus under control.
That, of course, has drawn fire from those who claim their rights are being violated.
If it were just a matter of letting people who have a death wish die, that would be one thing – but those same people will spew the virus to many others before they succumb. They might as well be shooting bullets, and we all know that is not a protected right.
And speaking of bullets, have you noticed – as many have noted – that many of the people who refuse the vaccine because “God will protect them” somehow need to own guns for self-defense?
Andy Griffith’s TV character famously didn’t wear a gun, and he rationed the number of bullets Barney was allowed to carry. Sheriff Taylor was able to work out most problems with common sense and rational conversation.
Griffith died back in 2012, at the age of 86. It’s tempting to wish we could call him back to do televised public service announcements, but also pointless. We don’t live in Mayberry, and even Andy would struggle to understand why so many people choose to die of pride – and take others with them.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.