Right now I am watching “The Andy Griffith Show” on TV. This episode is one of my favorites. Barney joins the choir, but his singing voice is godawful. Thelma Lou, Barney’s girl, visits Andy when she learns that Barney is in the choir:
THELMA LOU: Barney’s gonna be in the choir?! My Barney?!
ANDY: That’s right.
THELMA: But Barney can’t sing.
ANDY: I know.
THELMA: He’s the man I want to marry, the man I want to be the father of my children…
ANDY: But he can’t sing.
THELMA: Not a lick!
“Not a lick.” Pure primetime gold. If you’re a shameless Andy Griffith fanatic like me, this is the scene you want re-enacted at your funeral service. And you just hope the funeral congregation is able to whistle the Andy Griffith theme song as they escort your casket into your brother-in-law’s pickup.
A few years ago, I had an exclusive one-on-one interview with Betty Lynn, the actress who played Thelma Lou. She was in her mid-nineties.
I rented a car and drove eleven hours north to Mount Airy, North Carolina, booked the cheapest hotel I could find, and lived on peanut butter sandwiches and coffee. In hindsight, I wish I would have spent a few extra bucks on a better room because I had to share the covers with a cockroach the size of Tom Brady.
It was one of the best days of my life. Betty Lynn’s assistant told me to arrive early at the Andy Griffith Museum on Rockford Street. So I showed up at sunrise, parked downtown and I walked the old streets with the same giddiness a boy might have when he’s on his way to prom. There was a bounce in my step. This was Mayberry.
I had plenty of time to kill so I stopped at a farmer’s market by the courthouse and bought some pink flowers. They weren’t roses, but some kind of exotic flower that costs more than a three-bedroom-two-bath.
I told the florist they were for Betty Lynn, hoping for a bargain. The florist replied, “We don’t do bargains in Mayberry. In Mayberry we got bills to pay, kid.”
When I got to the museum there was a long line of people waiting to get in. Kids, adults, elderly people, middle-aged folks, Midwesterners, Europeans, church groups, and journalists. And they were all holding black-and-white photographs of Betty Lynn, waiting for her autograph.
Finally, a lady announced that everyone would have to wait a little longer this morning because Miss Betty had a one-on-one interview with a certain redheaded writer. Yours truly.
I saw about three hundred folks look at me and snarl in unison. I fully expected someone to shove a potato in the exhaust pipe of my rental car.
But I forgot about all that when Miss Betty’s wheelchair rolled into our private room, I noticed her brilliant red hair before I saw anything else.
Like I mentioned earlier, I am a longtime redhead. When Betty Lynn saw me, her first words were, “A redhead! Look! Red hair!” And I got warm and squishy all over.
I started to stammer. I did not expect to get so nervous in front of this woman, but I was trembling. This was Thelma Lou. The Thelma Lou. This was my childhood. This was my parents’ childhood. This was Americana in the flesh.
Being a professional writer who handles words for a living, I rose to the occasion, verbally, and remarked with eloquence, “Hi.”
A few of the museum employees told me that I was blushing.
Then I handed Miss Betty the flowers. She thanked me. She smelled them. And overall, I couldn’t believe how outgoing she was. I’ve never met a ninety-some-year-old lady who was so animated.
Then it happened.
Miss Betty Lynn wheeled closer to me and she kissed my cheek. I saw camera flashes go off. I saw fellow journalists scribbling on notepads. When her lips hit my cheek, time and space froze.
You see, I have been watching Betty Lynn on television syndication since I was old enough to fill a diaper. I know all her lines by heart, almost every scene, and almost every episode.
I can tell you which house in Mayberry she lived in. Which vocal parts she sang in the Mayberry choir—soprano. I can’t tell you what her skeet-shooting cousin’s name was (Karen Moore).
So when she touched my red hair and said, “Look at you.” I was no longer in my body. I had gone to be with Jesus.
To tell you the truth, the rest of the interview was a blur. Though I did ask her to say a few famous lines for me. I’m sure everyone asks her to do this, but she was gracious enough actually recite the lines for me as though it were the first time she ever did it.
She said, “Barney’s the man I want to marry, the man I want to be father of my children…”
“But he can’t sing,” I said.
Then, Betty Lynn and every other human being within earshot yelled in perfect unison, “NOT A LICK!”
Not a lick.
As long as I live, I will never forget that wonderfully perfect day in Mayberry, USA, spent with a wonderfully perfect woman.
Rest eternally, Betty Lynn. And goodbye forever, Thelma Lou.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, Alabama Living, the Birmingham News, Thom Magazine, The Mobile Press Register, and he has authored seven books.