The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Life in the Mayberry in which Opie grew up on “The Andy Griffith Show” was simpler.  It was a time in America when people in small towns left their doors unlocked, their lives focused around work, going to church on Sunday, putting up preserves and canning vegetables for the winter and offering a helping hand to their neighbors and strangers who happened to pass by.

It was the America that Norman Rockwell and Grandma Moses captured so well in their art.  Today their work is one of the few remnants of a kinder, gentler, more caring nation where a little kid’s biggest concern was wondering what Mom was making for dinner, if he’d studied enough to get a good grade on tomorrow’s history test and whether the Erector Set would be under the Christmas tree.

There were the dances sponsored by the B.P.O.E. and the ice cream socials.  On the Fourth of July the town folk looked forward to the annual parade down Main Street as the band walked in patriotic step to the well-known marches they had played for so many years.  And the adults and the kids, hoisted on their fathers’ shoulders so that they could see, would passionately wave the flag which was the symbol of the great land in which they lived.

It was an era of home health remedies, but if those failed the doctor would come to your house after the town’s switchboard operator put your call through to him.  He had probably been the one who helped bring you into the world as well as one or both of your parents and this was as much a social as a medical call.  The only specialty he could claim was that he did it all from cradle to grave.

It was hard to keep a secret here.  But there wasn’t much to tell and little to hide.  No young couple’s hand-holding went unnoticed and would start the stories flying that John was “sweet” on Mary.  The barber shop and the beauty parlor served a dual purpose as places to go for tonsorial upgrades and to get the latest news about the town council’s meeting last night.

People purchased things that they did not make themselves with an eye to questioning whether the quality of the product was good enough to last not only for their lifetime but was something they could hand down to their children.  Most products made then were  But if something went wrong there was always Tom Johnson’s repair shop.  He could fix anything.

The little extra cash that folks had was as likely to be found in the cookie jar as in a bank account.  It was always good to have a little extra cash on hand – since that was the only way you could buy something.  But if you happened to have left your money at home it was okay.  The man who pumped your gas down at the filling station would just ask you to pay him the next time you happened by.  People trusted one another to do the right thing – and they usually did.

On a Saturday night the family might sit out on the front porch after dinner.  Dad would smoke his pipe and Mom would just relax after she had finished putting the dishes away, resting from a long day of washing and ironing and cleaning and cooking.  The stars filled the sky with their brilliance and the only sounds that were heard were the creaking of the swing on which they sat and the music of the crickets.

Those of us who met people who grew up and lived in these small towns thought of them as “bumpkins”.  Perhaps that was out of ignorance – perhaps out of envy.  Their ways were certainly different from ours.  And in the full measure of things, perhaps what they valued held a great deal more worth and merit than those about which we busied ourselves.

In small towns, courtesy and kindness and neighborliness were not theoretical.  They were part of everyday life.  Because these folks understood that they were a thread in a common web that had been woven – one in which respect for one’s fellows was not only expected, it was innately understood as the underpinning of a humane and caring society.

People in these towns had a distinct sense of morality.  Perhaps it was instilled by their religious beliefs.  Perhaps it came about because in a small town it was hard to be anonymous – whether you did good or ill.  In the light of day and with watchful neighbors, it was impossible to be a miscreant without drawing the attention of the community.

Perhaps anonymity is the reason that there is so much rudeness and selfishness and crime in our cities.  Or maybe it’s because that one moral standard to which most Americans at one time gave at least lip-service, God passed with the declaration of His death in “Time Magazine”.  And that set us free to do and choose as we wanted.  We’ve wanted and coveted a lot and haven’t been too particular about how we got it.

There has been nothing which we have conjured up with our technology or our science which has yet to fill that vacuum.  We have launched our boats and set ourselves adrift on the mindless, turbulent sea of self-gratification.  Many of us have no sense of ethics, no guiding light and certainly no heroes who are our standard-bearers.

Our news sources, such as they are, report to us daily about the latest scandal whether that is theft or adultery or murder.  We have come to expect that sort of behavior – and those in the limelight have not failed to disappoint us.  That is the centerpiece of this tragedy in which, ultimately, all of us are the victims.

Opie left town.  He hoped to find a better future for himself and his family.  Perhaps he made the transition to his new environment successfully and found what he wanted.  I certainly hope so.

But when all is said and done, I often pull down my volumes of the collected works of Norman Rockwell and Grandma Moses and enjoy the comfort of the times and places and people that they captured in their work – and wonder, “What if …?”



  1. I was there…saw it and lived it first hand. And it was exactly as you’ve described…at least in the small town in Oregon where I spent my early years. Ice box (no refrigerator), milk delivered to your door, a phone on the wall that you ‘cranked’ to get the operator’s attention (if someone else wasn’t already on the line, as everyone shared a ‘party line’). Porch swings, root cellars, gardens & fruit trees in the back yard. Very few cars…and some ‘hitching rails’ with watering troughs were still scattered along the main street (and still occasionally being used). Post-depression frugality ruled the economics of the day (e.g., my mother would use a tea bag until it no longer colored the water, then put it in her compost pot for later use in the garden). No trash pick-up, or even a town dump. Scraps from meals (if there were any) were fed to the dogs, the chickens, the ducks, the pigs (if you had any). Even tin cans (there was no plastic yet) were ‘re-used’ in a variety of ways. And yes, no one bothered to lock their doors. Why would they?

    As you’ve pointed out, “All politics are local.” And if this culture has any hope of getting its feet back on the ground…that’s where it will have to begin.

    P.S. I suspect you might relate to this little piece of mine on Grass Roots 😉

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