In early summer 1994, my sister, Maret, and I spent a lot of time with our next-door neighbor, Marsha. Gram was sick, and our mom -- Gram and Poppy's only child, therein, caregiver -- lived a nonstop, grueling cycle driving our red 240 Volvo 45 minutes between home and the hospital. Marsha, and her husband, Rod, were a blessing to our family. We'd carry over a stack of VHS tapes to their house, talk, laugh, make popcorn, drink Dr. Pepper out of glass bottles, and watch movies together. And sometimes we'd watch The Andy Griffith Show.
Marsha loves that show. At our respective ages -- me, 11; Maret, 6 -- we didn't get it. We'd hear that whistle and almost roll our eyes. We'd watch it, though. She'd watch Free Willy with us later. When you're 11 and 6, respectively, and it's the early '90s, that's an even exchange.
Last year, when I heard Andy Griffith died, I stood there for a minute, and I remembered Marsha's love for that show, that summer, and how much their family meant to our family. I absorbed a lot as to how to be a good neighbor, a good friend, a good person. Almost 20 years later, and at least seven moves between both families, they are dear friends.
A couple of weeks ago, Maret turned 25, and, for her birthday, she wanted the two of us to drive from Charlotte to Mount Airy, N.C. to explore a new place. Andy Griffith grew up in Mount Airy. And he chose to loosely base the show's fictional town, Mayberry, on Mount Airy.
It all starts at "Wally's Service Station." We scheduled a tour in "Andy's squad car" -- a 1960 Ford Galaxie 500. Naturally. A bell jingles when we opened the "Service Station's" front door, and our tour guide, who was approximately 75 years old, drops whatever he was doing right then and there, hustles over to grab the car's keys, leads us to the car, and opens the car doors for us. We yank the doors shut with a wee bit more muscle than we do in my 2012 Jetta. "Does he need us to verify we signed up for this? I'm assuming we pay for this later?" Maret and I mouth to each other.
I love stuff like this. I'm thinking "I can't wait to tell my friend Samantha about this," as I Instagram pictures of my sister sitting in the front seat. He flips on the siren. We giggle like kids. He tells classic, clean, old-man jokes. He shares anecdotes about the show and "Andy." He drives us to a granite rock quarry. Mount Airy's North Carolina Granite Corporation supplies more granite worldwide than any other quarry.
I'm slouching in the backseat of a 1960s squad car Google searching "granite." Facts pop up. Hard, tough, durable, quality rock. Yosemite National Park's Half Dome is a granite dome. Mount Airy. North Carolina Granite Corporation. Full operation since 1889. World's largest open-face granite quarry. Open face means ground level. Granite currently left in the Mount Airy quarry will last another 500 years. 500 years. That's just cool. Can I check in here on Facebook? #coolestplaceonearth #solidasarock
The squad car pulls down the hill from the quarry and chugs back through downtown Mount Airy. He parks alongside a suburban street curb and stick-shift-jerks the car into park. He points across the street to a house. Like a lot of local architecture constructed during the same era, this particular house was built with granite. It's mid-size and regal, practical and luxury. He said they stopped building like "this" -- with granite -- when materials got too expensive during the Great Depression.
"They don't make them like this anymore," he said.
We all just kind of sat there staring at this house. They don't make them like this anymore. "Them" like houses, public buildings, churches, small towns, cities -- homes, communities, foundations, values.
I needed to stop being a 21st-century jerk. I needed to get off your phone. I needed to bring to a screeching halt my obnoxious use of quotation marks to describe this place as if it's not real. It's real. This place is just about as real as it gets.
I want a granite house. I don't say that with a Veruca Salt cadence. I want what the granite house signifies. What this town inspires. What that television show instills. I want that good, ol' fashion, classic, American experience way of doing things. It's no coincidence that this town, built beside a rock-solid, high-quality, long-enduring, almost ageless quarry -- inspired a television show and a way of doing things that is, in fact, just that, as well -- high-quality, long-enduring, almost ageless.
Where did the granite houses go?
I get the idea of change or technological innovation or essential cost-cutting to production or labor. I was sitting in the back of a 1960 Ford Galaxie 500 wearing stretchy, skinny denim and imitation-Wayfarer-sunglasses-probably-made-in-China pattering on my iPhone, for crying out loud.
But, where did the granite houses, the solid foundations, the non-negotiable values, the people, places, and businesses who know who they are and stick to that go? Where you shape a house or building with a quality product that lasts? Or you drop what you're doing when someone walks in the door because they're a real, live person? Or you trust people to pay after the tour? Or you're just... a nice guy?
We stayed in Mount Airy the rest of the day. We ate pork rib sandwiches off paper plates and drank coffee out of Styrofoam cups. We split a chocolate milkshake at a diner's counter in red, pleather swivel chairs. We picked up a copy of The Andy Griffith Re-Run Fan Club newsletter.
We met a barber who's been in business since the late 1940s. His entourage of older, gentlemen friends with thick, charming, Southern drawls hung out in chairs lining his shop's wall. They asked where we drove in from and if either of us were married, and when we each said, "Charlotte" and "no," they said there are plenty of men in Charlotte. "It could happen tomorrow," one said.
There's no question that this town loves Andy Griffith and the television show. It's familial pride. But, I think, more importantly, this town, and other towns like it across the country, embody everything that's good, solid, and unassuming about American culture and how we choose to treat each other.
Yes, the world is changing quickly. But, when you're rooted in the most solid foundation -- people and places -- that built this country, you've got growth potential. Because it lasts -- this granite, this community, this television show, this way or life. There are always just enough of the right people around who care enough to preserve that which is good. You just have to be lucky enough to know or to find those people. Their legacy outlives the granite.
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