Don Knotts – the actor best known as Deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show – passed away in 2006 at age 81. His obituary in The New York Times reported that “The Pickle Story” was among his top favorites of the 249 Andy Griffith episodes that originally aired from 1960 to 1968.
I have written about my family and will doubtless write more about them. But this post turns to a special “extended” family that holds cherished memories for many of my generation – the first to grow up with television.
That family included the Ricardos and Mertzes of 623 East 68th Street; the Cleavers of Mayfield, with their two boys Wally and Theodore (better known as The Beaver); the Petries of New Rochelle; Wilma and Fred Flintstone of Bedrock; and an extraterrestrial named Martin O’Hara. We watched these characters’ adventures unfold not merely once – but over and over again via years of reruns, so that some episodes became a sort of memorized folklore. Can I measure their influence on me? No, but I know their impact has been profound.
For example, something in me still expects to resolve any life situation in a half-hour segment with a laugh track. … But let’s get back to Don Knotts. “The Pickle Story” is one of my favorite Andy Griffith episodes, too.
For those who do not know the series, here are the basics: Andy Taylor (played by Andy Griffith) is Sheriff of Mayberry, a very small, basically crime-free North Carolina town. He is a widower with a young son Opie (played by Ron Howard, who grew up to be an Oscar-winning director and producer). Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) lives with them and serves as the lady of the house. Barney is Andy’s Deputy, side-kick, and straight man.
Aunt Bee is a lovely, loving lady – who makes notoriously bad pickles. Barney calls them “kerosene cucumbers.” Bee seems to have a blind spot about these pickles; she’s entered them in the county fair’s contest for 11 consecutive years and lost each time. Andy, Barney, and Opie cannot stand the pickles, but do not want to hurt Bee’s feelings. “It would break her heart,” laments Andy.
What to do? The ever-clever Andy devises a plan: Operation Pickle Switch. Andy and Barney will dispose of Bee’s pickles and replace them in her jars with tasty “store-bought” pickles. Andy directs Barney to dispose of Bee’s pickles “so there’s not a trace of them left.” Opie understands the noble reasons for the apparent deception: “We don’t want to hurt Aunt Bee’s feelings and you don’t want me to get sick again,” he tells his dad.
The deed is done. Barney gets rid of the kerosene cucumbers by gifting them to unsuspecting out-of-towners driving through Mayberry. Aunt Bee is elated to see her boys enjoying her latest batch of pickles. She surmises that the improved flavor is attributable to her new recipe.
But there’s a complication. Since the fellows like them so much, Bee decides to enter her pickles in the county fair contest again. Her friend Clara (Hope Summers) has won first prize for 11 years and Bee sees a chance to compete. At first, Andy and Barney laugh the whole thing off. It would be funny if store-bought pickles win, since the ladies believe that anything homemade is better. But Clara happens by the Mayberry Courthouse with a gift of her prize-winning pickles for Andy and Barney – and her visit changes everything.
Clara beams when Andy compliments her pickles. She admits that perfecting her pickles means perhaps too much to her. “Perhaps I’m just a foolish old lady,” she laments. Clara shows Andy her scrapbook with the 11 blue ribbons won in the pickle contest. She confesses that she looks at these ribbons when she gets discouraged or lonely. “It’s a great comfort to know there is something I can do.”
Andy has an epiphany. He tells Barney, “I was dead wrong about figuring that contest didn’t mean anything. What’s small potatoes to some folks can be mighty important to others.” Andy’s conscience will not allow him to live with the possibility that Aunt Bee might win the contest with store-bought pickles. To prevent that from happening, Andy, Barney, and Opie agonizingly consume all eight quarts of store pickles in record time, thereby “encouraging” Aunt Bee to make another batch of her own for the contest.
As always in Mayberry, all is put right in the end. Clara wins blue ribbon number 12. Bee does not mind that she lost – all she cares about is pleasing her family. On winning the treasured prize, Clara reflects, “I’ve worked and suffered for this so long!” Andy adds, “Yes, well we all have…”
I find this little parable extraordinary. It sends the message that sparing someone from hurt feelings is important. Andy and Barney go through significant trouble to implement Operation Pickle Switch. They launch an elaborate plan just to avoid telling Bee the pickles are terrible. They go beyond the call of duty. Then, they launch another plan to avoid hurting Clara. Why? Because contributing to the happiness of others matters.
Most remarkable is the quintessential truth in Andy’s realization: “What’s small potatoes to some folks can be mighty important to others.” This deceptively simple idea is basic to all interpersonal relationships. It speaks to the value of respecting the needs, priorities, and ideas of others, even when we do not understand them.
Respect fosters relationships with friends, family, and co-workers as well as between nations. It starts with everyday thoughtfulness and becomes empathy when we go out of our way to consciously step into someone else’s shoes. Respect transforms to compassion when it leads us to comprehend and share in the suffering of others. Respect breeds patience, generosity, community, and peace.
When we cannot accept the beliefs of others, our reluctant respect may at least yield peaceful tolerance. We can agree to disagree. But sometimes even tolerance is impossible. We arrive at a juncture where we cannot tolerate contrary ideas because to do so would betray our key values and cause intolerable harm and injustice.
On an international scale, this impasse is the challenge that King George VI addressed in the 1939 speech central to this year’s Academy Award-winning film. Faced with telling his subjects why the declaration of war against Germany became inevitable, the King explains, “Over and over again, we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies; but it has been in vain. We have been forced into a conflict, for we are called, with our allies, to meet the challenge of a principle which, if it were to prevail, would be fatal to any civilized order in the world.”
I cannot recall a time in my life when my core standards did not include sensitivity to the feelings of others as well as respect for their ideas and needs. Compassion has always been on my list of essential virtues to develop in myself and admire in others. I am disappointed in myself when I fall short of these ideals through my own carelessness or selfish behavior.
Did “The Pickle Story” contribute to fostering these personal values? Maybe. It certainly didn’t hurt.