Mayberry, USA

Visiting the inspiration for this quintessential American town.

Yunte Huang
A still of Andy Griffith and Don Knotts in "The Andy Griffith Show."
Still from the Andy Griffith Show.

AS PART OF HIS RESEARCH for a book about Chang and Eng Bunker, the original ‘‘Siamese Twins,’’ author Yunte Huang traveled to Mount Airy, North Carolina, where the twins lived and raised their families for three decades after they left show business. Mount Airy, in addition to being the twins’ home (and final resting place), is the birthplace of Andy Griffith and a model for Mayberry, the fictional home of Sheriff Andy Taylor, played by Griffith on television for eight seasons.

On the last day of summer in 2015, after giving a lecture in Knoxville, Tennessee, I rented a car and drove across the state line, over the Great Smokies and the Blue Ridge, to visit the picturesque town of Mount Airy, North Carolina, better known nowadays as Mayberry, USA.

In The Andy Griffith Show (or TAGS, as it has become known), Mayberry is portrayed as a sleepy town filled with oddball characters and quaint customs. With a population of eighteen hundred souls (exactly the same as Winesburg, Ohio, in Sherwood Anderson’s eponymous short-story cycle), Mayberry, though curiously lacking racial minorities in its depiction by CBS during the tumultuous decade of the 1960s, remains a quintessential American small town. It is an Arcadia where life’s troubles – whether a family feud, a farmer looking for a wife, a pickle-contest debacle, property foreclosure, or baby delivery – can all be solved in twenty-five minutes with the help of amiable Sheriff Andy Taylor and his bungling deputy, Barney Fife. In the words of the garrulous barber Floyd, Mayberry is ‘‘a nice, clean community, tucked away in a peaceful valley, where all our children have good teeth.’’

In reality, Mount Airy, nestled in the foothills of western North Carolina, population 10,388 by the 2010 census, is not only the actual birthplace of Andy Griffith, the star of America’s most popular rubecom, bearing his name. It is also, unknown to most, the adopted hometown of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original ‘‘Siamese Twins,’’ the name given to conjoined twins after the Bunkers’ ballyhooed world tours.

It was a good day for driving. The September sun, after a brief bounce off the ragged ridges in the east, had finally disappeared behind rainclouds. A soft drizzle followed, moistening the highway till it became smooth and curvy like a bamboo strip, or perhaps spaghetti. The dogwood – which appeared in literature as early as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as a whipple tree – dotted hills as ancient as the Bible. Red and flying squirrels flashed their fluffy tails here and there in the woods, which had deepened in color. Winding through gaps between mountains, my rented Jeep Grand Cherokee navigated terrains where real Cherokee had once thrived, as had General George Stoneman’s six-thousand-strong cavalry during his famous raid into North Carolina in the waning days of the Civil War.

The news on the radio that day was about the arrival of Pope Francis in the United States. Switching between news and Appalachian bluegrass, I reflected on the long journey that had brought me to Mayberry. The lecture I had given a day earlier at the University of Tennessee was about Charlie Chan, a chubby, aphorism-spouting Chinese detective from Honolulu. Unlike Chan, who had hooked me from the get-go, Sheriff Andy Taylor was a more recently acquired taste. I had sporadically watched some reruns of Matlock on TV, and, as a mystery aficionado, I had enjoyed Griffith’s new incarnation as a silver-haired lawyer with hayseed wisdom and a steel-trap mind, drawling his vowels and outsmarting suspects, in a manner not so different from Charlie Chan, with his broken English and overpolite demeanor. TAGS, however, was no love at first sight. A bachelor sheriff mollycoddled by an aging aunt, or a blabbermouth deputy with a mild case of malapropism and a perpetual habit of misfiring a gun like a Keystone cop, was not really my cup of tea. Only after I began to research western North Carolina did my interest in Mayberry and its piquant citizens blossom. Slowly but surely, the ‘‘Magic of Mayberry’’ grew on me. I began to get the hang of the cornball sheriff constantly ribbing his horny deputy, and to appreciate the hick burg that runs its jail like a motor lodge for a henpecked town drunk or uses it as a nursery for babies.

After three hours of driving, I cleared Tennessee, rounded the southern tip of Virginia, and came down from a high plateau overlooking the lush hills and sleepy hollows of the western edge of the Tar Heel State. On this last day of summer, under gray skies, the broad valley far below was a dense mass of green wilderness, tinted by patches of autumnal gold and crimson. The tranquillity and timelessness of the vista reminded me of the Chinese shi waitao yuan, the Land of Peach Blossoms, a mythical paradise of eternal peace and happiness. When the Moravians first arrived in this area in the 1750s, they simply called it ‘‘The Hollow.’’ I could see why Chang and Eng Bunker would, in 1839, choose the Hollow as a place to settle down after a decade of globetrotting. They considered this area a ‘‘garden spot of the world,’’ and they had indeed traveled a very long distance to get here. Their story from Meklong, in Siam (later Thailand), to Mayberry is patently astonishing. Or, as Sheriff Andy says, ‘‘If you wrote this into a play, nobody’d believe it.’’

Her remark on difference, though understandable, alerted me to what’s troubling about the Myth of Mayberry.

Coming down from the high plateau, I was soon on flat land. Sandwiched between fields of big-leaf tobacco, of which the twins had been early pioneering growers, Interstate 74 was not really the crowded Highway 6 portrayed in TAGS, where the speed limit was kept under thirty-five miles an hour. I had read somewhere that I-74 cut through the farm that had once belonged to the twins. As soon as I turned off the highway, I came across twin bridges spanning a creek and saw a sign marked ‘‘Eng and Chang Bunker Memorial Bridge.’’ I knew immediately I was in the twins’ land. But as I drove farther into town, the ubiquity of ‘‘Mayberry’’ – ‘‘Mayberry Auto Sales,’’ ‘‘Mayberry Insurance,’’ ‘‘Mayberry Antique Mall,’’ and so on – began to assault my sense of history and reality. These sensory attacks, however, were only the beginning, rather like the initial excitement one feels when pulling into a parking lot at Disney World.

Unsure of the parking protocol in town, I pulled into a small lot next to the public library and parked the Jeep there. The Mount Airy Public Library, an award-winning architectural gem, actually occupies the spot where the Jesse Franklin Graves house once stood. Judge Graves, an old friend of Chang and Eng’s, had written the first complete, though unpublished, biography of the Siamese Twins, which became a gold mine for later writers.

Across the street from the library was the police department, no longer the ancient brick-front courthouse featured in TAGS, but a modern, stand-alone concrete building with big glass doors and windows. I knew there would be no amiable Sheriff Andy sitting there behind his desk, clacking away on a typewriter with two fingers, talking on the phone to reassure Mrs. Vickers that the loud bangs she had heard were not Yankee cannons but blasts from highway construction. Nor would there be an overzealous Deputy Fife marching out the door, whipping out a pad from his hip to write me a citation for jaywalking or illegal parking. Since it was not a weekend, there would be no inebriated Otis snoring away on a cozy cot in Cell No. 2. For those imaginary scenes, I would need to walk down the street to visit the local shrine, the Andy Griffith Museum.

Built on the street where little Andy had gone to school, the museum features hundreds of items from the life and career of Mount Airy’s favorite son in movies, television, and music. It also collects memorabilia donated by cast members from TAGS, including a special section devoted to current Mount Airy resident Betty Lynn, better known as Thelma Lou, Barney’s steady. When Lynn retired from acting in 2006, the Missouri native decided to settle in the town that had made her famous. The Surry Arts Council, which oversees the museum, is headed by Tanya Jones, a descendant of Chang Bunker.

In front of the museum, standing under the green canopy of a Bradford pear tree, was a bronze statue of Andy and Opie carrying fishing poles, as they always do in the opening sequence of TAGS. I could almost hear the sprightly tune Andy whistles, as he walks Opie down to Myers Lake, possibly playing hooky for a day. After passing the statue, I came to a neatly designed sunken garden, full of manicured viburnum, holly, arborvitae, English laurel, and autumn cherry. A walking path led me to the entrance to the museum, whose lobby had a cutout of Goober Pyle, the gas jockey at Wally’s filling station, standing next to two Acme gasoline pumps marked ‘‘Ethyl’’ and ‘‘Regular.’’ I paid the $6 admission fee – not to Goober, but to a lovely lady sitting behind a window. She kindly reminded me that when I finished the tour, I could go out and walk down to the back garden to visit the special Siamese Twins exhibition. ‘‘It’s free,’’ she emphasized. Imagine her surprise when I made a beeline for the door and went straight to the Twins exhibition.

At the bottom of the garden, I pushed open a heavy, faceless door that looked like a back entrance to a theater stage. Perhaps the Siamese Twins, in the eyes of many, were merely a sideshow to TAGS, which competes with the likes of Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver as a classic depiction of 1950s and 1960s American ‘‘normalcy’’ in a period of affluence, suburban sprawl, and middle-class lassitude. Most episodes of TAGS end with ‘‘things back to normal,’’ as Andy puts it, with a sigh of relief. In one episode, when a carnival comes to town and some of the local women are shocked by an exotic dance show, Sheriff Andy asks the manager to ‘‘tone it down a little,’’ essentially shutting down the ‘‘gootchie-hootchie dance.’’ In contrast, the story of Chang and Eng Bunker, with their physical abnormalities, double matrimony, miscegenation, and slaveholding, was anything but normal. They were regarded as carnival freaks in their day – like Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo, ‘‘an almost.’’ To open the door to the Twins show in the basement of the Andy Griffith Museum is in some sense to reveal the ‘‘underbelly’’ of America, to see how the normal is built on top of the abnormal, in a manner that the cultural critic Leslie Fiedler dubs the ‘‘tyranny of the normal.’’

The basement room had no other visitors when I entered. Dimly lit, the walls were covered with posters, photos, paintings, newspaper clippings, and framed documents related to the twins. Next to the entrance, an antique trunk was displayed inside a glass cabinet like a Keatsian urn, that ‘‘foster child of silence and slow time.’’ Made by the venerable New York firm of Crouch & Fitzgerald, the old trunk was missing a leather strap, and above the keyhole was the date of manufacture: May 12, 1868. Judging by the time stamp, the trunk must have been used by the twins during their trips to Europe after the Civil War.

In a corner of the room, next to the trunk, were disassembled bedframes, displayed on the wall. They were extra wide – understandable, considering the number of people the conjugal bed needed to accommodate – and made of solid pine. The twins were said to have been excellent carpenters and might have made this bed themselves. In fact, they were jacks-of-all-trades, skilled in breaking horses, trapping wild animals, target shooting, and stoneworking. Three years earlier, during my last visit to this area, I had seen some of the household utensils, such as a rolling pin, that the twins had made, and a church that the twins had helped build, an architectural gem.

On that earlier trip, in the spring of 2012, I had driven more than three thousand miles from Santa Barbara, California. En route, I stopped to see friends and family and arrived in North Carolina just when the dogwood was in full bloom. Like Ronnie Howard’s Opie doing research for his essay on the Battle of Mayberry, I had first spent a week at the State Archives in downtown Raleigh, mining information from the records and documents in the collection. Then I moved on to Chapel Hill to examine the papers archived at the University of North Carolina. After two weeks of research – laying my hands on old letters, faded photographs, tax records, land deeds, court papers, and the twins’ meticulously kept ledgers – I made a field trip to the state’s western mountains to see the old stomping ground of Chang and Eng.

My first stop that day was Wilkesboro, where the twins had first settled. On a quiet Sunday morning, with all stores shut for the day or, for that matter, permanently, the one-street downtown proudly showed off its centerpiece – a rusted cannon pointing toward a small war memorial that stood like a totem pole on the town square. Except for a Tyson Foods processing facility down the road, Wilkesboro seemed to be reposing in time. I circled around the war memorial, reading the names of the fallen heroes. One name that caught my attention was Roby P. Yates, killed in World War II, possibly a descendant of the Yates family, the clan of the twins’ wives.

I soon hit the road again, following a winding rural route northward, and arrived in Mount Airy about half an hour later. In my ignorance, not having been raised in America, I had not yet made a connection between the Siamese Twins and Mayberry on that trip, so I did not look out for traces of Sheriff Taylor or Deputy Fife. Nor, when I pulled into a gas station, was I surprised that no friendly Gomer or Goober came out to help me fill up. My destination that day was the cemetery where Chang and Eng Bunker were buried. I quickly found the spot, a churchyard on a small mound by a quiet country road, facing the ramparts of the Blue Ridge to the north. I had seen the photos of the twins’ grave many times, but I was surprised by the sheer number of other Bunkers buried here. It was essentially their family graveyard.

Most impressive of all was the wood-framed church, painted white, with a remarkable beauty of symmetry like a perfect mathematical equation. While I was walking around and admiring the building, a woman emerged from a side door. ‘‘Are you looking for the Siamese Twins’ grave?’’ she asked. She then handed me a pamphlet that introduces the history of the White Plains Baptist Church. According to the four-page pamphlet, the twins’ wives – daughters of a Baptist pastor – were avid congregants, whereas the twins were raised Buddhist. But what they lacked in evangelical background, they made up in material support – not only did they donate the land for the church, they also helped to build it. Glancing at my California license plate, the woman realized that I had come a long way to visit the place, so she chatted with me, as if to reward my effort. She told me of an incident that occurred when the twins were building the church, after the wood frame had been raised. One day when they were working on the roof, one of the twins accidentally hit the thumb of the other with a hammer. Tempers flared and an argument broke out, leading to a fistfight. They ended up tumbling down the roof together. The woman chuckled as she wrapped up the anecdote and handed me a smaller church brochure titled ‘‘The Only Doorway.’’ Having attended Sunday sermons in Alabama, I did indeed know what the doorway was supposed to be: Jesus Christ.

The sound of music from a TV monitor on the wall broke my reverie. A documentary film had just started, showing two child actors reenacting the conjoined twins’ early life in old Siam. Judging by the images, it must have been The Siamese Connection, the film by Josh Gibson. I had watched this excellent documentary during my previous adventure in North Carolina, sitting in the library at UNC and wearing a headset.

I went around the basement room, looking at items displayed on the walls. I had already seen most of them during my research, but there were some surprising finds: copies of the twins’ wills, a rare nineteenth-century photograph of Mount Airy’s muddy main street, and pictures of some of the Bunker descendants in rural settings. A black curtain shielded one corner of the room. Out of curiosity, I delicately pulled aside the curtain and found a stack of binders on a table. Inside the binders were newspaper clippings about Bunker descendants, arranged chronologically, with dates scribbled in longhand. What particularly caught my attention were clippings from the Tallahassee Democrat, all articles about Alex Sink, the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Florida. A great-granddaughter of Chang Bunker, Sink had grown up in Mount Airy, at the twins’ homestead. A savvy entrepreneur like her forefathers, Sink started out in the banking business in North Carolina before heading down to the Sunshine State and being elected Florida’s chief financial officer. When she ran for governor in 2010, I had watched her debate against Rick Scott on CNN and greatly admired her aplomb and acumen. In interviews, she had often reminisced about growing up in America’s quintessential small town. Because of her mixed look, townspeople who saw her on the streets would say, ‘‘You must be one of the Bunkers.’’ Maybe it was her appearance, or maybe it was the quixotic hanging-chad politics of Florida, but she lost the election by a hair-thin margin to a scandal-ridden Republican opponent.

After lingering for a while, I left the Twins show and went upstairs for the Andy tour. Unlike the deserted basement, the museum hall was packed with visitors. It turned out that I had arrived on the eve of Mayberry Days, an annual celebration lasting three to five days and featuring the return of actors, reenactments of characters and scenes, pickle contests, bluegrass music, and even Aunt Bee’s bake sale. It all culminates in a parade down Main Street. Unfortunately, the new school year was about to start at my home university, so I needed to return to California the next day,
thus having to miss the festival.

A shrine to the favorite son of Mount Airy, the museum holds the largest collection of Andy Griffith memorabilia in the country, ranging from baby Andy’s well-worn rocking chair to the comically large keys to jail cells used in TAGS, as well as the familiar sheriff shirt Andy wore on the show. The walls were plastered with movie bills, TV posters, and publicity photos. In contrast to the basement room, where I had been able to poke around a little and take pictures freely, this place was almost sacred. There were signs everywhere warning against touching, photographing, or video recording. In the words of the museum’s founder, the late Emmett Forrest, who used to play Kick the Can with Andy on the street, this museum is an attempt at ‘‘fixin’ Andy in time.’’

In a twisted way, however, TAGS may rightly be called a misfit in time. Most revealing is the virtual absence of African Americans in Mayberry, a glaring omission typical of 1950s and 1960s American television. In fact, critics of TAGS and other sixties sitcoms have pointed out the near-invisibility of any racial minority in the shows. As Gustavo Pérez Firmat astutely points out in A Cuban in Mayberry, ‘‘During its original run, Mayberry barely registered a tremor of the social and political upheavals that were sweeping the country. Never mind that in February 1960, a few months before TAGS premiered, African American college students staged a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, a stone’s throw away from the fictional location of Mayberry, an event that set off similar protests in other segregated facilities in North Carolina.’’ In the entire run of 249 episodes, with only one exception TAGS never featured a speaking role by a black actor. The only blacks were a few anonymous extras in exterior crowd scenes, a remarkable incongruence with the reality that African Americans accounted for about a quarter of North Carolina’s population in the 1960s. Even though for Mount Airy that number was much lower – under 5 percent, according to the 1960 census – the absence of black Mayberrians was so hard to justify that it prompted the NAACP to complain to CBS in 1966 that the show had ‘‘never showed a black face.’’ The seventh season of TAGS was in part a response, however belated and woefully inadequate, to those complaints. In the twenty-sixth episode of the season, ‘‘Opie’s Piano Lessons,’’ the character Flip Conroy, a former NFL star returning to his hometown to work in his father’s business and coach the school football team, was played by a black actor, Rockne Tarkington.

Before the first appearance of a black face, however, there were some yellow faces, as well as a spatter of passing references to Asia. There was a newspaper headline, ‘‘130,000 Chinese Living in Trees as a Result of Flood,’’ in the first season of TAGS. In ‘‘Barney’s Uniform,’’ an episode during the fifth season, there was a Mr. Izamoto, a Japanese judo teacher in the next big town, Mount Pilot, who had one Charlie Chan-ish spoken line: ‘‘He no can cut it.’’ Early in the seventh season, Floyd talked about The Mikado, a nineteenth-century British comic opera and a symbol of Anglo- American ‘‘Oriental fever.’’ And there were a couple of references to the Chinese restaurant in Mount Pilot, where Mayberrians could get a Chinese dinner if they wanted to have a little gastronomical adventure beyond their usual pounded steak at Morelli’s.

In the 209th episode, ‘‘Aunt Bee’s Restaurant,’’ TAGS finally did something substantial with America’s endless curiosity about Asia, and the insulated world of Mayberry finally opened up and came into contact, however superficially, with China. The plotline is simple and comical, like all TAGS shows: Aunt Bee, whose only knowledge of China consists of a ham-loaf recipe she got out of the paper and a one-line tune she hums whenever she is in a jolly mood (‘‘Chinatown, my Chinatown, when the lights are low’’), decides to open a Chinese restaurant. What makes this episode fascinating, however, is not so much Aunt Bee’s entrepreneurial venture as the appearance of the China-born actor Keye Luke as Charlie the cook. Luke was best known for his role as Lee, Number One Son in Charlie Chan films. His cameo on this episode of TAGS breathed a whiff of ‘‘Oriental’’ air into the American rubecom, bringing some exotic flavors to a lily-white southern town that seemed to live in blissful oblivion of external affairs and internal tensions.

My destination that day was Mayberry Campground, which sits on land that used to be part of Chang and Eng Bunker’s farm, about five miles from downtown Mount Airy. Like his forefathers with a keen business instinct, Benny East, the twins’ great-greatgrandson, had turned his ancestral land into a campground and branded it with a familiar and most alluring name. On my earlier trip to Mount Airy, I had spotted the bucolic resort, sprawling across several hundred acres adjacent to the cemetery and the church I was visiting. This time, I planned to spend the night here, even though I had brought no camping gear. Sensitive to the spirit of a place – call it feng shui, if you will – I was curious to know how it would feel to spend a night at the twins’ old haunt.

Pulling into the unpaved entrance, I saw a rolling green field bordered by trees. A few zigzagging gravel roads wove together narrow strips of parking spots for RVs. There were about a hundred of these gravel pads, where giant houses on wheels, proud symbols of leisure and consumption in postwar America, dotted the bucolic scene. Each one of these boxes of chrome and sheet metal dwarfed my Jeep, and I felt even more embarrassed for my lack of outdoors know-how after I parked and went into the office trailer near the entrance. Doubling as a gift shop, the office was presided over by a young woman in her early twenties, wearing a plain T-shirt and a friendly smile. Sitting behind her neatly ordered desk, she had just finished a phone call when I entered. She gave me a broad smile and introduced herself as Kali. A lovable husky snoozed quietly by her feet. I asked her whether I could camp there for the night.

‘‘Sure. How big is your rig?’’

Abashed, I told her that I only drove a Jeep. She looked surprised, staring at me as though I were pulling a prank on her. I went on to explain my plan of sleeping in my car, hoping she would just give me one of those parking spots.

‘‘Those are for trailers,’’ she said, impressing me with her firmness. Pondering for a minute, like the good manager she was, trying to solve a small problem, she told me that for thirty dollars she could let me park for one night in an empty space right next to the trailer that has the only public restroom on site. I gladly took it, thanking her for being so considerate.

As she was quickly filling out the paperwork, I looked around the room, where T-shirts, coffee mugs, caps, postcards, and other souvenirs were displayed on shelves and tables. I asked her whether she was related to the twins.

‘‘Yes, my dad still lives in that house there.’’

Earlier, I had noticed an old farmhouse standing on a corner of the campground, now visible through the office window. After I paid, she gave me a brochure containing a map and information about the facilities and rules: All parking spots, either pull-through or back-in, have hookups to electricity, water, sewer, cable TV, and Wi-Fi; the campground has picnic shelters, firepits, BBQ grills, playgrounds, two fishing holes, and a walking trail; quiet time is between 11:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m., no firearms or fireworks allowed, fishing is catch-and-release only, and so on. It seemed like a wellmanaged resort, much in keeping with the way the twins had run their two large families.

Despite my curiosity, I was reluctant to ask Kali any more questions. Her illustrious ancestors, from the moment they had set foot in America in 1829, had stayed in the limelight of public attention, constantly on display as objects of curiosity. Millions of gawkers worldwide had flocked to exhibition halls, museums, ballrooms, parlors, pitched tents, or county fairgrounds to take a peek at the famous lusus naturae. The twins, and even their daughters, had withstood probing gazes by all. After their retirement, local and national newspapers would regularly send reporters to knock on their doors for updates. Privacy was a rarity for the twins and their families. So I decided not to pry but just to get on with my camping plan, however absurdly impractical it seemed.

After moving my car into the designated space, I took a walk around the grounds. The sun, which dappled the surroundings like a child playing peekaboo, had just sunk behind the nipple-shaped Pilot Knob, a peak that had inspired the name ‘‘Mount Pilot’’ in TAGS. As the twilight waned, a brooding hush descended on the campground, as though some invisible hand had turned a knob on the projector and suddenly slowed the speed of a film. From the front of the office trailer, which sat on the highest ground and had a panoramic view of the tiered site, the gravel road dipped down a green slope and forked into four paths, each bearing a sign: Andy Taylor St., Barney Fife Blvd., Opie Taylor Ave., and, finally, Eng & Chang Way. I realized then that here, in this twenty-first-century RV park, two Mount Airy legends had been put on equal footing – yes, two strands of bona fide Americana woven, as unlikely as it seems, into one story.

I followed Opie’s path, built of crushed granite and well trodden by big wheels. It took me past a small playground designed as an ancient sailing ship. The miniature masthead, gangway, and portholes reminded me of the Sachem, the Nantucket ship that had brought the twins from Siam. It was during their four-month voyage on that ship, commanded by the hard-shelled, Bible thumping Captain Abel Coffin, that the twins, two green youths then, had first learned the strange language of English, the games of chess and checkers, and the undulations of a bizarrely Western world. Still on route, Captain Coffin, sounding like a character walking out of a Melville novel, shot off a missive to his wife in Back Bay, Boston, announcing the arrival of ‘‘two Chinese boys,’’ who he hoped would ‘‘prove profitable as a curiosity.’’ That last word branded the twins like a hot iron, leaving a permanent mark and a legacy that still lingered in this park.

Under the crepuscular sky, whiffs of wood smoke wove their own ephemeral patterns. Some campers were cooking at grills, others walked their dogs on the grass, and others just sat and stared. In the ‘‘olden days,’’ as often portrayed in TAGS, men would have lollygagged or whittled, amusing themselves with pocket knives. A group of elders were huddled inside a picnic shelter, watching a wood fire getting started in a stone pit. Being a stranger, I nodded to them and headed farther down the Opie road, which led me to a pond. Rimmed by wildflowers and weeds like thick eyelashes, the glassy lens of the water captured a megapixel image of the lush trees and the pastel-colored twilight. A fisherman in a red jacket sat on the other side of the pond, hiding behind tall grasses like a Daoist hermit. I had a sudden urge to throw a pebble or skip it across the water, perhaps in honor of Opie, but I was afraid to disturb the fisherman’s dream of catching a silver carp or even a plain bass. These ponds, according to the brochure that Kali had given me, were well stocked with fish.

Just then, three ducks emerged out of nowhere, quacking, sashaying, and splashing into the water like kids in a backyard pool. They did not look like wild ducks, but on the grass near the water I found four newly laid eggs, soft pink like a baby’s finger. Domesticated ducks do not lay eggs in the wild, so where did they come from? Whatever their provenance, I felt it was somewhat serendipitous that these ducks made an appearance while I was here at Chang and Eng Bunker’s old estate. Before they came to America, the twins, still in their early teens, had raised ducks and sold eggs to help their mother eke out a living. In fact, it was on a muggy afternoon in August 1824, after wrapping up the day’s duck business and then cooling o√ in the muddy Meklong, that they were spotted by Robert Hunter, who would change their lives forever. Later, traveling on the open roads of America, the twins would log an entry in their account book for July 26, 1833: ‘‘Purchase of 3 wild ducks from Indian boys $0.50.’’ Were they perhaps feeling nostalgic about their duck-raising days in Siam?

From the pond, I walked back to my car via Barney Fife Boulevard, passing more RVs straggling by the wayside. These chrome armored road warriors, ranging from twenty to forty-five feet long, were all emblazoned with impressive names: Regal, Winnebago, Airstream, Palazzo, Cheetah, Outback, Sabre, Sun Voyager, Freedom. No hippie’s VW bus or love van, these recreational vehicles are babies of the American Dream, siblings to shining diners, bowling alleys with neon signs, and neatly organized trailer parks that emerged in the post–World War II era to assist Americans in their quest for the good life, to reach not for the top but for the solid middle. Machines of mobility, they are symbols of comfort and happiness through consumption.

While growing up in a small town in China, I, in fact, had a fantasy of living in a house on wheels so that we would never have to change houses when we moved. Years later in America, I saw my childhood fantasy come alive in the shapes of those behemoths clipping down the roads at a brisk pace. But it did not take me long to figure out what trailers mean in American culture, even though I continued to feel fascinated whenever I found them lining up along highways like beached sea creatures, or hidden in the woods like pioneer log cabins, or hunkering down in the desert. As cultural historians have pointed out, even as trailers were initially offered as an entryway into the middle class and touted as a force for inclusion, they were also places where boundaries were drawn, whether over class, racial, ethnic, or generational divides.

Barney Fife Boulevard. turned into Andy Taylor Street, where the gravel road climbed to a higher tier and revealed some pull through spots for even longer trailers. One huge rig had just rolled in moments earlier, and the owner, an old man with a commanding belly, got busy setting up for the night. Although the twilight was fast fading, the man immediately pulled out the awning on the side of his trailer, as though to block off the cosmic rays that might descend during the night. In the next spot, another camper had set up his spall like a cozy backyard, a tent festooned with twinkly string lights and two lawn chairs facing a large-screen TV pulled miraculously out of the belly of the leviathan on wheels.

Andy Taylor Street ended near the campground entrance, which was now blocked by a tow truck. On the truck sat a police squad car, a replica of the one used in TAGS and driven around by Sheriff Andy and Deputy Barney. An antique Ford sedan from the 1960s, it sported a Mayberry Sheriff seal on the door and a then fashionable whip antenna curling forward from the back. A tall and wiry man in his sixties with a ponytail was working under the hood of the squad car. Something in his manner, a kind of tenderness a parent would take with a newborn, made me believe that he had to be the proud owner of this cherished relic. A friend of his stood by, stroking his Fu Manchu mustache and snickering, while two women watched. I chatted with the women, asking about the car.

‘‘Yep, it’s the real thang,’’ one of them told me, pointing at the car with her half-burnt cigarette.

‘‘What do you mean real?’’ I was confused.

‘‘It’s the same car,’’ she began with a little impatience, but then she went on to explain that her man had gotten lucky, finding one of the few remaining 1961 Ford Fairlane Town Sedans. He had painted and fixed it up like the ‘‘real’’ Mayberry Sheriff squad car. They planned to camp here first and then join the parade in the car over the weekend. I again regretted having to miss the parade, where the squad car would roll down Main Street, siren blaring and bluegrass music blasting.

When I got back to my car, it was dark, with only a half-moon hanging over the eastern hill like an emoji. It was too early to sleep, even though I was tired. I walked over to the deck in front of the office trailer and sat on a wooden bench to relax a little. Under a clear night sky, the campground was quiet, with only a few shadows ghosting around, mostly campers going about their business in and out of their trailers and some late dog walkers. Here and there, electronic glows from TV or computer screens were faintly visible through open windows or half-shut blinds. The Blue Ridge Mountains hulked in the far distance, like a ragged black curtain bejeweled with a few scattered lights. The invisible highway hummed with traffic, its rhythmic pulses occasionally disrupted by the roar of a big truck, like faint thunder. On this last day of summer, the southern night had lost a bit of its dark opulence, though it was still faintly perfumed by scents of lilacs, pines, and wildflowers.

As I sat there musing, a white-haired woman emerged from the RV parked next to my car and approached me. After a friendly hello, she introduced herself as the night manager of the campground, having taken over after Kali went home. Well into retirement age, she and her husband, who was walking an old black dog, had been traveling in their RV from Maine since the previous winter. They were, in other words, ‘‘snowbirds,’’ part of a population migrating southward seasonally or permanently to escape the colder climes of the North. This couple had picked up part-time jobs at trailer parks along their migration route in exchange for free camping. They had arrived here before summer, she said, before the heat wave last July hit this mountain area with an almost murderous intent. But they had stayed around because they liked it here. I asked her whether she knew about the history of this place. She said yes, and then she went on to tell me about Kali’s family and the residents in that farmhouse down the road.

‘‘They are very astute,’’ she said.

When I asked her about the ducks, she told me that some campers had left them behind. Now they had become a nuisance, she said, because they would forage in trash cans and leave their droppings everywhere. I had thought about mentioning the twins’ early life as duck farmers in Siam, but words got stuck inside of me, words like reincarnation, karma, and soul. Perhaps only someone like me, having pursued the twins’ story for so long, would believe it to be good karma that, as I came to the end of my journey, I would encounter these wayward ducks, left here as though by design, roaming freely in the land of two duck fanciers who caused an international sensation.

‘‘You’re here for the Mayberry Days, right?’’ she asked.

‘‘No, I’m here for the twins.’’

She was taken aback.

When I asked her what she thought of the twins, she hesitated for a minute, trying to find the right answer.

‘‘They’re very different,’’ she said.

Her careful choice of words, a polite euphemism, marked light years of distance from Captain Coffin’s crude nomenclature, a commonplace assumption of that age about people like the twins – calling them freaks, monsters, jokes of nature, and so on. Over the years, these demeaning labels have slowly disappeared from our lexicon. But her remark on difference, though understandable, alerted me to what’s troubling about the Myth of Mayberry, to the fact that in Mount Airy the Siamese Twins and Andy Griffith can coexist as a story about America. From the beginning, Chang and Eng Bunker stood for what was abnormal, exotic, and extraordinary; they were the epitome of what Mayberry attempted to exclude. The Myth of Mayberry is built on kinship, on bonds, and on the desire to stay put, if not to keep strangers out.

As Sherwood Anderson put it in Poor White (1920), a novel about small-town America characterized by homogeneity and xenophobia: ‘‘The people who lived in the towns were to each other like members of a great family… . Within the invisible circle and under the great roof every one knew his neighbor and was known to him.’’ Or, as Gustavo Pérez Firmat rightly points out in his critique of TAGS, there remains no path to citizenship for outsiders in the Mayberry myth. But Mount Airy, the inspiration for Mayberry, actually proved, though only for a matter of decades, otherwise. It was here that Chang and Eng Bunker, perhaps the most exotic ‘‘freaks’’ that America ever beheld, found a home. It was here, right in Mount Airy, that they got married, had off- spring, and lived a semblance of a life like everyone else. In some strange way, the story of Mayberry and that of Mount Airy, as two strands of the American identity, are still intertwined, like that of the inseparable Siamese Twins.

In the early hours of the next morning, I woke up in the backseat of the Jeep, shivering from the cold. I had left open a crack in the window, and now the nippy mountain air crawled inside like something alive. Never having been a camper before, I crouched under a thin blanket and peeked out through the rear window.

The half-moon had crossed the apex of its nightly journey, caught in tall pines that soughed in the wind like the audible rushing of time. The highway continued to thrum like a beating heart. As I drifted in and out of slumber, images of the previous day hovered in my head like dream fragments, a mosaic of scenes both real and cinematic.

At some point, Floyd, that unvanquishable barber from TAGS, appeared like a phantom, squinting his almost Chinese eyes and speaking one of the most clichéd lines of what had bizarrely become my favorite TV show, intoning, ‘‘It could only happen in America …’’

Originally published:
April 1, 2018


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