"A sandwich sure tastes better with milk."
Opie (Ron Howard)
There were episodes in the second season of the Andy Griffith Show in which I feel the program's writers lost their way.
And that is truly a shame because the episode that began that season on this night in 1961, "Opie and the Bully," was a great example of one of the eternal virtues of the show — Andy's relationship with his young son Opie (Ron Howard) and his parental efforts to teach the boy right from wrong.
I have never been a father, but it has always seemed to me that Andy's character knew instinctively what to say or do — even though he would undoubtedly be the first to say that he didn't have all the answers. (Of all the fathers on TV, I have always thought Griffith's character was the best.)
In fact, there was one episode late in the series when Andy was trying to resolve an issue with a teenage Opie. Andy was taking the wrong approach and everyone seemed to realize it but Andy — who eventually conceded the fact when someone from outside the family circle demonstrated the right way to handle the matter.
I suppose it isn't at all uncommon for parents to be unsure of their parenting skills when their children hit their teens. But on this night in 1961, Opie was still in elementary school, and he faced a situation nearly every kid faces at some point.
For one reason or another, every kid has to learn to stand up for himself or herself — and that formed the basis of one of the Andy Griffith Show's episodes that I must watch whenever it is on.
In this episode Opie found himself at the mercy of a bully who wouldn't let him pass on his way to school unless Opie handed over the nickel (nickels were worth a lot more 55 years ago than they are now) he had been given to buy milk at lunch. If Opie didn't pay, the bully threatened him with "a knuckle sandwich."
So Opie thought he had hit on the solution. He would get nickels from both Aunt Bee and Andy. He'd give one to the bully and still have one for milk.
But Andy became suspicious when Opie did that and asked him about that night. Opie insisted that he wanted the second nickel as a spare in case he lost the other one.
Andy let it slide — until he was talking with Barney about it the next day — and Barney told Andy that Opie had been in the jail earlier asking Barney if he had a nickel he wasn't using.
Barney offered to give Opie some fighting lessons, but Andy rejected the idea. Opie didn't need fighting lessons, he told Barney. Andy didn't want his son to be the kind of boy who went around looking for fights, but he didn't want Opie to back down from one when he was in the right. Andy had to figure out a way to impress that on Opie.
And it came to him when they were fishing one day. Opie wanted to know how Andy came across such a good fishing spot, and Andy made up a story featuring himself at Opie's age. In Andy's story, he had been chased off by the town bully, "Hodie Snitch," and he told Opie how he had stood up for what rightfully belonged to him.
The story should be seen in its entirety, but essentially Andy's point was that tough talk is just talk, and Opie was inspired to stand up to the bully who had been extorting money from him.
Opie repeatedly sought reassurance from his father, asking him to confirm things he had said in his story. Andy had claimed that he laughed when Hodie hit him, that he didn't even feel it. Opie was reassured, and he resolved to confront his tormentor.
Opie asked Andy to keep some spare clothes for him at the courthouse — in case something happened that got his clothes torn and messy. Andy agreed, knowing what Opie was planning to do. Later at the courthouse, Andy and Barney speculated about where Opie was and whether he had had his confrontation with the bully. Andy was having the kind of doubts that all parents must have at some time.
"Did you ever do anything," Andy asked Barney, "that you wondered if you was doing the right thing?"
Opie faced his fear — and got a black eye for his trouble. But for him it was a badge of honor.
And an important lesson had been learned.