Some terrible news out of the paint factory in Mayberry, N.C.
"My buddy was on the top rung [of a ladder] and somehow he slipped and fell head first into a vat of varnish," Barney Fife told a crowd of several hundred gathered at the Chattanoogan hotel on Thursday.
Poor guy couldn't swim. He drowned in that vat of varnish.
"A terrible death," said Fife. "But it had a beautiful finish."
Fife is actually David Browning, who has impersonated the hapless, heart-filled deputy from "The Andy Griffith Show" for nearly two decades and was the main entertainment at the Sheriff's Foundation annual luncheon fundraiser on Thursday.
"I've got the bullet," said Browning-as-Fife, pulling the signature single bullet out of the left pocket of his khaki-brown Mayberry uniform.
Laughing from the tables nearby was a crowd of elected officials from both city and county government and even the halls of Congress (U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann was there). The rest of the room was full of business leaders, there to support the foundation created by Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond to raise money for certain law enforcement programs.
"Tax dollars can only go so far," Hammond told the crowd.
We stood for the Pledge of Allegiance. Bagpipes played. Meat and potatoes, spinach ravioli, cheesecake. Prayer, to open and close the lunch. Browning performed as Fife, then gave a motivational message, followed by Hammond, who told the crowd he still watches "Andy Griffith" reruns.
"That program for years has taught moral values to people in this country," he said afterward.
Fife is a perfect symbol, a relic of black-and-white America. Reruns of "The Andy Griffith Show" still exist as a sacred half-hour when the world seems sensible. People behave in moral ways. An intact family structure. I'm not sure if the show's a time capsule or wishful thinking.
"There is a little bit of Barney in all of us," said Browning afterward. "We all seek and hope we have an Andy in our lives that will lift us up when we mess up."
Browning, 63, also acts as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator and performs for churches, senior citizen groups and law enforcement events. He looks just like Fife.
I asked him if he had any larger message for you, readers. He patted his holster, adjusted his belt, cocked his head and raised his voice a couple of notes.
"The tried-and-true rules still apply. If you're dealing with crime, you've got to nip it in the bud," he said. "Nip it, nip it, nip it."
During his talk, Hammond spoke about the importance of "positive law enforcement" and said his foundation would help fund new technologies, training for officers and programs that build relationship between citizens and law enforcement.
But I couldn't help but wonder: Would Andy Griffith have hosted such a luncheon?
(With who? Floyd the barber? Goober?)
The luncheon brought together some powerful and well-connected people in the business community. The sheriff asked them to donate money, which then will go toward creating a stronger financial base to use for law enforcement programs.
Which, on the surface, seems beneficial. Our neighborhoods are safer, our police better trained. And so on.
But the dynamics of such a luncheon are similar to any other fundraising or lobbying effort and are accompanied by that slippery slope: Do donors expect anything in return? Do donors expect any favors?
I guess Andy would say it depends on the people involved. Hammond has told me that no favors are expected or received. The Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga handles the money; the sheriff fund's board is three local businessmen.
Near the end of the lunch, Gino Bennett, director of Support Services for the sheriff, reminded the crowd of the Sheriff's Foundation knives for sale (custom-made by Frost Cutlery). Apparently, they're razor-sharp.
"Please be careful," Bennett said. "You'd be surprised how many people we've seen cut themselves."
Same holds true for such a foundation.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...