Misfit characters are on TV, around us

People my age tend to judge the younger generations based on what we recollect as a universal set of values from “back-in-the-day.” Of course there is always the risk of romanticizing the past. Memories can be selective without our knowing.

Time is a prism through which images of the past are filtered, and the picture we see in our minds has been altered by our emotions and experiences. Nonetheless, I’m going to take that risk as I journey back in time to the land of Television and of real-life Dunkirk-Fredonia where there were many remarkable characters who were, well, different.

There was no shortage of anomalous characters on TV during those days. “The Andy Griffith Show” gave us several. Otis, the town drunk, had key to the jail and would lock himself up whenever he got overly lit. Barney Fife, due to his impulsive and irrational tendencies, was a liability as a law enforcer. And there was Goober, who was certainly not the shiniest wrench in the rack. However, despite a never-ending supply of petty grievances, the citizens of Mayberry hung together, and that was the point.

In “The Beverly Hillbillies,” Jethro stood tall as the quintessential dimwit. Here was a grown man with the brain of a child, and despite his strong physicality, his sister Ellie May could beat him up! “Gunsmoke” had Festus, who was a bit on the slow-to-sink-in side but embodied the kind noble spirit that made us love him. “The Munsters” and “Addams Family” offered an array of weirdly dysfunctional characters, some very dull-witted, but all blessed with some redeeming qualities. Add to the list “The Honeymooners’ ” Norton, Clem Kadiddlehopper, Freddie the Freeloader, Archie Bunker, Grady, and a whole bunch more … TV was rich with characters who were socially ridiculous.

The greatest breakthrough regarding TV’s support of social “misfits” came with the 1989 airing of “Life Goes On,” which starred Chris Burke who had Down syndrome. It seems to me that this was the highwater mark for America’s appetite for tolerance and compassion as essential components in entertainment.

In the real world, I remember playing Dunkirk Middle School dances where Eddie, a talented singer and dancer who was also Puerto Rican and a dwarf, would join the band on stage and put on a show of his own. There was Tony T. who lived in a shack at the south end of Lincoln Street. He was a loner, and a walker, and it seemed he led a secret life, perhaps a stash of money buried somewhere in his yard.

In Fredonia there was “Terry Honda,” who earned his name and reputation as a high-profile figure downtown where he lived with his grandmother near the old firehall. Terry rode a bicycle he fancied to be a motorcycle, and he breathed life into it by groaning “Vrrrooom” as he pedaled around Barker Commons and along Main and Water Streets. Terry was no angel; he was a heavy smoker, and his signature smile featured a lit cigarette lodged in the gap where he was missing more than half a tooth. He also loved his beer, and at eighteen he was legally drunk quite often. A side note: in what was clearly an ultra-Liberal era in American history, Terry Honda actually got a driver’s license and a car. This wouldn’t last long, however. His drinking, along with a profitable business of driving to out-of-town corner stores and buying beer for underage kids, resulted in his license being revoked. (Please don’t ask me how I know this.)

There was Junior, who started hanging out in Fredonia some time after Terry passed away. Junior was a Buffalo Bills fan, and if he knew you, he was quick to engage in Bills talk, which tended to be a bit on the redundant side. Like Terry, Junior was not an innocent fellow; he had a troubled side.

The most marvelous of all was a young man whose name I never knew. I remember him in the grassy lot near Saint Anthony’s church in Fredonia’s “Little Italy.” It was during the evenings in the summer. He had no glove, and no baseball, yet he moved back and forth across that green field in such a graceful manner, looking to the sky and waving off other imaginary outfielders. Then he would tighten his circle in deep centerfield, positioning his imaginary mitt to block the sun and make the perfect catch. At once humble and proud, he would then make the easy throw to the infield cutoff man. This was his dance, his wonderful American dance, and he would perform it over and over again for no one, or for the fifty thousand fans at the Yankee Stadium in his mind.

There were many more. There was Dino who rode his bike from near Brocton to Dunkirk every day, and who died a tragic death during one of those commutes. There was Cookie from Sheridan who hitchhiked to Fredonia where he would do odd jobs for meals. And there were Amy and Herbie, about whom I have written in the past.

It seems in those days there was a transparency and a sense of responsibility among not just family members of those “misfits” but also within the communities as a whole where we kept watch. I don’t see such a community today. In fact, I don’t see the special people either, though they must exist. It is as if the towns have been sanitized, the undesirables hidden away in institutions where their lives are programmed.

Meanwhile, people today stay connected with their devices, finding comfort in the company of others who think alike. In their wireless havens, they are safe from the inconvenience of having to wonder how it might feel to be, well, different.

Pete Howard is a Dunkirk resident, writer, musician and teacher. FOCAL Point strives to make insightful social commentary through the integration of Facts, Observations, Compassion, Awareness and Logic.