MAXWELL:  The Cleavers offer a refuge in a troubled world

1/1/1995- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


MAN ON BUS: The next stop we make is Mayfield.

BEAVER: Gee, it’s not where I’m supposed to be goin’, but at least it’s someplace I’ve been.

While much of America scurried to the nation’s shopping malls to return merchandise and to find even more bargains, I traveled back to Mayfield.

Where is Mayfield? I do not have a clue. I do know that it is one of America’s best-known fictional towns. In some episodes, you suspect that it is a Southern California suburb, while in other episodes, you get hints of Ohio. The real location does not matter. What is important is that Mayfield is an ideal place to rear children, a prosperous place that has good schools.

It is a safe place in the imagination and has many fun spots. Miller’s Pond, for example, is just right for boating, polliwog hunting or falling in fully dressed; State Street Bridge is the best bridge in town for spittin’; Fats Flannaghan’s Junkyard is a treasure trove of all kinds of neat stuff; Uncle Artie’s Magic Shop is where you can stock up on soap candy and rubber snakes.

Best of all, though, Mayfield is home to America’s best-loved television family, the Cleavers _ June, Ward, Wally and, of course, the Beaver. I went back there on Dec. 27, as a viewer of cable’s WTBS, which broadcast 24 hours of Leave It to Beaver, the sitcom that ran each week from 1957 to 1963.

Because I had to work, I managed to watch about six hours of the show. And I had fun. The show’s creators, Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, packed the 30-minute sitcom with love and laughter. The plots are straightforward, the themes transparent but always uplifting, the settings familiar, the main characters innocent and non-threatening. Even the obnoxious Eddie Haskell, that “creepy wise-guy rat,” does not have an evil bone in his skinny body.

Why did I, an editorial writer and columnist for Florida’s second largest newspaper, plop down and watch six hours of this domestic comedy? Because I wanted to escape the violent, trash-talking, politically zany world of America in 1994. I wanted to get away from the specter of “Black Talon” and “Rhino” bullets, to blot out the scowling images of Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, to smother the howls and grunts of Rush Limbaugh and his legions of brain-dead Dittoheads.

Briefly, I wanted to see children as children, not as unbearably precocious smart-asses. I wanted to be where life’s greatest challenges are going to school, playing harmless gags on your “swell pals” and trying to avoid that “goody-two-shoes,” “know-it-all” squealer Judy Hensler, who never fails to ask: “Miss Landers, do you want the list of people who were talking while you were out of the room?”

I wanted to return to a world that celebrates the strengths of families, where HRS is as foreign as the KGB. Where Ward, the father, dispenses wisdom and discipline compassionately. Where June, the loving mother, always has a fresh batch of cookies and a bottle of milk for Beaver and Wally and their buddies.

And school. Yes, I wanted to revisit a school where adults are firmly in charge. Where, for instance, the mere mention of Mrs. Rayburn, the Grant Avenue Grammar School principal, is enough to make even Larry Mondello, Gilbert Bates, Whitey Whitney and Richard Rickover stop “yakkin’ up a breeze.” Where Miss Landers, the prettiest, sweetest, most patient, most dedicated, smartest teacher ever, taught a lot more than “booklearnin’.”

The benevolent universe of Leave It to Beaver is soothing. Even the nickname _ Beaver _ evokes the image of a mirthful creature with a toothy grin. Just seeing this kid makes me smile. His innocence makes him adorable.

I do not get that feeling with today’s kids, in real life or from television. Their backward baseball caps turn me off. Beaver, however, a well-adjusted child, wears his baseball cap forward. Today’s kids _ many of them humorless mall rats, MTV captives, swaggering playground bullies, gangsta rap wanna-bes and murderous carjackers _ are going in reverse. The baggy, amorphous clothing, inappropriately heavy footwear, body jewelry and tattoos symbolize the excessive psychic and emotional baggage burdening many children.

Somehow, America has robbed childhood of its beauty and innocence. We have made our children strangers both to us and to themselves. I used to think that we had made our children too smart too fast for their own good. I no longer believe that.

Today’s children are not smarter than those of earlier generations. They are more frenetic, more apt to emulate the worst of grown-up behavior before they can handle the consequences of their actions. They are freer to make decisions but they lack the experience or critical thinking ability to make them. Because we, adults, have lost our way, we have created a blueprint for disaster. Now we are paralyzed. We do not know what to do.

I have a few naive ideas for this generation of young, disengaged parents. Many of these ideas are integral to Leave It to Beaver. Sure, the world of Mayfield is make-believe, lily-white and male-dominated, but its verities are eternal. They transcend race and gender. If you visit Ward and June, you are bound to learn some useful lessons about parenting. They make the perfect team, a balancing act that reassures the boys that the world of Mayfield is constant and safe.

Consider the following sampler of Ward Cleaver’s advice.

“Wait a minute, boys; let’s get something straight. I don’t care what kind of trouble you may get into in life, you don’t ever need to be afraid to come to your parents and tell them.”

“Sometimes when a person’s made a mistake or done something wrong, that’s the time when they need understanding.”

“Remember one thing: Wrong is wrong even if everyone else says it’s right. And right is right even if everyone else says it’s wrong.”

“Wally, you’re so worried about your appearance you forget that people don’t judge you by the way you look but by the way you act. . . . Why, some of the homeliest people in the world have done some of the greatest things.”

“If you live your life in a dream, you’ll wake up someday and realize you never had anything real. . . . You think that over, Beav.”

“Now, Beaver, you just keep your sense of humor and everything will be all right.”

Leave It to Beaver presents an idealistic version of life, where problems are outlined and resolved in 30 minutes. Beaver and Wally are saps who love their parents. June and Ward are doting parents, a bit overbearing at times. Is such a family possible in real life? Indeed it is. More of us should try establishing such a family.

As the Beav might say: “Golly, that would be swell.”

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.


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