I paid a visit in recent days to the lily-white town of Mayfield, believed to be near the Great Lakes — were it not entirely imaginary.
The occasion of my visit, which I accomplished via YouTube, was the cancer death of Tony Dow, an actor, director, sculptor and victor over the adult demons common to child stars. From 1957 to 1963, Dow played Beaver’s older brother, Wally, in the series “Leave It to Beaver.”
Beaver Cleaver’s boyhood odyssey, from second grade into puberty, was a staple of my cultural diet of black-and-white reruns in the late 1960s. My lineup of after-school shows came from the years before Norman Lear revolutionized situation comedy by confronting the world as it really is. I dwelt in unreal worlds, where horses talked and shipwrecked professors built sewing machines from coconuts and bamboo (yet couldn’t patch a hole in a boat). Both the War in the Pacific and a German prison camp were played for laughs.
By those measures, Beaver’s life seemed downright authentic. True, issues of race and class were missing from Mayfield. Sin was tame, sexuality was repressed and moms dressed up to do housework. For all that, however, the Cleaver household was as real as anything that passes today for a “reality” show.
I felt that Beaver and I would get along swell if for some reason he transferred to my school. He could show me his frog-catching techniques, and I could teach him how to bait crawdads with Velveeta on a string. We shared a keen interest in the wonders advertised in the back pages of comic books: pranks, magic tricks and live alligators by mail. We even wore matching blue jeans — with the legs sometimes folded at the bottom, so we could get more use from them as we grew.
Beaver’s hair was a frequent annoyance, as was mine. He was unreliable, as was I. He and I both had a crush on his teacher, Miss Canfield. But the most important bond we shared, the thing that made Beaver my alter ego, was that we both were nurtured under the protective wing of a world-class big brother.
Tony Dow was a kid athlete with no interest in acting when he tagged along to an audition and, at age 12, wound up in the role of Wally Cleaver. He was a natural, relaxed and genuine on camera, with a gift for letting his lines breathe. You could see the wheels spinning in Wally’s mind as he surveyed the angles, dangers and opportunities of each sentence in the fraught diplomacy of parent-child relations.
Dad and Mom and the other adults were always ready with a parable or blandishment, in Beaver’s life as in mine. But much of the time, it went in one ear and out the other, because how much communication was truly possible with beings from another planet? The truest thing about “Leave It to Beaver” was that Beaver learned best from his brother.
Wally was Beav’s role model, counselor, protector, advocate and scourge. He seemed to Beaver to be the soul of wisdom, and though only a child himself, Wally took that responsibility very seriously. Naturally, Wally occasionally grew irritated by his kid brother, but he never permitted the outside world to treat Beaver badly.
My brother Rick was the same way. Like Beav and Wally, we shared a bedroom. Now and then, Rick would feel moved to hang me by my belt loop from a clothes hook. But when one of his friends threw a baseball at my head for interrupting their game, Rick tackled the guy, pinned him and nearly succeeded in forcing the ball down his throat.
On another occasion, as a preschooler, I managed to wander into a nest of hornets. Seeing me attacked by stinging insects and in a panic, Rick dashed into the middle of the swarm to rescue me, at the cost of a lot of pain for himself.
He was my idol, of course. Still is — more so now that I can grasp how annoying it must have been for a high school student, the star quarterback and captain of the football team, to have to room with a squirrelly 10-year-old.
Conniving Eddie Haskell once said to Wally: “Boy, am I glad I don’t have a kid brother.”
“Oh, he’s all right,” Wally replied. And so The Beaver was. Me, too, in my odd way, because when your big brother loves you, you’re all right.