WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP | I'd seen him listed as a special guest at the Porter County Fair, but my initial confrontation with the most famous deputy on the planet was a surprise.
I was on my way out of the fairgrounds for the day, walking along the midway sipping a lemonade shake, when a man in a crisp brown uniform gave me a stern look and demanded, "Is there any alcohol in that drink?"
I had just been stopped by Barney of Mayberry, and it was somewhat intimidating. Regrouping, I said, "No. do you need some?" As I continued walking to the exit, sipping my shake, I heard Barney tell other nearby fair visitors, "I tell you, I don't get any respect."
Scott Epperson, who says he grew up in Andy Griffith's home town and now lives in Benson, N.C., has been filling the shoes and policeman's hat of the deputy who's Number One with a bullet - literally. One bullet. - for the past 10 years.
"My Dad was the first one to say I looked like Barney Fife when I was 19. It made me mad. Now, it's the greatest compliment."
It might also have influenced his career choice. He worked for 35 years as a policeman, serving as a detective sergeant on the Dunn, N.C., police department. He also acted in a number of local stage productions of everything from "South Pacific" to "Scrooge."
His transformation into Barney started while on the force, when the department asked him to use his acting skills and his resemblance to Fife to dress up to entertain some kids at a festival. At first he resisted, although his wife (who he refers to as Thelma Lou) thought it was a great idea.
It was while watching the story of St. Jude's Children's Hospital on TV that night that he began to think a higher power was trying to tell him something. The next day he told his boss he'd do it.
He did 50 to 70 appearances as Barney per year while still a full-time detective and now does as many as 200, performing at country/western shows, rock concerts, NASCAR races, TV commercials and, of course, county fairs.
He's shared the stage with the likes of Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent as well as Ronnie Milsap and Trace Adkins.
"I've been real fortunate," Barney/Scott said. "I enjoy what I do. I can't sing (also like Barney), and I'm not a dancer. I had dreams of being 6-foot-8 and playing in the NBA, but I'm 5-foot-eight. My mother said it doesn't take anything extra to be nice, and I love to see people laughing and having a good time."
He said older people will hold his hand with tears in their eyes believing he's the original Barney portrayed by Don Knotts. At the same time, kids say they see him on TV. They all love America's most famous deputy, and the question they ask him the most is, "Have you got your bullet?"
Epperson loves being Barney and has no intention of "nipping it in the bud."
The opinions are those of the writer. He can be reached anywhere there's air conditioning at email@example.com or (219) 548-4352.