A Mount Airy resident well-known for portraying Otis the town drunk as part of the local Mayberry culture is hospitalized in Winston-Salem with severe burns from a freak accident — ironically involving a replica squad car.
However, James Slate appears to be on the road to recovery, his son Dusty said Wednesday.
The elder Slate, who has made public appearances as Otis for about eight years, was injured on June 27 at his home on Brentwood Avenue in the vicinity of Millennium Charter Academy.
“He was working on that old police car, that Galaxie,” Dusty Slate said of a Ford model from the early 1960s outfitted to resemble the police car driven by Barney and Andy in “Mayberry.” It is one of a number of such vehicles frequently spotted around Mount Airy.
“And the carburetor kind of backfired and caught him on fire,” Dusty Slate described.
As a result, his father suffered second- and third-degree burns to 16 percent of his body. “The paramedics told Mama he was really lucky to be alive,” the younger Slate related.
James Slate, who is in his late 60s, was transported to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and has been hospitalized there since, nearly four weeks in all.
Skin grafts — a type of surgery in which a patch of skin is surgically removed from one section of the body and transplanted, or attached, to another area — have been done along both of Slate’s thighs down to the knees.
“He’s been in the burn unit,” Dusty Slate added Wednesday. “He’s been in rehabilitation this week and they told us yesterday we would probably be able to bring him home Friday.”
Future for “Otis” unclear
The burn victim will still have to undergo therapy and cope with other issues related to the injuries and healing process, his son says.
For example, James Slate will be prohibited from exposure to direct sunlight for six to eight months.
The incident has placed his future appearances as Otis into question, along with another factor regarding Dusty Slate’s business on North Main Street downtown, which has served as a base of operations for the colorful character.
“Otis” often has been seen in front of Mayberry Country Store seated at a small table playing checkers with tourists seeking to soak up some Mayberry atmosphere. James Slate has said he filled that role on a volunteer basis to help boost local tourism.
His impersonation of the “Andy Griffith Show” character has included donning a seersucker jacket, tie and hat similar to what actor Hal Smith wore on the show, along with toting around props such as a moonshine jug. He has shown up at parades and additional events, often being joined by others portraying such Mayberry characters as Deputy Barney Fife and Ernest T. Bass.
As to whether his dad will be resuming the Otis appearances anytime soon, Dusty Slate said, “I don’t know — we’re actually shutting the store down.”
He said another location besides Mayberry Country Store might be found for Otis to play checkers in the future.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.