Well, that was depressing.
Allow me to say that sharing that morning with my family was meaningful and I did enjoy the visit. It's a great memorial to all our POWs.
And then came afternoon...
Time for some more honesty.
I've never been a fan of Jimmy Carter. I remember the excitement following his defeat by Ronald Reagan. The political opinions, comments and speeches he's given since being president have caused more than one eye roll. There has always been at least a little shame knowing that he was from Georgia.
I was not excited about going to Plains.
But it seemed like an important Georgia thing to do and we were on a South Georgia road trip. So I pointed us through Americus, past the global headquarters of Habitat for Humanity and down the road through acres of peanuts, cotton and corn until I found myself pulling us into the Georgia Visitor Information Center, Plains - the only such facility not located on one of the state lines.
Very friendly staff members were ready to help us know what to look for in the small town. First things first - we were given our complimentary peanuts. Then we were directed to the old high school (now a museum), the church the Carters attend, the campaign headquarters downtown and the boyhood farm. Then we were told where to look to see what is visible at his current home and she showed us a picture of it. "That's his house?" I asked looking at the single story home. "That's it", she explained, "That's the house he and Rosalynn built in 1961. It's the only home they've ever owned."
That was where it started. From there we began touring the sites. The high school he and Rosalynn attended. That was where we learned that the Carters take their turn cutting the grass, vacuuming the floors and cleaning the toilets in their church. I'd heard about the Sunday School class he taught but seeing the video of him putting around the churchyard on an old Snapper somehow was different. The church the Carters attend is typical of the thousands of churches in thousands of small towns throughout the South. The boyhood farm is similar to so many others from that time period - including the one my grandfather grew up on in Mississippi. And the old railroad depot that was used for his campaign headquarters - chosen because it was the only available building in town with a bathroom - is about as "small town" as you can get.
So here's some of the things I learned that were new to me:
The house, I mentioned that earlier. That really started it for me. But then we saw him giving the tour on video. He built the bed that he and Rosalynn sleep in. He also built their bookcases, much of Amy's furniture and he did the hardwood flooring in Amy's room.
He's a peanut farmer. I knew that but I saw photos and such that demonstrated that he wasn't just a landowner that had people farming for him. His peanuts are not a tax write-off. He planted them, grew them, picked them, washed them, shelled them and sold them. And he was running the family peanut company long before he ran for any office, which, incidentally, began with his local school board.
He grew up performing many chores on his family's farm. And even today, he eats vegetables and eggs that are produced on this small farm. The ranger we spoke to next to the windmill laughed that "you'd think by talking to him that he doesn't have two nickels to rub together."
He has worked with Habitat for Humanity and other groups, building homes, drilling wells, providing food and medical care, both in the US as well as in Africa. He isn't just sending money. He's slinging a hammer, using a hand saw, working like he has all his life - again, his story reminds me of my grandfathers. His security detail alone hints at the fact that this man was once the chief executive of the most powerful nation on Earth.
Every account by every person, both in museum film interviews and by people we randomly encountered in town, attested to the fact that Jimmy Carter is no different than any other man in Plains. Well, except for the Secret Service thing
Those things had an impact on me. There are still so many policies and assertions that I just can't agree with but I now know where he came from, what his thought processes are and why he believes some of the things he believes. I walked away with an appreciation of Jimmy Carter. It left me wishing that more of our politicians were willing to live the way he lives and do some of the things he does. I wish they believed enough in their policies to work for them the way he has. I wish they remembered where they came from - or at least knew what it's like to try to make a living in a small town in the rural South.
Looking back, the day in Plains made me proud that Jimmy Carter is from Georgia, which was admittedly a first. It made me a little disappointed that we weren't there on one of the many occasions when he's walking downtown or sitting on on of the porches at the old farm reading a book or writing one of his poems while waiting for visitors to meet and greet. I'd have liked to shake his hand and let him know that I had seen some truth about him and maybe apologize for being as harsh as I have been at times.
But, the next best thing, I guess, is to sit here and type out this entry to tell whoever reads it that Jimmy Carter is a good man. He's not perfect and might do or say things you don't agree with but he's real. And if there's one thing this nation needs right now, it's men and women that are real.
And that was the story of an intellectually and emotionally challenging but very fun day. More to come...
I knew what awaited. I wasn't sure how I'd handle it but I knew it was there.
But first things first.
There's a certain satisfaction that comes from seeing where your food comes from. I have the utmost respect for farmers and seeing them at work was like viewing art being made.
Watermelons. I'm not talking about a fruit stand. I'm not talking about a farmer's market. I'm talking about a 40 acre field where you can't see the ground for the watermelons. I'm talking about watermelons laying in the road like dead possums.
What do you do with that many watermelons? You cut the top off a school bus, pull out all the seats, stack the watermelons up to what would have been the bottoms of the windows and haul 'em off. A bus load of watermelons is a beautiful thing. A convoy of five such buses...I don't have the words...
And then there's just something about getting off the Interstate. You haven't really experienced Georgia until you've seen towns like Irwinville, DeSoto and Buena Vista. Many of these places have lost their luster. Some may have never had it. But if you really want to understand the South, you have to look in these places.
And such towns lead the way to the brick columns that I had been dreading, but knew I had to confront.
Just hearing the word makes my stomach quiver just a little. Seeing this in person is a must...even if you don't study war...especially if you hate war.
The traditional visitor's center at Andersonville is anything but. This facility is the National POW Museum. It covers the history of American POWs from the Revolution to the present. It serves as a witness to the cruelty of war and the way it impacts captives, captors and the families involved. While Andersonville is specifically covered, there are also accounts from Union prisons such as Rock Island, IL, where similar atrocities were carried out on the Confederates unlucky enough to find themselves there. There are also memorials from POW experiences from every other American war.
And then I walked outside.
A bas relief on brick and a bronze sculpture stands as a visual of the misery at Andersonville. A water feature symbolizes Sweetwater Creek, a name that almost evokes it own cruelty when it identifies the poison stream that eked its way through the middle of the camp.
The camp has much in common with the war. It seemed good at first - reports of plentiful food in the area, far from the fighting, railroad depot downtown and a creek that would be a source of clean water and wash away waste...until they built the stockade across it...on both sides.
And then it got worse. The blockade and the truth of the area's food supply began to send the situation downward. Then the Union realized that their superior numbers made cessation of prisoner exchanges to be to their advantage (this assessment is part of the official audio tour offered by the park and not just Southern propaganda) so they just stopped. The situation deteriorated further. A band of prisoners began terrorizing other prisoners. This bunch was eventually brought down with the help of other prisoners that had enough of their violence and thievery. The six "raiders", as they were called, were hung, 149 years, to the day, prior to our visit.
As food and medication became more scarce in the South, so went supplies in the camp. The guards consisted of men too old, too young or too sick to be on the lines trying to hold off Sherman's advance. And no matter how remorseful anyone felt about it, if there wasn't enough supplies for the citizens and soldiers in the area, there sure wasn't enough for enemy prisoners.
Sitting on the hill overlooking the camp was the man given charge of the place. Henry Wirz, the Swiss-born Confederate captain was witness to it all. Looking at the verdant field and the quiet creek in the midst, it is hard to imagine the din of over 30,000 human beings, some merely talking, others moaning or crying out. The residents of Americus, some ten miles away complained of the foul stench wafting from the camp - the smell of body odor and human waste festering in the Georgia summer.
The stones in the cemetery stand in memory to the horrors of the camp. The dead were buried shoulder-to-shoulder in trench graves. The Federal Government later placed stones over each prisoner using the meticulous records of the Confederate Surgeons Corps. And the number of stones - rows and rows of white stones - gives the eye perspective as to just how bad the situation got.
I could explain that the Union had similar prisons - Rock Island, Camp Douglas, "Helmira", just to name a few. I could point out that the abundant supplies were withheld from those prisoners for spite and to be maliciously cruel. I could point out that at Camp Douglas that the dead were piled into a common hole and buried without the dignity of a grave. I could mention that, in spite of the northern camps, after the sham trial by military tribunal and a mis-tied knot that 250 paying spectators at Washington's Old Capitol Prison watched Wirz swing and writhe as he slowly suffocated while the crowd chanted "Remember Andersonville" - an event that is widely believed by historians and the National Parks Service to be the murder of a scapegoat.
And every bit of that is true. But none of that would change what happened at Andersonville. To try to deflect or deny what went on at Andersonville would not change one second of the tragedy that was the Confederate Military Prison at Camp Sumter. And to deny this place would be to insult the honor of the prisoners and custodians of this horrible place. Even as a Georgian and one that leans heavily toward the gray, I cannot look at such a place and not feel pity for the people imprisoned there. It was terrible, period.
What I took from it all was all the terror of war, crammed into a compact package. To think of lives lost, of irreversible damage from illness and disease, the images that a mind just never forgets and the horrible cruelty of it all, no matter what lengths are taken to prevent or alleviate it - war is a terrible tragedy. For all the glory we attach to it, it can never be made anything other than tragic, even when it is necessary. That being said, we should never enter in to it brashly or flippantly. Such cruelty must never be celebrated or enjoyed.
And so that brought us to midday and time for a change in venue. I'll pick up the afternoon section of this day in the next update. I promise that it will be a much happier entry....
It began simple enough. How my poor children ever reached their current ages without a meal at Waffle House, I'll never know. Our journey began with breakfast and the discussion of exciting plans.
The road was kind to us and the HOV lane helped us proceed through Atlanta relatively easily. They say the best thing to ever come out of Atlanta was I-75.
We found the southbound version.
With great traffic and the skillful navigation of a great driver (me), good companionship from my family and perhaps a few tips from the Google map voice that lives in my phone we arrived at Ocmulgee National Monument.
It's places like Ocmulgee that get overlooked in the study of Southern History. And that's a shame because at the estimated date of 15,000 years ago people began to inhabit this location. The first bunch were nomadic people which simply means they were, like us, on a road trip. (Although theirs was at least marginally longer)
Somewhere in the centuries people settled down. And they lived off of agriculture, the industry of the South. You see, the South, from the very beginning depended on nature for survival. While Europe and the North were spewing carbon and other so-called "greenhouse gasses" into the atmosphere, the South was relying on plants, forests, rivers and the sun for survival. The people depended on these resources to be healthy and abundant in order to make any sort of living. Factories and pollution were imported later on and, now that we're dependent on it, are now demonized and regulated by the very folks that forced it upon us.
Make up your mind!
Back to the mounds. Seeing the work that it took to build such structures and the care and dedication it took to carry basket after basket of dirt to create such monuments really impressed me. The Earth Lodge with it's original floor, dated ca. 1000 AD is truly amazing. There is also a very good view of Downtown Macon from atop the Temple Mound. Throw in a good museum and an outstanding ranger and it made for a great morning.
We spent the afternoon 22 miles down the road at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins. If you are ever in that part of Georgia and have even the slightest interest in the history of the Air Force and/or Army Air Corps, stop in. The museum has excellent exhibits, including the living ones you'll find working in each hangar. Many of the volunteers manning the museum are veterans of the very aircraft on display and are ready to answer questions and give first hand accounts of history made with these machines.
Ok, time for a candid moment. During the tour, we happened upon a couple of gentlemen and a conversation ensued. At first it was great, lots of good information as one of the men was himself a vet that shared information of his experiences. However, there is a butt...er...but to this part of the story. The gentleman explained to us, after learning about our road trip plans, that he was from Pennsylvania and stressed his displeasure with "that stupid, stupid Civil War". He then progressed to deride the Confederate soldiers and to talk about what a terrible place Georgia is. In fact, it is so terrible that he chose to live in Dublin. Then he pulled out some story about what a great humanitarian Sherman was. He finished his speech with some of his disappointment with the direction that our country is going and blamed our central government for it. Really? I was laughing as I thought it inappropriate to cry in a hanger full of fighter planes. Oh how I wished to correct him, oh how I wished to sling a 30 minute soliloquy on him to point out that his beloved Sherman had forced that strong central government on us all at gunpoint and then invite him to return to Pennsylvania...but self-control got the better of me. I sat there with the words of the sage ringing in my ears - "It wastes your time and annoys the pig."
As the sun set on the first day of the Georgia trip, having seen the contributions of Native Americans from the Mississippians to the Creeks (Muscogee) and members of the Air Force, including the 332nd fighter group, "The Tuskegee Airmen", I was glad to have started to demonstrate the diversity of the people that made Georgia and the South great.
The first day didn't challenge my thinking the way the following days would. It wasn't very controversial. But it was quite enjoyable and laid the foundation for the days that followed. The next day would hold surprises I could not expect and tore at my heart in ways that I don't even think my family realized...
...but tomorrow is another day...
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire