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...
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire