There are people that are presidential groupies who travel from presidential birthplace to presidential library across the country. We are not those people. But when we discovered that Plains, the home of Jimmy Carter, was within visiting distance, we were intrigued. As a president Carter gets low ratings, almost as low as our current president. Yet it is hard to imagine a finer man. The work he has done since his presidency has improved the lives to the helpless and hopeless all over the world. It's a mystery to us why such a bright, energetic, caring man was so ineffectual as president. Perhaps he was too nice. Perhaps he was too much of an outsider. Does any of this pertain to our current election? Points to ponder.
The mystery deepens when visiting Plains. The town is so small (700 people) and so nowhere, one wonders how the boy who grew up in a house without electricity, ended up being the leader of the most powerful country in the world. Today things are quiet in Plains once again. The town is nicely organized for the presidential tourist. The visitor's center told us that we could walk to everything of interest, except the boyhood farm which is three miles out of town. The Carter's still live in Plains in the home they built in the 1960's, the only home they ever owned. He teaches Sunday school at the nearby church and shakes hands with everyone who attends the service. RV'ers we met at dinner told us so.
The old high school has been turned into a museum and featured a film reminding us of what happened while he was in office. Many of his decisions were unpopular. He prevented our athletes from attending the Olympics in Moscow as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. During gas shortages he told us we had to conserve; too bad we didn't listen. American consular officials became hostages in Iran and were held for 444 days and the rescue attempt failed. He returned the Panama Canal back to the Panamanians, an unpopular move, but the right thing to do. He received the Nobel Prize for his work bringing Egypt and Israel together with Anwar Sadat and Manachem Begin. Those countries are still at peace with one another. Too bad he didn't get the chance to go farther in the Middle East.
Our educators' hearts were warmed when the film referred to a favorite teacher that encouraged Carter and introduced him to the larger world beyond Plains. As a boy he had an early goal to attend the naval academy. After graduating from there he really had a chance to see the world. He might have had a career in the navy if his father's early death hadn't brought him back to Plains to manage the peanut farm in his father's place. His first office was on the local school board and the changes and improvements he made there, especially for the black students who were still attending segregated schools, inspired him to try for higher office so he could do more. He had grown up playing with black kids and working along side the hands on his father's farm. These experiences helped him to escape the prevailing Southern attitude toward African Americans.
The farm where Carter lived as a boy is a national historic site and restored to its original condition - outhouse, water pump, fire place for warmth, gas lights and all. He has written that his early living conditions had more in common with a farm from 1,000 years ago than the rest of the twentieth century. The Carter's were a middle class family and had a store on the property which was patronized by their workers and those who lived within walking distance. His mother was a nurse and often out of the home helping others. It sounded like a life that was simple and full of privations, but filled with love and support.
Nearby we also visited Andersonville, another small town associated with a big event, an atrocity in this case. During the Civil War prisoners of war were exchanged the first few years, but when the Confederates refused to release the black northern soldiers that were in their prisons, the North reconsidered. They came to realize that exchanging the rebel prisoners freed them to fight again. So, the exchanges stopped and the prisoners piled up. A large stockade was built in Andersonville to house the union POW's. The location was selected because it was removed from the main battles and had adequate running water and food grown on farms nearby. That may have been true if the prison had not been filled and filled and filled again to a capacity four times what was planned. A hot, dry summer dried up the creek that brought the fresh water into the prison area and whatever food was available was funneled to the Confederate army. In the fourteen months the prison was open 35,000 men were held there and 14,000 died of thirst, hunger and unsanitary conditions. One prisoner wrote that it took seven of them to cast a single shadow.
After the war Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, returned to the area to identify the graves and match them with headstones. President Lincoln had authorized her to gather information about those who had died there for their families back home. The solider who ran the place was tried and hanged after the war, although he stoutly maintained that he had done all he could to procure food and water for the prisoners. Now soldiers from other wars are buried there as well, and the visitor's center is a POW museum commemorating all the POW's in the wars that followed. Very sad and moving.