Sunday with President Carter by Michele Hawkins

Working through my plate filled with fried chicken, collard greens, real mashed potatoes and corn bread on a Sunday in Plains, Georgia (Population 614), I glance up to see a man dressed like one of the Blues Brothers, outfitted in a black suit and dark sun glasses, enter the back door. He scans the hallway and restaurant as a woman with a familiar face enters behind him. She briefly speaks to the cooks, then disappears into the kitchen. Just as quickly, she rushes out the back door, carrying a silver industrial sized container covered with aluminum foil. Although the restaurant is full of the after-church-crowd, no one pays attention even though the person is Rosalyn Carter, former first lady of the United States.

All the while, two women with starched white aprons stand behind the silver buffet table, filling plates to order. The waiter fills glasses with “sweet tea”; the tea of the South. Anyone who asks for “unsweetened tea” is immediately suspect of being an outsider.

This Sunday afternoon, I am dining at Mom’s Place. Most people coming to Plains are not seeking culinary experiences, but to see former President Jimmy Carter’s home town. A special added attraction for the public is that they can attend the Sunday school classes when he teaches at the Maranatha Baptist Church.
Not knowing what to expect, I arrive early to the small town. On the outskirts, I locate the unassuming red-brick one story church under the shadow of ancient pecan trees. As I get out of the car, I can hear an occasional beep of a metal detector through the gentle rustle of the autumn leaves.

Several men, wearing the Secret Service uniform of dark suit and sun glasses, work the metal detectors and search purses. A large German Shepherd stretches out next to the table, sunning himself, while being massaged by one of the men. He sleepily watches as people casually walk past. The relaxed atmosphere would hardly signal the coming of a Nobel-Prize-winning President or the United States.
Entering the church, I see the room is unpretentious with little adornment. The wooden pews slowly fill as members and guests find seats. Microphone in hand, a middle-aged woman with brown hair, suggests how to behave when President Carter arrives. She smatters the instructions with humorous stories and interesting facts involving the president. She whispers to the crowd that it is the president’s birthday, warning that we are NOT to wish him happy birthday, that is, unless he mentions it. And he probably won’t, as he doesn’t like that kind of attention.

When he enters the room, do NOT stand. We are NOT to clap when he finishes his Sunday school class. We are NOT to take pictures during the class. We can, however, take pictures when he talks to the crowd before he starts teaching. And, YES, we can get our picture taken with the President after church. And, IF we want our picture taken with the President, we MUST attend the entire church service after Sunday school. We can NOT leave the building after the President arrives, unless we do NOT want to come back.

As she continues answering questions, in walk President and Mrs. Carter. As Mrs. Carter seats herself, the President walks to the front of the room. Several people jump from their seats and run up the middle aisle. Cameras start flashing. He welcomes us to Plains. Just as predicted, he begins talking to guests seated on his right and moves to the left. This Sunday, the church is filled with visitors from all over the United States, as well as Germany, Colombia, Bulgaria, Korea, Ireland, England and Poland.

After brief questioning, the president provides a short analysis of the current political situation, outspoken as usual. He then starts his Sunday school lesson. In his conclusion, he tells us that Rosalyn will not be staying for the service, as she is hosting a reunion for her side of the family. However, he will stay after church for photos, but must hurry as he wants to make sure to get a piece of some good southern fried chicken. He invites all of us to stay for church.

After the service, we line up outside for the photo opportunity. An area is roped off next to the church; with the President at the end of the line. As I get near, a woman rushes up with a friendly hello, grabbing my camera. Then another man pushes me through to stand next to the President. He greets me with one his famous smiles, as I move to his side. Flash goes the camera and then, just as quickly, I am escorted away.
Returning the next day to Plains, I am disappointed to find Mom’s Place isn’t open on Mondays. Instead, I retreat into the Plains Trading Post, owned and operated by Philip Kurland. The store shelves overflow with candy, political paraphernalia, Plains Cookbooks, fishing equipment, Native American relics, and anything else he decided to add to the “no theme” collection of new and old items. Friendly, Mr. Kurland reels off several short “why did the chicken cross the road” jokes. In between quips, he answers questions about Plains and the Carters. He states that Plains is primarily Republican, although most folk like the Carters “despite their being Democrats”. He says the Carters come in his store, often bringing family members. One story related how the President had heard that Mr. Kurland was ill and stopped by to see how he was doing. Mr. Carter came up stairs to his bedroom and sat for a half hour visiting. Just as he launches into another joke, I ask where I can eat. He advised that the Old Bank Café next door is excellent with special recommendations for the home-made chicken and dumplings.

To my surprise, I see the same waiter and waitresses that were at Mom’s Place the day before. I learn both restaurants are owned and operated by the same busy woman. She stops by the table long enough for me to ask if that really was Mrs. Carter at the restaurant on Sunday. “Oh, yes” she says, “Mrs. Carter was hosting a family reunion at the community center and didn’t have enough meat, so she came by to pick up some fried chicken.” Having tasted this good southern fried chicken, I knew it was no wonder President Carter couldn’t wait to get to Sunday dinner.

Plains is rural America with little change through the years, even though it is now a National Park. The town comprises two blocks with just a few stores on one side of the street and a small city park on the other side. A grain silo and water tower sit a short distance away. The visitor center and museum are located in the Plains High School, once attended by Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter. The museum houses the principal’s office, restored classroom, and auditorium. The 1888 Depot that housed the 1976 Presidential Campaign is also open to the public.

The homestead where Jimmy Carter lived from the age of four until starting college is a short distance out of town. Owned by the family from 1928 to the 1940’s, the farm has been restored to pre-electricity era. In addition to the house, a large barn and other working buildings exist, completed by the necessary outhouse. The self guided tour features exhibits and audio stations with Jimmy Carter narrating his boyhood experiences. In the summer, a garden is maintained. The day I visited, only one other couple was there. Two friendly horses and a mule seemed happy to have company as they came to the fence to say hello, while cats scurried along the fence posts.

The Jimmy Carter National Park tells the story of a little boy, growing up next to cotton fields and playing in the red clay of rural Georgia. He would grow up to be the governor, a president and a Nobel Prize winner. After traveling the world over, he returned to where he began. I have many travel photos, but none are more prized, or more memorable, than the one I had taken with the man that once was that little boy.