Posts Tagged With: jimmy carter

Traveling In Your Own Back Yard


Like many people, my family and I were shocked and saddened to learn that Mr. Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States, has cancer. It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise since so many of his relatives died of cancer, but still…

The 90 year-old seems to be handling the diagnosis and first round of treatment with a good humor; he was nothing but smiles when he held the press conference to let everyone know.

Mr. Carter grew up in Plains, Georgia, which is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from where I grew up. We all knew that he regularly taught Sunday School lessons at his church when he was home and not away advocating for women’s rights or building homes for the impoverished all across the globe, and just generally practicing what he preaches. But, we never made the short drive to attend one of these lessons until I was 24. (I had spent that summer home from grad school, and after months of eating my mom’s and grandma’s home cooking, I could no longer button my only pair of nice pants. So, I had to go meet the former president with my pants undone, nothing but my belt holding them up. I wrote about it HERE.)

Since that first trip, I had visited again, and my family had gone a couple more times. I started reading An Hour Before Daylight, Carter’s memoirs about his childhood, a couple of months ago, and we’ve all been talking about taking another Sunday trip over to Plains.  So, we decided to go this past weekend. We normally show up at the church around 8:30 or 8:45am for Sunday School to start at 10, but we knew that we should probably get there a little extra early this time. So, we got there at 8:00, thinking that was “early.” Boy, were we wrong! People had camped out the night before, and they had to open up the Plains High School as an overflow space for the hundreds of people who couldn’t fit in the church.

That’s where we were directed. But even with this new space, we had come too late. Nearly 450 had fit into the church itself, and the high school building down the street could fit another 250.  But we were around #275 in that line, so we were unfortunately turned away…along with about 250 other people. Of course it was a little disappointing, but I really felt bad for the people who had driven so far and yet didn’t get to hear Mr. Jimmy speak.

But, I’ll say that it was simply heartwarming to see such support for the Carters. People had driven from far and wide not only to hear his spiritual lesson, but to let him and his family know that their thoughts are with them.

When the secret service agent let us know where the cut-off would be for admittance into the high school, not a single person groaned, complained or made a scene. Everyone said, “That’s okay, we understand.” I later told one of the organizers: “Of course, we were all a little disappointed, but please just let Pres. Carter know how many people showed up to support him.”

But of course, he knows. In fact, this was the first time in the three decades that he’s been teaching Sunday School that they’ve had such a crowd; no one was prepared for it. Sunday morning, when they realized that there were way, way too many people to fit in the church sanctuary, Mr. Carter said, “Okay, open up the high school, and I’ll go down there and give a second Sunday School lesson to them.” He could have said – What is this? This is not a spectacle or a campaign rally; it’s my personal worship service. But instead, he accommodated as many people as possible.

He’s said that he’ll keep teaching Sunday School as long as he’s physically and mentally able. Bless his sweet, compassionate heart.


On my way back to Atlanta, I began noticing signs for the Andersonville National Historic Site. Again, this was only about 30 minutes from my house, but I had never visited.  So I pulled in and spent about half an hour driving around the park and reading the placards about the former prisoner of war camp. They had marked out the perimeter of the prison walls, and as you stood overlooking the rolling hills below, you could really imagine how large of a prison camp it was. I couldn’t believe that none of our history teachers had brought us there on a field trip.

The National Park Service has recreated some of the pieces of the prison cap walls to give visitors an idea of what it looked like.

The National Park Service has recreated some of the pieces of the prison cap walls to give visitors an idea of what it looked like.

It’s strange how much of an effect time and maturity can have on a person. I’m a historian and I spent 15 years growing up a short drive from so many historical sites: the home place of a US President, the Andersonville site, Selma-Alabama, numerous Native American sites. The only one I remember visiting with any regularity is Westville, a living museum that recreates the daily life of those from the 1850s. But now, I realize how much of a treasure it is to have had these things so close by.



It was nice to take some of the back roads home. Instead of being inundated by the interstate billboards and strip malls, I got to roll my windows down and take in the beauty of southwest Georgia’s rural countryside. It’s scenery that I saw every single day for years…and never thought that there was anything particularly beautiful about it. But, once you’re gone and spend time surrounded by asphalt and concrete, the rolling green hills seem more liberating…not quite as confining as they seemed to a restless teenager.

Of course, this landscape only appears to be “natural.” There’s nothing natural about the tidy pecan orchards or the hundreds of acres of crops, all neatly aligned. Even the pine tree forests are arranged in perfectly straight rows. The fields that aren’t planted in cotton at the moment are tilled up or mowed nice and neat. This isn’t natural, untouched wilderness; this land has been put under the yoke of agriculture. But still, it’s pretty.

A few years of age can change your perspective. It can turn a drive down ordinary, everyday back roads into a trip, a chance to do some traveling, even if it’s in your own back yard.


Categories: Travel | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Recommendations

It seems like all I do is read…Sometimes I think my eyes are going to fall out of their sockets as I just go insane.  But, then again, I guess all that reading makes sense since I’m a historian (or maybe being insane make sense since I’m a historian?)  Either way – sane or not – I am fortunate that I do get to read so much.  Reading is a way to travel (even time travel!) to different epochs or far away worlds without ever leaving your doorstep.  Sometimes the places you go to aren’t so pretty (my dissertation explores different Holocaust memories), but other times, the words of others are just inspiring.

Most of my day is spent frantically reading through old newspaper articles, diary entries, other snippets from the archives, and stacks of history books.  But I try to keep a good balance of things I read:  In the morning, I read non-fiction.  During the day, it’s history research.  And at night, I read from a novel before going to sleep.  So, on any given day, I’m reading three different books, but as odd as it sounds, it’s a good way to keep myself sane!  I’ve shared many of my reviews of academic books, but this morning I wanted to share a few titles of the books I’ve recently read that have nothing to do with my research.


Every morning, after I catch up on the daily news and water our garden and flowers, I enjoy my last cup of coffee with a good, non-fiction book.  It’s my way of preparing myself for the day and trying to learn something new that doesn’t have anything to do with my research.

For the past year, I slowly made my way through Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.  It’s a mammoth of a book that begins literally at the beginning of the time by exploring theories about the beginning of the universe and ends with the emergence of Homo sapiens.  In between, Bryson deftly leads readers through some (most? all?) of the major scientific developments in human history.

Bill BrysonThe amount of research required to write such a book is simply staggering, but Bryson’s major achievement, in my opinion, is the way that he weaves it all together into a narrative that is simultaneously educational and incredibly entertaining.  More than once I found myself laughing out loud as he let you in on some of the more obscure – and often absurd – secrets about the quirky personalities of the explorers, scientists, and curious amateurs who made significant (or not so significant) achievements in various fields.  But, of course, beyond entertaining you, Bryson teaches you something, as well.  After completing the book, I certainly feel more prepared on trivia nights!

Reading the book felt more like sitting next to Bryson and having a friendly chat; his writing style is simply that engaging.  Each chapter is only 10-15 pages, and they’re self-encompassing topics.  So, you can read one chapter at a time, and not pick the book back up for a week and not have to worry about remembering where you left off. (Between our wedding, our move, and working on my dissertation, it took me over 12 months to finally finish the book – but I think a partial reason it took so long is because I didn’t want it to end!)

The long, overarching narrative that Bryson weaves is fantastic.  You certainly are amazed by some of humanity’s achievements (even if they were accidents), but you also are left with a feeling that our present-day situation isn’t preordained.  There were so many instances when evolution, politics – human history in general – could have gone any number of different ways.   In other words, you’re left with a feeling of humility and appreciation for our world today.

After finishing Bryson’s book, I quickly devoured a short work called The Lena Baker Story, by Lela Bond Phillips.  It is an incredibly depressing account about the first and only woman to be executed by the electric chair in the state of Georgia.  The book was put out by a local researcher and published by a small company, so it’s not the fanciest history book out there.  And perhaps it’s just the historian in me being nit-picky, but I found some of the style choices of the book to be perplexing.  For example, when giving direct quotes (from courtroom testimony, for example), Phillips puts them in italics instead of just using quotation marks.Lena Baker

But, such technicalities aside, this is a commendable work of local history that documents the life of Lena Baker, who grew up in a small, rural town in southwest Georgia.  Lena had a hard life, from beginning to its early end.  She and her family were destitute, she suffered from alcohol addiction, and on top of all that, she was black in the Jim Crow South.  When she shoots and kills a white man in self defense, there is no hope for her in the justice system.  The jury assigned to her case is made up of white males who were friends of the man killed; Lena’s defense attorney gave a half-hearted attempt to put up a defense, and Phillips suggests that there was even some tampering with the evidence.  And readers know from page one that there is no happy ending.  Lena Baker was killed by electrocution in Georgia State Prison in the spring of 1945.

I read this book because I grew up in the same town as Lena, so for me, the book was almost personal.  I knew the buildings that Phillips described; I can picture the landscapes not from imagination, but from my memories.  That’s why the book was so upsetting to me.  This wasn’t a general story of systematic racism in a far away Southern town; these were people who walked the same streets as I did.  By the story’s end, I’m not sure if I was more angered or saddened.  I commend Phillips for attempting to be objective and for not passing judgment.  But, I know that if I had written this story, I would have lambasted those involved, from those who were supposed to be enforcing the law to those who masqueraded as defenders of justice: the lawyers and judge who couldn’t even be bothered to put up a good mock trial.

Just as I sat down to begin this post, I Googled “the Lena Baker Story” and found that the book was actually turned into a movie in 2008!  After watching a trailer for it, it looks like some of the names of people and places may have been changed, but it seems like it stays pretty true to the book.  Now I can’t wait to find it on Netflix or rent it from Amazon. Here’s the preview for the movie…But I also recommend purchasing the short book.


I’ve now started President Jimmy Carter’s memoir about his boyhood:  An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood.  I picked it to read after The Lena Baker Story because I needed something a little less depressing to read in the morning.  I really love “Mista Jimmuh,” and not necessarily because of his politics or his presidency.  In all honesty, I haven’t really studied his time in the White House that much, but it seems like he may be a better ex-Hour Before Daylightpresident than he did a sitting president.  Either way, I love what President Carter stands for: peace, compassion, understanding, and education.  And while he’s a devout Christian, he’s not one of the judgmental Bible thumpers that I grew up around.  He’s intelligent and can grapple with “big picture” issues, but he grew up a poor farmer, so he certainly can understand the everyday man, too.  He’s usually calm and level-headed, but not afraid to speak his mind, even when his opinions aren’t popular.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Pres. Carter when he was back home in Plains, Georgia for a weekend.  His home is only about 20 minutes away from our farm, and my family and I even went to church with him.  We listened as he taught Sunday School, and his whole message was about compassion. I loved it.  So, now I’m excited to read this book and see what helped shape Jimmy Carter into the man he is today.


As I said before, I crack open a novel as I lay in bed at night and let the fantastical worlds take my mind away from the research on the Holocaust.  These books, I just read for fun.  To be entertained.

I recently read Stephen King’s The Shining.  I had never even seen the movie, but I loved the only other King novel I’d read (The Stand), so I thought I’d give The Shining a try. My god, it was truly horrifying!  It was probably not a good idea to read that right before trying to go to sleep each night.  Nope.

The Shining

I’m an unabashed fan of the fantasy genre: the more magic, dragons, and imagined worlds there are in the book, the better.  Before I read The Shining, I read the first book in Patrick Rothfuss’Kingkiller Chronicle” series, The Name of the Wind.  It was pretty good, and I especially liked that it’s in the first person.  But, honestly, the book didn’t yank my chain, and I don’t think I’ll be finishing the series.  It’s no fault of Rothfuss,’ because he’s an excellent writer.  I just wasn’t in to the story.

The Name of the Wind

I’m currently reading Of Bone and Thunder by Chris Evans.  It is, of course, a fantasy novel, but it’s slightly different than others I’ve read, because Evans was an editor of military historian for decades.  So, this story line follows soldiers in an army that is attempting to put down rebellions by some of the subjects in a far away, hot, jungle.  Of course, at first the enemy is understood as something sub-human (well, actually, they’re NOT human), but as time goes on, the soldiers enlisted to fight the war realize that they share an awful lot in common with the native “slyts.”   Even though they are “the enemy,” they have families, farms, joys.  So, it’s an interesting foray into the mindset that warfare cultivates – – – and it’s also awesome that there are fire-breathing dragons and academy-trained wizards.

Of Thunder and Bone

And, of course I have to give another shout out to my favorite book series of all time (besides Harry Potter, obviously):  The Crossroads Trilogy by Kate Elliot.  My god, these are three fantastic books.  The amount of detail she gives in describing the world that she has created is impressive.  You can read my review of the series here.


Okay, that’s all, folks.  If any of the brief reviews and recommendations sound interesting, give the books a try!  Also, if you’ve got any excellent books that you think I’d enjoy reading, let me know in the comment section below :)

Categories: Book Review, Entertainment, Nerdgasm | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Prince of What?

About 45 minutes from my house lies a town even smaller than mine.  And actually not much sets Plains, Georgia apart from all of the neighboring small towns except one thing:  it’s home to the 39th President of the United States, Jimmy Carter.

I hate to admit that, even after I became engrossed in History about six years ago, I had never visited Plains to see President Carter’s boyhood farm, his high school, or his current home.  My family and I had been talking about it for a while and we finally went to visit some friends there this weekend.  That’s when we found out the Carters were in town for the weekend.  In fact, he was going to be teaching Sunday school at his hometown church just outside of downtown Plains.  Cue the adrenaline and excitement!

So, we all woke up early this morning, and I have to admit that I had a moment where I had to stop and think, “What do you wear when you go to see a US President?”  We arrived at Maranatha Baptist Church ( early, went through the Secret Service security, and finally got our seats:  second row.  As someone told us what we could and could not do when President Carter arrived, I wondered to myself:  What would Mr. Jimmy, the winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, and the president who founded both the Departments of Energy and Education, teach about?  I couldn’t picture him being a fire-and-brimstone type.  Would it be more of a biblical history lesson?  Defining morals?

The door opened and two secret service agents walked in, escorting the 86 year-old (though not so feeble as one might think) “Jimmuh” Carter.  He walked directly to the middle, explained away his cane (he just had knee surgery) and then asked where we were all from.  A good 20-25 states were represented, and there were also guests from Poland, Spain, Mexico, South Korea, Bosnia, the Netherlands, and France.  And then he started his Sunday school lesson.

The words he used were eloquent and his Southern accent dignified and sweet.  He opened by addressing a topic that I myself have both wondered and written about: the vast difference between the Old and New Testaments of the Bible (my particular interest is the difference between the god of the Old Testament, God, and the god of the New Testament, Jesus). He began by asking if it were possible to find missionaries in the Old Testament when it seemed that the Old Testament seemed to focus overwhelmingly on anger and violence, the destruction of entire towns, the assassination of women and children after war, and other such gruesome scenes.  He went on to admit that most Christians preferred the New Testament over the Old, mainly because the Old Testament focused on minutia, tiny and unimportant details of daily life.  “It lays out how many times we should wash our hands before eating, how many steps we’re allowed to take on the Sabbath, things that just aren’t important,” Mr. Carter told us.  “It paints a picture of God up there diligently taking account of every single thing that we do all day long.”  I half expected him to add, “And that’s not a very pleasant God, is it?”

But instead, he went on to tell us that Jesus came on the scene in the New Testament and changed everything.  He provided a new understanding, one which holds that God is love.  Actually, I’m sure that you can find the God of love periodically throughout the Old Testament, but it wasn’t until Jesus came along did the everlasting love and forgiveness aspects take the foreground.

And then, Jimmy asked a peculiar question:  Who are the chosen people?  Someone answered, the Israelites, and a woman behind me yelled out, Christians.  Jimmy nodded his head and repeated the answers slowly like any good teacher does (so you don’t feel foolish), and then said, “I don’t think so.  But let’s take a look in the Bible and see…”

That actually brings up another topic – namely that the Bible can be interpreted in many different ways.  And how a man interprets the Bible says a lot about him.  (But I’ll leave that alone for now…)

Mr. Jimmy read about a prayer that King Solomon offered up to God, and from that he came to the conclusion that “everybody on this earth belongs to the chosen people if they live their lives by Christ’s principles.  But now I guess we’ve got to define Christ’s principles, don’t we?”

And this is where I got a little nervous.  Was he going to go with the same old routine that I had heard before, the “No one is saved or good enough unless they say a particular prayer and go to a church”?  Or was he going to choose a more humanitarian path?  The answer came in the form of a question:

“Jesus.  He was the Prince of what?”  There was a mumbled answer from the congregation, but “peace” could be discerned.  “Exactly right:  Peace.  He was the prince of peace,” said teacher Jimmy, flashing a wide and genuine smile.  I breathed a sigh of relief and looked forward to hearing more from the old man with twinkling eyes up front.

“Can you imagine a world,” he asked “in which everyone followed Christ’s central message – that is, loving your neighbors and your enemies as yourself…treat others how you want to be treated.”  If I’m not mistaken, this was what Jesus called the second greatest commandment, only behind loving the lord with all your heart.

    Mr. Jimmy (he just didn’t seem like “President Carter” sitting there in front of us, talking so sincerely about love and peace) went on to spur us to imagine a world in which even governments followed Christ’s principle of peace.  And then he paused for a moment and said, “I don’t want to offend my own country – and I served in the Navy for 11 years – but it seems that the American government is all too willing, maybe even eager to use its military might to solve problems.  I’ve seen lately too often that our leaders use our military force instead of negotiation or diplomacy or other peaceful means to get things done.  Just go somewhere else in the world and ask someone if America is a peaceful country.  They’ll just laugh at you.”

Mr. Jimmy’s message (I guess I could compromise and call him Mr. Carter) reminded me of a night in class back in college.  The professor was – is – one of my favorite people in the whole world, and most certainly is one of the most brilliant and wisest human beings I have yet to run across (several of us still believe that his mind is so powerful he can turn troublesome students into a quarter to help buy himself a Diet Coke).  He is a professor of philosophy and during a “Philosophy of Christianity” course I was surprised to find out that he was also a minister.  When someone asked, “You’re a Christian?!” the professor explained, “Yes, a lot of people don’t consider me a Christian because I don’t believe the Bible literally.  I don’t think Jesus actually rose from the dead three days after his crucifixion.  But, I do consider myself a Christian in that I have dedicated my life to the message of Christ:  recognizing the humanity in everyone, showing love and compassion, even to those I don’t feel deserve it.”

I had never thought of it that way before, but I loved that definition of “being Christian.”  In fact, it was one I could get behind.  That definition of “Christian” wasn’t exclusive; it didn’t exclude other peoples – people who were loving and compassionate people – just because they didn’t pray a certain way.

It actually makes me think of a quote by Mahatma Gandhi:  I dont reject your Christ, I love your Christ.  Its just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.  

I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that Mr. Jimmy would agree when I say that we in this “Christian nation” better start acting like true Christians and following the message of Compassion and Peace.


    I thought about finishing up there, but I do have a few other things I would like to make available.  First, I’ll add that after the church service (where the Carters sat a few pews back, just sitting among the other church members), both Mr. President and Mrs. Rosalynn stuck around for about half an hour to take pictures with anyone who wanted to.  So, our family – affectionately known as Mama’ernem, which will have to be explained in a later post! – got our picture taken with the Carters before we headed for Sunday dinner.

Now I’m going to do a little PR for Plains.  Because of the horrible economic times, the small town of Plains is suffering the fate of many other small towns around America – it’s slowly shrinking, and it may look a little bleak at first.  However, for anyone interested in politics, history, or Smalltown, USA, a day trip to Plains is well worth it!

Main Street has a number of antique shops to browse through, and you can even stay at the gorgeous historic inn (

Just call “Miss Jan” at (229) 824-4517, or email her at for information.  Besides being a wonderful host, Jan has been friends with the Carters for her whole life, so she’s got plenty of stories to tell that you won’t hear on TV!

The US Department of the Interior has taken over Jimmy Carter’s boyhood farm and has turned it into a national park.  You can visit Jimmy’s bedroom, see the backyard that he played in, and sit in his front porch swing.  Check out for more information on the farm.

There is also only one place to eat in Plains, and that’s Mom’s Kitchen.  I’ve eaten there twice in the last two days and let me tell you, the food is awesome, fresh and homemade.  You won’t be disappointed if you’re looking for genuine Southern cooking.  However, if you’re one of those types that count their calories, you better skimp on your meals for about a week in advance, because as any good Southerner will tell you, we’ll eat most anything deep-fried.  Another advantage to Mom’s Kitchen:  the Carter’s have been known to drop in for supper when they’re in town.

So, if you live in the area, take the time to go explore Plains.  Even if you’re not from here and are just making a tour of the South, Plains is an excellent spot to stop for the night.  It’s humbling to see the house where Jimmy grew up without electricity, knowing that he went on to spend four years in the White House, help make peace between Israel and Egypt, and then later win a Nobel Peace Prize for affecting the entire world in a positive manner through his efforts at the Carter Center.

And if you’d like a chance to meet President Carter, he teaches Sunday school most of the time when he is home. You can check out his Sunday School schedule HERE.  Take the time to go hear his message; I’m sure it’ll be an inspiring one.

Don’t know where Plains, Georgia (31780) is?  MapQuest it; or if GoogleMaps is more of your thing, use it.  You can also visit the town’s website at  Or if talking to a person suits you best, then give Jan a call (number above) – she’ll be able to tell you anything and everything about Plains.


    I think I will end with a quote from another wise man, Albert Einstein:

“Peace cannot be kept by force.  It can only be achieved by understanding.

Categories: History, Politics/Current Events, Religion, Travel | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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