A president's rise from farm to world

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Twenty-four years ago next week, Jimmy Carter began his presidency on a simple note. After taking the oath of office, he defied tradition by walking a mile and a half from the Capitol to the White House with his wife, Rosalynn. No limousine motorcade for them, at least not that day.

This modest act crowned a remarkable political journey that began in childhood on a peanut farm in Georgia. It is a boyhood Carter describes simply and eloquently in his new book, "An Hour Before Daylight," a paean to the people, places, and values that shaped the life of a shy, bookish boy who read "War and Peace" in fifth grade and went barefoot from March to October every year.

His was a remarkable childhood, set within a close-knit family and characterized by Depression-era simplicity, frugality, and hard work. The Carters pumped water from a well, used an outdoor privy, and read by kerosene lamp until 1938, when the Rural Electrification Project brought electricity.

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Like other farm children, young Jimmy rose before dawn, earning just 25 cents for a full day's work. Over the years, he picked cotton, milked cows, pruned watermelons, fertilized crops, and carried buckets of water to laborers in sunbaked fields. He climbed trees to help his mother harvest her crop of pecans. At age 5, the pint-sized entrepreneur even began selling boiled peanuts on the streets of Plains.

But life was not all work. His parents gave him freedom to roam the 350-acre farm. He also loved to fish and hunt, especially with his father.

The young Carter quietly absorbed political lessons as well. His father never forgave Franklin Roosevelt during the New Deal for ordering farmers to destroy more than 10 million acres of cotton and 200,000 young hogs.

Carter moved easily and unself-consciously between two cultures, white and black. "My childhood world was really shaped by black women," he writes. Until his junior year in high school, his best friends were black. As a farm boy, he notes, "I spoke two languages." With black playmates, he said "et" instead of "eaten," "rid" instead of "rode," and sprinkled his speech with words like "hisself" and "yestiddy."

For whites and blacks alike, racial separation was "accepted like breathing." When Carter and his closest friend, Alonzo Davis, known as A.D., went to the movies in nearby Americus, Ga., they rode in separate sections of the train, designated "white" and "colored." At the theater, A.D. headed for the back entrance and sat in the top balcony.

Sharecropping, too, cast shadows over Southern life. Tenant farmers often lived in abject poverty, with few basic rights. Even Carter's father, Earl, who treated tenants with "scrupulous fairness," could not protect them from indebtedness. As one compensation, Carter's mother, Lillian, a nurse, ministered tirelessly to tenant families.

"Role model" and "hero" have become hackneyed terms today, applied to everyone from celebrities to athletes. Carter's role models - he avoids the term - were real, part of the daily fabric of his life. Among the five people he considers most influential, besides his parents, three were black. Of Rachel Clark, who worked with her husband on the farm, he writes, "Much more than my parents, she talked to me about the religious and moral values that shaped a person's life."

It was Carter's uncle, Tom Gordy, who sparked his interest in a military career. Young Jimmy set the naval academy at Annapolis as his "exclusive goal in life."

Still, his greatest ambition lay at home: He wanted to please his father, who called him "Hot." His feelings about Daddy remain "strongly mixed." Love and admiration combine with "concern about his aloofness from me. I never remembered him saying, 'Good job, Hot,' or thanking me when I had done my best to fulfill one of his quiet suggestions that had the impact of orders."

Carter's "I" is pleasantly matter-of-fact. "More than anyone else in my family, perhaps even including my daddy, I could understand the plight of the black farmers, because I lived so much among them," he writes. Elsewhere he notes with engaging modesty, "I am sure that there are few living Georgians who, in their lifetime, have eaten more possum meat than I have."

Blessed with a keen memory and the humility to recount painful and embarrassing experiences, Carter has written a book that is valuable on several levels. Part history, part sociology, it offers a window on a bygone agricultural world. It also quietly illustrates the importance of nurturing children with high expectations, early responsibility, and enduring values.

Above all, his memoir offers an affecting chronicle of the early years of a barefoot boy from backwater Georgia who eventually walked his way into history books as the 39th president.

Marilyn Gardner is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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