Motoring along U.S. Highway 280 in southern Georgia, well past Americus and heading west, I pass an estate with a gated driveway and a flagpole. Flying proudly on the latter is a Trump flag, complete with that catchy slogan: Make America Great Again.
On a drive that has felt increasingly sacred with every mile, I flash the idea of pulling over, finding the offender, and shaking some sense into him. “Your hero shamelessly practices at least six of the seven deadly sins, led by greed, followed closely by wrath and lust, and his path to American greatness involves trashing the environment, insulting our allies, various scams that benefit only the wealthy, separating young children from their parents, and let’s not even talk about appointments to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the world leader who exemplifies the Christian values you purportedly endorse lives just down the street, so how about flying his flag instead?”
But no, I am not here for a political argument. I am here to wallow in that neutral zone between history and nostalgia. Which is appropriate, because that is the purpose of my destination, the little town of Plains. For anyone unaware, Plains was and remains the home of Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States, and first lady Rosalynn, too.
On this picture-perfect day at the summer solstice, Plains greets visitors with finely kept lawns and pecan trees; a small clear lake by the welcome center, where someone is fishing; and tasteful reminders pretty much everywhere of its famous resident. We are frozen in a time that ostensibly is the late 70s, but actually never existed.
I park by the one-block downtown. Across the railroad tracks is the gas station of Billy Carter, as a sign proclaims, conveniently omitting the fact that the owner has been deceased for many years. Maybe three of us tourists are wandering about, and I assume a few more at the official parks and historical sites, such as the Carter boyhood home.
I walk into the largest of the block of stores. It is chock full of old campaign buttons and posters, as well as racks of paperbacks and, incongruously, some old comic books and baseball cards. The woman at the counter has dyed jet-black hair and holds herself primly.
“We’re the largest political memorabilia store in the south,” she tells me.
I struggle to comment appropriately.
Circa 1989, in my hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, I am working at a large and very popular video rental store. On a busy day when the computers go down, I follow proper protocol and ask to see a customer’s driver’s license. The man hands over the plastic, which I stare at, because the license includes no photograph. In place of the photo is a message in tiny print, which I actually read. It says, “By order of the United States Government, this person does not need a photograph here.” And I think, what the hey?
So I do the next logical thing, which is to turn my gaze slightly to the right and read the name. Which is…Walter Mondale. I look up, finally, and there he is. And it dawns on me, with a sinking feeling, that I had just carded the former Vice President of the United States.
I mumble an apology, something like “I’m sorry, I know who you are.” He replies very graciously.
If I were a different person or in a different mood, I would tell this story to the prim woman at the counter. I also might engage her in a conversation about politics, either past or present, or I might buy one of the Carter-authored books she has for sale, about world peace or Habitat for Humanity or his life as boy or his career in elected office. Then I might read it outdoors, underneath one of the postcard-perfect magnolias, as I sip a sweet tea with lemon until the day ends. But I do none of these things. Instead, I head to the car and hightail it out of town.
Where am I going next? Why, the ballpark in Atlanta, of course. The Braves are hosting the Orioles, and I think if I make no further stops, I can arrive in time for the opening pitch.
I wind up missing the whole first inning.
Half an hour before game time, the ballpark just outside the window, I am mired in a labyrinth of narrow roadways and tiny parking lots and ramps that are marked ‘reservations only’. Good heavens, this stadium doesn’t have enough parking. Spaces where one might expect them are filled by pre-existing suburban sprawl, such as a two-story office building for the Boy Scouts of America, located just outside the left-field entrance.
I find a small lot next to the Marriott Hotel, the charge is $20, and the walk to the stadium takes 20 minutes.
Until two years ago, the Braves played in a relatively modern, perfectly acceptable ballpark just south of downtown and convenient to the light rail system. For whatever reason, though—and I assume it’s mostly greed (see list of sins, deadly, in an earlier paragraph)—the team decamped to an exit off the belt freeway in the suburbs, in the middle of a business park. Meaning, they invested billions on non-sustainable development.
The stadium is cozy, but non-descript. Take away the signs and logos, and a moderately-educated visitor would be hard pressed to distinguish the surroundings from any of the other two dozen modern baseball palaces now dotting America.
Part of me feels like a traitor just for being here, let alone buying a ticket.
Nevertheless…I like the place.
Maybe it’s because the crowd is ethnically diverse, and an interracial couple shows up on the Kiss Cam. Maybe it’s because of the party venue on the outdoor plaza, which proudly advertised an LGBQT event. Maybe because the Braves chose that night to honor their greatest star and a real American hero, Hank Aaron. Maybe because the local cheer—the Tomahawk Chop—is arguably the eeriest experience in baseball, especially at night, when fans switch on the flashlights of their cell phones and wave them up and down.
The Braves can’t seem to solve the Baltimore pitcher, Alex Cobb, who manages to survive into the seventh inning. When Baltimore scores six runs in the top half of the ninth, most of the fans give up—including me, and I begin the long walk back to the car. En route, I hear the inevitable news that the Braves scored four runs to tie the game and send the affair into overtime. They’re still at it when I get to the hotel. Ultimately Baltimore wins, 10 to 7, after 15 innings.
If I had to choose a singular memory of Georgia, it would not be from anything described so far. The memory is the Confederate Flag (aka, the Stars and Bars) which I observed flying off a freeway exit near the Florida border. Seeing this flag in the deep, rural south is nothing new. What was new, though, at least to me, was seeing it on a tall, modern flagpole. Flying proudly, and made of new cloth.
Chilled me to the bone, and chills me writing about it now.
I stand resolute against the political tide. I don’t know what, if anything, I can do to slow or stop it. But I remain a proud liberal, I remain staunchly opposed to everything that the flags of the Confederacy and Donald Trump stand for. God bless the United States of America. We need all the help we can get.