Can’t See the President for the Beer

Jimmy Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his humanitarian work around the world. On a trip through Georgia late that year, we decided to make a detour through Plains, Georgia, to see the small town where President Carter and his wife still lived.

My travel companion–my now ex-husband–and I entered the small general store in the middle of downtown, which consisted of about two blocks of old-fashioned storefronts. We could have arrived in 1952 instead of 2002 except for the new flip phone residing in my pocket and two black SUVs parked at the curb outside the front door. Time had stopped in a good way for the home of the thirty-ninth president known as the peanut farmer with a colorful mother and outrageous brother.

The clerk behind the wooden counter greeted us warmly. “Welcome,” she said. “You’re in for a treat today. The monthly rotary meeting is going on in the back.” She pointed to a door at the rear of the store.

Not sure why that would be a treat for us, we smiled warmly and said we were excited to be there.

“Take your time and look around. The meeting will be over soon. If you stay long enough, you might get to meet the President and Rosalynn when they come out from the meeting. Those are the secret service vans out front.”

It seems that we chose our visit wisely to coincide with the Carters return from Geneva where he was awarded the 2002 Nobel Peace Award. They had come to the rotary meeting in their hometown so the leaders in Plains, Georgia, could offer up their own brand of pride and congratulations.

So, what else could we do but immerse ourselves into the store that had many shelves dedicated to the Carter presidency? Our daughter, a sophomore in college, had developed a strong interest in Carter and the work he was doing post-presidency. She hadn’t even been born until after his four years in the White House. I quickly put her on notice via my flip phone and kept the phone in my hand with her number up. I planned to tell Mr. Carter that my daughter was a fan and ask him to say hello to her via the phone.

Then we began our journey up and down the aisles intent on finding a souvenir to mark our visit. On the last aisle, furthest from cash register and front door, we found a six-pack of unopened Billy Beer, the beer made famous by Billy Carter, the untamed brother of Jimmy. My ex–an inveterate collector of ephemera–examined the cans and studied the price. He wanted to buy it, but I was reluctant. Seemed we could find a more appropriate way to remember President Carter.

Several people suddenly pushed behind us in the aisle, but we were so intent in our discussion of the beer, we moved in closer to the shelves to allow them to pass without turning around. We were slightly annoyed that in the empty store, they had chosen our aisle to move through the store.

We finally decided upon a magnet for our refrigerator and took it back to the pleasant clerk at the front.

“Did you get to talk to him?” she asked with a lilt to her voice.

“Who?” I asked.

“President Carter and his wife. They passed right by you back there.” She pointed to the place where we’d been negotiating our souvenir choice. “There they go.”

We looked out the window and the two black SUVs we’d noticed earlier were pulling away from the store and headed down the road.

Because of our intense focus on something right in front of our noses, we missed the bigger picture. The beer fogged our attention, and we missed the opportunity to shake the hands of two people who stood for all that’s right with humanity.

Lesson learned and still learning. Focus may get the job done but if it causes us to lose sight of our surroundings whether it be natural beauty or people then we’ve sacrificed missing the important things in life.

In the twenty years since that day, I’ve learned that the moments we are engaged with all that teems around us give us the most reward. And it’s always good to be reminded.

Rest easy, Mr. President. May your passage be as peaceful as the rest of your life where you made a difference in the lives of millions. Your legacy through Habitat for Humanity and your other causes will continue to help others for many years to come. Thank you.

2 responses to “Can’t See the President for the Beer”

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