Thursday, July 8, 2010

An Hour Before Daylight by Jimmy Carter

This was an enjoyable read in which the 39th president of the United States shares his memories of his boyhood growing up in rural Georgia. I had a strange reaction to it. Jimmy Carter is the first president I have conscious memories of being president—he was elected in 1976 when I was eight years old—and it took me a while to accept that he had grown up during a time of such poverty and ignorance.

Here’s an example. Carter was born in 1924, when everyone, evidently, had some kind of fungus growing on them or parasite living inside them.

Our most common ailments were the endemic ground itch, ringworm, boils and carbuncles, and sties on our eyes, plus the self-inflicted splinters, cuts, abrasions, bruises, wasp or bee stings, and what we called stumped toes. We didn’t worry much about red bugs, or chiggers, but Mama made us check for ticks after we’d spent time in the woods and swamps. She knew how to remove them with tweezers, so the aftermath of their bites was never serious. There was no insect repellent available to us except citronella, which was so ineffective that we rarely used it, despite the persistent yellow flies and the swarms of mosquitoes that emerged a few hours after a rain. We quickly developed a lifetime ability to ignore completely the tiny black gnats that were always so annoying to visitors.

Ringworm was more troublesome. The tiny, closely spaced spirals, occurring mostly around the crotch, itched terribly, and we believed they were caused by some demonic little circling creature. Later, to my surprise, I learned that no worm or bug was within these patterns, but something like a fungus. There was sometimes a competition for our scratching between them and the red bugs, which we always expected to pick up when we sat on the banks of a creek to fish.

Almost everyone was afflicted from time to time with hookworm, which we called ground itch. My playmates and I suffered the first stages of it. A study of black and white rural schoolchildren during the 1930s revealed a hookworm infection rate of between 26 and 49 percent. The difference between me and some of the others was that Mama always put medicine between my toes, which prevented the parasites from migrating over time into my lungs, then my throat, and from there into my small intestines. Untreated, the millions of tiny worms consumed a major portion of the scarce nutrients within the bodies of our poorest neighbors. More significantly, I guess, we avoided hookworm by having a fairly sanitary outdoor toilet and didn’t habitually walk in soil that included human excrement.

Yummy. And this environment was one in which not just illness was prevalent, but where the causes and courses of it were poorly understood.

We absorbed a lot of information, or superstitious beliefs, about the most prevalent illnesses. Everyone knew that for pneumonia, for example, the crisis would come on an odd-numbered day after the onset of the disease, sometimes as early as the fifth day but most likely on the seventh or ninth. At this crucial time either the patient would die or the five or six degrees of elevated temperature would break. In the white community (and I presume also among our black neighbors), special prayer services would be held in the patient’s church, and during Sunday-morning worship and regular weekday prayer meetings all the congregations would pray for recovery or (in hopeless cases) for fortitude. I remember the gathering of wagons, buggies, and automobiles in the streets or roads around the home of a desperately ill person. Friends and relatives would bring flowers, firewood, fruit, and their best-prepared dishes, and take over all responsibilities for household chores during the final days. The number of people would increase in and around the house when it was expected that the attending physician would make an announcement of either continuing life or imminent death. Our prayers were answered when he heard the words: “She has survived the crisis!”

But understood or not, when death came to these people, it was a calamity that drew them together, neighbor helping neighbor in a way little seen in our more enlightened age.

When the news was bad and the patient died, the whole town was drawn into active condolences, showing great respect and concern for the bereaved family. A group of women would be in the house around the clock, preparing food, welcoming grieving guests, cleaning up, and sparing the family as much burden as possible. Almost everyone attended the funeral service, the procession to the graveyard was always slow and stately, and for prominent citizens the mayor would direct that all the stores be closed. All other vehicles, whether local or passing through, had to stop and pull off the road as the procession passed; any people along the way who were not participating would stand facing the road, and men would remove their hats. The cemetery services were directed both by the local pastor and, depending on the secular membership of the deceased, by American Legionnaires, Masons, or Woodmen of the World. Before the casket was lowered into the grave, everyone was expected to come under the protective shade tent to embrace, or to shake hands and commiserate with the family. After these duties were performed, folks could then enjoy a kind of homecoming in the cemetery, with warm welcomes to all the out-of-town people who had come to honor the deceased.

But wait, there’s one final detail you must not fail to note.

Like everything else, the Lebanon Cemetery was segregated, with whites buried on the west side and black graves located to the east.

And this, for me, was the most interesting part of Carter’s book. You can look at the environment that shaped this future President of the United States in two ways. First, there’s the essential goodness of the people—their willingness to help each other in times of need, all equally humble and powerless against the larger forces that they perceive as the inscrutable machinations of their holy god. But second, there’s the fundamental ignorance and racism that no one seems able to transcend, baked into every aspect of their lives, commemorated for their own version of eternity in black and white plots carefully apportioned in the graveyard.

This is not an either/or proposition. It’s both. The people are good and ignorant. Loving and racist. It’s a contradiction that describes so much of American history, and it’s no surprise that it describes the boyhood of one of our most popular Presidents. After all, it almost defines what it means to be American.

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