Clayman's Corner: A Tough Weekend in Red

A true fan never gives up, never wavers. We all know that the bad days define the good ones – as long as you don't let them defeat you. But you could see right off our boys in red were in trouble. I mean, the blue guys just looked too big, too fast, and too able on this day. But, old as he was, the leader of the red wasn't about to give up. Dick Vermeil? Actually, I was thinking of the former President of the United States.

Huh? What does Jimmy Carter have to do with last night's eminently forgettable MNF contest? Let's go to Plains, Georgia and the annual Peanut Festival. Now, I'd never been to Plains. In fact, my only time in Georgia had been passing through the airport in Atlanta. But this past weekend, I would be there to meet the Carter family and discuss a nascent project involving the President's late brother, Billy.

I was about to get to know Georgia as few folks do. And it would involve not only a priest but a road game by a courageous team in red against the stacked deck of a home team in blue.

As I changed planes in Denver on Friday, I couldn't help but think that the Chiefs would soon be on their way. There was also a nagging feeling that the odd schedule of consecutive night games might bode ill for the red. But that was Monday. Today, I was on to Atlanta.

Watching the GPS update on my airplane TV screen a while later, I realized we were 39,000 feet above southern Missouri. I was within a few hundred miles of Kansas City. You and your Chiefs must be getting to me, because I had a sudden wish to go up there, if only to see an empty Arrowhead.

It was pleasantly hot and humid as we de-planed. After a dinner of Georgia barbecue with my writing partner Brendan and his lovely wife, Ophelia, we were off the next morning to Plains.

The world became wider and simpler with each mile of the three-hour drive. Many of the forested areas we whizzed past had trees covered in vines I was told are called "kudzu." Stopping at a convenience store for gas, I saw large pots which in L.A. would be nacho cheese and jalapenos.

In Georgia, they were boiled peanuts, regular, salted and Cajun. Even if I was a huge peanut fan – which I'm not – I'd have hesitated to sample this local delicacy. As it was, I watched a tiny older woman come in, fill up a Styrofoam cup almost as big as she was with them and leave; I assumed she was planning to eat them all. It wasn't a pleasant thought.

Did I say "boiled" peanuts? I should have said "bowled." At least, that's how everyone there said it in Georgia.

As we moved into farmland with cotton and peanuts on both sides, I was pleased to only see a single confederate flag. Not that I have any problem with the symbol – as long as it stays where it belongs, in a museum.

When Brendan, who happens to be a Massachusetts Yankee, stopped to ask for directions, he reminded me of another local idiosyncrasy. It goes something like this: "Y'all go down a block, then turn right at the first red light, then go another two blocks and turn left at the next red light." Brendan, being the clever Yankee he is, would always ask, "Which way do you go if the light is green?"

Which, of course, goes a long way towards explaining the continuing Southern antipathy to their Northern brethren.

We passed through the charming main street of Americus and once again were on the open highway. The peanuts and cotton again flew past. Minutes later, we approached the former Carter peanut warehouse, collection, drying and distribution facilities. Brendan, who had previously visited the town, pointed out they were still in full operation, just no longer owned by the Carters.

We followed a hand-painted sign and parked on some startlingly red Georgia clay. A shuttle arrived. It was a trailer with benches drawn by – guess what? – a pickup. Now I don't know about Kansas City, but if you had done something like this in L.A., they'd have taken off without a look and you'd be lucky not to end up on the asphalt.

Here, a pleasant young man emerged from the truck's cab, shook our hands and welcomed us to Plains. Almost made you forget the gnats buzzing around your head.

They drove us all the way to the center of downtown about a block and a half. There, some 400 visitors were lined up to get autographs from our 39th President and his lovely wife. We, who would spend some time with Jimmy on Sunday, headed to the front porch of one of the town's many Carters, where I was informed when I asked if I could go inside and change into shorts, "You're home, baby."

Much of the rest of the afternoon was spent talking and driving along endless red-clay back roads with Billy Carter's son, Buddy. Whenever a pickup would appear out of nowhere, the driver would stop and have a friendly chat before moving on. I had the distinct feeling I wasn't in L.A. anymore.

At the annual town play that night, performed by the folks of Plains themselves, I knew I wasn't. Especially when one young lady told the story of how she'd sent a letter to Santa 22 Christmases ago asking for some gum, and how just recently she'd gotten the letter back in her mailbox. It had a stick of gum attached, along a note from the postman that he hoped she'd gotten what she wanted. She had the postman, who continues to serve generations of Plains residents, stand up and take a bow.

And I really knew I wasn't home when it was time for intermission. The fare? For 50 cents, you got a small bottle of Coke and a little bag of shelled peanuts. The local custom was to dump the peanuts into the Coke and drink it. I did. Not bad. Well…

The next morning, we were invited to church. This was the first church service I've ever attended where several guys in sunglasses and with buds in their ears practically made me undress before allowing me in. Of course, the President was teaching Sunday school. And I resemble an Arab far more than anyone else in that town.

We were greeted in the hallway by a familiar face. She held out her hand. "Hi. I'm Rosalynn." The First Lady led us inside and sat down next to me. As the President stood before the jam-packed congregation and spoke of his missionary efforts, Rosalynn leaned over and whispered. "He had a difficult time learning how to pronounce Nevada. Up here we say "Nev-ah-da." But our grandson, who lives there, said we can't come visit him until we learn to say it correctly."

At that exact moment, the President said something about "Nev-ah-da." In the next breath, he repeated it in the preferred manner and shot a look at his wife. It wasn't exactly cool in there, but at almost 81, the President was full of energy and sharp as a tack. But you immediately knew who the boss was in that marriage.

As the service concluded and we strolled outside, there was again a long line waiting for pictures and autographs. We went over to Mom's, where everyone in town eats after church. One room was full of interns in the Habitat for Humanity program. Before long, Jimmy showed up to dine with them.

We retired to Billy's widow Sybil's house with several of her children. After a while, a Secret Service van pulled up in the driveway. The President came in. We shook hands and he sat, his attention given fully to his nephews and grand-nephews, some of whom he hadn't seen for over a year. After fifteen minutes, he suddenly stood up. "Have to go get ready for the game."

He'd be pitching in the annual softball game, starting in an hour. President Carter and his Secret Service guys versus the Plains Buffaloes, local folks who'd attended the now-defunct Plains High School, along with some of their now-grown sons.

Jimmy's team wore red tee-shirts, the townsfolk blue. I wondered if it would be a metaphor for the next night's contest in Denver. With two out and two on in the top of the first, the Secret Service left-fielder committed an error, loading the bases. The next batter for Plains was a metaphor in himself – for the Rocky Mountains. He unceremoniously belted the President's first pitch a good 20 feet past the left-field fence.

Before we knew it, the visiting (all except Jimmy) red were down 13-0. Like the Chiefs, they fought gamely, but every time it looked like they might get a look, mistakes shot them down. And, like the Chiefs, they never gave up.

Especially their pitcher. After a day which would have had me snoozing on a couch long before, the 80-year old erstwhile leader of the free world pitched on and on in the hot and humid air. He gloved a hard-hit come-backer. He stroked a single and ran darned well to first. In seven long innings, he never asked to come out nor declined to take his hacks.

On the field, it wasn't the red's day. That happens. But in the larger scheme, a defeat isn't always a loss. When you've got a tough leader of age and experience, a bunch of players who give it their all and fans who will never quit on you, it becomes nothing more than part of the learning process. A character builder.

And then you simply come back stronger than ever.

This is the fourth in a season-long series chronicling a Los Angeles native and lifelong sports follower's mission to become a Chiefs fan. After all, he doesn't have a football team of his own, does he? Richard Clayman may be contacted at rjclayman1@yahoo.com

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