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Excerpt from An Hour Before Daylight by Jimmy Carter, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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An Hour Before Daylight

Memories of A Rural Boyhood

by Jimmy Carter

An Hour Before Daylight by Jimmy Carter X
An Hour Before Daylight by Jimmy Carter
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2000, 280 pages

    Oct 2001, 288 pages


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Chapter 1: Land, Farm, and Place

If you leave Savannah on the coast and travel on the only U.S. highway that goes almost straight westward across the state of Georgia, you will cross the Ogeechee, Oconee, and Ocmulgee rivers, all of which flow to the south and east and empty into the Atlantic Ocean. After about three hours you'll cross the Flint River, the first stream that runs in a different direction, and eventually its often muddy waters empty into the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains, our "divide" is not noticeable, because the land was all part of the relatively flat bottom of the sea in the not-too-distant geological past. It is still rich and productive, thanks to the early ocean sediments and the nutrients it has accumulated from plants and animals since that time.

If you keep on for another thirty miles, still heading toward Columbus, Georgia; Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama; and points beyond, you'll come to Plains, a small town on land as level as any you will ever see. As people have always said, "When it rains, the water don't know which way to run." Its original name was "Plains of Dura," derived from the place in the Bible where King Nebuchadnezzar set up his great image of gold (Daniel 3:1). Although the land was flat and rich, no one knows why the earliest settlers wanted to commemorate the worship of a false god. It may have been to honor Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who refused to bow down to the idol, and escaped the fiery furnace because of God's protection.

Just beyond the town there is a place called Archery, where the topography begins to change for the first time since Savannah, from flat plains to rolling hills and poorer soils that extend on to the Chattahoochee River, which divides Georgia from Alabama. Archery is no longer there, except on the old maps, but it's where I grew up and lived from when I was four years old in 1928 until the very end of the Great Depression, when I left for college and the United States Navy in 1941.

In addition to being 190 miles west of Savannah, Plains is located exactly 120 miles due south of Atlanta, and the seat of the county -- Sumter -- lies nine miles to the east. It is named Americus, the Latinized first name of Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian navigator and explorer who claimed to be the first European to land on the North American continent and, as a mapmaker, also gave it his name. The coming of automobiles and tractors has caused most of the small towns in Southwest Georgia to wither away, but Plains is an exception. It is surrounded by productive farms, and seems to have citizens who are exceptionally inclined to resist moving away to distant places.

Archery, on the other hand, was never quite a real town. At the heart of it, a little more than a half-mile west of our farmhouse, were the homes of the Seaboard Airline Railroad section foreman and the six black employees who kept the rail bed in good repair. A half-mile farther west was a strong African Methodist Episcopal church congregation, across the road from the most notable landmark, a small store by the railroad tracks that was sheathed completely in flattened Prince Albert tobacco cans. Except for the church, which is still vibrant and active, all the rest is gone.

Our own farm, just to the east, occupied the last of the good land; otherwise, around Archery the soil was marginally fertile and somewhat hilly, and the surrounding sandy fields were some of the first to be planted in pine-tree seedlings, which now compose an almost monocultural forest, approaching maturity. Back in the 1930s, however, Archery was substantial enough to be the center of my world.

My most persistent impression as a farm boy was of the earth. There was a closeness, almost an immersion, in the sand, loam, and red clay that seemed natural, and constant. The soil caressed my bare feet, and the dust was always boiling up from the dirt road that passed fifty feet from our front door, so that inside our clapboard house the red clay particles, ranging in size from face powder to grits, were ever present, particularly in the summertime, when the wooden doors were kept open and the screens just stopped the trash and some of the less adventurous flies. Until 1938, when a paved highway was cut through the woods a mile north of our house, we were proud that our small crooked dirt road was the official United States Route 280! For those days, it was heavily traveled by automobiles, trucks, and buses, but with few exceptions the local people passing in front of our house walked or rode on mule-drawn wagons. The railroad ran just a few feet on the other side of the dirt road, and we never failed to wave at the conductors, engineers, and passengers, who seemed as remote as travelers from another planet.

Copyright © 2001 by Jimmy Carter

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