(Pictured: Jimmy Carter at the podium in New York City, July 15, 1976.)
(Despite my best efforts, this post starts out being about one thing and ends up about something else. Sorry.)
Forty years ago tonight, I watched Jimmy Carter give his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.
I remember being captivated by Carter’s optimism as he accepted the nomination, and the way the delegates cheered and cheered amidst falling balloons and general mayhem long after the speech was over. I don’t think I would have voted for Carter, though. I liked Ford. I always felt like nothing bad was going to happen while he was in charge. Clearly it didn’t feel that way to others. At their convention, the Republicans quite nearly tossed him out for Reagan. And in any case, it was all background noise during my favorite summer.
What’s more vivid than the speech is the memory of having watched it, by myself on a lovely summer evening on the sunporch, in the house where I grew up. The sunporch was, and is, a pleasant space, paneled with the knotty pine frequently found in houses built during the late 50s, with windows on three sides and a beautiful view of the dooryard. It was, and is, one of my favorite places in that house. Before I went to kindergarten, I taught myself how to read out there, looking at books and periodically spelling words to Mom as she worked in the nearby kitchen. She would tell me how to say them and what they meant. Although there was a black-and-white portable TV on the sunporch in the summer of 1976, it was usually the home of the big console stereo, and the easy chair next to it made the sunporch an excellent place for listening to albums. It was where my brother and I would go with the telephone, an extra-long cord stretching from the kitchen, when we wanted a modicum of privacy to talk to our girlfriends.
(Mom and Dad are recarpeting the sunporch this summer. They have removed the old beige carpet, temporarily revealing the red-and-white tile floor I can remember from 50 years ago. I am not sure what color they’re going with for the new floor, but it will not be as spectacular as the shag carpet that was in there through much of the 70s, which was the color of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee spaghetti.)
Carter’s acceptance speech came at the end of a day I had spent as a farmer, because it was the height of hay-making season. I was happy to drive the hay rake, a task that was done in the relative cool of the morning; I was less enamored of chopping hay, which was a dirty, noisy job that at least once I flat-out refused to do, consequences be damned. The summer of 1976 would be the last one in which I did much farming. The next summer I had a job in town (two of them, actually), although I suspect I may have been occasionally press-ganged to help make hay on my days off. Haymaking was all hands on deck; even my mother, who did not do any other farm work, would drive the baler. Dad hauled the loads back to the barn; my brothers helped my grandfather unload the hay into the barn.
My paternal grandfather could outwork much younger men, especially unloading wagons of hay; his only concession to the heat and the exertion was shucking the blue chambray work shirt he normally wore under his bib overalls. He did it into his 80s, and when his health forced him to stop working, he never stopped talking about “when I go back to work.” Thirty years ago this summer, just short of his 88th birthday, he decided one afternoon to clean the gutters on his house, dragging out the ladder, climbing up, having a heart attack, and falling off dead. I have often thought, however, that during the last half-hour of his life, he felt useful and happy, and we should all be so fortunate as to go like that.
All of them, my grandparents, my parents, my brothers, Jimmy Carter—they were just there that summer, like the weather. Forty years later, all four of my grandparents are gone, the last one in 1997. My parents are as healthy as two people in their 80s can expect to be, although I notice them growing ever more frail. And I am grateful for what I remember of the summer of 1976, but sorry I don’t remember more.