This is me and my brother, Chris, and Billy Carter, at his Plains, GA, gas station during the presidency of his brother, Jimmy Carter. The time was, therefore, the late ’70s. I’m guessing the early months of 1979.
How we got here: Our family — my mom and dad and Chris and I — were probably going to Disney World. Which we did a good number of times in my childhood. In fact, when reflecting upon our childhood, Chris — who’s 3 years younger than me — has been known to say: “Didn’t we go to Disney World, like, every week?” We didn’t, but we did go quite a few times.
Why we wanted to do this, though is one of my favorite oddities of this recollection – owing to the fact that my parents were pretty die-hard Republicans and I can’t imagine that they were particularly fond of President Carter, who took back the White House for the Democrats in the wake of Watergate and the momentary disgrace of the GOP.
And yet, we drove somewhat out of our way through Plains, GA, with a special stop at the gas station run by the Leader of The Free World’s brother, and instant accidental celebrity by siblingship, Billy Carter. Billy’s gas station, I can only imagine, had become increasingly mobbed by all manner of visitors due to his presidential brother. And you can imagine some of the challenges that this must have created in terms of security, image, etc.
So we, like untold thousands of other Americans were making this odd pilgrimage to Plains, albeit likely as a humorous stop to break up a major road trip.
Here’s what I remember: We pulled into this very rural, dusty “mom-and-pop” gas station. This wasn’t Citgo or Shell or any kind of chain, at least not in the sanitized, brightly-lit modern sense. This was practically a house with some pumps out front. Out front was a large piece of poster board, taped up between the 2 pumps proclaiming: BILLY IS NOT HERE. There was a bit of implied aggravation in the hand-written sign, the bother of calm country folk who were about sick to death of carload after carload of rubberneckers pulling up to gawk at the Presidential Brother.
And who could blame them? If President Carter was smirked at as a thick-accented Georgia hick peanut farmer, the tendency was magnitudes greater for his easy-going gas station-running brother. And we were right there — among the curious.
So the sign was something of a disappointment.
While I seriously doubt that my brother and I, ages 9 & 12, cared about visiting The Gas Station Brother, I imagine that my dad had talked it up and built some buzz. So the “Billy is not here” sign was a mild downer. Nonetheless, we pulled ‘er up, and filled ‘er up, and when it came time to pay, I think that I accompanied my dad into this shabby, dusty old farm gas station. I think Chris and Mom stayed in the camper.
The interior, I remember just vaguely — mostly probably informed by the photo above. It was dirty, that farm kind of dirty where there’s an unapologetic gilding of dust — so much dust in fact that it’s more accurately called dirt — on everything. There were mangy couches and beat-up chairs. This was a place that farmers no doubt gathered every morning to chew the fat. And there were just a few fellas hanging out here, one of whom was — omg — Billy Carter. Those in attendence lolled around as if they’d been there since the dawn of time, and I quickly realized that the “Billy is not here” sign was just a half-assed attempt to shunt off the least gregarious of the gawker pilgrims. Probably it worked. Or maybe Billy really wasn’t usually there — but I doubt it. Billy Carter, gas station operator, daytime beer drinker (he would years later enter recovery for alcoholism), brother of the leader of the free world — looked to me like he spent the vast majority of his time right there, in what might for lack of a better term be called the living room of his gas station.
I won’t say I was dazzled, but it was still cool. He was famous. I’d seen him on TV. And that counted for something. Being from a small Kentucky town, we didn’t see too many famous people up close, but celebrity did hold some allure for me. On a previous trip, our parents had once pressed Chris and I to approach Phyllis Diller in lobby of a Toronto hotel and ask for her autograph. She had her assistant give us a pre-signed glossy, and I’ll tell you, even for an 11-year-old that’s a WTF moment. And according to family legend, I once sat on Pee Wee Reese’s lap, but not only do I not remember, but I’ve never known who Pee Wee Reece was , at least not in a meaningful personal way (a lifelong inability to appreciate sports persists in me).
Anyway, Billy was “in” so somebody went out to get Chris. I can’t remember if Mom came in. A guy with a big camera kind of emerged from the corner and asked if we’d like to have our picture taken with Billy. He was, as best I can tell, an Associated Press photographer. Why was he there? Over the years, I’ve theorized this:
From a news standpoint, it’s likely that the AP could have assigned a “stringer” to Billy, just in case “something happened.” Something funny, something folksy, whatever. This photographer — Michael Crawford was the name I recently found stamped on the back of the photo (though I haven’t succeeded in finding Mr. Crawford on the Internet) — amiably shot this portrait of me and my brother and Billy Carter, and then took down my family’s address and later mailed us a glossy 8 x 10. I don’t know if he charged us or not. It seems like he would have but I never heard any talk of money. Maybe dad slipped him a $20. That would seem like my dad’s style. In fact, it’s possible that Dad orchestrated the entire photo op, though that had never occured to me until just now.
This brings us to the heirloom itself.
For years before my parents divorced and maybe even afterward, it sat in a cheap frame on our bookshelf. I never gave it too much thought but it was omnipresent.
Chris looks goofy in it and there are conflicting accounts of why: He says that Billy was “touching him” and that contact with this celebrity stranger caused his silly expression. I contend that my brother was in the early stages of developing an advanced irreverance, informed by too much late-night Monty Python. I think that Chris knew that Billy was somebody, because dad said he was — but that he didn’t really care that much and was yucking it up for the camera out of a kind of mild benevolent spite.
Then there’s me: I would describe my attitude as one of dutiful wonder. I was being about as amazed as I thought I should be at an event that I might otherwise have had no opinion of. In other words: My dad said it was a big deal, so I assumed that to be true. (but privately didn’t care too much … or think that my dad did, either)
As the years have marched on, there are several interesting aspects of this photo that never lose their appeal. Here are a few:
- Billy is wearing an ABC Television jacket. Looks like what could have been an early all-weather Gor-Tex one, not cheap. One might guess that Billy was the recipient of all sorts of network TV swag, just by proximity. It’s also humorous to think that it’s possible that Billy requested things like this: “Hey buddy — that sure is a nice-lookin’ coat. Can you get me one of them?” Who knows?
- Yes, Billy is, in fact, drinking a beer. And it’s his business, in a variety of connotations, no doubt. It’s a Pabst Blue Ribbon, and the casual manner of his holding that PBR is so charming to me; Billy clearly had a beer anytime he wanted to. In fact, in later years, Billy tried to play on his fleeting celebrity by marketing Billy Beer. Billy Beer was mildly funny, but I like this PBR version of Billy. He’s more authentic.
- The man on the TV is a lifelong mystery. The photographer was shooting with professional gear, probably a Nikon F1. As a kid, I’d tried a few times to take pictures of a TV screen, but it never worked too well with a Polaroid. That the image came out so clearly in this photo has always held an allure for me. Who is that guy?? For years I pretended that it was David Frost, but I don’t think it is. Remember, this is way before CNN.
- My nylon shirt (earthtones, I think) and Chris’ plaid pants are both a-mazing. Thanks Mom, for the fashion sense. I can almost forgive you for making me wear knickers when I was younger.
Finally, how I got the photo: A number of years ago, Mom started dispersing family furniture and asking my brother and I if we would like this piece or that piece. During this time, I noticed on a visit to Chris’ home that he had the Billy Carter picture.
I threw a fit.
I raged and railed that this was among the most treasured of our family heirlooms and that Chris should get it without me being even consulted was beyond insult. Over-contending this, to me, was an uproariously funny thing to do. (“Look at ‘im!! He doesn’t even CARE!! I’m the one being RESPECTFUL!!”)
And some months later, for my birthday, I think, I received the picture — in its original cheap frame — for my birthday. Thanks, Chris.
It remains my favorite family heirloom.
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