Every time I fill up the gas tank lately, I think of Norman Mailer. I think of that short, cotton-haired writer walking the streets of Plains, Ga., looking around, exploring the town, same as I on a day not long after Jimmy Carter won the Democratic presidential nomination.
Mailer was just one piece that didn't quite fit the bucolic picture. Citified celebrities weren't hard to find in little Plains soon after Jimmy Carter's toothy grin became a familiar fixture on the evening news. Everyone and his brother wanted to come see what all the fuss was about.
Picturesque it was. Miss Lillian was giving autographs down at the train depot. Brother Billy might be at his gas station holding forth, cracking wise and drinking a beer. The network-news teams were playing one another in a softball game at the high school.
It was - for one brief, shining moment - as if the nation were enjoying the set of "The Andy Griffith Show," cruising Mayberry, eating Aunt Bea's fried chicken and meeting the players.
We, as a nation, loved the simple life at first. We liked Plains, the Southern Oz where nobody locked their doors and everyone knew everyone else. We thought the scene seemed so desirable and quaint that America signed on for four years.
There was a brief honeymoon, too, best I recall. We liked it when Jimmy Carter insisted he wanted to be known as just plain "Jimmy," not as the grander "James" with middle initial. We liked that he and Rosalyn walked instead of rode down the street after the swearing-in ceremony. Willie Nelson sang at the White House.
Then we begin to see that Jimmy wasn't a Hollywood invention like Sheriff Andy Taylor. The plot of this story wasn't going to reconcile itself after 30 minutes with a laugh track and a whistle. Jimmy Carter with the Deep South accent meant to mind our business.
He actually intended to try and do the things that had sounded quaint and colorful, if a little far-fetched, during the campaign. He really wanted to revamp the passenger trains of America so mass transit would have meaning.
Jimmy Carter meant to turn down the nation's thermostats, and he put on a sweater to show us he wasn't kidding. Seemed he had meant it when he talked of personal sacrifice and conservation.
And when the gas shortages came along as if to test his conviction, Jimmy insisted we tool along interstates at 55 miles per hour. We didn't like that much. Even when traffic fatalities dropped dramatically as a bonus, we sorely missed driving 75 and 80 and getting where we were going in a hurry.
Jimmy was seriously cramping our style. Mayberry, aka Plains, had gone from whimsically pleasant to ridiculous. The Southern players were boobs. Jimmy Carter couldn't even say "Italian" right.
Worst of all, he insisted on talking straight about American deficiencies. He didn't seem to understand the role of presidential pep talks; his fireside chats were chilly and depressing.
We wanted to hear how grand things were even when they were not. We wanted to be told our nation is always right, even when it's not. We wanted bombastic, euphemistic, cliche-ridden, fireworks-punctuated boosterism. So we elected Ronald Reagan and sent Jimmy home.
And that's when things got back on track. That's when we bought bigger and bigger SUVs and put the speed limits back up where God intended. That's when we quit talking about "malaise" and gave ourselves a raise.
Only now, when I fill up my van to the tune of $85, I wonder what might have happened if we'd adopted Jimmy's philosophy and stuck with it. And I think back on those early, enchanted days in Plains, when Norman Mailer roamed the streets and energy conservation was a romantic idea.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives in the Iuka vicinity. Her mailing address is Iuka, MS 38852.