Hiding from Hamm
A short while after I got out of the army at Ft. Benning, I was hired by the FAA and went to the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, OK. After completing the school I was lucky enough to be able to return to Columbus, Georgia to work at the Columbus MetroAirport. I had come full circle, this was a dream come true for me.
When Jimmy Carter was the President of the United States he frequently flew in and out of either Columbus, Georgia’s civilian metro airport, or neighboring Ft. Benning’s Lawson Army Airfield. The military airport was a much better facility than its civilian counterpart at that time. He utilized these airports when en route to, or from, his family home. His farm in Plains, Georgia, is located a short distance south of the army base, and is an easy automobile (or helicopter) ride from either airport.
One of the normal procedures for Presidential movement, which included “First Family” members, was an increased control of access to all areas that might possibly be used by the entourage, like airport ramps, access roads, parking areas, and the airspace above them all.
I say “might possibly,” because the exact route of travel was not known until it happened, and the alternate routes had to be “protected” as well. This was both wise, and necessary from a security standpoint, and I didn’t have any problems with it.
I had worked so many Presidential and other Heads of State flights that it was business as usual to me. The thrill of catching sight of or even shaking hands with the President was kind of dulled by the myriad of details involved.
It was late in 1979 and the President and his family had been coming and going pretty frequently from Columbus. Most (but not all) of the flights were actually utilizing the more secure military airport at Ft. Benning. We (metro) usually got the decoy flight, an identical airplane which was utilized as a diversion in case of terrorist attack, or angry nutcase sign wavers. The kooks who met the decoy plane only had the extra Secret Service agents to sign their autographs.
Using the military base kept the President, and his family away from harm and aggravation. But, they did randomly switch back and forth to prevent a pattern from becoming obvious to the “bad guys.” The public really has no idea how complex these “simple” trips are.
On the day in question I was working upstairs in the tower, where I was fully qualified and spent most of my time. I was still training in the radar facility below. I liked working in the tower because you actually got to see the airplanes!
The story I have to tell is about President Carter’s mother, Lillian “Bessie” Gordy Carter, who was born in Richland, Georgia in 1898 and passed away in 1983 at the age of 85, still sharp of mind to the last.
It was on one of those terrifying days for Secret Service agents, the President’s mother got sick of her “baby sitter” escort and brought her then 81 year old self up to the control tower access door and buzzed it.
Not having any way of knowing who was there I jokingly answered the intercom with “Who’s that knocking on my door?” in a children’s fairy tale kind of voice. The answer came back, “It’s Miz Lillian Carter of Plains, Georgia, and I’d like to visit your tower.”
I thought to myself, “Is this for real, or is one of the guys pulling another gag?” Practical jokes did happen frequently around there. So, I jumped down to the landing by the access door, and looked out through the peep hole in the door. Sure enough it was Miss Lillian Carter, I recognized her from TV and magazine pictures!
Of course I let her in, and then helped her up the steps into the tower cab and offered her my chair, which she accepted, and a cup of coffee, which she declined. I was in a mild state of shock! I was trying to pay attention to her, what was happening on the airport, and decide if I should call my supervisor all at the same time.
The first thing out of her mouth when she caught her breath, was to tell us that she was hiding from her watchdog and asked us not to tell on her. Of course we promised right there on the spot. It was Mrs. Carter, the President’s mother, after all!
Naively, I asked her if the dog was running loose, or leashed with a handler. I thought she was going to choke from laughing so hard. I didn’t know her terminology yet and so I just took it literally. I really thought that she meant that there was a four legged dog running around the terminal somewhere, and I didn’t want it loose on my flight line!
Miss Lillian’s (she gave me permission to call her that) personal “watch dog” wasHamm, which she said was short for Hammond, but I can’t recall if she said more about his name. Miss Lillian explained what she meant, and then we watched poor old Hammrunning hither and yon. She was having a grand time watching from the vantage point of the tower and seemed to relax and breathe easier finally.
When and wherever, a Presidential family member traveled, they would be accompanied by not only their personal “watch dog,” (Miss Lillian’s term for Secret Service agents), but a team which specialized in keeping them safe from harm. Even fans and “well-wishers” can pose a physical threat to these folks, with crowds and traffic jams being very common.
Hamm was a very large, young-ish (late 20s) white man, with coffee-with-cream colored light brown hair. He filled a doorway, both side to side, and top to bottom. But don’t get the wrong idea; he was rock solid and had no extra fat on his body. That big man could move like a cat when the need called for it. Hamm wore the somewhat traditional haircut of the times for his profession, a flat top with “Butch Wax” on it to make it stand up right. And, it always did.
He was so big that when he got in and out of the sedan that he drove, it looked like he was putting on, or taking off a piece of ill-fitting clothing. On more than one occasion I would watch him from the tower when he went to get in the car and would just about knock himself out, rapping his head on the top of the car because he didn’t duck low enough. You could tell that it really hurt him because his “Gosh Darn It!” would float gently up to us on the breeze, like the roar of a bull hippo in combat.
She hated having someone “baby sit” her. She thought as much of Hamm as anyone, but at times she would give him the slip and make his life miserable until he located her again. The poor guy probably had his life passing before his eyes each time she pulled that, as his was not a joking profession in terms of responsibility. I was pretty sure that he was getting tired of the re-runs (of his life.)
It was on these occasions that you could see the big kid in Hamm come out… just like his shirt tail did when he was running around in a panic. We could see from the tower that his shirt was pulled out in back and we knew that Miss Lillian had done it (ditched him) again.
We talked about many things and while she never said, “we mustn’t discuss that,” I steered clear of politics and religion. I avoided those topics mostly out of courtesy to her, but also not wanting to show my own ignorance on those subjects.
Miss Lillian was very proud of her son, Jimmy, but we left the subject of Billy alone. It just didn’t seem to me like a good place to go… and she wasn’t offering. This woman was nobody’s fool. She knew that anything once said couldn’t be taken back or removed. Somewhere, sometime, someone would use those words to hurt you or yours. Besides, Billy created enough trouble with his own mouth; we didn’t need to help.
I found Miss Lillian to be a very astute woman with a clear way of putting things and I suspected that she had a backbone made of spring steel. She was not one to try and “BS.” She would call you on it and then graciously change the subject to let you off the hook. She seemed to really care about all people. I knew that she was a registered nurse and was trained and educated to help people. But, hers was a deep down concern for not only their health and welfare, but their mental and emotional needs as well.
Lillian Gordy had married James Earle Carter, another Georgia native, in 1923 and had thirty years with him until he passed away in 1953. She then lived another thirty years without him, before her own passing in 1983. Of her husband she said, “He was a good man and provided for his family. I’ll be seeing him again one day soon.” That was in 1979. Four years later she went on to join her husband at last. I knew that she would have been smiling down on poor Hamm, wondering if anyone had convinced him that she wasn’t just hiding again this time.
I was fortunate enough to enjoy Miss Lillian’s company a couple more times in the tower after that first time, and I can finally to confess something that I had never divulged before.
So, Miss Lillian if you’re listening, “Please, forgive me. After that first time, I couldn’t stand to see poor old Hamm in such a panic, watching his own diapers getting changed and skinning his knees all over again in those life-flashes he endured. I snuck word down to him where you were.”
“Hamm knew you were in the control tower the whole time and played along to keep you entertained and in one spot where you were safe until it was time to go home to Plains. Sorry ma’am, I had to do it.“
To have experienced the insight and wisdom of someone of her station, experience, and years was indeed enjoyable to me. Knowing that she had enough spirit left in her 81 year-old body to pull the tricks that she did on Hamm; now that was a real bonus!
It was an honor and a privilege to meet and speak with the President of the United States more than once. And, to have him call me by my first name on subsequent visits left me a serious grin on my face. To see recognition in the eyes of the world’s most powerful leader was awesome!
But, Mr. President, I have to say that the conversations with your mother eclipsed it all.