Gainesville Realtor Don Carter for many years owned a farm on Corbin Creek near Hiawassee. He regularly invited friends up for fishing, tall-tale telling and assorted activities.
Among guests on occasion was Billy Carter, famous First Brother when Jimmy Carter was president. Don Carter, perhaps distantly related, had become friends with the Plains Carters during Jimmy's political campaigns.
Once when Don invited Billy to bring "one or two" friends with him to the farm, Billy showed up with a dozen. "Some of the roughest people I have ever seen," Don said. "Billy loved playing the joke on me."
About three months later Don got a call from Billy inviting him to Plains for the weekend. Anxious to get even, Don rounded up about 20 of his buddies to go with him in a borrowed chicken school bus.
As they would come off the bus to be introduced to Billy, they would go around to the back door of the bus, go in again and come out the front to greet Billy again. "After about 50 introductions," Don Carter said, "Klondike Bridges came through for the third time. Billy cocked his head and said, ‘It seems I've seen you somewhere before.'"
Billy rolled with the punches as always, and a great weekend was had by all.
That's just one of the stories Don Carter likes to tell about his late friend. He has written them down so they won't be forgotten.
Billy once had a pet goat that followed him around wherever he went. Problem was it would go behind the stove and pee when it went into the house. Wife Sybil tired of that and told her husband he had to get rid of the goat, or she would leave.
"Billy looked at her and said, ‘Give me a day or two to decide,'" Don Carter said.
Don said he didn't know if Sybil hit him or not, but a few days later Billy took the goat to Atlanta, up an elevator to the elegant office of Charles Kirbo, a Jimmy Carter adviser. He tied it to his desk while Kirbo was out, and the goat messed up his carpet. Nevertheless, Kirbo took the goat home, and it became a beloved pet for the family, according to Don Carter.
Billy once invited Don to the White House. When he asked if he wanted a drink, Don noted President Carter's ban on alcoholic beverages there. Billy laughed, went into the White House pantry and produced a fifth of Jack Daniels from behind a stack of canned goods.
Billy and Don fixed themselves a snort, went out on an upstairs balcony, propped their feet up on the railing and watched the tourists at a distance. "There were many tourists beyond the security gate who to this day are wondering who those folks were," Don said.
Billy's health began to deteriorate, and he was scheduled for surgery at Emory Hospital in Atlanta. Don Carter went to visit his friend and found 15 others in the room with him, including singer Tom T. Hall. Billy told everyone to leave the room so he and Don could play "liar's poker." They gambled in the hospital room for the next 30 minutes.
"He never knew it, but I let him win $80," Don Carter said. "I can hear him laughing now because he beat old Carter."
After Billy's surgery, Don met a shaken Sybil Carter in the hospital hall. Billy had cancer of the liver and pancreas.
Billy fought his illness, but nothing could be done. Later, Sybil called Don to Plains, where she said her husband was close to death. Don visited with him on a Saturday evening in September 1987, then returned to Gainesville. Billy's daughter called Don at 6 the next morning to let him know her father had died at age 51.
When Hall gave the eulogy at a country church outside Plains, he suggested the men take off their ties in honor of Billy, who rarely wore one. "Everyone responded, including the president," Don Carter said.
Don Carter sent copies of his stories about Billy to Billy's family, as well as former President Carter.
Jimmy Carter wrote a letter thanking his "cousin" Don for the remembrances, saying he didn't know about some of Billy's escapades and was glad he didn't at the time he was in office.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.