CARTHAGE, Tenn. - It was quite a step down from the Fairfax Hotel on Embassy Row to the poor hollows of central Tennessee, but the old gang on Cookeville Highway wasn't about to put up with any airs from Little Albert.
Steve Armistead, Gordon "Goat" Thompson or maybe Edd Blair would pick up word that the son of U.S. Sen. Albert Gore was back at the farm, maybe for Christmas, maybe for the long Tennessee summer. It would be a contest then: who could sneak up on the kid and call him "punk" first.
"You had to get him back in the groove, you know, take him down a few notches," Armistead recalled as he drove the gravel roads and winding highways of Smith County where the old Snow Creek gang used to roam. "But I'll tell you. He loved it. He couldn't wait to get back."
Carthage has been a touchstone for Gore, the place where he has launched every political campaign, where his homilies herald from, where a human side emerges from beneath the well-buffed political veneer that has coated the vice president during a lifetime in Washington.
If a person's home is where he spent the most days, Gore hails from the nation's capital. His school days were spent at the elite St. Albans preparatory school there. Most of his school nights were passed in Suite 809 of "Washing- ton's Family Hotel," where Arkansas Sen. John McClellan downstairs grumbled whenever he bounced his ball.
But the young Al Gore did spend his holidays and summers outside this sleepy town, population now 2,386, roaming the rolling farmland, the slippery riverbanks and pristine lakeshore of rural Smith County, somewhere between Carthage and the hamlet of Elmwood a couple of miles away. That idyllic country was Al Gore's true home, his boyhood friends and neighbors insist.
These days, Carthage and its environs have put Gore in a bit of a political squeeze as he makes his bid for the White House. On the one hand, the prince of the Fairfax Hotel is ridiculed for making any claims to central Tennessee. On the other, he is held responsible for any ills that might befall the Gore family land holdings, whether it be the clogged sewer and decrepit conditions of his rental property or the pollutants that occasionally leach out of the zinc mine looming just beyond his property line.
Carthage and Smith County themselves have changed, from an agrarian society dominated by the rhythms of Saturday markets, Sunday church services, cattle auctions and county fairs to a region of light industry and long commutes to Nashville 45 minutes to the west.
But the days of Gore's youth held no hints of political trials or economic transformations. Smith County was an escape, pure and simple, where the biggest concerns were getting caught skinny-dipping at night in the public pool or stealing nips from his father's well-stocked bar.
"He would stay with us two, three weeks, a month, four, five weeks, whatever he could stay," said Goat Thompson, whose family lived and worked on the Gore farm and who watched after Gore like a little brother. "Miss Pauline [Gore's mother], she'd get with my mom and say, 'Can Al come and stay with you?' They wanted him to stay more at the Fairfax, but he just wouldn't stay."
It is easy to see the allure of the countryside, especially for a young boy trapped in the adult world of his senator father and Washington socialite mother. And though he never had the chance to forge the alliances developed at school or in local sports leagues, Gore was never seen as an outsider in Carthage, since everyone seems to be connected around here, whether through blood or through history.
"There's a saying around here," said Sherry Sloan, who, like Gore, spent her childhood summers in Smith County after her father moved the family to California in search of songwriting riches. "You're from here or you're not from here."
And the Gores were from Smith County. Sloan's grandfather, Phocian "Pa" Gibbs, introduced Albert Gore Sr. around Carthage when the young schoolteacher moved from the hamlet of Possum Holler to the county seat to run for school superintendent. The elder Gore taught Thompson's mother at school long before the Thompson family went to work on the Gore cattle and tobacco farm. Sue Petty, the county's historian, fell madly in love with Albert Sr. when, as superintendent, he came by her second-grade class and put his arm around her.
"Oh, he was a handsome man," said Petty, who is now married to the Gore family doctor, David Gordon Petty.
Gore's life on the farm was not that of a pampered prince on the ancestral plantation. At 250 acres, the Gore farm sounds grander than it is. In its heyday, the farm boasted about 250 head of Angus cattle, a respectable herd but not enough to make the Gores a rich family. The farm's real claim to fame, Sloan said, was Big Rock, "a mystical, magical" hangout on the banks of the Caney Fork River.
Today, a white, weather-beaten split-rail fence marks the farm's borders. The house where the vice president's mother lives is modest, a smallish, brick rambler overlooking the Caney Fork that has the look of a 1950s motel. The most distinctive feature is a Smith County sheriff's Chevy Blazer standing sentry duty at the front gate.
Just over the Caney Fork, past Boulten Bend, an even smaller farm is marked by an unmanned but imposing guardhouse and wrought-iron gate. Behind the gate, a Secret Service black Chevy Suburban blocks the long grassy driveway that leads to the one-story, triple-gabled brick rambler. A fence lines the driveway, then flares out dramatically to frame the inconspicuous home where the vice president and his family reside when they're in Smith County.
In Gore's youth, there was only his parents' farm. Thompson remembered Gore staying with him first when he was age 10 and the young Gore was age 7.
"He had to come down four or five levels from what he was used to," Thompson said. "But he never did complain."
As boys still too young to do much farm work, Goat and Al would drop by the Princess movie house in Carthage maybe once every two weeks or take a dip in the town's public pool. But mostly, the two romped on the farm.
"He was not what you would call a come-to-town kid," recalled Jerry Futrell, who in those days was the pharmacist running Reed Brothers Drugs in Carthage.
As he got older, Gore would acquire more responsibilities, and his circle of friends widened. Armistead saw the Gore farm mostly as steady work, maybe $6 a day in the tobacco patch, but he became fast friends with the teen-age Gore, who worked at his side. Each summer, Senator Gore would give his son a new task to master, feeding and breeding the cattle one year, growing and reaping bean hay the next, tending and harvesting the tobacco crop the next.
One summer, according to local lore, the senator ordered the son to clear a hillside of weeds and brush using only hand tools.
Another summer, Armistead remembered, it was putting up fencing. The two teens had spent a night drinking and carousing, stumbling into bed around 3:30 in the morning. An hour later, the senator rousted them. He was leaving town, but he wanted to walk the fence line with the boys and show them how the pastures needed to be re-enclosed. They would have two days to do it.
But Gore had time for fun, for a teen-age romance with Armistead's older sister, Donna, for nights at Dr. Petty's house on Center Hill Lake, for "experimenting" with alcohol, as Steve Armistead delicately put it. One night, when they had reached the driving age of 16, the gang sneaked into the public pool to skinny-dip, he recalled. When they were discovered, they bolted across a hayfield, naked, clothes in hands, to Gore's car, only to discover that the keys had slipped out of the future vice president's pocket somewhere in the field. They wound up walking home.
Gore never stopped visiting Carthage. He has used the stately county courthouse to launch his political bids for the House, for the Senate and for the White House. But the distance has grown between the vice president and his childhood refuge.
And Carthage has changed as well, in ways that would never be apparent to an outsider. The gravel roads and old trestle bridges traversing the Caney Fork are still picturesque and largely devoid of traffic. The farms still boast tobacco crops and cattle.
But "it's completely different," said Thompson, the former farmhand who now commutes to the Bridgestone/Firestone plant in Nashville.
When Gore was a child, the only industry to speak of was a shirt factory, Futrell said. Now, Smith County has 25 industrial plants, some making automotive components for Nissan and Saturn plants elsewhere in the state.
Interstate 40, which opened a few miles south of town in the early 1960s, has attracted the fast-food joints and gas stations that have pulled customers away from Carthage. Wal-Mart opened a decade ago on the western edge of town, helping to shut down the five-and-dime and the Western Auto.
In 1985, representatives from Eckard Drugs, a large Southern pharmacy chain, approached pharmacist Futrell about buying Reed Brothers. When he sold, they shut down the old drugstore and opened up in the strip mall next to Wal-Mart. A "noncompete" clause in Futrell's bill of sale prohibited him from opening a new pharmacy, so he went to work for a bank, then Smith County Memorial Hospital.
Still, Carthage protects its own. Gore-Lieberman placards festoon downtown shops. Markhams Family Clothing Center has been transformed into a makeshift Gore-Lieberman store, selling caps, T-shirts and mugs that prematurely proclaim Carthage home of the 43rd president of the United States.
Shortly after Gore announced his bid for the presidency, Futrell asked a Republican friend whether he would contribute to the campaign.
"I said, 'Would you give to Al Gore? Now if you won't, just say so. Don't give me no guff.' And he said, 'Jerry, I want to give to Al, because if a neighbor won't give to a neighbor, he's not worth much.'"