ROGERSVILLE — When President Jimmy Carter ordered a mandatory fuel use reduction of 10 percent during the 1979 energy crisis, Hawkins County farmer James Foster obeyed.
Foster, 75, can tell you exactly how many miles he’s driven since the day Carter made that announcement.
Not only did Foster cut his gasoline use. He cut his electricity use as well, keeping his electric bills in the $30-$40 range during non-winter months, even during the hottest of summers.
After 40 years, Foster still conserves fuel and energy. But now it’s voluntary.
A presidential order
“Around August of 1979, President Carter claimed there was a gas shortage, but he didn’t say when the gas shortage was over with that you could go back to driving normal,” Foster told the Times News Tuesday. “He just told everybody to cut their driving 10 percent and set the thermostat to 78 (cooling) and 68 (heat). Then nothing more was said about it. Of course, he was only in another year and a half before Reagan came in, and I should have written somebody then.”
From 1969 to 1977, Foster averaged driving about 4,500 miles per year, but he drove only 3,000 miles in 1979, which set his future conservation benchmark. The conservation goal became 2,700 miles per year for 1979 and beyond.
He failed to meet that goal a couple of years due to illness, which required him to make more trips from his home in the St. Clair community near Bulls Gap to Rogersville for treatment, which is about 20 miles round trip.
Still, he hasn’t exceeded 3,000 miles since 1979.
More than a quarter-century passes
Four presidents and 27 years after Carter’s mandate, Foster was still doing his part because no one told him to stop.
Then in January 2006, President George W. Bush made an announcement that would make life even tougher on Foster.
Bush ordered all citizens to cut their energy consumption by another 20 percent over the next five years, or 4 percent per year.
That cut Foster’s driving to 1,700 miles per year.
It wasn’t easy, but Foster complied.
“With that 78/68, after the fifth year that would be 93/54,” Foster said. “That would be cutting everybody off air-conditioner and heat.”
He added, “I tried to cut down to 1,400 miles per year to offset my winter consumption, so I could have some heat in the wintertime. I quit raising tobacco, so that cut my tractor use about 60 percent. I closed off a couple of rooms. And I’d make about 30-40 biscuits at a time and put them in plastic bags in the freezer. Most of the time they’ll last five or six years. The oven uses more electricity than the rest of the stove, but about once a month [he would cook biscuits].”
Seeking release from the presidential orders
It took about 32 years for Foster to begin questioning whether he should continue with his conservation efforts.
He remembers specifically it was the last Saturday in June and the temperature outside was 104 degrees. He couldn’t even bring himself to turn on a fan due to the excess electricity it would use.
“It was about 94 degrees in the house and I couldn’t go to sleep,” Foster said. “I slept naked without any cover and a (hand) fan going. I said, ‘I wish George Bush Jr. was over there in the other bed.’ Then I started writing them then.”
In 2014, Foster began writing letters asking to be released from the presidential energy conservation obligation, noting that health problems may require him to travel to town more often.
He wrote to President Obama twice but never heard back. Then he wrote to President Trump and asked the same thing.
Although Trump replied with a letter last year expressing appreciation to Foster for his conservation efforts, the letter didn’t release Foster from his conservation obligation.
Letters to Sen. Lamar Alexander and Congressman Phil Roe resulted in similar responses. Appreciation, but no release.
Sen. Alexander finally gives his blessing
Finally, last September Foster called Sen. Alexander’s office and made a verbal request to be released.
“They called me about three weeks later, and the man said I didn’t have to obey it any more,” Foster said. “I said, ‘Did Lamar Alexander say that?’ He said, ‘Yeah, he’s going to pass a resolution in the Senate to commend people for not wasting energy.’ ”
But after 40 years, old habits die hard. Foster still keeps his energy consumption to a minimum. He still won’t use air-conditioning or a fan during the summer when it gets hot. He still cooks a month’s worth of biscuits in one batch.
And he still goes to Rogersville only about once a month unless there’s an emergency. Most of his groceries will last the month except for milk and bananas, and sometimes he’ll car pool with a neighbor to get milk.
He hasn’t driven more than 2,000 miles in a year since 2005, and the 2008 Chevy Silverado pickup he bought brand new has only a little more than 15,000 miles on it, and that’s his only vehicle.
His previous truck purchased new in 1984 had 57,100 miles in a little more than 23 years of service.
More than half the miles he drove in both of those vehicles were to church.
What about people who didn’t obey the presidential energy conservation commands?
“That’s between them and the Lord,” Foster said.
Why did you take these conservation commands so seriously?
Foster quoted Romans chapter 13, which says, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.”