The fellow in the baseball cap took the microphone to ask the Tennessee Valley Authority board of directors about a report that the cement blocks of his house might be slightly radioactive.
Board Chairman S. David Freeman told him not to worry because the study universe was too small and the report didn't mean anything. "I'm not asking you about the whole darn universe," the man said. "I just want to know about my house."
Although Freeman, 54, is a Tennessee native, he seems to have some communications problems with the locals. They are worried about things close to home and suspicious of the three-dollar vocabularies and pinstriped suits of the gang in Freeman's new TVA road show. Freeman, meanwhile, is clearly playing to a larger universe.
The board and its high-powered staff chiefs now hold every other meeting in some valley town far from their Knoxville headquarters, usually in a high school gymnasium like the one in this town of 3,500. a parade of people from nearby Corinth, Miss., objected to the Yellow Creek nuclear power plant under construction between Corinth and Iuka, and others told the board they loved TVA and everything it does.
Freeman clearly enjoyed it, sitting for 5 1/2 hours with no breaks, arguing with his critics and dazziling his friends with talk of "solar-conservation interfaces" and "cogeneration capacity." He appears to regard it less as a time to listen than as his monthly chance to educate his public about the new TVA.
The way Freeman sees it, when he took over TVA in 1978 from Aubrey J. (Red) Wagner, who had dominated if for 16 years, he was getting the nation's biggest air polluter, earthmover and strip-mining promotion outfit. TVA, Freeman said, had become "a stranger in the valley" and he was going to turn that around and make it a model for the nation.
Some of the 7.2 million residents of the river valley see things a bit differently. To them, TVA has meant jobs, electricity, no floods, a new life, a future. Most of all it has meant cheap power.
Area per capita income was 45 percent of the national average before TVA came to Tennessee. It's now 80 percent of the national average, at least partly because of TVA, but Tennessee is still 45th in the nation at $6,547. Gritty Appalachian poverty can be found five minutes for Knoxville, and many people still organize their budgets around the electricity bill.
TVA brought most of what progress there has been around here, and any changes in it make folks uneasy. Freeman's changes, standing the agency on its head as some of them do, are particularly alarming because electricity bills are rising at the same time.
Freeman says it's inflation and points out that the rates are still 25 percent below the national average. But his critics think some of Freeman's new ideas are responsible for the rising rates. "he's gone further than he has to," said Ray Palk, general manager of the Upper Cumberland Electricity Membership Corp., one of the largest of TVA's 160 power distributors.
"He wants to get things done and nobody's going to slow him down. He's going too fast on some things," Palk said.
The distributors, who buy TVA power wholesale and retail it to the citizenry, are influential with the region's congressional delegation and some of them are Freeman's most constant critics. Many don't understand -- or don't believe -- that TVA's energy experiments are largely or totally funded out of the agency's $194.6 million federal appropriation and do not come out of the 5.2 billion TVA takes in from its power sales.
"It's just another big government bureaucracy spending too much of my money for some silly ideas," said a forester leaving the Iuka meeting early, who didn't want to be named. "It should't compete with private industry using my tax dollars."
Freeman's friends say he could defuse a lot of this resistance if he were only more diplomatic. "He has about the patience of a two-year old," said a top Freeman staff member. "He just refuses to get into the good-old-boy backslapping that can really be useful around here in getting things done."
Many of Freeman's imported staff people disdain such approaches too, and townsfolk report very little mixing between TVA executives and Knoxville society. Some of the newcomers have tried, with mixed results.
"When I first got here, they hated me," recalled Robert F. Hemphill Jr.
, director of energy conservation and rates. The power distributors who were his targets for conversion to the new approach "tried to get me fired," he said, because of "my eastern-seaboard, no-chitchat Washington style."
Hemphill said he's working on the problem and things are better, although the programs he's selling still aren't widly popular with the distributors. But the people are more receptive: 30,000 are waiting to get energy audits in their homes and to apply for interest-free weatherproofing loans afterward.
These programs get more attention than pollution control efforts, whic the area's small environmentalist community watches warily. Although TVA coal purchase contracts called for reclamation of strip-mined land under Wagner in the mid-1960s, the clauses had no teeth. "Freeman thinks the new federal  law will do the enforcing for him, and we're not so sure," said Peggy Matthews of Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM, pronouced "sock-'em")
Freeman listens at least. Under Wagner, Tva was unapprocahble," she added.
Wagner, like many utility executives, thought environmental rules had gone too far and went to the mat against federal clean air rules, leading the nation in resistance in court. He lost in the Supreme Court in 1976, but TVA compliance details were not settled until Freeman negotiated a $1 billion agreement with the Environmental Proteciton Agency in 1978. Utility people still shake their heads over that, arguing that Freeman agreed to do more than the law demanded.
Freeman snorted that all this is "a tired blood reaction" to the inevitable future. "If TVA isn't on the cutting edge of figuring out energy alternatives, there's no excuse for its existence," he said. "That air settlement saved us money. I'm not going to be the George Wallace of the air quality law, standing in the courthouse door and defying it."
Freeman is more relaxed now tha he used to be. Washington knew him as the government's first official energy policy expert in the Nixon White House and later as the hyperactive head of the $4 million Ford Foundation Energy Policy Project in 1974. That report, "A Time to Choose," hailed conservation as the hope of the future but was roundly attacked by businessmen as full of questionable numbers.
Freeman landed running on TVA, making wee-hours phone calls and firing off "Dave-o-grams" to the lowliest staff members demanding information. Many were irritated into leaving, and some of Freeman's critics say he promoted too many yes-men afterward.
But he is happy with his staff. "I've got fingernails now and I didn't before," Freeman said laughing. "I've got staff people I have confidence in and it's easier to delegate authority and be more relaxed."
He is a bit more cautious, maintaining that he did not speak out flatly in public against the controversial Tellico Dam project because he "wasn't that sure of the answer."
However, when Congress ordered that the dam be closed and the lake filled last November, ending the debate over the fate of the farmlands and the tiny snail darter, it was because Freeman had not managed to convince a single member of the state's congressional delegation to oppose it.
He acknowledged that his vision of TVA as a national laboratory is often in conflict with Tennessee reality. Although absorbed in his work now, he called himself "government property" when asked about his future.
He can see himself teaching at some university after his term expires in 1984, or working in Washington should a president call.
And if the call should come before that to be, say secretary of energy? "I'd have a hard time turning down a request from any president," he said, "if TVA were sure to be kept going."
He's confident that it will, he added. "There's no way in the world this thing is going to turn back."