The helicopter swept in from the east this afternoon, past the town water tower and the peanut warehouses.

Waiting on the high school softball field, the crowd watched the chopper stir up a cloud of red dust at the pitcher's mound and settle toward them. They gave a down-home cheer as the ruler of 41 million Egyptians stepped out at third base.

President Anwar Sadat of Egypt had dropped in for dinner.

His host, former president Jimmy Carter, took advantage of the occasion to make, in his welcoming speech, a strongly worded call for autonomy for the Palestinians.

"It is time for all Palestinian leaders to forgo the use of violence and to recognize Israel's right to exist in peace. And it is time for the Israeli military occupation to end and for freedom and full autonomy to be granted to Palestinians who live either in the West Bank and Gaza or as refugees from their homeland. This is what was promised at Camp David . . . . "

Just before Sadat's arrival, the infield had filled suddenly with elements of the Egyptian army, limousines, Georgia state troopers, Secret Servicemen, TV crews and a horde of reporters. Carter, his wife, Rosalynn, their friends and family materialized to exchange words of friendship and praise with Sadat and his wife, Jihan, before the two couples drove off to the Carter home.

The hardiest greeters, however, were the thousand or so others who had waited for hours, milling and sweating and swatting gnats, as the overcast skies constantly threatened rain.

For townsfolk who remember wistfully the glory days that Carter's presidency brought fleetingly to Plains (pop. 700), it was almost like old times again.

For others, some passing through from as far away as the upper Midwest, it was a once in a lifetime chance to see two good ol' boys from cotton patches a half-world apart as they reasserted a historic effort they began on a remote mountaintop at Camp David in 1978.

At the back of the crowd, Ron Dudley and his wife sat in the bed of their pickup. Retired from the seed store business, Dudley said he'd driven in from Phoenix City, Ala., especially to see the Egyptian president.

"I reckon this would be my only chance to see him in person around here. I like him. He said he'd never let us down, and I don't know of anyone else who's said that."

The local high school band was away at summer camp, so Plains hastily lined up the marching Patriots of Westover High in Albany, 37 miles away. The band learned some of the Egyptian national anthem in three days, and its musicians also decided to play "You'll Never Walk Alone" in Sadat's honor.

"The kids kept coming up to me and requesting it," band director Eddie Potts explained. "Because Sadat had said that as long as Egypt exists, the United States will never walk alone."

"We don't get to play for too many important things," said drummer Mayo Westerooks, 16, resplendent in a new red, white and blue uniform. "It's good to play for somebody important. Get some of those nerves out of your stomach."

Nature provided a fitting backdrop of Old Testament thunder, which rumbled overhead as the two embraced, flashed their patented ear-to-ear grins and spoke of their continuing hope of peace among ancient Biblical enemies.

Carter, looking tan and relaxed, drew applause when he referred to the Camp David accords. "Unfortunately," he said, "the high hopes of those days have not been sustained."

He praised Sadat as a man of understanding, courage, strength and generosity who will continue to pursue the spirit of Camp David.

Sadat, born in a Nile Delta village not totally different from Plains and, like Carter, a deeply religious person, quoted a German proverb: "Friendship is the most delicious fruit in this world."

As he turned to praise Carter, he said, "If I am to speak about my friend Jimmy, I need hours and hours. Jimmy Carter has left his fingerprints on the history of our area."

During the presentations, the former president presented Sadat with a glass sculpture depicting a laurel wreath. It was designed by Georgia artist Hans Frabel.

Mayor L.E. (Boze) Godwin III, the local pharmacist, was close to tears as he handed the president of Egypt the keys to the city of Plains.

Carter's old friend and first budget director, Bert Lance, also looking fit and tan, was among the Carter entourage.

Along with "pink-eyed peas," fire-ant killer and Georgia Bulldog sandwich specials, the arrival of Sadat had been advertised for days on signs in the towns surrounding Plains.

The former president's hometown has followed him through boom-and-bust cycles. Now that Carter is back and seen regularly in local establishments, according to local businessmen, business is picking up a bit again.

"We're proud of him. We're glad to have him back."