Move, move, move …

Most of this story appeared in Georgia Trend magazine (March 2014). This is the uncut (i.e., much better because there’s more Greg Cox in it) version.

All of that traffic in, through, around and above Atlanta – it was meant to be. The big rigs circling the city on I-285, the car conga line shuffling down Georgia 400, the airliners circling over Hartsfield-Jackson waiting for permission to land, the trains roaring in and out of town: destiny, all of it.

Movement is the reason Atlanta was invented, the movement of stuff to and from the port of Savannah, and then across the known continent, or across the sea.

“Atlanta is a true nexus. Since its founding, it’s been a transportation and logistics hub,” says Alan Erera, co-director of Georgia Tech’s Supply Chain and Logistics Institute. “That’s the reason the city is here.”

In the 1830s, the Georgia General Assembly started creating a rail connection between the port of Savannah and the Midwest. The plan was to build rail from Chattanooga to a fixed point in the ground now known as Atlanta (called Terminus back then, which means the end of the line) and connect to Savannah via other rail lines.

Eventually, all of that happened, and after General Sherman destroyed a lot of it, it happened again. Georgia rebuilt its transportation network, made and grew stuff and developed a knack for moving it, and kept investing in different modes of connectivity. And it keeps happening, so that today Georgia is one of the leading places in the world for logistics, which is a small word for a complex, wide-ranging field concerned with managing the flow of stuff from origin to consumption.

“I tend to think of our vast logistics system in Georgia as an ecosystem made up of different pieces, all relying on each other,” says Page Siplon, executive director for the Georgia Center of Innovation for Logistics. “We have some unfair advantages – the fastest-growing seaport in the nation, the world’s busiest airport, more railroad miles than any other state in the Southeast, a highly ranked highway system.

“I like to say that we’re uniquely complete.”

If it’s possible to be even more uniquely complete, that’s about to happen. After 15 years of studies and planning and lawsuits and Congressional authorizations (then reauthorizations), the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP) is reaching the construction phase, which means one of the nation’s shallowest and fastest-growing ports will be able to efficiently accommodate the larger “post-Panamax” ships that will call on Savannah in greater numbers when the Panama Canal expansion is completed.

“We’ve been working on this so long the cost of the project has more than doubled,” says Bob Jepson, who chairs the Georgia Ports Authority board. “But we begin the deepening this year.

“It’s going to be a banner year for logistics in Georgia.”

Georgia already is the fifth largest overall logistics employer in the nation, with 142,000 workers at nearly 11,000 logistics providers (generating more than $16 billion in annual sales).

These include, among other things, cargo carriers, trucking companies, railroads, freight brokers, warehouses and distribution centers, third-party logistics companies (3PLs) and software firms. (There are 400 logistics companies in Georgia with a technology focus.)

They’re busy little companies with a national reach, like Rettig Inc., a four-person business in Gainesville. They’re homegrown success stories like HWC Logistics in Forest Park, which started out as a guy with a van and now has a fleet of 50 trucks, not to mention warehouses in Atlanta, Charlotte and Savannah. And they’re huge companies with headquarters here, like Delta Air Lines, Manhattan Associates, SAIA and UPS, as well as major logistics players like Coca-Cola, The Home Depot and Gulfstream.

They’re here because Georgia has an effective industry lobbying community and a business-friendly tax environment, and they’re also here because it makes logistical sense. With Hartsfield-Jackson, first in passenger traffic and 10th in cargo, Georgia has something Siplon calls, “a geographical corner-store advantage.”

Atlanta is within a two-hour flight of 80 percent of the U.S. population (i.e., “consumers”) or one day by truck, and more than 40 percent of North American manufacturing and distribution locations are within a 500-mile radius of the city.

They’re here for the workforce, and the training – Georgia’s universities and technical colleges are offering about 100 degrees and certificates with a logistics focus.

“This is the right place if you’re interested in the supply chain and logistics domain,” says Erera, who is also director of the Master of Science in Supply Chain Engineering program at Tech. “Right now, we’ve got a lot going for us in Georgia.”

Going Deep

If there is a villain in Georgia’s epic logistics story, it’s got to be Sherman, who helped bring an end to the Civil War through innovative (to some, infamous) scorched-earth maneuvers, which resulted in the crippling of Georgia’s transportation and logistics infrastructure.

His army turned Atlanta, a critical Confederate supply and rail center, to ashes and rubble. Then they marched for the sea, wrecking bridges and 300 miles of railroad along the way, destroying countless cotton gins and mills, seizing millions of pounds of food and crops, and thousands of horses, mules and cows from local farms.

That year, Sherman gave the port city of Savannah to President Lincoln as a Christmas present.

What a difference 150 years can make.

While history buffs are commemorating the sesquicentennial of Sherman’s destructive camping trip this year, the people involved in Georgia’s logistics industry are celebrating the beginning of the long-awaited harbor expansion.

“We’ve been a beneficiary of the port’s growth, as well as a key component of that growth,” says Craig Camuso, regional vice president of state government affairs for CSX Transportation, one of two Class 1 railroads with on-terminal intermodal facilities. (Norfolk Southern is the other.) “We see the deepening project as critical to the growth and success of the freight rail industry, extending well into the Southeast and beyond.”

Savannah’s (and Atlanta’s) intermodal capacity is the envy of the rest of the nation. What that means is, the port has developed the infrastructure to seamlessly move standard-sized cargo containers between different modes of transport.

And those ship containers are moving to rail in greater numbers. Griffith Lynch, the GPA’s chief operating officer, sees rail outpacing trucking and expects a continued increase, even for short hauls, of stuff moving via rail, especially as Savannah prepares to meet the demand to move more containers.

“We eclipsed three million TEUs [twenty-foot equivalent container units] for the first time (in 2013), one of only four ports in the country to do that, a very elite club,” says Lynch. “But we have the capability, when you look at our facility and the room we have to grow, to reach the six to six and a half million range in the future. So, we are seriously focused on increasing the capacity and throughput of the facility.”

That’s why they’re deepening the Savannah harbor from 42 feet to 47 feet, to handle more stuff more efficiently. When a deeper Panama Canal opens in 2015, the average-size vessel calling on the U.S. East Coast is expected to shift from a capacity of 4,500 TEUs to about 9,000 TEUs (though capable of carrying about 12,500 TEUs), which should mean 20 percent to 40 percent savings on shipping costs.

The dredging project costs about $660 million. The state already has committed its share, $266 million. The federal government is on the hook for the rest. That’s been the hold-up. Last year, the Water Resources Development Act of 2013 (which authorizes SHEP) passed the Senate and the House. In January, a conference committee was merging the Senate and House versions. The legislation would next require the president’s signature, and then, in Jepson’s words, “we’re off and running.”

Contracts are awarded and approved and, Jepson says, “I expect that we’ll be dredging by the first or middle of April.”

SHEP Ready

It’s not like the port can’t handle the larger ships now.

“Those ships already are coming in some numbers today,” says Jamie McCurry, GPA’s senior director of administration and governmental affairs. “Getting them in and out efficiently is the challenge right now.”

The deepening will throw the tidal window wide open, allowing more of the larger vessels to call on the Savannah port’s Garden City Terminal, which has been ready for the traffic and the heavy weightlifting.

Last year, the ports authority purchased and deployed four new “super” post-Panamax ship-to-shore cranes (a $40-million investment), each of them capable of lifting up to 65 tons.

And in September, they broke ground on the $73-million Jimmy DeLoach connector, which will give trucks unimpeded access to the port from Interstates 95 and 16. That, plus a new gate at the terminal, is meant to help increase truck traffic.

“We handle about 8,000 truckloads a day, by far the largest amount in the U.S. for a single terminal,” Lynch says. “If we want to go from three million to over six million TEUs a year, we need to do 16,000 loads a day.”

In addition, they’re shoring up docks that date back to the 1940s and 1950s so they can handle larger equipment, a phase-by-phase project requiring an investment of $12 million to $20 million, and they’re purchasing new electric-powered mobile gantry cranes (for stacking intermodal containers) and converting the old diesel ones to run on electricity.

This kind of investment in the means to make things go from one place to another, it’s the reason Mike Owens started his business, HWC Logistics, in Georgia more than 30 years ago.

“I used to travel a lot between New Orleans and Chicago when I was going to college at Tulane, and you had to fly through Atlanta. You know, everybody has to go through Atlanta,” says Owens, who liked the sound of that. “I noticed that they’d built a new airport, that they seemed to be investing in themselves. Something was ready to happen here, and I wanted to be part of it.”

Owens’ father, Dick, had been a customs house broker in Chicago, in fact, had been the longest-serving president of the Chicago Brokers Association and helped grow the industry in the Windy City.

So Mike learned the business from the inside, and after graduating from Tulane, he bought a Dodge van and started a courier business in 1981, serving six local brokers in the Atlanta market. It was exactly the ground-floor opportunity he anticipated.

“Now there are 300 to 400 customs house brokers in Atlanta, and we’ve grown with them,” says Owens, whose company based in Forest Park now employs 110 people and has grown into a full-fledged logistics firm that provides warehousing, distribution, transportation, and import and export services, with more than 800,000 square feet of warehouse space in Atlanta, Charlotte and Savannah and a fleet of 50 vehicles.

“The key for us has been, we’ve always provided a service that the trade required as those needs evolved,” Owens says. “When we saw a need for warehousing, we opened a warehouse. When the need to import grew, we opened a container freight station. When there was a need for transportation, we started buying trucks. As our customers grew their businesses, we grew ours.

“With us, it’s always been a ‘can do’ thing. We never learned to say ‘no.’”

Susan Rettig has quite the opposite approach. She isn’t afraid to say “no.” She doesn’t like to say it, but she will when she has to.

“Our clients know that if we don’t have a truck, we will tell them so, and I know that some customers really appreciate that honesty,” says Rettig, whose Gainesville-based company (Rettig Inc., which began as JS & Son) is a freight brokerage and one of the few woman-owned logistics companies in Georgia.

But with 5,500 carriers coast to coast on her company’s call list, Rettig doesn’t have to say “no” very often. Her company manages the movement of food via refrigeration trucks, or “reefers.” She figures food was a safer bet than other products.

“People got to eat,” says Rettig, who was burned out on the restaurant business after 25 years when a regular customer turned her on to the freight business. Rettig went to work for a freight broker, then for a trucking company, then opened her business, JS & Son (with her oldest boy, Tony Beheler) in 2000.

Today it’s Rettig, Tony and three other employees – her son Chris Beheler, daughter Leigh Dyer, and Leigh’s best friend, Angie McDaniel. They are a company that provides load planning, truck service to 48 states, routing and cost management, and they’re available 24 hours a day. “If we have an edge, that’s it. My customers have my cell number and the number of everyone who works for me,” Rettig says. “We’re always on call.”

Their client list includes Smithfield Packing, Pepsi and Mission Foods. The trick is to find a truck for less than what the shipping customer is paying you.

“That’s a good day,” Rettig says. “Will I retire soon? Will I be wealthy? No. But I love what I’m doing.”

So do Greg Cox and Dan McMackin, who have both been involved in the movement of stuff for about 30 years, but have taken completely different routes.

On the Job

Greg Cox is a veteran road warrior, a truck driver since 1985 who has been hauling heavy equipment (excavators, backhoes, bulldozers, etc.) via 18 wheels since 1990, while Dan McMackin has worn many hats for UPS, where he’s worked since he was 17.

“Like a lot of our management people, I started out loading trucks. I was a package handler,” says McMackin, now a spokesman for the company, a member of the public relations battalion in the world’s largest package delivery company. “It was a great job for a college kid bound and determined to stay close to home. It beat busing tables, which is what I had been doing.”

McMackin lived in Wisconsin, went to Marquette, and the UPS job helped pay his way. After graduating with two degrees (English lit and marketing), he became a UPS driver, brown uniform and everything. It was totally an economic decision – he had a young family and he could make a lot more driving a UPS truck than he could analyzing Beowulf.

UPS is known for hiring from within, so McMackin moved from job to job – loader, driver, driver supervisor, human resources, then he worked as a photographer for the company magazine, worked at the company’s global air hub in Louisville, at the former corporate headquarters in Connecticut.

Now he gets to answer questions from the media about drones. (Yes, UPS is interested in the technology – they spend a billion dollars a year on technology – but flying robots that deliver one package at a time aren’t viable yet, he says, not when a single UPS driver hits the road with 150 to 300 packages.)

There are days when Greg Cox wishes he could fly like a drone, like a few days ago, when he saw a guy driving southbound on I-75 North.

“He made it all the way to the left lane and somehow, nobody hit him,” says Cox, who drives for Sunbelt Rentals, one of the largest equipment rental companies in the country.

Cox delivers the equipment that builds the Southern economy and sometimes rescues whole communities. When the devastating tornado outbreak ripped through Alabama, Cox hauled equipment there for the relief effort.

“If there’s a natural disaster anywhere, Sunbelt is gonna be there,” says Cox.

There’s a law that prevents drivers from working more than 14 hours a day, or driving more than 10 of those hours, and another one that prevents them from hauling wide loads on Sundays and holidays. But there are occasional exceptions to the rules, such as declared states of emergency.

Cox was hauling equipment to for the relief effort in Alabama following the devastating tornado outbreak in April 2011. He stopped at a weighing station, the point man in a line of five Sunbelt trucks.

The way Cox tells it: “The guy there tells me, ‘you boys know it’s Sunday, doncha?’ I show him my letter from the governor of Georgia and he says, ‘have a nice day.’ And I could hear one of the other DOT guys saying, ‘if he’s got that letter of emergency, he can run through here naked and there’s nothing you can do about it.’”

Cox is a big man, about 6-foot-5, not thin by anyone’s definition. Fortunately, he has the good judgment of a veteran truck driver and chose not to test the DOT guy’s theory.

Inglorious Cause

An excerpt from a story I wrote about Civil War tourism a couple of years ago:

There exists, especially in the South (where I have lived for 36 of my 53 years), a passionate, often rancorous and seemingly willful misunderstanding of why the Civil War happened. Even today, decades after the last surviving veteran has turned to dust and memory, a discussion of the issues that divided North and South can end abruptly with the declaration, “Them’s fightin’ words!”

“The reasons for the war are still very controversial for a lot of people,” notes Steven Longcrier, founder and executive director of Georgia Civil War Heritage Trails (www.civilwarheritagetrails.org).

For secession apologists and defenders, the war remains a whitewashed glorious cause, speckled with the blood of noble patriots.

Many neo-Confederates claim slavery was not the central issue; it was “states rights.” Their ancestors fought for self-governance, to defend their homes against northern aggressors (all of which still points right back at the peculiar institution, the thing their states rights and self-governance protected, and the thing the North ultimately fought to end once Lincoln got around to the Eman-cipation Proclamation).

Of course, most Southerners did not own slaves. Nor did most Southerners make the decision to secede, either; that was made by the few men in power, the one percent (or so, you get the idea) of the Confederacy, many of whom owed their fortunes to slave labor.

For bona fide Confederates – unlike latter-day revisionists who have been whooping it up at secession celebrations, like the costume ball in Charleston several months back – slavery was never the elephant in the room, because the actual secessionists weren’t shy about their reasons.

So when the Georgia Historical Society (GHS) recently dedicated a new historical marker in Milledgeville near the old state house, it read in part: “Secession began in response to Abraham Lincoln’s election … and the belief that his Republican party was ‘anti-slavery in its mission and its purpose,’ according to Georgia’s secession ordinance.”

In Georgia’s Declaration of Causes (approved January 29, 1861, 10 days after the state voted to secede), the word “slavery” appears 26 times. “States rights” doesn’t appear at all.

“Like it or not, it always comes back to race and slavery,” says GHS president Todd Groce, a native Virginian with a Ph.D. in history who has written and lectured extensively on the South and the Civil War. “Slavery is what caused secession. It wasn’t until decades after the war that some surviving Confederates put forth a different argument. They were the first revisionists.”

The Great Ice Storm

homer

There’s a story that has nothing to do with this picture, and here it is:

Weather happens every day, everywhere, but here in Georgia, when it’s cold enough for moisture in the sky to form earthbound ice crystals (or, as some scientists have theorized, when God sneezes on a cocaine-covered mirror in the sky), it can cripple an entire region, freezing humanity and machinery in place, emptying grocery store shelves of carbohydrates. It becomes what today’s lions of journalism call a “weather event.”

As a mere ocelot of journalism, relegated to backwoods beats, I’m hardly fit to comment on such weighty affairs that define the times we live in. But that’s never stopped me before, so …

One of my favorite social commentators (i.e., a Facebook friend whose stuff regularly appears on my newsfeed) asked if anyone experienced the Great Ice Storm of January 8-9 1973 (such is the magnitude of these “weather events” that we readily recall the specific dates and accord them capital letters, or someone looks it up on Google and then I grant the storm proper noun status).

It was a great time. I was 12, there was frozen stuff on the ground that I could slide across. Of course it was a great time. Fast-forward six years from that Great Ice Storm, toss in some adolescent impatience, a stranded Mustang, two Japanese-American bachelor hosts, and an extremely limited choice of food, or stuff to watch on TV, and you get to not-so-great.

I was 18, working at a bowling alley in Decatur, commuting from Lilburn in the aforementioned sweet ride (somehow, my oft-busted Mustang gets sweeter with the passage of time). It was a Saturday, a busy night of winter leagues, and we were understaffed. James worked the front desk, and was the grown-up in charge. Then there was his little brother, whose name I can’t remember, and yours truly.

They were Japanese men, from Waycross, I think. The three of us did everything that had to be done in a bowling alley that night – checked out shoes, cleaned tables, maintained the automatic pinsetters, tended the bars (snack and liquor), threw out the drunks, including the assistant manager, the guy who was supposed to be in charge, who’d been testing the taps. We sent him home before the ice fell.

We closed late, as usual, sometime after midnight. The ice-covered parking lot was dotted here and there with stranded ice-covered cars, including my 1967 lemon-colored Mustang. The roads were impossible. James and his brother lived in an apartment a few blocks away, so that’s where I stayed.

What did we do? We ate English muffins and corn. That’s basically all they had. I’ve never seen so many bags of frozen corn. Thank God there was half a stick of butter in the joint. We watched NASCAR. And I watched them demonstrate their skills with nunchucks, and listened to them argue about everything — who Mom liked best, who was the better NASCAR driver, who knew the right way to commit seppuku, etc.

Admittedly, it’s small-minded on my part, but this was the first time I’d heard Japanese men speak in thick Southern accents, and it fascinated me (enough so that here I am, recalling it and writing about it 35 years later).

Well, it was fascinating for the first couple of hours, then it got tedious – the arguing, the NASCAR, the overwhelming austerity. There were no pictures on the walls, no books in the apartment, no magazines or newspaper, nothing to read except the labels on the packages of English muffins and corn. The butter, alas, was naked in a dish.

After a day and a half of this, or, just before we started casting lots to see who would get eaten first, I beat it the hell out of there on wretched roads. It took several hours to make the half hour drive home, and I had to grab some guys to sit in my trunk to ascend the final hill to my house, where beer, blessed beer (see photo) was waiting.

So, that was the Great Ice Storm of February 17-18, 1979. I know this because the 11Alive website has a list of major winter weather events – you know, the kind of weather that happens in Michigan or North Dakota every few minutes or so. I take full responsibility for the capital letters.

How do you get to the top?

December 14, 1984. It was a Friday. I was 24, younger than my daughter is today. It was that long ago. My commute to work that day, like most days, was about seven minutes, and about half that time was spent trying to start my 1977 Pinto – so, a small window of opportunity.

We were living in Camden, South Carolina, Jane and I, newlyweds, married less than two months.

There was hardly ever time to hear an entire song on the way to work. My car radio was always tuned to a rock station out of Columbia, and if I hadn’t been in the car at that exact moment, for that tiny commute to the Chronicle-Independent, where I was the sports editor, I wouldn’t have in my possession one of the great journalism keepsakes of all-time. I wouldn’t have the proof, and the urban legend would be just that, rather than the undisputed, absolute truth, black ink on a browned, 30-year-old newsprint. Remember newsprint? And oil-based ink?

The radio DJ was laughing about something he’d read in that morning’s edition of The  State, the daily newspaper in Columbia. The guy said something like, “I can’t say it on the air, but take a look at page 9-C, the classifieds … oh, and please let me know if you plan to apply for the job advertised near the bottom, right-hand corner of the page, because I might have some other leads …”

He said, “you’ve got to see it” so many times, that when I got into our little newsroom, I had to see it. So I grabbed the paper, flipped through, and my eyes popped out of my head. Our publisher nearly tripped over my jaw on the floor and wondered what the hell I was laughing at. I made him promise I could keep the newspaper before showing him the classified ad (see below):

Fuck Your Way

Everyone at the paper had a good look, and a big laugh, and wondered who was responsible. The story I’ve heard is, there were two people, and this was a gag on their last day of work. The next day, there was a front-page apology in the paper, and an announcement that they were looking for a typesetter.

Since then, I’ve read a little bit about the infamous typo online. Very little. It’s a legend that has receded past rumor to the point of being almost forgotten. Even Snopes mentioned something inconclusive about it. They didn’t have any proof.

I’ve found and lost so many treasures through the years, that I’m surprised this one remains — found it while digging through some old files, and immediately remembered what it was like to be 24 again, but then I pulled a muscle laughing and was thrown roughly to the present with mortality’s reminder throbbing in my ribs.

I wish I knew what happened to everyone involved in this ad – the typesetter, his/her boss. Maybe it was a joke, but it feels like it might be the most honest classified ad of all time. And it got me thinking that we really should really strive for better copy editing, lest truth in advertising become the norm.

Save Your Dog

One night around 3 a.m., a man wearing a shiny windbreaker and a large cowboy hat, with a Nazi-looking dog at his side, will fill the screen of your TV and say the following:

Good evening, brothers and sisters and other sinful viewers. Let us all stand at arm’s length from one another and praise God the almighty, the Divine creator, the invincible and omnipotent architect of the inevitable, our Lord, He who must be obeyed, lest the pain and puss of a thousand boils be inflicted upon the children of our fathers and the fathers of our children.

My name is Freddy Phopp, and I am pastor of the Impersonal Church of the Eradicator in Topeka Kansas. You may recognize me as the fellow who pickets in front of public schools, homeless shelters, health clinics, day care centers, synagogues, churches, temples, military bases and funerals, and other Godless sanctuaries for the gay homosexual communist liberals who are tearing our world apart, one venereal diseased speck of dirt at a time.

If you’ve seen me on TV, or visited my “church’s” Web site, www.GOD-DON’T-LIKE-YOU-MUCH.com, then you know that I am a pedal to the metal, shoot first and ask questions later motherfucker when it comes to my faith, a forceful, sanctified voice of reason in a soul-less world overrun with sin and the AIDS and soft-core porn.

When I chastise you lesser human beings for living a wasted, corrupt life, I do it gleefully and out of kindness. And when I promise you an eternal whoop-ass in hell, just for being born, I do so in the spirit of grace and compassion. And it is in that spirit that I come to you today, my brothers and sisters.

I have searched far and wide for only the best faith-based products and services to endorse. With that in mind, let me introduce you to the newest, safest bet for salvation in the world: Dogs for Christ.

That’s right, Dogs for Christ, the first and only evangelical ministry for dogs, guaranteed by God Hissself as the only way to save your dog’s savage soul.

What, I ask you, is the eternal reward that awaits Man’s Best Friend when he wags his tail for the last time and shuffles off this mortal leash? What is his eternal fate?

Until now, until this very moment, ‘old Yeller’ would have had a one-way ticket to Satan’s dog pound … the same fate that awaits any shameless beast who spends a Godless life fornicating without commitment, eating out of the cat box and licking his own genitalia in the ethical cesspool of his agnostic existence.

But not anymore, my brothers and sisters, not anymore.

Dogs for Christ is your dog’s ticket to salvation. That is our guarantee. We promise that your dog’s soul will be sniffing St. Peter’s ass at the Pearly Gates and chasing ethereal rabbits through Elysian Fields before you can bury him in the backyard.

You see, at Dogs for Christ, our staff of veterinary chaplains will visit your pet in your home, armed with Bibles and our own, patented choke collars blessed by me personally. Our staff will blend psychotic evangelical doctrine with persuasive Spanish Inquisition conversion techniques to put your dog on the righteous path. Before long, he’ll be playing dead, rising from the dead, and sitting up to beg for God’s approval.

And speaking of playing dead, if you are called home to the firm and unyielding embrace of the Lord before your dog, our staff will euthanize your pet immediately upon your death, so you can walk side by side into the eternal light.

Are you Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Wiccan, Unitarian, disabled, vegetarian, Hispanic, Black, Asian, different from me in any way?  Well, just because you’re going to hell, it doesn’t mean your dog has to. Dogs for Christ has a special conversion plan for dogs who have been led down the road of false idols and paganism.  And Dogs for Christ is now offering conversion services for other pets, such as cats, birds and fish. No snakes or monkeys, please.

Bottom line, your animal will be saved. So, if you are fortunate enough to be one of the few blessed souls destined to spend the afterlife walking in the fields of the Lord, Fido will be there, heeling beside you in the warm glow of God’s conditional love.

And if you register your pet in Dogs for Christ today you’ll receive these free gifts:

• A box of dog biscuits shaped like the Holy Grail, each with its own Biblical passage written in Aramaic, Latin or the dead language of your choice.

• A DVD of the spectacular new stage version of PASSION OF THE CHRIST with an all-Dog cast – the Jack Russell Terrier who plays Jesus actually suffered from Stigmata during production.

• A ‘What Would Jesus’ Doggie Doo’ Pooper Scooper

• A velvet painting of Dogs playing Poker with Jesus at the Last Supper.

• And, a BARK IF YOU LOVE JESUS bumper sticker.

What would Jesus do? Why, he’d kick a sinner in the groin and scream, ‘HOWL-a-LEUJAH!’ … but first, he’d enroll his pet in Dogs for Christ. It is the only way to save your pet’s soul, officially recognized by the John Birch Society. It’s what God would want. And don’t forget, God spelled backwards is … (the Nazi dog at his side barks on cue). That’s right, Fido. Good dogma.

So, don’t forget friends. Enroll your pet in Dogs for Christ today. Or else.

Ready, Aim …

I’ve never seen the man before, don’t know his name, but he’s definitely local, or he wouldn’t be embedded at the local gun store, where he presents an air of native permanence, while I’ve only lived in this rural Northeast Georgia community for 15 years, so I’m the gatecrasher here, asking questions about the many firearms on display, taking notes, handing out business cards.

He takes the card, looks at it, smiles and asks, “you a liberal or conservative?”

I say, “I’m not here to talk politics, I’m here to ask about guns.”

Except, this guy knows better. Any discussion about guns can become a political debate faster than you can say, “reach for the sky,” especially in Georgia, where policymakers are pushing legislation to radically overhaul the state’s gun laws. That’s kind of like firing a gun with a plugged barrel while wearing a blindfold, according to people who have experience studying the issue.

“The problem is, what can we do to reduce the number of firearm deaths and injuries and protect the rights of legitimate gun owners,” says Mark Rosenberg, former director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) at the CDC, and now the president/CEO of the Centers for Global Health, based in Decatur.

“We can’t rattle off ideas at the top of our head and expect to get anywhere. We need to do the research, because the fact is, we don’t know what works, so it wouldn’t be fair to ask policymakers to try and pass legislation if they don’t know what works.”

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills has a different angle – he believes in enforcing laws that already exist.

“I wish the legislature would call us sometimes,” quips Sills, a veteran cop and immediate past president of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association. “I am adamantly opposed to anything more than what we have now. We already have a plethora of laws to deal with criminals who use guns and I’m telling you, it’s not being utilized.”

But when it comes to guns this country, reactionary partisanship sparked by emotion, or the deep pockets of the gun lobby (think the National Rifle Association), or both, is the norm.

In 2013, the General Assembly considered bills that would not only arm public school teachers and administrators, but also allow weapons on college campuses (the controversial ‘campus carry’ provision), or in churches, bars, airports, government buildings, on public transportation – places where guns are typically restricted. Supporters of this kind of thing claim that looser gun restrictions will make Georgia safer.

“Now, anywhere you go you are in danger,” says Jerry Henry, executive director of GeorgiaCarry.org, which helped craft some of the legislation proposed in 2013. “There’s too much gun control now, as far as we’re concerned. We feel that we should be able to defend ourselves any place we go.”

Meanwhile, critics are puzzled by the urgency of the latest effort to increase the presence of firearms, and the timing (in the wake of the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.).

“I think we should support reasonable gun legislation,” says Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “But for some reason, the tide is turning on even the most reasonable protections against gun violence, and I don’t believe that’s the right direction for this city, this state or this country.”

But the man at the local gun store isn’t interested in what Mayor Reed thinks because right now, he’s got a point to make with me.

“You take this business card to some places I know in Kentucky, like you done here, and they’ll put a gun on you, escort you out the door,” he says, as a matter of fact, because he’s spent a lot of time in Kentucky.

And I say, trying to match his good-natured tone, “Well, it wouldn’t be the first time someone aimed a gun at me.”

It was two guns actually, pointed at my chest from a few feet away, because police officers are trained to aim at the largest center of mass on a human body.

Fortunately, they weren’t looking for me. I happened to be opening the back door of my family’s print shop when they happened to be looking for an escaped convict who had shot and killed a local preacher.

My experience staring down the menacing maw of eternity is the American experience, because we are a nation of guns, gun owners and potential gun victims.

Missed Target

More than two-dozen gun-related bills were filed during the 2013 session. The two biggies, Senate Bill 101 and House Bill 512, went down to the wire (the ‘campus carry’ provision was the sticking point). They didn’t survive the session, but you can bet your last bullet that they’ll be back in some form or fashion in the 2014 session that begins next month.

“Some kind of strong gun legislation is coming up again,” promises State Rep. John Meadows (R-Calhoun), chairman of the Rules Committee, and a chief sponsor of HB 512 (the Safe Carry Protection Act).

“I thought it was a good bill, but if it could be made more palatable to the other side, that might be something we’ll look at,” says Meadows, who carries a little Ruger pistol in his back pocket. “But if my name is on it, I want it to be good legislation, not just something that’ll flare up and make everybody talk.”

Opponents of ‘campus carry’ talked plenty last session, from grassroots advocacy groups like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, to the University System of Georgia (USG), whose chancellor, Hank Huckaby (a former legislator) told lawmakers, “adding loaded weapons to an already potentially volatile mix of youthful exuberance, stress, and yes, at times alcohol and other factors, could lead to a tragedy of our own making that we could otherwise avoid.”

That was in March. Even with such widespread opposition to the campus carry concept, HB 512 received overwhelming support by House Republicans and made it as far as the Senate’s Judiciary Non-Civil Committee before time ran out on the session.

By September, the entire public university system had developed a case of self-imposed laryngitis, underlying the sensitive political nature of the hot-blooded, often emotional issue of gun rights.

“At this time, we will not be making any statements or comments regarding this subject,” came the response from USG spokesman John Milsaps to an interview request. It was the same “no comment” from every university we contacted except one.

“We are committed to providing a safe education and work environment for our students, faculty and staff,” says Bonita Jacobs, president of the University of North Georgia. “We believe the law as currently written best achieves that.”

One officially-gagged university spokesperson who did not want to be identified says, “we’ve been told by the University System not to touch this issue with a 10-foot pole.”

So, the current law survived another year, and Meadows et al. circled the wagons to discuss what form the legislation might take in 2014. Don’t be surprised if ‘campus carry’ is axed, which makes sense to State Rep. Scott Holcomb.

“You had universal opposition to the extension of gun rights on college campuses,” says Holcomb (D-Atlanta), who spoke against HB 512 on the Capitol floor. “You had a group of Democrats and Republicans who think reasonable restrictions are appropriate.

“But you also had a core group of ardent Republicans who believe guns should be allowed virtually anywhere at anytime for anyone under any circumstance whatsoever. That isn’t logical and it can’t be justified.”

Logic and justification probably depends on your personal beliefs, sort of like religion.

Georgia State University administrators did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, but a number of GSU customers did.

“I think it’s a bad idea, because there are people that can buy guns that don’t really know how to use them,” says Angelica Currens, a GSU senior with a double major in psychology and criminal justice. “You have to take a test to get a driver’s license, but you’re not required to get any training for a gun, which can potentially be more dangerous, and that bothers me.”

Ollie Hudgins and his mom Jennifer have a different point of view.

“Crime is on and around my campus, so knowing that there could be qualified and licensed gun-owners nearby makes me feel safer,” he says.

Under the campus carry provision, only students who are at least 21 with a Georgia Weapons Carry License (it costs about $80 in White County, and part of that is for a G.B.I. background check) would be allowed to pack heat at school.

“College students are adults that have the rights of any other adult,” says Jennifer Hudgins. “College is not a bubble and we are not doing them any favors by treating them as children and protecting them from the outside world. The right to carry a concealed weapon should be theirs if they are willing to go through the responsible, legal steps to obtain the proper license.”

Vicki White Warneke has two daughters at GSU, one who witnessed a gun death on campus, a drug deal that turned violent.

“More guns on campus is not the answer,” she says. “There are so many people these days with anger issues and no common sense. I would hate to see what happens if and when someone who is carrying gets pissed off.”

Deadly Aim

April 16, 2007 is branded on Brenda Kendrick’s broken heart. That’s the day Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech, shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others on the university campus.

“My niece was killed that day, in French class. Austin Michelle Cloyd. She was my younger brother’s daughter, a freshman. It was a week before her 19th birthday,” says Kendrick, who is a school psychologist for the White County School District in Northeast Georgia. “I’d never really thought about the gun issue before.”

That day changed her perspective, but it was the Newtown massacre a year ago that inspired her to take action.

The day after the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, an Indiana woman named Shannon Watts started a Facebook page called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which has since become a non-profit modeled on Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Kendrick  joined immediately.

With chapters in all 50 states, Moms Demand Action is targeting state and federal lawmakers, companies and educational institutions to establish what it considers common-sense gun reforms, such as background checks for all gun and ammo purchases, restricting military-style weapons and ammo, establishing product safety oversight of guns and ammo.

“Teddy bears are more regulated than guns, they have to meet consumer health and safety standards, but guns don’t,” Kendrick says.

But teddy bears don’t have quite the lobbying power that guns do.

Guns are big business in the U.S. (a $33 billion industry supporting about 220,000 jobs). They are also prevalent (about 300,000 Georgians with permits to carry handguns; about 300 million guns in the U.S., and the number rises about 4 million a year, according to the NRA). And deadly: there are about 32,000 gun deaths a year in the U.S., approximately the same as the number of traffic deaths (although two thirds of the gun deaths are suicides).

But for some, the very idea of “gun control” is intolerable. The NRA is the fattest cat on this side, shelling out about $3 million a year on federal lobbying efforts (and a reported $25 million during the 2012 election cycle) to oppose such things as restrictions on assault weapons or the registration of firearms.

In response to several requests for an interview, an NRA spokesperson finally sent this comment via email: “NRA is working closely with legislators and Second Amendment advocates across Georgia to benefit law abiding gun owners in the upcoming 2014 legislative session.”

Veteran lawman Sheriff Sills was a bit more lucid, and firm, saying flatly, “I am not in favor of gun control,” adding, “The term ‘assault rifle’ is just bogus hyperbole. It is meaningless. The problem isn’t the gun, it’s the person holding the gun.”

He bases his opinion on four decades of blood-stained experience.

“I have seen every kind of carnage there is. I carried a person’s foot in my pocket once. I’m desensitized because I’m supposed to be. I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” he says. “But dear God, I really believe we have become desensitized as a people, all these violent movies and games and what’s available on the Internet for young people.

“When we played cops and robbers as kids, we never saw somebody’s head blown off. Kids today, by the time they’re 16 they’ve seen so much gory stuff.”

So, it isn’t the guns, he says. The problems, in addition to the breakdown of the American family, include a disintegrating system to treat the mentally ill, and a broken criminal justice system.

“Its a five year sentence for a person to possess a firearm if they are a convicted felon. If you carry a firearm in the commission of crime, that carries a 10 year sentence,” he says. “But those firearm charges are usually the first thing that gets chipped away in a plea negotiation. If we wanted to send a message and stop people from committing crimes with guns, we have laws to do it.”

He cites example after example of recidivist criminals who commit violent acts, such as the murder last year (a few days after the Newtown massacre) of a Clayton County police officer, who was reportedly shot to death by a man with a history of gun-related convictions who was out of prison on parole.

Of course, none of that can fill the loss or ease the pain Kendrick and her family feels, so they continue advocating for what they consider common-sense gun laws that also protect Second Amendment rights, which is exactly what Mark Rosenberg and his former arch enemy are trying to do.

In 1983, Rosenberg went to the CDC to help establish the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, with the idea of applying a public health approach to studying violent injury, which was a leading cause of death for young people (ages 1 to 44). In particular, they wanted to take a close look at the rising number of firearm deaths with the goal of prevention in mind.

So, they researched the underlying causes of gun violence. The researchers uncovered some useful information, such as the likelihood of being shot and killed in your home is significantly greater if you have a firearm in your home, which is a no brainer. Some of the numbers were inflated, and have since been adjusted (instead of 43 times more likely, you’re three times as likely to be shot and killed if you’ve got a gun in your home), and the methodology of the study was questioned by criminologists and other scientists, but more importantly, by the powerful NRA.

The NRA had an influential frontman in Congressman Jay Dickey (R-Arkansas), who led the fight to effectively shut down the CDC’s research into gun violence, which is exactly what happened. That was in 1996, when Rosenberg and Dickey couldn’t imagine occupying the same room together without an eruption. But something else happened instead.

“He came to my office one day, when things had subsided a little,” says Dickey, who is retired now.

“We talked about our children, discovered we struggled with some of the same things as parents, got to know each other and became friends,” Rosenberg says.

They kept a dialogue going, and last year they co-wrote an editorial that appeared in the Washington Post calling for more research, from a public health perspective, into gun violence.

According to the editorial, since 1996, “the United States has spent about $240 million a year on traffic safety research, but there has been almost no publicly funded research on firearm injuries. As a consequence, U.S. scientists cannot answer the most basic question: What works to prevent firearm injuries?”

For Rosenberg, and for the gun-toting masses, the Second Amendment is nigh on sacrosanct (but it clearly doesn’t give me the right to carry any weapon I want in any manner I choose for any purpose). He doesn’t want my gun (I only have one, an old .22 rifle) and probably doesn’t want yours. This isn’t a black or white, all or none issue.

“It isn’t legal in our country to take guns away from law abiding citizens. That would be totally unconstitutional,” Rosenberg says.

“We don’t know if registration and licensing would make a difference. We don’t know if restricting access for people adjudicated mentally ill would make a difference. We haven’t done the research.

“So, we have two goals – reduce firearm injuries and protect the rights of legitimate gun owners. That’s what Jay and I agree on. You can do both,” he says. “You can do both.”

Aaron Still Going Deep

Hank Aaron was baseball’s humble virtuoso. Consistent as sunrise, he set an unmatched standard of sustained excellence as a player, breezed into the Hall of Fame and into the Atlanta Braves front office, started a business empire and a philanthropic foundation, had a Major League hitting award named in his honor, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, settled gracefully into his position as an elder statesman of the game, and into the collective American mindset as one of the greatest players of all time.

Aaron, the quiet superstar radiating organic poise, never sought the spotlight, though it eventually found him. But just in case anyone was watching, he always made being Hank Aaron a full-time job.

“You have to carry your dignity a little bit further than the field, you know,” Aaron says, as if you really should know this. “Just because you’ve taken the uniform off doesn’t mean you stop being a professional. You try to live your life and play the game in such a way that others would want to emulate.”

If Aaron sounds like a Boy Scout, he comes by it honestly – he was one. And he says his scouting experience, while growing up in heavily segregated Mobile, Ala., “was the greatest thing that happened to me as a kid, and it taught me the rules and regulations of life,” while his parents – Herbert and Estella – instilled in young Henry an adherence to the golden rule.

“That’s what they expected from me, that’s the way they wanted their kids to be,” says Aaron. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Of course that never applied to pitchers, whose favorite nicknames for Aaron were “Bad Henry,” and “The Hammer.”

In mannerism and athletic grace he seemed most similar to Joe DiMaggio who, like Aaron, was an outfielder who could hit for power and average. But Aaron took his cues from Jackie Robinson, whom he considers his role model.

Aaron was a young teen when he first saw Robinson play in an exhibition game, and remembers evenings spent around the radio whenever Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers were on the air.

“Here was the first African American in the big leagues, someone the black community could really look up to,” Aaron says. “And he really set the example of what it takes to be a professional athlete – beyond hitting home runs and base hits. It wasn’t in what he said, but the way he carried himself.

“You start idolizing someone, you watch their every move. The way they walk, the way they talk, the way they carry themselves. He didn’t have to say anything to me, because I was paying attention.”

Good thing Robinson didn’t say anything, because Aaron – the man who stood up to vicious racism and death threats while chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record – says he probably would have been tongue-tied and paralyzed with fear. Robinson was to Aaron what Aaron became to legions of baby boomer ball fans – an idol.

Remembering Robinson

So, when the Georgia Historical Society announced that Aaron (along with Ted Turner) would be named a Georgia Trustee this year, the tribute was made particularly sweet because the society was simultaneously recognizing Robinson as its Georgia Days Honoree.

“It’s difficult to put into words what this honor means to me,” Aaron says. “Not only because I grew up in the South and have spent most of my life in Georgia, but also because of what Jackie Robinson meant to me, as a baseball player and a role model. This is something I’m very proud of.”

As a player Aaron was the coolest of customers, disguising an intense focus and a passion to succeed within an uncanny tranquil shell. To some observers, he looked as likely to take a nap in the batter’s box as he was to commit violent abuse on a baseball, which he did with alarming regularity.

His career might best be viewed from a distance, from a vantage point of years. Aaron didn’t hit moon shots like Mickey Mantle, didn’t lose his hat running down fly balls like Willie Mays – basically, he didn’t play in New York, so he wasn’t appreciated on a national level like those guys.

So, he wasn’t flashy. But he was rock solid and relentless, more durable than Mantle or Mays. He also hit for a higher average than they did, collected more base hits, was probably their equal in the field, drove in more runs than anyone who ever played, and on April 8, 1974, did what many had considered impossible, passing Babe Ruth as the all-time home run leader when he belted No. 715 in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

He broke in with the Braves in Milwaukee in 1954, moved with the club to Atlanta in 1966 and was a Milwaukee Brewer when he hit his last home run, No. 755, in his final season, 1976.

On a cold December day, two months before his 76th birthday, he patiently guides a visitor through the maze of Atlanta Braves administrative offices at Turner Field, walking with the aching gait of a retired guy who rarely missed a day of work in 23 years of demanding, physical competition against strong, fast, sometimes rough men.

“Things were a different in those days, especially the pitchers,” Aaron says. “Take a guy like Bob Gibson. He was not only dominating, he was scary. And tough. I saw him hit guys when he knew full well that he was going to bat the next inning and probably get thrown at.

“The great ones – like Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal – had a real toughness about them. When they got into the sixth or seventh inning with a one-run lead, there was no way they would leave the game. Lot of guys today, by the sixth inning they’re looking for somebody to come in to relieve them.”

Aaron relished the one-on-one confrontation with pitchers and he’s proud of his accomplishments with a bat, but in an understated way, because too much external baggage came with his records and it left some scars.

The chase for Ruth was the ultimate bittersweet moment in the history of the game. While players and most fans, especially in Atlanta, cheered Aaron’s run at history, he received piles of hate mail from anonymous racists who did not want a black man holding baseball’s most cherished record.

“I think that home run was one of the greatest moments in baseball history, one of the great thrills of my life and a great thrill for the black community. But it was not easy,” says Aaron. “There were people, a lot of them, who simply were not ready for me to break that record, because of my skin color.”

In 2007, Barry Bonds, who was under investigation for using performance-enhancing drugs, passed Aaron’s home run record.

“It was bound to happen,” Aaron says. “I held it for a long time and enjoyed it. But just as I passed Babe Ruth and Bonds passed me, somebody’s gonna come along and pass him. That’s the nature of it. Records are made to be broken.”

Of all his baseball accomplishments, Aaron is most proud of the fact that he was able to play at the highest level for 23 years.

“That’s the kind of record you achieve with the help of others,” he says. “In baseball, for me, that meant great teammates, guys like Eddie Mathews hitting in front of you or behind you in the batting order, protecting you.

“Even before I started playing, when I was still chasing my dream to play in the Majors, had it not been for other people helping, reaching out, I never would have made it, in spite of my ability. Plain and simple, anyone who has meant something to this country, who has done something great, had someone else giving them a hand along the way.”

Dream Foundation

And that’s what Aaron wanted to do when he retired as a player – well, that and get into business. He had a great run with his BMW dealerships and sold them just before the economic bust, still runs a thriving restaurant company and sits on numerous corporate boards, including the Atlanta Braves.

In the mid 1990s, he and his wife Billye started the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation. The foundation became fully active and heftily funded in 1999, when the Aarons threw Hank a 65th birthday bash and fundraising event. President Bill Clinton was among the dignitaries who helped raise $1 million for the foundation, which helps underprivileged children participate in activities they otherwise can’t afford, like music and sports. Major League Baseball and Boys and Girls Clubs have partnered with Aaron’s foundation to create a college scholarship fund also – they’ll give out 44 each year (Aaron wore No. 44).

Aaron, who was vice president of player development for years in the Braves organization, now has an untitled post that allows him to pursue his philanthropic passions, like helping to increase the number of African Americans in baseball by promoting the game to kids.

As the coolest guy in any room he occupies, Aaron is the Braves unofficial ambassador of excellence. He counts ambassadors, presidents and CEOs as his friends – they all want to meet him. He’s comfortable with his life, modest in spite of his many awards and honors and accomplishments, with his eye, as always, on a bigger picture.

The foundation, his work with kids, it’s all about achieving their dreams, he says. Not his. He already chased his down.

“I love baseball, it’s given me so much, but that’s my world, and it isn’t everything,” he says. “I’d prefer people said, ‘Hank Aaron helped people,’ rather than ‘Hank Aaron hit that home run in the ninth inning’ – which is all right, too. It’s fine.

“But it means more to me when someone says, ‘Thanks to Mr. Aaron, I know how to play the harp,’ or ‘I know how to dance,’ or whatever it is they dream of doing. See, that’s what life is made of.”