Cold War Germany before the wall came down. The land remained under long post-World War II occupation, half Soviet, half American. Arrived at his new duty station, young Army Lieutenant Brent Bracewell (now a Georgia National Guard Colonel) entered through the base gate near a swash of German graffiti: "Yankee Go Home!"
The only Southerner in his new unit, Bracewell drew humor from the slogan. "See, they don't even like y'all over here," he quipped to his Northern-born comrades. But it was hard to feel at home in sight of the bold insult just beyond their compound.
Then, Christmas Eve. The work day over, enlisted soldiers headed back to their barracks and the barracks banter sure to pack a charge of mirth this night. Married officers headed toward homes and spouses.
But for an unmarried officer a long way from home there was not much to look forward to, Bracewell related. He decided to check on the gate guards. Whenever he felt glum, it was never hard to find someone a bit worse off, he explained. In lightening such burdens he lightened his own, Bracewell knew.
He found the two gate guards standing watch in the snow, flakes swirling down round their helmets and rifle muzzles. As the three stood talking, a car with foreign license plates jerked to a halt in front. Its driver rushed to the trunk and popped it open. Bracewell touched the elbow of the guard nearest, signaling "Be ready."
But the intruder was no terrorist. A Santa Claus instead, the German kind: "der Weihnachtsman." He brought bags from the trunk, sacks with gifts characteristic to Germany.
“In the shadow of that sign that said 'Yankee Go Home!', he brought three small gifts to us, me and the two gate guards,” Bracewell remembers. “And in his broken English he said, 'Thank you for being in my country and keeping my country free.'”
Know that come Christmas Eve as the clock rounds toward midnight the world over, wakeful watch-keepers of the United States military will mark those minutes far from home.
Some may be minding the helm of a warship at sea. Some monitor communications through the night. Some guard the perimeter of a safe zone, so others can rest. Some may even pilot aircraft through the dark, alone between heaven and earth on that night when once the angels sang.
Keep us mindful, dear God, of their sacrifices on our behalf. Give them your peace at this Christmas season and bless them, we pray, every one.
If you come into the Pickens Progress between now and December 25th, you can tell us “Merry Christmas” and we’ll be glad to hear it.
You can send us Christmas cards and enjoy the special Christmas services advertised in our newspaper.
We like Christmas. We aren’t offended by the name. We like the manger display next door on the courthouse lawn.
But if you feel better with it, you can come into our office and say “Happy Holidays,” or “Seasons Greetings” or even “Bon Hiver” – a French greeting that means “Have a good winter.” We won’t be bothered.
Or, if you happened in to say “Hello,” “Howdy” or simply smile and utter the phrase “I want to place a full-page, full-color ad” we’d be equally jazzed. Actually, we’d be overjoyed with that last part. Hint, Hint.
Cordiality during the holidays is a charming plus, regardless of the greeting used. Friendliness not word choice is paramount in our book. We won’t make assumptions about you by the first words out of your mouth. We won’t stereotype you based on your choice of greeting. As we see it, you can be an agnostic who wants to wish Merry Christmas or a front-row Baptist who likes the ring of Happy Holidays.
And it’s nobody else’s business.
Where we take offense is with the efforts by some to assess morals, political leanings or entire character based solely on how someone offers a greeting at Christmastime. The Merry Christmas litmus test is little more than a strained attempt to show the devout nature of the one doing the judging. In the battle of conservative political correctness, these folks aren’t afraid to throw the first stone.
The best example of the holiday greeting test gone wild are concerns expressed by some commentators that the big corporations who do use Merry Christmas may not really mean it.
It’s frightening to know there are people out there trying to decipher religious views of national retail corporations based on how they welcome customers this season. And when stores do use the preferred phrase, Merry Christmas, these same holier-than-though windbags go to saying it’s not sincere.
Do people really care if the management of some giant company properly wishes them a Merry Christmas? It’s polite but carries no more significance than when a clerk says “have a nice day” to all 1,000 customers who show up in the drive-thru.
At times, somewhere (probably in New York or California) there were calculated movements to switch to Happy Holidays and Holiday trees with true forethought, but around here you can be sure no one gives it much thought.
Or it was at least that way until the new forces of political righteousness hyped things up to make it an issue – “Come on, kids, help us find some Philistines using Happy Holidays this year. Then we can boycott them!”
As for us at the Progress, give us a Merry Christmas or a Happy Holidays or even a “Have a good ‘un,” and we’ll be happy – even more so if you appear in good Christmas cheer as opposed to a stressed out “don’t-have-the-presents-wrapped” sort of funk.
But don’t come around trying to make social distinctions based on the first two words of a greeting. Or we might have another two words for you – and they aren’t nearly as nice as Happy Holidays.
A national newspaper recently expressed a sentiment that the average family is facing an economic crisis while politicians in Washington face a big election year. The two paths aren’t in danger of colliding. In other words, the federal government isn’t likely to do much to help the economy until politicians get through fighting for the White House.
So here we sit in Pickens County with enough empty commercial space to shelter the Mongol hordes and no plans or prospects to spur new business.
The editor of this paper has asked people over the past month if they see any bright spot on the horizon, anything that might give us a bump with jobs or new businesses?
The answer was a simple no. In fact, no one had any complicated answer that didn’t come back to plain no.
Things are bad economically across the whole nation. It might even be worse here actually, because for the past decade all our economic eggs were in the homebuilding basket, and that sector has been hardest hit.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what started the problem, though numerous opinions abound: Loss of manufacturing; High fuel prices; Burdensome environmental regs; Healthcare costs; Cheaper labor overseas; Out-of-control mortgage lending to unqualified homebuyers; FDIC policies that stymie local banks. The list could go on forever.
We didn’t arrive at this recession/possible double-dip recession (whatever that means) overnight or over one administration or over a decade. And it is certainly not going to correct itself any time soon.
The local school superintendent cautioned his board last month that state officials believe we haven’t even bottomed out yet. Ugh. It’s hard to think it could get worse, but some fairly astute business people here also offer that opinion.
Nationally it’s frustrating to realize nothing good is likely to happen with the economy for the foreseeable future, and not much will even be tried until after the 2012 presidential election.
Locally, while it’s hard to be optimistic, at least there are measures that can be taken. Doing something, even if it doesn’t pan out, is better than sitting around doing nothing.
The first thing we’d like to see for Pickens County is more cooperation between the county, the mayors of towns here, the economic developer, different development authorities and the Chamber of Commerce.
This county has always been hesitant to offer incentives or salesmanship to attract new businesses here.
In the past, the economic plan has mostly been “We’re hot. Retirees love us, and businesses will follow. No need to make special offers.” But times have changed. Our old thinking needs to reverse.
Consider how much incentive you would like to see offered to a company that could employ ten people, 20 people or 50 people here?
We’d be in favor of offering whatever the county has in terms of immediate property taxes, and certainly, at this stage, we could forego some tap-on and inspection fees to see new businesses open. We’d encourage our economic developer to go even further and come up with a package of other tangible incentives. Great views and small town atmosphere aren’t enough to beat out other counties also seeking to attract what few businesses might expand. We need leaders thinking way outdoors of the box when putting together incentive packages.
The problem is not recouping later whatever we give away now. Surely, within reason, any help extended is economically less-damaging than the ongoing cost of empty commercial space. The cost of empty storefronts includes indirect losses from missed paychecks, missed payments, foreclosures, reduced retail shopping and all the associated tax revenue.
The problem is we may be too little and way too late with this. Other counties have relied heavily on special deals and perks to attract businesses for years. They know the game. We’re already behind in this wheeling and dealing.
Put simply, we’d like to see our development folks sell Pickens County like a used-car salesman – What can I do to make a deal today?
Where is the sex? Where are the African bureaucrats needing partners to cash out millions of a dictator’s blood money? Where are the wacky, the exotic and the incomprehensible scam e-mails that used to clog inboxes?
This is no scientific study, but based on a study of the junk mail received in our pickensprogress.com filter over several days, the wild and lurid has given way to desperate and boring in terms of online scams.
There is still plenty of junk mail clogging Internet servers, but it has morphed in the past year or so to reflect a nation more excited by COBRA health insurance than “meet [ing] hot singles in your area.”
In the earlier days of the Internet, sex/porn was the pitch in roughly 90 percent of all junk e-mail, with the other ten percent being offers to split millions in some type of ill-gotten gains. There were also a few fake dog giveaways where you still had to send money.
Now unscrupulous offers veer toward illegally restoring a credit rating or getting you a credit card despite your poor credit score. No one would write a movie script where the villain’s scheme was that boring.
For those not plumbing the depths of their junk mail filters, these finance schemes have become the standard fare of online hooligans. Offers involving personal finance in our junk mail filter over the past month outpaced offers for the exotic/erotic by more than 100 to 1 (especially if you took out the multiple offers for Viagra that came in isolated batches, offering discounts of between 56 and 89 percent).
Looking at the most recent 100 junk mails, more than 70 were offers for low priced modern essentials – insurance, credit scores, credit cards. Included were the following subject lines: “less than perfect credit,” “get VA loan now,” “cash when you need it.”
A few others related to coupons – “Oodles of free coupons” and “save $75 a week.”
Another category also preyed upon people’s financial/job uncertainty, touting educational help such as “MBA questions,” “find business school programs,” “need help paying for college.”
One of the more frequent offers didn’t fall into any category and struck us as particularly odd. A large number of junk mails in the past month have offered language classes - “Master Languages like the CIA.” It’s hard to see how the senders of these e-mails believe there are hundreds sitting at home bemoaning their inability to decipher Italian just waiting for an online offer.
There probably aren’t many sociology experiments that draw conclusions based on what junk-mailers are sending out and maybe for a good reason.
But you can’t help but notice a change in the baits put out to American Internet users. Reflecting our national mood, the offers now are mundane daily concerns – health insurance, home loans, credit ratings.
If you were to use junk-mail frequency to define the national mood, it’s hard to be optimistic about the economy while realizing that scam artists are working angles focused on cheap insurance.
While little more than a modern annoyance, scam e-mail topics maybe can be read as something like signs of the times. In flush times, scammers probably wouldn’t hassle us much with offers of cheap insurance. You know things need improving when even junk-mail scams paint a grim economic picture.
According to the United Nations, the world’s population should hit 7 billion on Halloween (Oct. 31).
In an article in Science, experts are quick to warn they offer best-guess scenarios concerning future population. The further into the future you go, the “cloudier” projections become.
Given our current rate of growth, the world adds about a billion people every 12 to 13 years. That comes from adding 158 people each minute if you calculate birth versus death rates as U.N. folks like to do. This gives us 227,520 more people each day.
While the future population may be hard to project, it’s interesting to see how that growth came. It took 50,000 years of human existence to build a population of 1 billion people. We crossed the 1 billion threshold in the year 1800. From there we were at 1.6 billion by 1900.
Things starting rolling more quickly at that point. We turned that 1.6 billion number around in the next 100 years. By 2000, world population stood at 6.1 billion.
The most rapid time of population growth, again according to Science, was between 1965 and 1970. Since that time, birthrates have leveled off somewhat. We’re at a point of having more people on the planet, though we aren’t having children nearly as often.
The increase in people comes from both ends of the spectrum. First there are people having babies (no surprise). And improvements in public health are letting our seniors hang around much longer.
But, for considerations of the future, bear in mind that the long-living seniors and the prolific baby producers aren’t usually stationed in the same places. For example: Taiwan has the lowest birthrate of any nation with only .6 births per woman. Correspondingly, developed Asian nations like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan boast longer lifespans.
In the Republic of Niger, the average woman still has 7 children. It might be noted that country ranks as one of the more destitute on the planet. It is currently ranked 167 (out of 169) on the U.N.’s Human Development Index.
Fertility rates are higher in the less developed world. Lifespans are longer in the more developed world. Projections are that with the 7 billion people expected on our planet by the end of October, 5.75 billion will live in less developed nations, 1.25 billion in the developed world.
The three most populated countries will be China (1.35 billion); India (1.25 billion); and the United States (not even close with 312 million).
For the world as a whole, the birthrate has slowed since the 1950s, when the average Earth woman had 5 children. Today’s average woman has 2.5 children. The average U.S. woman has 2 children. China’s birthrate has slowed from an average of six children per woman to three children per woman.
Experts say it doesn’t take much change in world birthrates to have a dramatic impact on population in the years following. In other words, if more nations improve their public health, education and income levels, then their birthrates will fall, and we will see longterm population projections shrink.
A survey conducted by the United Nations found women in Africa still thought that upwards of five children (nine in Nigeria) was a good number to have in their family, while most of the developed world thought two would be a precious plenty.
As some alarmists may fret over the impact a multitude of extra people may exert on the planet, many experts advise to just relax, since the ability to feed everyone is already established. It seems the problem of starvation is ever grounded in issues of food transportation and distribution––nasty things like civil wars and political strife keeping people hungry, not a lack of production.
[Sidenote: Parents are advised to keep the 227,520 figure handy to whip out the next time your child views their incarnation as central to the universe. Casually remind them, “On the day you were born, some 227,519 other kids just like you arrived on this planet. Now exactly what makes you so important?”]