Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Sweetest Gift of Summer

When I was a girl, after dinner and after chasing lightning bugs to fill the mayonaise jar I would put beside my bed so I could watch them flicker and blink until I fell asleep, I would sometimes lie on my back in the field next to my house and watch the stars come out. 

Never mind that the grass stuck to my sweaty legs and mosquitoes hummed in my ears, it was a fine show. Later, as a mother with young children, we piled onto a daybed on the patio and counted satellites and shooting stars, calling out each time we spotted one.

Now, with no lightning bugs to catch and no small children to keep me company, it is my habit to end the day on a lounge chair on the patio behind my house. I stretch out and stare at the sky until one by one the stars start to appear. The other night, as I lay there, I looked up between two pine trees in my neighbor’s yard and noticed a star just at the inner edge of one of the trees. Something distracted me and I looked away but when I looked back at the space between the trees, I noticed the star had moved, or, to be more precise, the planet on which I was lazing, had moved. The star was not as close to the tree as it had been. Time, and the star, had moved on while I was lost in thought.

This was no surprise. All throughout the day I look at my watch or the clock on my computer and I’m surprised to see how many minutes have flown while I was working or daydreaming. But alone in the dark, the ability to mark the passage of time by the stars was somehow satisfying. An ancient pleasure.

The neighborhood grew quiet as everyone left their backyards to move indoors. The parade of people walking dogs to the park on the sidewalk in front of my house ended. The cats gave up chasing insects in the grass and were curled up beside my chair. My little dog was snoring at my feet. 
I could, if I listened closely, hear the sounds of traffic in the distance; a siren wailed somewhere downtown, a plane flew overhead.  Slowly, steadily, the moved star to the other tree. And then it was gone.

Making my way indoors, putting away the cushion so the cats wouldn’t take the chair as soon as I left it, picking up the book I’d been reading that afternoon, I closed the door behind me. But n a way I could never have been when I was a girl, and was often too busy to comprehend when I was a young mother, I was aware of the sweetest gift: time.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Monday, August 4, 2014

100th Anniversary of The Great War

Photo: Members of the A.E.F 316th Engineers march into Ypres, Belgium. Taken by a soldier from Havre, Montana.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. On August 4, 1914, England declared war on Germany.

The war was sure to be over by Christmas so men rushed to join up, to get in on the fun before it was over.

But that was before the battle of Marne. Before the first of the three major battles at Ypres. Before the first trenches were dug in September.

Christmas 1914 came and went. There was the 9-month horror of Gallipoli. The Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine. The battle of Verdun took 700,00 lives and at the end of Battle of the Somme more than one million men were dead. 

The “little” war didn’t end for another four years. Men lived in filth and unimaginable conditions in deep trenches, dug in between fields of barbed wire and death and they died in horrifying numbers while gaining little ground. The United States entered in 1917 and in the remaining 18 months of the war we lost more than 100,000 men, almost half due to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. 

By the time peace was restored by the 1918 Armstice, parts of France and Belgium were a wasteland and more than 37 million men, women and children were dead due to injury, disease and starvation. Countless more were broken, "shellshocked" by the experience.

I’ve been reading The Guns of August, Barbara W. Tuchman’s Pulitzer prize-winning book on the events--the posturing, baiting, catastrophic bungling and arrogance of leaders--that brought about the beginning of the end of the world as it had been. A war that was so terrible, so brutal and, with the toxic combination of modern weaponry and archaic tactics, so inhumane, that by the time it ended an entire generation was lost. 

The book is fascinating. It’s well-researched and incredibly well written--Tuchman’s style is fluid and eloquent and her narrative brings the events leading up to the declarations of war on August 4, 1914 to life. 

But it is impossible to read it and not draw some chilling parallels to the modern political machinations in the headlines. Tyrants, bullies and zealots didn’t disappear when the trenches were filled. Before the ink was dry in 1918, the seeds of the next great war had been planted. And the wars that followed.

And here we are today, a century later, not much wiser. 

History is fascinating but what it ultimately reveals about human nature is discouraging.  To some, power alone is never enough. They want a war.  They need a war. The lesson that never seems to stick is that no one ever really wins a war, not even the victor. 

Here it is, another August, 100 years after the First World War. Just a few weeks ago we marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day, another series of epic battles in another part of France during the Second World War. And yet dangerous lines are still being drawn in the sand, secret alliances are being formed and deals are still being struck behind closed doors. 

I’ve had to put the book down for a few days. I needed a breath of fresh air because every word reminds me that even as we make history, we never seem to let it teach us anything.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Friday, August 1, 2014

Royal Canadian Air Force to the Rescue

On my July cruise from Seattle to Alaska aboard the Carnival Miracle, (read more about that here) there were two medical emergencies that required assistance from both the U.S. Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Air Force. In both cases passengers were transported from the ship to hospitals on shore. 

The first was pretty straightforward. A U. S. Coast Guard boat pulled alongside the Miracle near the entrance to Tracy Arm Fjord and the passenger walked down the gangplank and onto the boat. 

The other was not so simple. In dense fog and battling 25 knot winds, the 422 Transport and Rescue Squadron’s CH-149 Cormorant helicopter crew, using night vision goggles, had to hover just above the bow, lower a cable and a diver to the deck, secure the cable, hoist one of the ship's medical staff to the copter followed by the sick passenger and then the diver. I watched from a deck just below the helicopter and it was intense. 

The airlift procedure took almost an hour and the pilot's skill was impressive. 

With thousands of people on a floating hotel, it's not uncommon to have medical emergencies arise. I've been on ships that had to detour to meet an ambulance or medical transport, but standing in the wind and fog on the deck of the Miracle as the helicopter hovered overhead was a new experience. I hope I’m never in need of that kind of rescue, but, if it happens, it's nice to know the experts are at the ready.