Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Rescued by Angels

Bridges were suddenly thrust many feet higher than the crumpled ribbons of highways--if they were left standing at all--when a devastating earthquake hit South Central Alaska on Good Friday, March 27, 1964. Registering 9.2 on the Richter scale, the largest earthquake ever to hit North America left every city, town, village, and connecting highway within a 300-mile radius in ruins.

Seward Highway, the only road connecting Alaska's largest city, Anchorage, with the port city of Seward, where my family lived, was particularly hard-hit. To reopen the 120-mile road as quickly as possible, the Corps of Engineers erected temporary Bailey bridges along the route. Resembling an erector set, these prefabricated bridges with open girders could be adjusted to fit any site. There were no guard railings, and the roadbeds consisted of wooden or metal plates.

That fall, my mother was invited to fly to Juneau to attend the anniversary celebration of the founding of the church that her parents, the Charles C. Personeuses, had pioneered in 1917. She planned to spend a few days visiting friends there, until she felt a strong impression that she needed to return home earlier than planned. The feeling was so persistent that she thought it must be from God. She caught the first flight to Anchorage. Since no one was expecting her, she planned to take the bus to Seward.

Her flight arrived late, and she missed the bus. So sure was she that she needed to get home as soon as possible, she persuaded her foster daughter, Barbie, to drive her to Seward when she got off from work. It was Friday, so Barbie could spend the weekend at home.

Then it began to snow. Barbie didn't have snow tires yet. Before they could leave Anchorage, she had to have a set mounted on her car. Night comes early that time of year in Alaska, so it was dark by the time they left Anchorage for the three-hour drive. At the wheel, Mother had to proceed cautiously because the snow, mixed with freezing rain, created patches of ice on the roadway.

At Portage, near the head of Turnagain Arm, about halfway to Seward, they stopped to eat. From there, they had to cross a series of Bailey bridges over tide flats cut by estuaries and creeks before heading up into the pass through the Chugach Mountains. Because these temporary bridges sat parallel to the remains of the ruined bridges, they had to make a little jog off the main road to get onto them.

As Mother drove onto the first Bailey bridge, the car suddenly spun out on black ice. Barbie screamed, and Mother cried out, "Oh, Jesus, help us!" When the car came to rest, it was teetering crosswise with the front wheels hanging off the edge.

Staring into the black waters below, they were trying to figure out what to do when headlights flashed toward them. "Oh, no! What if they don't see us?" Mother exclaimed.

The car stopped facing them. Four big men dressed in suits got out. They surrounded the car, picked it up, and set it back on the bridge, headed the right direction.

Amazed, Mother rolled down her window to thank them, but they had totally disappeared--no car, no men! Puzzled, she looked all around. "They're gone!"

"But where could they go?" Barbie asked.

Awe filling her voice, Mother said, "I don't know.They must have been angels sent by God to help us!"

When they finally arrived home late that night, Daddy exclaimed, "What are you doing here?" In the next breath, he added, "But I'm sure glad to see you. Mrs. G [a lady in our church] has been critically injured in an auto accident on Seward Highway. Her teenage son was driving too fast, hit black ice, and crashed into a bridge abutment. He's okay, but her family desperately needs you."

"So that's why the Lord told me to come home." Then Mother told him how they'd been rescued by angels.

Have you ever been aided by angels?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"Loose Lips Sink Ships"

During World War II, posters reminded people, "Loose lips sink ships." Even in peace time, loose lips can cause deep hurt. I learned that the hard way.

One summer during my high school years, my family was returning home from a long car trip over the Haines Cutoff portion of the Alaska Highway. In those days, that three-hundred-mile stretch of road in Canada was unpaved--bumpy, dusty, and full of hairpin curves. Needless to say, it was bone-jarring for us all.

We decided to stop in Valdez to visit friends who operated the children's home there before continuing on to our home in Seward. When I didn't get enough rest, I often contracted tonsillitis. By the time we arrived in Valdez, I had a whopper of a sore throat and fever and was sent directly to bed.

After traveling so long, we needed clean clothes. The children's home allowed my mother to use their washer and dryer. Before long, my freshly laundered clothes were delivered to my room. To my surprise, they were not only folded, but my blouses had been ironed and hung on hangers.

One of my shirts had long, wide sleeves that needed to be rolled up. Being a perfectionist, I was very fussy about how that was done, and I noticed right away that they had not been ironed the way I liked. Thinking my foster sister, with whom I shared the chore of ironing, had ironed my blouse, I complained, "You didn't do the sleeves right."

A teen girl who lived in the home had helped to carry the clothes upstairs. As those words of complaint left my mouth, the smile on her face fell away. I knew instantly that she had ironed my shirt, and I had just destroyed her pleasure in doing something nice for me.

Nothing I could say would recall those thoughtless words, though I wanted so badly to do so. Nearly fifty years have passed, and I still remember that incident and how my words hurt that girl. That day I learned the hard way that words once spoken can never be unsaid.

The Apostle Paul advises us in Ephesians to speak only words that build up the other person. That day, I learned to think before I speak so as not to needlessly hurt someone. I'm sure I haven't done it perfectly over the years, but I am more aware of what I say. Daily, my prayer is "May the words of my pleasing to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer" (Psalm 19:14, NLT).

Have you ever said something you wished immediately that you could take back?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Trip, a Contest, and a Wardrobe

The year was 1961, and I was a sophomore in Seward High School. An announcement attracted my attention. The local Odd Fellows and Rebekahs lodge was sponsoring a contest for sophomores and juniors for an all-expense-paid trip. That coming July, the winning student would travel with 35 other teens from the Pacific Northwest and Canada and four chaperons by educational bus tour across Canada to New York City to study the United Nations for a week and return through the northern United States, visiting many points of interest en route.

It sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime. All I had to do was ace a written test and win a speaking contest. I was a good test taker and often led our church youth group. With my parents permission, I entered the contest and was the top scorer on the written test.

The speaking contest was held on a Wednesday evening. Because we had midweek services every Wednesday in our church, my parents were not in the audience that night. The topic of each five-minute speech was to be the United Nations. We would be judged not only for the content and presentation, but also on poise and appearance.

As the night progressed, I thought each speech was terrific. In spite of a bad case of nerves, I felt confident that I had done well. How would the judges be able to choose just one of us?

My heart pounded as the moment for the big announcement came. "And the winner is...AnnaLee Cousart." I'd won! I could hardly believe it. I learned later that it was my highest score on the test that put me over the top.

My parents were proud of me. Mother berated herself for not being there. I was ecstatic that I'd won--until I looked in my closet at my wardrobe.

I had no clothes appropriate for the hot, humid summer weather I was sure to encounter on that trip. Alaskan summers are cool and often rainy along its southern coast. Once school was out, we wore jeans or pedal pushers with shirts and sweaters and almost always needed a jacket or windbreaker except on Sundays when I wore my one suit with its long-sleeved jacket until the weather changed in the early fall.

The brochure listing what to take on the trip stated that the girls would be required to wear dresses or skirts every day--no pants. I had several wool skirts and sweaters for school, but no skirts and dresses suitable for a month-long trip in hot weather. And we didn't have money to buy me a new wardrobe.

"We'd better pray about it," my mother said. "The Lord will provide."

Somehow, word got around that I'd won the trip. The state president of our denomination's women's organization learned of my need for a wardrobe and took it on as a project. She wrote letters to all our ladies' groups around the state. Most of those churches were small and struggled to pay the bills, just as ours did. But that didn't keep them from helping out.

Soon, letters began to arrived with checks of various amounts designated for me to purchase items needed for my trip. My mother, an excellent seamstress, bought material to make skirts and blouses and dresses for me. By the time I flew out to meet the tour group, I was outfitted from head to toe with everything I needed for the trip.

How has God not only met your needs but also the desires of your heart?

In my next blog, I'll write about how I learned to keep my mouth shut.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

From Pelican to Seward

Pelican had a two-room school for grades K-8. I took eighth grade there and graduated the year Alaska became a state--1959. Since Pelican had no high school, Barbie and I began taking correspondence courses that fall, our freshman year. Grade school had been easy for me, but now I had to dig everything out for myself. That was the year I learned how to study.

The only option to correspondence courses for high school in Pelican at that time was for the students to go away to boarding school. Instead of that, since there were six or seven teens in Pelican, the school board decided we could all take correspondence courses. They arranged for us to meet daily during school hours in the tiny library on the second floor of the fire house and paid my dad to supervise. That arrangement worked well. Most of us were freshman so we could help each other on coursework, and my dad proved to be a good teacher when we got stuck, especially in algebra. This job also helped us financially.

My parents had put in a request to be transferred to another church in a town with a regular high school. In February 1960, my dad was offered the pastorate of a small church in Seward, Alaska. We packed up, shipped our household goods and books, and flew to Juneau on the Alaska Coastal Airlines Grumman Goose. (Since Pelican had no roads, we didn't own a car). In Juneau, we boarded the Pacific Northern four-engine prop plane, the Constellation (nicknamed "Connie"), and flew to Anchorage. There, we transferred to a single-engine plane to fly to Seward.

The day we flew south through the Chugach Mountains and swooped down toward Resurrection Bay, on which Seward was situated, the weather was picture-postcard perfect. Surrounded by rugged, snow-capped mountains, the clear blue waters of Resurrection Bay reflected the azure canopy and sparkled in the bright sun. As I peered out the plane's tiny window and caught my first glimpse of our new hometown, I thought Seward was the most beautiful place I had ever seen, and I'd seen most of southern Alaska as well as much of the United States from Washington to Pennsylvania.

When we entered the parsonage attached to the tiny church, though, I cried. We had left a lovely home in Pelican. Though the living quarters in Pelican had not been large, the upstairs, which extended the full length of the building, had afforded enough bedrooms for each of us to have our own. Now, we three girls had to share a room only large enough for a twin bed and a set of bunk beds set side by side with only an orange crate between as a lamp stand. One double dresser extended from the foot of the twin bed to an open closet across the other end of the room. My sister's dresser stood outside our door in the nine-by-twelve living room.

We could see daylight through cracks in the plank floor in our closet. That winter and every winter thereafter in that house, I often could not change my sheets for weeks on end because they were frozen securely to the wall. Our parents' bedroom was even smaller--one double bed with enough space for one person to walk around and built-in drawers along one wall and a closet along the wall by the door.

Our "central" heat consisted of a furnace in a hole dug under the floor covered with a large metal grate not quite three-feet square. That became a favorite place to stand during those winter months when the strong, frigid winds blew in off the bay and rattled the house.

In spite of the inadequacies of the house, though, I soon made many friends and learned to love Seward. God again proved His faithfulness in meeting our needs. See my previous post, "God Is Never Too Late," and my next post of how God showed His concern for a special need I had.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

God Provides

During our ten years in Juneau, our church outgrew its building and built a new one on the edge of town. All the men of the church spent evenings and Saturdays donating labor to complete the structure. During that time, my dad served as an usher in the church. One Sunday, he and another usher, Harry Bates, were talking when Harry said, "A Christian has to be ready to pray, preach, or die." Those words stuck in our minds, because they were Harry's last words to my father. That week, the oil tanker he was driving was involved in an accident, which resulted in an explosion, and Harry Bates was killed.

It wasn't long before my father was preaching full time. My grandparents, who had built and had been pastoring the church in Pelican for ten years, retired. My dad was appointed as the new missionary to Pelican. Most new missionaries in Alaska itinerated from church to church in the States to raise support before coming to the Territory of Alaska. Since he was already there, he did not get that opportunity. So my family moved to Pelican by faith. The Juneau church pledged $30.00 a month toward our support, but that was no where near what was needed to support a family of six.

The family moved to Pelican in February 1958. There, my dad renewed acquaintance with a man he had known while stationed in Ketchikan in the Coast Guard during World War II. Pros Ganty owned a float plane, and my father had flown with him a few times. Now, Pros Ganty owned the Pelican Cold Storage Company, Pelican's primary employer. He hired my dad to do the inventory for the general store that winter.

Pelican is built on piling along a boardwalk that stretches a mile along the rugged coastline of Lizianski Inlet, on Chicagof Island. Winter storms off the Pacific hit the mountains of the Alexander Archipelago and dump heavy amounts of snow all winter long on Pelican. For ten years, the "city" had hired my grandfather to shoveled that long boardwalk. After he left, Pros Ganty hired my father to do it.

During the first summer in Pelican, my dad bought an old skiff with a small outboard motor and trolled the inlet for salmon. That year, my parents froze, smoked, and canned a lot of salmon, which supplied us with protein all that winter. My mother became quite creative in coming up with new ways to serve salmon!

The next summer, a Christian fisherman who visited us whenever he was in port, hurt his back and had to go to Sitka for a spinal fusion. His 18-year-old son could not operate the boat alone, so my father fished with him for the rest of the summer.  Most times, though, when they would haul in a fish, seals would steal it right off the line, leaving only the fish head before they had a chance to get it into the boat. (In spite of that, one of my favorite memories of our years in Pelican is of the week I spent on the Alitak as "chief cook and bottle washer" out on Cross Sound where Icy Strait meets the open Pacific.)

With his part-time jobs, plus fishing and hunting for deer, and the fish given to us by fishermen, my dad was able to keep food on the table. During the summer months, we picked blueberries for cobblers and pies. The cannery cookhouse, the only restaurant in town, hired my mother, an excellent baker, to make pies and sheet cakes. My foster sister and I did a lot of babysitting at fifty cents an hour to buy our own clothes. Even though the budget didn't balance on paper, God supplied our needs. We never felt deprived, and I have many fond memories of those years in Pelican, which often inform my writing.