Gretchen McKay

Hurry up and wait: Soldier and family adjust to their new routines

Nobody could have blamed Johnny Cieslak for bawling as his mother, an Army reservist, kissed him goodbye before leaving for a year-long deployment in a far-away country.

The stiff upper lip many military families pride themselves on doesn’t come easily to an 8-year-old.

Four months later, the waterworks have pretty much dried up. The only time the Ben Avon youngster, who on Wednesday starts third grade at Avonworth Elementary, gets weepy about his mom being in Afghanistan’s war zone is when he’s overly tired, said his father, Jeff.

“Summer’s hard in that it’s pretty open, and we have to schedule to keep busy,” admitted Mr. Cieslak, who’s been a stay-home dad since Johnny was born in 2003. “But generally, we’re making it through.”


Johnny and his big sister, Cara, have gotten so used to their mom being half-way around the globe that when Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak talks with her family by Skype — something they attempt several times a week — the kids sometimes don’t stick around. They simply wave or blow kisses as they pass her face on the computer screen.

Mom might be out of sight, in a time zone nine hours ahead of Pittsburgh. But she’s never out of mind, thanks to the wonders of modern technology. Skype, Facebook, text messaging, journaling on Blogspot … they all help military families such as the Cieslaks stay intimately connected when they’re out of country. It’s so easy to reach out and touch a loved one, in fact, that Mr. Cieslak brings his laptop to neighborhood parties so his wife can join in the fun.

The first time the 44-year-old engineer deployed with the Army Reserves — to Kuwait in 2003 when the kids were still babies — her only real means of communicating with home was through email, letters and phone calls. Fast-forward to May 31, when she was able to talk with her kids’ classmates at Avonworth just before the school year ended. There she was, larger than life in her fatigues, on a smartboard in Gail Lipchak’s second-grade classroom, patiently fielding questions about daily life on a U.S. military compound in the Afghan capital of Kabul. They came fast and furious:

Is there a lot of barbed wire?

“Yes, and a lot of Texas barriers, too.”

How’s the weather?

“Really hot, and really windy. And it’s brown all the time and kind of dusty, because it doesn’t rain here like in Pittsburgh.”

What’s in the place you stay?

“There’s two bunk beds and a metal locker, and a chair I have to share because there’s not a lot of room.”

Are you safe?

“Most of the time, because we work in concrete buildings with no windows and there’s a guard tower on every corner.”

And from Johnny, just before Mr. Cieslak wrapped up the half-hour rap session:

On a scale of 1 to a million, how much do you love me?

“To infinity and beyond!” his mother immediately responded with a joyful laugh.

Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette


Battlefield road show

If only military life was as easy as a Q&A with a roomful of second-graders.

It would be six weeks before Lt. Col. Cieslak settled into a routine and felt she had a handle on her new job in Kabul, mainly because there were so many people to meet, and government moves at a crawl. Her official title is “Deputy Chief of Plans & Programs for the Joint Engineer of US Forces-Afghanistan,” which means she’s responsible for overseeing all engineering operations across the country — planning, logistics, human resources and operations. Troops building a new bridge or tearing down an old building? She tells the big guys how to do it.

Owner since 2005 of a Pittsburgh-based engineering and consulting firm that provides construction management, the Penn State grad is used to tackling complex problems. Still, it’s been tough making the transition from civilian to military life, from being someone in charge, to a cog in a frustratingly slow wheel. As she blogged at the end of May, “I’m pretty low on the totem pole here.”

It didn’t help those first few weeks being jet-lagged, and unaccustomed to the high altitude (6,000 feet above sea level, compared to Pittsburgh’s 770). Then, as she got more acclimated to the seven-day work week, she had to keep an eye peeled for scorpions, camel spiders and gravel that threatens to chew through your flip flops on the way to the shower. And don’t forget about indirect fire from rockets and mortars.

Also unsettling is the fact that each time she travels off base, she has to put on full-body armor, lock a magazine in her gun’s chamber and get a safety brief from the drive team — even if it’s just to the “green zone” a few miles away. Afghanistan still has a high threat of terrorism, and no part of the country is immune from danger.

“Sometimes preparing for a trip off base takes longer than the trip itself,” she said during a Skype interview last week.

It’s definitely riskier than being a “fobbit,” a term used to describe the non-combat soldiers who spend most of their time on FOBs, or forward operating bases. Her family is relieved to know she makes those trips in an armored SUV and/or helicopter only about once a month. Her husband is the only family member who knows beforehand about such trips.

“I try not to think about her safety because there’s nothing I can do about it,” admitted Mr. Cieslak, who any time his wife is off-base simply tells the kids she’s “unavailable” for a few days.

She’s not complaining: Some of her best moments in Afghanistan have come during nail-biting travel outside the wire, when she’s gotten to experience different cultures and unexpectedly beautiful places. During one trip to a base being built for the Afghan Air Force, she stayed in a transient tent. Between the roar of the generator and the whistle of the whipping wind, it felt like a 747 was taking off in her head, she said. The rural night sky made up for it, though.

“Having spent my whole life on the East Coast, I didn’t know so many stars existed,” she blogged on July 1. “It is absolutely incredible and breath-taking.”

The ones in real danger, she noted, are the combat soldiers who have to go on patrol, clear the road of land mines or man the checkpoints — magnets for Taliban attacks.

The biggest downside to deployment, besides missing her family, is the monotony. There’s always something to do, but it’s the same something: work, read, play cards, exercise, sleep, work some more. She has good days followed by those when everyone — including her roommate and good friend Maj. Tracy Coleman — gets on her nerves and the only thing on her mind is: What am I doing here?

But mostly, it hasn’t been as terrible as she expected.

“I’m good,” she insisted.

Her business, Chronicle Consulting, is another story.

Even though many plans were laid out before she left and she stays in touch with clients through phone calls and the Internet, it’s been anything but smooth sailing. She’s had to let one of six employees go.

“Sometimes deployment isn’t a good fit for the client,” she acknowledged with a sigh, adding, “Nobody likes a call in the middle of the night from Afghanistan.”

She can’t worry about it too much because she’s got “more important stuff” on her plate. But like any sole proprietor hungry for business, she’s keeping her fingers crossed.


Business as usual

Mr. Cieslak also has see-sawed through the summer, though as the child-care provider for the past eight years, the challenge has been more about finding ways to keep the kids occupied than having to learn how to cook, clean house or do laundry. In comparison to his wife’s last deployment, this one has been a relative breeze, he said, as the 24/7 demands of infants and toddlers aren’t weighing him down.

Single parenthood has its moments: Every time Johnny or Cara has a need, he’s the one who has to figure out how to fulfill it, “or tell them no.”

Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Since school let out in early June, the family has bought a new car, gone on vacation in Ohio and Michigan and logged countless hours at swim team practice. Mr. Cieslak, who’s a den leader with Mt. Nebo’s Boy Scout Pack 321, also spent several days tent camping at Heritage Reservation in Ligonier with Johnny, and on Sunday evenings hosted a Harry Potter film festival in his garage. Popcorn from a new popcorn machine was included.

They also got a much-wanted dog, an adorable poodle-mix named Simon from a shelter in Westmoreland County. In all, your typical summer vacation kind of stuff.

The only external sign anything is amiss at the Cieslaks is a Blue Star flag hanging in the front window, a subtle shout-out to passers-by that someone who lives here is in active military service.

Given his age and the fact he’s a sensitive kid, Johnny probably has had the roughest time with the deployment. Skyping is great but not perfect, and putting Mom on speaker phone while he plays on the computer leads to a more spontaneous flow of conversation. They’re hoping Lego Universe, which the pair just started playing together online, will prove a better way of staying in touch.

Communicating by phone or Skype has also been tough for Mr. Cieslak, whose sarcastic take on life doesn’t always come off right. They’ve discovered texting works better: he can be funny, and she doesn’t sound like she’s nagging. They also love Words With Friends, the iPhone based crossword game.

Cara, meanwhile, has blossomed in her mother’s absence. Being the only girl in the house has allowed the 10-year-old to step out of her mother’s shadow and show she not only inherited her strong personality but can put it to good use when needed.

One example is the kids’ visit last month to their maternal grandparents’ house in Chadds Ford. Johnny didn’t like being out of his comfort zone one bit, and became desperately homesick.

“I want you to come and pick me up,” he wailed in an email to his father on Day 2. “Please come. I’m getting my feelings hurt without home.” A string of frownie-face emoticons followed.

It was Cara who mediated, suggesting Dad come a day early to help Johnny make it through the week.

“She’s taking more responsibility,” said Mr. Cieslak. “She does try to step in and take care of her brother.”

So who’s taking care of him?

“I’m fine,” he said. “I know she’s still there.”

Soon, she’ll be here. At the beginning of October, when she’s halfway through her tour, Lt. Col. Cieslak will return to Pittsburgh for two weeks of leave. It’s a reunion that can’t come a moment too soon.

What she’s missed most since being deployed to Afghanistan — besides the physical touch of hugs and cuddling with the family — are the things that are the fabric of daily life but which most people take for granted: sitting on the front stoop, relaxing with neighbors on the porch and having it turn into a barbecue or impromptu happy hour, playing hide-n-seek with kids in the backyard.

That, and the background noise of “being together.”

“Having your mother gone for a year is a big thing, but knowing she’s coming back, that makes a big difference” for her children, said Mr. Cieslak.

Shore looks good: Three beach trips for early fall

The sun sets over Playa Norte in Isla Mujeres, Mexico/Gretchen McKay

Don’t know about you, but whenever I feel the need to rejuvenate, I head for the beach.

As busy as life and work get sometimes, it’s hard to feel stressed when your toes are buried in sand and your lungs are full of the salty sea air. At the shore, it’s easy to forget about the things that can drive you crazy.

Happily, early fall is a perfect time to head to the coast. The summer crowds have evaporated, giving you plenty of room to spread out on the sand, and the weather — absent July and August’s heat and humidity — couldn’t be lovelier. Best of all, hotels often boast their best rates of the season once kids are back in school. The only question is: Which beach and for how long?

Here are a few worth a visit. One’s within easy driving distance of Pittsburgh if all you’ve got is a weekend, and a second requires just a short flight to Florida — perfect for a midweek getaway. We’ve also included a sleepy island off the coast of Cancun, Mexico, for those of you with passports and a few more vacation days to burn through.

Cape May, N.J.

Travel time: A 7-hour drive from Pittsburgh.

The basics: The Jersey Shore is famous for its bustling boardwalks and seaside amusement parks (Morey’s Piers in Wildwood boasts more than 100 rides and amusements on three piers). It’s a lot quieter in genteel Cape May, one of the oldest seashore resorts in the country and a National Historic Landmark City since 1976. Here, the exquisite late Victorian architecture gets people excited — everything from quaint gingerbread cottages and Stick-style beach houses to magnificent showpieces favored by famous actors and U.S. presidents.

Rich in maritime history (it’s the eighth-largest fishing port in the U.S.), Cape May also is one of the East Coast’s top birding destinations and a great place from which to embark on a whale-watching tour. And the beaches are top-notch, ranking second in the nation in TripAdvisor’s 2011 Traveler’s Choice Best Beach Awards.

Cape May, New Jersey/Gretchen Mckay

A good night’s rest: Take a step back in time at one of the town’s charming Victorian bed-and-breakfasts or guest houses. Many are furnished in period antiques, and a few, including the Queen Victoria on Ocean Street, include afternoon tea on the veranda. Cape May also boasts several sprawling seaside hotels, such as the The Inn of Cape May (7 Ocean St.), a favorite for more than 100 years.

We drooled over the landmark Congress Hall (251 Beach Ave.), built as a simple boarding house in 1816 and home to the town’s first post-Prohibition cocktail bar (in 1934). Presidents Grant, Pierce and Buchanan are among the celebs who’ve summered at this historic site, which recently was remodeled. Along with a sweeping lawn overlooking the ocean, today’s visitors enjoy a full spa, private beach cabanas in season and the elegant Blue Pig Tavern, famous for its seafood pot pie.

We stayed at the more modern La Mer Beachfront Inn in East Cape May (, a comfortable if not particularly fancy low-rise hotel just steps from the Atlantic. Amenities included a granite wet bar with fridge and microwave, a heated pool and a seaside balcony.

Tickle your taste buds: The all-day breakfast at family-friendly Uncle Bill’s Pancake House is just the start in Cape May. We had terrific double-wrapped blackened chicken tacos at Key West Tacos (479 W. Perry St., cash only) and equally delicious manchamanteles, a stewed chicken dish with pineapple and plantains, at Gecko’s on Carpenter’s Square Mall.

For grab-and-go dining, Hot Dog Tommy’s on Jackson Street is a juicy slice of hot dog heaven; at lunchtime, the line at the window can stretch 20 or more people. Also worth a long wait in line are the banana-and-Nutella-topped waffles at tiny George’s Place (301 Beach Ave., cash only). A good cup of coffee, along with computers to check your email, can be found at MagicBrain CyberCafe on Perry Street.

Waffles at George's Place in Cape May, New Jersy/Gretchen McKay

Get your kicks: One of the best times for a walk on the beach is just before breakfast, when fishermen are casting lines into the surf and quick eyes can catch dolphins jumping just beyond the breakers. Morning also is a good time to search the shoreline for Cape May “diamonds,” which look like translucent pebbles but are actually tiny quartz crystals. In an hour, we had a handful.

If you plan on swimming, know there aren’t any lifeguards after Labor Day. Then again, you won’t have to cough up $5 for a beach tag. No worries about dragging beach umbrellas or chairs with you as both are available for hire ( through September.

Visitors also can rent kayaks or jet skis or go parasailing; other activities include whale-watching, winery tours, horse-drawn carriage rides through town, and birding cruises and events such as the 65th annual Autumn Birding Festival, which this year runs Oct. 28-30 ( Kids will dig biking on the 2-mile paved boardwalk that runs parallel to the ocean and playing skee-ball at Family Fun Arcade (732 Beach Ave.). Grown-ups will enjoy the many stores and boutiques on the pedestrian Washington Street Mall ( A must-stop is Fralinger’s, whose salt water taffy has been a favorite for more than 125 years.

Another must-see is the nearly 158-foot-tall lighthouse on Cape May Point, built in 1859. The view from the top is to die for in more ways than one: You have to climb 199 steps up a spiral staircase inside the tower. We made the heart-pounding journey after dark via a Ghosts of the Lighthouse Trolley Tour (; 1-800-275-4278), one of a dozen trolley tours offered by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities. No spirits were sighted, but there were plenty of mosquitoes; next time we’ll remember to pack bug spray with the sunscreen and beach towels.

Info: 1-866-922-7362 or


Anna Maria Island, Fla.

Travel time: A 2 1/2-hour direct flight to Tampa ( followed by a 75-minute drive to the coast.

Anna Maria Island, Florida/Gretchen McKay

Nestled between Sarasota and Tampa Bay on the emerald-green Gulf of Mexico, Anna Maria Island oozes Old Florida charm, with slender sugar-white beaches, laid-back restaurants and funky mom-and-pop shops. The best part is its size, minuscule in comparison to touristy hot spots like Miami and Fort Lauderdale. It’s just 7 miles long and 2 miles at the widest, and you can ride a bike or scooter from one end of the island to the other. Or take the Anna Maria Island Trolley (6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.) from Coquina Beach all the way to the public pier on the north side of Anna Maria City — it’s free.

Comfy sleeps: Finally, a beach town untouched by chain hotels! Accommodations on the island cities of Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and Anna Maria range from candy-colored houses (many with pools) and luxury condo rentals to quaint mom-and-pop motels. Start your search online at or; off-season prices are as low as $400 week for a two-bedroom unit and many owners rent by the day, as well, after Sept. 1. We overnighted in a two-story townhome at BridgeWalk, a lovely upscale resort overlooking the beach on historic Bridge Street in Bradenton Beach (1-941-779-2545; In addition to a heated pool, creature comforts included a full kitchen, two screened porches and a two-minute walk to the beach. ”

Good eats: Hope you’ve got an appetite for seafood, because the day’s catch is the draw at many of the island’s better restaurants. Our favorite was the dockside Star Fish Company in Cortez Village (, just across the Cortez Bridge on mainland Bradenton. Order a fried shrimp po-boy or local grouper at the bar (cash only) and when your name’s called, carry it to a picnic table on the dock. You also can’t beat breakfast on the beach at Gulf Drive Cafe in Bradenton Beach (900 Gulf Drive; 1-941-778-1919) or, once the sun’s gone down, a pina colada at the restaurant’s new oceanside tiki bar. For fine waterfront dining (duckling, lobster, bouillabaisse), head to Beach Bistro in Holmes Beach. It has received Florida’s “Golden Spoon” award eight times for a reason. Rotten Ralph’s on historic Bridge Street Pier in Bradenton Beach, conversely, couples water views with a “come as you are” attitude.”

Star Fish Company in Cortez, Florida/Gretchen McKay

For the best dessert in town, head to Island Creperie, also on Bridge Street ( The St. Marteen crepes (banana, Nutella, whipped cream) are amazing. This charming little eatery also serves savory, meat- and veggie-filled buckwheat crepes for dinner and classic French sandwiches, quiches and salads. Tres bien.

Island fun: Divers and snorkelers will have fun exploring the Regina Wreck Underwater Preserve, an Irish tanker that sank in 1940 about 75 yards off Bradenton Beach (it’s marked with a buoy). If you’d rather try stand-up paddle boarding (it’s easier than you think) in the protected waters of Anna Maria Sound, Native Rentals runs eco tours through Perico Bayou in Robinson Preserve. Our tour with owner Shawn Duytschaver ($29/four-hour tour) had us paddling under red and black mangroves, with only the occasional blue heron and roseated spoonbill — a bizarre-looking wading bird if there ever was one — to keep us company (1-941-527-6355;

Stand-up paddleboarding is popular in Anna Maria Island, Florida/Gretchen McKay

More spiritual pursuits include getting a massage in a private tiki hut ($60/30 minutes) or taking a yoga class on the beach (8:30 a.m. Sundays and Wednesdays, $10 donation suggested) with Island Wellness (1-941-779-6836; There’s also shopping on newly restored Historic Bridge Street in Bradenton Beach, a leisurely stroll on historic Pine Avenue in Anna Maria or feeding the manatees at the Parker Manatee Aquarium at South Florida Museum in nearby Bradenton ($15.95 adults/$11.95 children 4-12; 1-941-746-4131 or

Info: or 1-941-729-9177.


Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Travel time: A 6-hour flight to Cancun (, followed by a 20-minute shared shuttle to the terminal at Puerto Juarez or Gran Puerto. From there, it’s a 20-minute ferry ride to the island, during which you’ll be serenaded by local buskers.

Bienvenidos: You know that Corona commercial where the couple imagine themselves on the sweetest beach you’ve ever seen? It could have been filmed on the “Island of the Women.” Barely 5 miles long and not even a mile wide, this former fishing village on the Caribbean Sea, in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, is as laid-back as it is pretty to look at.

If you like partying into the wee hours, you’re better off staying on Cancun. Not to say Isla isn’t also colorful — the main business district is jammed with small stores selling Mexican artwork, textiles and silver, and there’s also a lively restaurant scene.

The view from a room at Hotel Secreto in Isla Mujeres, Mexico/Gretchen McKay

Buenos noches: Hotels come in all sizes and price ranges on Isla, and many are within walking distance of the ferry. Ritzier ones include Na Balam and Cabanas Maria Del Mar on Playa Norte, the beach that runs on the northernmost part of the island, and Hotel Villa Rolandi in the middle zone, where it’s possible to arrive by yacht, and each of its 35 suites boasts an ocean view. We were celebrating a pair of milestone birthdays, so we splurged on Hotel Secreto, a chic nine-room boutique hotel on the northern tip of the island. The secluded Halfmoon Beach outside our door was too rocky for swimming, but the lushly landscaped infinity pool and outdoor living area (there was a bed on the veranda) more than made up for it. Plus, breakfast was served in our room each morning. Not a bad way to welcome turning 50!

If you’d rather spread out, it’s also possible to rent a private home or condo through, or

Bring your appetite: You can go as fancy or casual as you like with meals on Isla. Standouts include the fried grouper tacos, served with a crispy slaw and spot-on margaritas, at Bally-Hoo, a thatched-roofed dockside restaurant on Avenue Rueda Medina. We had terrific wood-fired pizza at Rolandi’s on Hidalgo Street in El Centro and the freshest-of-fresh seafood at Fayne’s, also on Hidalgo — my husband had grilled whole snapper while I opted for Caribbean spiny lobster.

Also worth trying is a traditional dish called “tikin-xic” — whole fish marinated in achiote and then grilled. That was lunch during a snorkeling trip, served with spaghetti, rice and a cabbage salad.

Yet the best meals may have been the breakfasts. At Loncheria Alexia y Geovanny, one of three tiny restaurants at the public market on Avenue Guerrero, we started our day with an amazing plate of huevos rancheros. At Brisas Grill on Avenue Rueda Medina, we were introduced to — and immediately fell in love with — chilaquiles, a traditional dish of fried corn tortillas simmered in sauce and topped with fried eggs and cheese.

Get your beach on: One of the main island activities is snorkeling. We paid about $25 each for a four-hour trip that included snorkeling on the Manjones Reef, a visit to a turtle sanctuary, an opportunity to swim with dolphins and a barbecue lunch. We also rented a golf cart ($15/hour) and drove it to Garrafon Reef Park at the rocky southern tip of the island, home to an outdoor sculpture garden and an ancient temple honoring Ixchel, Mayan goddess of the moon. The next day, we pedaled bikes ($4/hour) to Garrafon de Castilla beach club, also on the south end (entrance is 50 pesos, or about $4), and spent a few happy hours snorkeling.

Beach-front massage in Isla Mujeres, Mexico/Gretchen McKay

If you’d rather chill out, Isla’s beaches are powder soft, gently sloping into warm, aquamarine waters; just be sure to slather on the sunblock and wear a hat because the Mexican sun is unforgiving. Without my Wallaroo scrunchie, I would have come home redder than a cooked lobster.

You also can get a massage, right on the sand, or take a poolside yoga class at Hotel Na Balam. Definitely make time for a cerveza or two — along with the Mexican sunset — at Buho’s beach bar on Playa Norte, where patrons can relax on swings and hammocks. Afterward, head to Hidalgo Street, which comes alive at night with a parade of street performers, strolling mariachi bands, fire dancers and trim men in black charro suits tap-dancing the jarabe tapatio.