Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

What do “the parents” know anyway? February 19, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:34 AM

MY TEENAGE SON, while generally uncommunicative with “the parents,” can be incredibly funny if he chooses to engage in conversation.

Take the other night. Not liking the chili I prepared for supper, my 16-year-old opts to make a bratwurst. I should clarify that, in this house, if you don’t like what mom or dad cooks, then you MYO (make your own).

So there my son stands, before the microwave, pondering exactly how long to zap a brat just pulled from the freezer.

“Oh, brat guru,” Caleb says, turning toward his dad. “Impart on me the wisdom of the ages.”

And so the guru, A.K.A. my brat-loving husband, guides his son through the process of microwaving a brat while I chortle over my bowl of chili.

It is a rare moment when our teen respects such wisdom. Mostly, he considers us completely lacking in knowledge.

But we persevere.

That leads to my second story. Last week I asked and then cajoled/ordered/pleaded/ begged/demanded that my son write “thank you” notes for monetary birthday gifts he recently received.

He’s not ungrateful, but getting my boy to write anything presents a nearly insurmountable challenge. He claims to detest writing and English, mostly because I love writing and English.

“I’ll do it later,” he whines. “Not now. Why do I have to? Can’t I just send an e-mail?”

“Now,” I say, pulling out the thank you cards, address book and stamps.

He tries one more time. “It’s (letter writing) a dying art, like Latin.”

Well, he’s right there, I think, trying hard not to laugh.

But his tactic fails. I refuse to accept his argument, instead imparting the wisdom of the ages that, even in this day of instant communication, people still appreciate a handwritten expression of gratitude.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


How’s the health of your county? Which county is Minnesota’s healthiest? February 18, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:51 AM

WHICH MINNESOTA COUNTIES are the healthiest?

Intrigued by a radio report I heard Wednesday morning about a nation-wide study that ranks counties on health issues, I decided to check out my county, Rice County, Minnesota.

So I logged on to countyhealthrankings.org for results of this study from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

Of the 85 out of 87 Minnesota counties that were ranked (Cook and Traverse counties were omitted because of low populations), Rice County is the 23rd healthiest. In true Minnesota fashion, I will respond, “Not too bad.”

Jackson County, which lies in extreme southwestern Minnesota along the Iowa border, rates as our state’s healthiest county. Now, if you’re from Iowa and are already inferring that Jackson County’s location next to Iowa impacted the high ranking, you likely would be wrong. Four of the nine Minnesota counties bordering the Hawkeye state are in the lower tier healthwise. So there goes that possible theory.

According to the study, Lake County, on the exact opposite corner of the state in northeastern Minnesota, is the unhealthiest.

Now, rather than attempt to explain the reasons behind the rankings, I suggest you go straight to the source and check out the information for yourself. Draw your own conclusions. And remember, as you consider results, no research is perfect and is open to interpretation.

This Minnesota map zeroes in on Rice County, my county of residence, and neighboring counties south of the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

HERE, HOWEVER, ARE a few interesting summaries I pulled from this study regarding Rice County:

  • Less access to healthy foods than the average Minnesotan. Rice County rated at 22 percent access compared to 40 percent state-wide. To reach this conclusion, researchers determined the number of zip codes within a county with a healthy food outlet (grocery stores and produce stands/farmers’ markets).
  • A higher motor vehicle crash death rate—20 per 100,000 population in Rice County compared to 13 per 100,000 state-wide. This comes as no surprise to me given Rice County ranks among Minnesota’s deadliest counties for impaired driving. According to recent information from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Rice ranked as the 8th deadliest county.
  • A lower teen birth rate, at 20 births per 1,000 female population, ages 15 – 19, in Rice County compared to the state value of 28.

How did your county fare? Read for yourself. This study is packed with some interesting information.

And, by the way, I have nothing against Iowa. I grew up three counties away from the borders of Iowa and South Dakota.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


An Annie Mary Twente valentine mystery February 17, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:09 AM

VALENTINE’S DAY came and went this year without a single valentine for me. Well, I suppose I should count the small bag of peanut M & Ms my husband handed me on Sunday and the caramel rolls and apple-walnut cinnamon bread he bought for me at The Brick Oven in Northfield on Saturday. Thank you, Randy. All are delicious.

But, I never got a valentine card, from anyone. That is, until yesterday.

Two cards arrived in the mail, one postmarked “St. Cloud, MN.” and the other postmarked “Vesta, MN.” However, they bore similar return addresses, if you could call these addresses: “AM, Morgan.” and “A.M. 56292.” It appears to me as though A.M. is attempting to conceal her true identity and whereabouts.

I, of course, suspect immediately that this mail has come from the ghost of Annie Mary Twente, a 6-year-old who fell into a coma and was buried alive near Hanska in 1886. She has taunted me for decades by sending an annual Halloween card. However, just recently, her haunting has become more frequent. At Christmas, I received a gift from Annie. And now the two valentines with handwriting and postmarks that clearly indicate two senders.

Let me explain. In one valentine, A.M. writes this message, “I still miss you!” with her signature in capital letters, “ANNIE MARY.”

In the other, she simply signs, “Love, Annie Mary.” But, she also drew a quick sketch of an old-fashioned wooden swing hung from a tree. That freaks me a bit because of a tale I heard once of Annie’s ghost swaying in just such a swing.

Valentine greetings from the ghost of Annie Mary Twente. Which is authentic?

And then, to taunt me even more, the valentine features a mouse on the cover. Little Annie sent me a plastic mouse at Christmas. I presume that somehow she uncovered information about my extreme dislike of rodents.

She also includes stickers that plead: “Be Mine!” As if I’m going to be the valentine of a little ghost girl.

Obviously, I have a Nancy Drew style mystery on my hands. Annie doesn’t know this, but I love mysteries, always have. I’m comparing the handwriting and messages in past cards to these valentines. I think I have solved the mystery.

One of these “Annie Marys” is certainly an impostor. And I think I know which one. But I’ll hold my accusations for now and hope for a confession.

In the meantime, I need to warn my Aunt Marilyn, who lives in Vesta, that Annie Mary has been in my hometown. Likewise, I’ll warn my cousin Dawn, who lives in Morgan, that Annie Mary has also been in her community.

I’ll get to the bottom of this mystery. And if I need to call in a handwriting expert to prove my case, I will.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

(Be sure to read my previous posts about Annie Mary Twente, published on November 4, 2009, and December 23, 2009.)


My classmate, Marlene, dies in a New Ulm house fire February 16, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:08 AM

Marlene (Schmidt) Gulden, senior class yearbook photo, Wabasso High School Class of 1974.

WHEN I HEARD of a house fire in New Ulm that claimed two lives Valentine’s Day evening, I considered for a fleeting moment that the victims might be known to me. My mom has lots of cousins living in the area. But, New Ulm is a fair-sized community, so what were the chances?

That all changed Monday evening, when I opened an e-mail from my Wabasso High School classmate, Sue. She delivered the news that our classmate, Marlene (Schmidt) Gulden, and Marlene’s husband, David, perished in the fire.

Although I have not kept in touch with or seen Marlene in some three decades, the news still hit me hard. I expect that classmates will die perhaps of a heart attack, cancer or motor vehicle accident. But a fire? No.

According to information published in The New Ulm Journal, the Guldens were pulled from their smoke-filled home and given CPR, but later died at the New Ulm hospital. The news story continues to explain how firefighters were hampered in their efforts when a second fire truck, and then snowplows, became stuck in the couple’s long, narrow, snow-filled driveway.

Truly, the deaths of Marlene and David are a tragic loss not only to their families and friends, but to the New Ulm community.

And within the community of Wabasso High School, Class of 1974, Marlene’s death, especially, has left us with aching hearts. In a class of 89 students, you know each other pretty well.

While Marlene wasn’t in my circle of closest high school friends, I certainly considered her a friend. Really, we were all friends.

When I think about Marlene, I remember her physical beauty—she had lovely straight hair that framed a beautiful face. She always looked nice.

But mostly, I remember her quiet inner beauty. And her kindness, yes, her kindness.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Take your wife to work day: My experience inside an automotive machine shop February 15, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 12:42 PM

My husband's NAPA automotive machine shop toolbox.

Randy grinds a flywheel.

TAKE YOUR WIFE to Work Day begins with good intentions.

My husband has been hinting for a week that he can use some extra hands in the Parts Department, Inc., Northfield (NAPA), automotive machine shop. So I, rather foolishly, volunteer to help and he, rather foolishly, accepts.

So Saturday morning I remove my wedding band and Black Hills Gold ring, borrow two of his work shirts, grab my most ragged jeans from the closet and pull on tennis shoes. I know I am about to get greasy, dirty and stinky.

During the 25-minute drive to Northfield, we admire the frost that creates a magically- beautiful landscape. Turns out this will be the best part of my morning.

Soon we pull into the NAPA parking lot and step into a world that smells of chocolate cereal. Memories of cold winter mornings on the farm and steaming bowls of Malt-O-Meal cereal, made in Northfield, flit through my mind as we walk across the icy pavement.

Once inside, Randy punches in. I don’t. This is, after all, a trial run, volunteer work, an unpaid internship. I doubt I’m ready for the payroll. But I am anxious to get started.

As I wait for my spouse to organize tools and choose a project for me, I survey his machine shop. I understand now why he has asked for assistance. I’m overwhelmed simply viewing the piles of heads and blocks and other engine “stuff” grouped on the cement floor.

Just one example of all the work that awaits my husband in the NAPA automotive machine shop.

And I am impressed by all of the equipment—the cylinder re-boring machine, honing machine, valve guide and seat machine, brake drum and rotor lathe, flywheel grinder, airless shot blaster, baking oven and more—that Randy operates. This is one smart man, I remind myself.

Me, well, I’m not so smart about automotive work, I quickly learn. I do OK removing expansion plugs and oil gallery plugs from 302 Ford engine and 292 Ford engine blocks. But removing camshaft bearings proves too challenging as I struggle to slam a rod with a huge hammer.

“I thought you could swing a hammer better than that,” Randy says.

Uh, no. It’s a swing and a miss.

I'm not good, not good at all, with camshaft bearing drivers because I can't accurately swing a hammer.

Frustration begins to set in as I sense I am not doing well.

But, hey, once I overcome my desire to save and reuse parts, I’m pretty good at tossing old parts into the scrap metal barrel.

Soon I’m standing around, wondering what to do. “This is getting to be a really long morning,” I say, glancing at the shop clock, which tells me I’ve only been here 1 ½ hours.

When Randy begins sweeping the floor, I seize the opportunity. “Let me sweep. I’m good at cleaning,” I say, practically grabbing the broom from his hands. He instructs me to keep down the dust level. Apparently I’m good at sweeping as he never criticizes.

But I feel like this is simply busy work. “Give me some meaningful work,” I say.

So he locks a 1960s vintage 327 Chevy cylinder head into a machine and shows me how to drill out worn valve guides. But I fear I will wreck the head, even though he claims I can’t. He stands watch as I try. I tentatively float the machine, line the drill with a guide and flick the switch. I did it. But when he steps away, I place my hand on the machine to steady it and knock off a part. I panic. He finishes the job.

At this point, I know with absolute certainty that I am more of a hindrance than a help to Randy. So I voluntarily take a break, glancing one last time at NAPA race car drivers Ron Capps and Martin Truex Jr. Their near life-size photo cut-outs, which I can see through the shop window on the NAPA retail floor, proved a welcome distraction during my moments of insecurity.

NAPA race car drivers Ron Capps and Martin Truex Jr. keep a watchful eye on me in the NAPA machine shop.

I head to the car and grab a bag of work that I’ve brought with me, just in case I didn’t pan out as an automotive machinist’s assistant. For the next 1 ¾ hours, I proof the spring issue of Minnesota Moments magazine.

Later, when I ask Randy to make a list of the work I did that morning, he writes:

  • Removed expansion plugs and oil gallery plugs.
  • Attempted to remove camshaft bearings.
  • Drilled out worn valve guides.
  • Swept the floor.
  • Edited magazine.
  • Distracted fellow employees.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

(Check back later this week for more images from the NAPA automotive machine shop.)

Oh, yeah, and I'm not good either at using the lifting hook.


Valentine’s Day reflections and wishes February 14, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 12:37 PM

A preschooler's t-shirt message celebrates Valentine's Day.

VALENTINE’S DAY, for me, brings sweet, sweet memories of shoeboxes covered in white paper and decorated with pink and red hearts carefully cut from construction paper. Classmates slipped punch-out valentines through a slit in the box cover.

Attached to those “Be mine” messages, were heart-shaped suckers or a stick of Juicy Fruit gum or a pocket-sized box of conversation hearts that I thought tasted more of chalk than of candy

Many of those childhood valentines are tucked away now, somewhere in a cardboard box in an upstairs closet. Of all those greetings, I remember not the store-bought ones that sparkled with glitter, but rather the hand-cut plain white heart from Dallas.

“I love you like a little dove,” my neighbor boy, and classmate, wrote.

I can’t recall ever having a childhood crush on Dallas. It was Craig whom I “liked.” But, now, as an adult, I wonder if perhaps Dallas wasn’t trying to woo me with his heartfelt message.

Or maybe not. I mean, what exactly does it mean to “love you like a little dove?”



Two-year-old Braxton, son of friends Billie Jo and Neal, is, indeed, a little "hunk of burnin' love."

Billie Jo and her kids, Nevaeh and Braxton, made these cookies for the February 13 game night at Trinity Lutheran Church, Faribault.

I discovered this Valentine's Day message in the preschool at my church, Trinity Lutheran.

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY from Minnesota Prairie Roots!

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Take your wife to work day February 13, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:25 PM

“I thought you could swing a hammer better than that,” he says.

He is my husband, the automotive machinist.

Me? I am the writer, who shadowed her husband at work. My Saturday morning in his automotive machine shop went exactly as I expected. But apparently, he expected more…

Stay tuned for the rest of the story.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling