Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thanks for the Sputnik memories, Mr. President January 27, 2011

GROWING UP on a southwestern Minnesota dairy farm back in the 1950s and 60s, in the middle of the Cold War, I didn’t know all that much about the Soviet Union, except to fear “the Russians.”

Then along came Sputnik, the Russian satellite, which made quite an impression on my impressionable young mind.

So when President Barack Obama worked Sputnik into his Tuesday night State of the Union address and stated, “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” something niggled in my memory.

That something would be a cat.

Just to make sure I was remembering correctly, I phoned my mom, who quickly assured me that I was right. During my childhood, we had a black-and-brown mixed barn cat called Sputnik.

“I think you kids named it after the Russian satellite,” my mom said.

She was right. My oldest brother and I, enamored with the whole space thing, had named the barn cat with the stump tail (likely sliced off by a mower in the alfalfa field) Sputnik.

I hadn’t thought about that feline in decades, until the President tripped my memory Tuesday evening while referencing Sputnik in his call for American innovation.

Then Wednesday I got caught up even more in the Russian satellite memory when I learned that the President was visiting Manitowoc in eastern Wisconsin. On September 6, 1962, a 20-pound chunk of glowing debris from Sputnik IV plummeted to earth, landing on 8th Street in Manitowoc.

This Wisconsin city celebrates that monumental event every September at Sputnikfest, complete with a Miss Space Debris Pageant, Cosmic Cake Contest, Cosmic Costume Contest, a Sputnik Re-enactment and more.

How space-age cool is that?

The President’s trip to Manitowoc was clearly well-planned and orchestrated to tie in with his Sputnik speech reference. Otherwise why would he have chosen to visit this city of 32,520 southeast of Green Bay? It’s not like he’s a Packers fan, although he received a yellow and green jersey upon his arrival.

This town on the shores of Lake Michigan is also home to several green energy plants, which Obama toured, thus reemphasizing his State of the Union directive to move forward in developing clean energy alternatives.

That all said, thank you, Mr. President, for mentioning Sputnik in your speech. I hadn’t thought about that barn cat in decades.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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