Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The patriotic traditions of Memorial Day in Minnesota May 31, 2011

Boy Scouts march down Faribault's Central Avenue, giving away small American flags, on Memorial Day.

A member of the Color Guard salutes at the Memorial Day program in Central Park.

YES, DEAR READERS, I have yet another Memorial Day post to share with you. But I cannot help myself. My parents reared me to respect this day as a time to honor our war dead.

Every year of my childhood, we attended the Memorial Day program in my hometown of Vesta on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. I continued that tradition with my children by taking them each year to the Memorial Day parade in Faribault.

It is a tradition my husband and I continue, minus the kids—two of whom are grown and gone and the third a teen that cannot be roused from bed for the 10 a.m. parade.

Now I smile at the young families who gather along the curb in downtown Faribault to watch the veterans and Boy Scouts, the old cars and horses, the Girl Scouts and the Shattuck-St. Mary’s crack squad, the police cars and fire truck and marching bands.

Little hands reach for American flags distributed by the walking, sometimes running, Boy Scouts.

Clutched fists wave American flags.

It’s all so patriotic.

After the parade, the crowd gathers at nearby Central Park for more patriotism and I am reminded of my dad, a Korean War vet, who marched so many times with his Color Guard in parades and programs.

In the park bandshell, the guests of honor sit, rise and tell us they have little to say before offering these words:

“Your wars aren’t all won on the battlefield. They’re also won at home.”

“If you know a veteran, just say, ‘thank you.’ It means so much to them—something Vietnam vets were short of.”

“I salute all veterans here.”

“God bless everybody.”

“God bless America.”

The Color Guard leads the way in the Faribault Memorial Day parade.

These Boy Scouts seem a bit indecisive, while other Boy Scouts race toward the crowd to hand out American flags.

Every year the Boy Scouts give away flags during the parade.

A veteran and others wait for the Memorial Day program to start at Central Park.

The Color Guard advances and the Memorial Day observance begins in Central Park.

The Color Guard soldiers salute. Emcee and radio announcer Gordy Kosfeld, on stage at the podium, will later tell us: "Memorial Day should be a time of reflection, not a holiday."

A strong wind blew the Color Guard flags set next to the bandshell stage at Central Park.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Memorial Day at Cannon City May 30, 2011

About 30 people gather at the Cannon City Cemetery for an afternoon Memorial Day observance.

IN THE SHELTER of the spruce, of the pines, we formed a semi circle, clustered together in this small country cemetery to honor the veterans buried here, 22 of them from the Civil War.

Ezekiel and Samuel. Spencer and Charles. Henry and Theodore. Emcee Mel Sanborn read the list of names as the wind whipped his words into sometimes inaudible, unintelligible syllables at the Cannon City Cemetery.

Since the late teens or early 1920s, folks have gathered in this Rice County cemetery every Memorial Day, initially called “Decoration Day,” to honor the war dead. Civil War veteran Elijah Walrod was quoted as saying that his son Luther “would strike up the Death March and lead the procession” from the nearby Cannon City School, along the country road to the cemetery.

School children—some of them in attendance at the 2011 Memorial Day observance—once marched with flags and flower bouquets and lilac wreaths and then, afterward, celebrated at the school picnic.

When the school closed in the 1960s, the Cannon City Cemetery Board took over the annual Memorial Day observance, a tradition that continues today, minus the Death March from the country school. It is an unpretentious, informal program that is touching and moving and heartfelt. Americana through and through.

My husband and I came here on this muggy afternoon to experience a small-town Memorial Day observance. We were the strangers among those who had grown up here and had loved ones buried in this ground butted against the rich black soil of farm fields.

Yet, we were welcomed like family and I felt as if I had stepped back in time to the Memorial Day observances of my youth—the days of patriotic songs and playing of taps and reading of “In Flanders Fields.” I mouthed the words silently: “In Flanders Fields the poppies grow between the crosses row on row…” These poetic lines I knew nearly from heart, having recited them as a young girl on the stage of the Vesta Community Hall some 125 miles from this cemetery.

As Don Chester strummed his guitar and clamped his harmonica, we sang “My country, ‘Tis of Thee” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and other patriotic songs.

Bob (didn't get his last name) sings as Don and Judy Chester lead the group in song. Bob attended Cannon City School and participated in Memorial Day programs here as a student.

Song sheets were handed out to attendees. Here Mel Sanborn sings "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

When Steve Bonde blasted “The Star Spangled Banner” on his trumpet, we sang along, turned toward the flag at the cemetery entrance, the brass quelling voices that drifted away with the word-flogging wind.

It mattered not how well or how loudly the 30 or so of us sang. It mattered not that a young girl darted inside the semi circle to pluck a dandelion from the grass. It mattered not that the occasional airplane droned out our voices. We were focused on the songs, “The Gettysburg Address” read by Audrey Sanborn Johnson, and, finally, Bonde’s mournful playing of taps.

Long-time Cannon City resident Bob respectfully removes his cowboy hat during the playing of taps, a tribute that moves me to tears.

When the final note ended, the small group drifted, scattering across the cemetery to visit the graves of loved ones. I wandered, drawn by American flags to the final resting places of veterans. Names I did not know in an unfamiliar cemetery I was walking for the first time.

After the program, attendees visited gravesites.

Yet, despite the unfamiliarity with this place or these people, I felt connected to them by the reason I was here—to reflect upon the sacrifices made by so many American men and women in defense of our freedom. America. Land of the free and home of the brave.

A flag waves in the wind on a soldier's grave.

A star marks a veteran's tombstone.

Can anyone explain the symbolism of these clasped hands on a veteran's grave?

A flag marks the entrance to the Cannon City Cemetery.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The veterans of Vesta

A flag placed on a veteran's grave at the Vesta Cemetery in southwestern Minnesota.

EARTH MEETS SKY HERE.

On this Memorial Day weekend, I have come to this hilltop cemetery outside of my hometown of Vesta in southwestern Minnesota to remember.

I walk the rows, between the tombstones, lean in close, read the names, memories only a thought away.

My focus is on my father and the other veterans buried here whose names I know, whose stories of war I will never fully know.

An in-ground marker honors my father, Elvern Kletscher, a Korean War veteran and recipient of the Purple Heart for wounds he suffered at Heartbreak Ridge in Korea.

How did they feel leaving family and farm? Were they scared? Were they honored to serve their country? Did they yearn for home as they shouldered their weapons? Did they leave as boys, come home as men? Were they scarred by war, forever changed?

I wondered as strong prairie winds whipped flags attached to white wooden crosses. So many flags. So many graves of men who’ve served.

If only I’d asked them to tell me their stories, these men whom I’d never thought of as soldiers, until I saw their graves marked by crosses and stars and American flags.

The local American Legion marks veterans' graves with white crosses.

Barb Schmidt teaches her grandchildren about their ancestors as they place flowers on the graves of loved ones Saturday evening at the Vesta Cemetery.

Set atop a hill, the wind catches the flags marking vets' graves.

I was surprised by the number of veterans buried in the Vesta Cemetery, their graves marked by small flags attached to white crosses. This photo shows only one small portion of the graveyard.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

BibleSticks and battle prayers May 28, 2011

A tattered prayer book carried by my father to Korea, where he fought on the front lines during the Korean Conflict. Touching these pages, I feel the faith of my soldier father.

LAST SUNDAY AFTER SERVICES at my church, Trinity Lutheran in Faribault, we watched a brief video about BibleSticks.

Never heard of them? I hadn’t either, until viewing that clip.

“The Military BibleStick is a digital audio player that is pre-loaded with a dramatized recording of the entire New Testament,” according to the Faith Comes by Hearing website. The organization, dedicated to getting the Word of God into the world, “offers 557 Audio Scripture recordings in 553 languages reaching more than 5 billion people in more than 185 countries.”

Part of that outreach includes the U.S. military. Demand is great for the 3 ½-inch long, less than one inch thick, camouflaged, battery-operated BibleSticks, I learned via the video. For whatever reason, the BibleSticks must be processed through military chaplains.

With a $25 donation, we could give a slip-in-the-pocket, portable New Testament to military men and women.

Although I personally don’t know of anyone who has used a BibleStick, I do understand the importance of access to Scripture, especially for our soldiers.

Flashback to February 1952, when my father, Elvern Kletscher of Vesta, was drafted. Less than a year later, he found himself in the mountains of Korea, a U.S. military infantryman fighting on the frontline during the Korean Conflict.

My father, Elvern Kletscher, preparing to leave his Vesta farm home in April 1952, six weeks after he was drafted.

On February 26, 1953, he was struck in the neck by shrapnel at Heartbreak Ridge. Later, he would be awarded the Korean Service Medal with 3 Bronze Service Stars, the National Defense Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the Combat Infantry Badge and the Purple Heart.

During those combat days, when my dad feared for his life, when he was forced to shoot the enemy or die, he relied on his deep faith in God.

My Dad's worn copy of God Our Refuge.

And he carried with him a 3-inch by 4 ½-inch black book, God Our Refuge. A gift from the St. John’s Lutheran Ladies’ Aid of Vesta, the book includes gospel readings, devotions, meditations, prayers, hymns and more.

Within the pages of that volume, my dad found solace, hope and comfort in the face of constant death.

Now eight years after his death, I cradle the tiny book in my palm, brush my fingers against the brittle, black leather covers, open the curled pages that are loosening from the binding. I think of my father, how he carried this book in his pocket, how he flipped and read the 144 pages, how he prayed while trapped inside the cold earth of a foxhole, while engaging in battle, while lying inside his tent at night.

The inscription reads: To Elvern Kletscher with best wishes from the Lutheran Ladies' Aid at Vesta, Minn.

As I turn to page 117 of my dad’s tattered copy of God Our Refuge, I feel forever connected to him, my fingers touching the paper he touched, reading the words he read 58 years ago as a young soldier in battle:

“In Thine arms I rest me;

Foes who would molest me

Cannot reach me here.

Though the earth be shaking,

Every heart be quaking,

Jesus calms my fear.

Lightnings flash and thunders crash;

Yet, though sin and hell assail me,

Jesus will not fail me.”

HAVE YOU OR SOMEONE you know used a BibleStick? If so, I’d like to hear about your experience with this audio version of Scripture and what it meant to you.

My grandparents, Ida and Henry Kletscher, posing with some of their children, flank my father, Elvern Kletscher, who is about to leave for military service in 1952. My uncle Merlin is the youngest, standing in the front row wearing the bib overalls.

BEHIND EVERY PICTURE, there is a story, including stories about the images of my father and his family, above.

My uncle, Merlin Kletscher, found these two photos in the winter of 2010 while researching for a family reunion. They were tucked inside a worn copy of The Lutheran Hymnal, copyright 1941, published by Concordia Publishing House. That hymnbook belonged to my grandfather, whose name, Henry Kletscher, was inked in gold on the cover. He had taped the edges and binding of the much-used songbook.

The two photos were sandwiched between song 409, “Let Us Ever Walk with Jesus,” and song 410, “Jesus Lead Thou On.”

The latter was one of my Grandpa Henry’s favorite hymns, Uncle Merlin recalls.

“I have not found any other photos or negatives which leads me to think that these pictures were very dear to him,” my uncle says.

Now those photos are also very dear to me. When Merlin handed copies to me last summer, I teared up. Little did my father know then what horrors awaited him on the battlefields of Korea, how his life and death experiences would forever change him.

And my heart ached for my Grandma Ida, standing there beside her soldier son. I wish I had asked her how she felt, how they all felt. Now I have only these photos to show me the close love of a family sending their boy off to war.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

 

Reflecting on graduation speeches by three generations of Minnesota women May 27, 2011

Wabasso High School, where my niece will give a speech tonight as class valedictorian. My mom and I also graduated from WHS, although the building looks much different than when we graduated in 1951 and 1974.

Arlene Bode Kletscher's 1951 graduation portrait.

SIXTY YEARS AGO 18-year-old Arlene Bode stepped onto the stage at Wabasso High School and gave a commencement speech, “Our Part in the Fight Against Communism.”

While that seems an unlikely, unsuitable, topic for an address by the class valedictorian, my mom says you need to remember the time period in which she wrote and gave that speech.

This was 1951, at the height of the Cold War, the era of bomb shelters and fear of the Soviet Union.

My mom espoused patriotism, encouraging her southwestern Minnesota classmates “to be patriotic and vote…so we can keep our freedom,” she recalls. She has a copy of that speech tucked inside her WHS diploma.

She found the speech recently when pulling out her diploma to show her granddaughter, Hillary Kletscher, who graduates tonight, also from Wabasso High.

Hillary, like her 79-year-old grandmother, is the class valedictorian and will speak at commencement. When I texted Hillary early Thursday afternoon, she hadn’t yet titled her speech. But, she said, the “main subject is change and how it’s good but we have to hold onto what we learn from the past.”

I won’t be there to hear my niece’s address. But I intend to ask her for a copy, just like I plan to get a copy of my mom’s speech, which I’ve never seen. These are parts of our family history, words reflecting the time periods in which they were written, words of hope and wisdom and patriotism (at least in my mom’s case).

Hillary will step onto the WHS stage tonight and speak on change, yet remembering the past.

Audrey Kletscher Helbling, 1974 WHS graduate.

That my mom kept her speech through six decades impresses me. I say that specifically because I have no idea where to find the speech I gave at my graduation from Wabasso High School in 1974. It’s packed in a box somewhere in a closet in my home, but I possess neither the time nor energy to dig it out.

I remember only that, as class salutatorian, my farewell address included a poem. What poem and by whom, I do not recall.

In 2006, my daughter Miranda graduated as valedictorian of Faribault High School and gave a commencement speech. Given that occurred only five years ago, I should remember the content. I don’t. I recall only that she held up a test tube to make a point.

I am also making a point here. Thankfully much has changed in the 60 years since my mom spoke on “Our Part in the Fight Against Communism.” While the world today remains in turmoil, at least the intense fear, felt by the Class of 1951 during the Cold War, no longer exists.

We have also moved beyond the turbulent 60s and 70s, a time of rebellion, anti-establishment, and anti-war sentiments and discontent over the Vietnam War experienced by my class, the Class of 1974.

By 2006, when my second daughter graduated, we as a nation were beginning to recover from 9/11, yet we lived in an increasingly security-focused society.

Today my niece graduates in a day of continuing economic uncertainty, when young people are struggling to find jobs and when Baby Boomers like myself worry about our jobs and retirement.

Yet, through it all—the Cold War, Vietnam, September 11 and a challenging economy—we remain four strong women living in a free country where we, individually, spoke freely, representing the classes of 1951, 1974, 2006 and 2011.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Where is Tom Sawyer when you need him? May 26, 2011

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Three of the seven panels yet to be stained.

LAST WEEK I STARTED re-staining the fence that borders our backyard. Progress has been frustratingly slow and tedious.

With rain falling daily or every other day, or so it seems, sunny, stain-applying days have been sparse.

Even when it’s not raining, I must wait until the wood dries, and then the rain is falling again. At this rate, I should finish by, maybe, Labor Day.

Pretty to look at, challenging to stain.

The other issue is the fence itself. Take a good look at this fence with the lattice work top border that nicely dresses up the panels. That decorative touch sure looks pretty. But it’s difficult and time-consuming to stain. We’re talking tiny foam brushes here to apply stain to that lattice.

Do you know how quickly foam disintegrates when brushed against rough wood? Or how easily foam brush handles snap?  Yeah, that quickly and that easily.

But, hey, at least we have a pretty lattice-topped fence that keeps our property from looking like a fortified stockade.

As careful as I was, I trampled several ferns growing next to the fence. I also broke off several iris buds.

Under ideal circumstances, I would have completed this project a month or more ago, before my ferns, hostas, irises and bleeding heart erupted through the soil. But given the less than ideal spring in Minnesota, that did not happen.

Therefore I am forced to sidestep plants as I stain. Sometimes I fail to sidestep plants as evidenced by trampled foliage.

In a hurry to finish this project, I am constantly checking the weather forecast, or asking my husband, “Is it going to rain tomorrow? Can I stain the fence?”

If the wood is dry and the sky cloud-free, I stain. And then, if rain is predicted within 24 hours, I drape the newly-stained panel in plastic

A sheet of plastic protects a newly-stained fence panel from yet another day of rain.

weighted with rocks and clipped in place with clothespins. Twice I’ve had to protect the panels.

And I’ve stained just three panels. Only seven more to go.

OK. OK. You are probably thinking, “Why doesn’t she spray the stain onto the fence?” Number one—the first two panels are too close to the house for spraying. Number two—plants. Number three—I don’t think spraying will work, although my spouse thinks it will. He intends to try spraying, but has not had time or a dry evening to attempt this application.

So for now this project is mine, solely mine, as I do not seem to possess the persuasive powers of Tom Sawyer. Tom, as you may recall, manipulated his friends into whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence by making a game of the chore.

Could I possibly convince any of you that staining my fence would be fun? I’d even throw in a cold beer. Or two.

I've used nearly a gallon of stain on three panels thus far.

HAVE ANY OF YOUR SPRING projects been delayed by cold and rain? I’d like to hear. (I know. I know. Really nothing to complain about compared to cleaning up and rebuilding after a tornado.)

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

What’s your reaction to the blare of tornado warning sirens? May 25, 2011

HOW DO YOU RESPOND to sirens warning of an approaching storm?

I’d like to know, so consider this an unscientific poll spinning off the worst outbreak of deadly tornadoes in the U.S. since 1953. Already the death toll for 2011 has surpassed 450. And we’re not even into June, the peak of tornado season, at least here in Minnesota.

Why have so many died? I haven’t researched the reasons, but some residents of Joplin, Missouri, for example, claim they didn’t hear warning sirens above the roar of the storm.

During the Sunday afternoon tornado that cut a swath through north Minneapolis, sirens failed to work in places like Hugo to the northeast in Washington County. That didn’t sit well with residents who experienced a devastating tornado in 2008.

Even if sirens blare, warning of an approaching tornado or severe thunderstorm, do residents seek shelter?

How do you react when storm warning sirens sound?

A)    Immediately seek shelter in the basement.

B)     Step outside to look at the sky.

C)    Turn on the television or radio or go online for weather updates.

D)    Ignore the sirens.

E)     None of the above. Explain.

Please cast your vote and share your comments.

Not to influence your vote or anything, but I generally choose A. I possess a healthy, deep respect for storms, specifically tornadoes. That stems from growing up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, near Tracy, a small town devastated by a June 13, 1968, tornado that killed nine and injured 150. The destruction of that F5  (261 – 318 mph winds) tornado, which I saw firsthand, left a lasting impression upon me.

Fortunately, I don’t panic like I once did when storm sirens sound. After I became a mother and realized that my panic was impacting my children, frightening them more than they needed to be frightened, I reigned in my fears. They didn’t need to know that I was afraid.

Other family members may disagree with that current assessment of my reaction to foreboding storms. My 17-year-old son, for example, surmised that I have an overactive imagination when I called him to the window Sunday afternoon to view ominous clouds that I thought might be swirling into a tornado. He actually laughed at me.

However, when storm watches, and especially warnings, are issued, I listen.  And when sirens sound, I prepare to take shelter.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling