Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Memory in flight January 23, 2020

The fighter jet sculpture located at The Owatonna Degner Regional Airport. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2020.


SOME MEMORIES REMAIN, decades after the event, forever seared into our minds. But often they stay in the subconscious, surfacing only when triggered by something heard, seen, smelled, tasted, thought.

I hadn’t thought in a long time about the plane. Until I researched the story behind an airplane sculpture at The Owatonna Degner Regional Airport. I photographed the trio of T-38 Talon Thunderbirds while passing by on Interstate 35 as day broke on a recent Sunday morning.

My mind didn’t shift then to the afternoon decades ago when a fighter jet roared over my childhood farm outside Vesta in Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota. Rather, my thoughts focused on my mom. We were en route to visit her at a care center in Belview.

But now, weeks later, I sorted through photos taken on that 2.5-hour drive and remembered a summer afternoon in the 1960s. I was outside when the fighter jet flew low and fast over the farmyard, causing me to dive under the B Farmall tractor and the cattle to escape their fence. The sight and sound of that plane terrified me. We seldom saw planes, mostly just the trails of invisible or barely visible slivers of silver jets.

To this day, I don’t know from whence that mystery plane came or why the pilot chose to fly at such a low altitude. I can only speculate that he was on a training mission. And why not conduct that in a sparsely-populated area? Never mind the people or livestock.

That experience resurfaced as I sought out info about the three fighter jets artfully positioned at the Owatonna airport. Initially, they stood outside nearby Heritage Halls Museum, now closed. Museum founder and local businessman and pilot, R.W. “Buzz” Kaplan, led efforts to bring the retired U.S. Air Force jets to the area. Eventually the planes would land permanently at the airport, highly-visible to those traveling along the interstate.

Kaplan, on June 26, 2002, died at this very airport after the plane he was piloting, a replica WW I JN-4D “Jenny” biplane, crashed shortly after take-off. This airport has been the site of several fatal crashes, including one in 2008 which claimed eight lives. I hadn’t thought about that crash either, one of the worst in Minnesota, in a long time.

It’s interesting how the split-second decision to photograph a sculpture of three fighter jets along an interstate can trigger-roll into more than simply an image.

Life is that way. Memories, rising in unexpected moments, connecting to today.

TELL ME: Do you have a long ago memory that sometimes surfaces? I’d like to hear your stories and why that memory remains and others don’t.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


17 Responses to “Memory in flight”

  1. I remember passing that sculpture well but never really investigated it further. Interesting that you remember so vividly that day on the farm with an unusual plane siting. It made an impact for sure.

  2. valeriebollinger Says:

    Being a city girl…I remember seeing a calf being born for the first time. I asked Gary’s brother if he’d wake me any time during the night to see the birth. He did and I remember. 🙂

  3. Gunny Says:

    Certain men’s colognes bring back certain places and times. I would switch “flavors” when I changed locations. Each “flavor” conjures up certain memories. I no longer wear cologne! Planes you picture remind me of the USAF Blue Angels based on their color schemes and position in the sculpture. Depending on the aircraft, depending on the paint scheme, I can get “flashbacks” of many memories. Being an Old Guy, many things can trigger various memories.

  4. Growing up on a farm, we butchered our own animals. Very clear cut, no emotion attached to the process it was part of life. Sometimes we would visit the local locker plant where they processed meat. It smelled cold, lifeless, and the smell of blood mixed with bleach was overwhelming.
    Flash ahead many years to a time when I was in Sarajevo, Bosnia. I walked into the 1984 Olympic Ice skating rink that was destroyed during the war and now housed military troops. Suddenly the smell of the ice rink brought back the memory of being a small kid visiting the locker plant. Why? Simple, the smell of cold, lifeless, blood, and death remained. The ice rink was the building where the citizens held dead bodies from the fighting until they could bury them.
    My locker plant memory from childhood took on a whole new meaning with that new experience. Chilling, cold, lifeless human destruction. Nowadays when that smell triggers my brain the hair on my arms stands on end.

  5. Edward Brian Says:

    Thank you for your thoughts and photos Audrey. A memory I relive every weekday before I go to work is of a former pastor I had for ten years. He had back problems and would lay flat on the stage during worship team practice and attempt to relieve his back pain by stretching. He died last year from pancreatic cancer after suffering through the horrible cemo side effects for two years. After manys years of delivering packages I have to stretch my back every morning much the same way as Jon my former pastor who was my age. I think of him everytime I lay on my floor and stretch.

  6. Ruth Says:

    I’m going to consider my memories today and will write soon. What an energetic sculpture you captured in the morning light. I like how you write the details Audrey. Lots to think about.

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