Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thankful Tuesday: Here’s to you, blue collar workers April 7, 2020

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2015, northbound on Interstate 35 with the Minneapolis skyline in the distance. We depend on mechanics and automotive machinists to keep our vehicles running.

 

MONDAY MORNING I PULLED a whiteboard from the closet. And then I started a list. Of everyone and everything I need to pray for daily. The list numbers nine categories already and I expect will continue to grow. Typically I wouldn’t need a written list as I have a good memory. But I find myself needing a recall prompt. And, in some sense, physically grabbing a black marker and writing on a whiteboard helps me.

Last evening I added three more names to the prayers for friends and family category after a sister-in-law asked me to pray for a friend’s son, who is infected with COVID-19, and his young family.

On that prayer list I’ve written thankfulness as a reminder to thank God for the many people—especially in healthcare, emergency response, law enforcement and military—who are on “the frontline” serving others.

 

Randy at work in the automotive machine shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Today, though, I want to focus on thanking essential blue collar workers, those men and women who don’t have the option of working from home. That includes my husband, Randy, an automotive machinist. His employer has taken steps to protect customers and employees. Customers (mostly) are no longer allowed inside the store or inside the shop with doors to both locked. Rather, they must stay outside, call and then await curbside service.

 

The door to the automotive machine shop is now locked and signs posted on social distancing, business hours and new customer services practices.

 

But for Randy, it’s not that easy. He sometimes needs to help customers carry heavy auto parts into the shop so he can perform tasks like turn brake rotors, resurface heads and much more. That means close contact then and as they discuss the needed repair work. I don’t like it. But he reports customers are getting better at social distancing. Still…

Randy is not alone. All across Minnesota and across this nation, automotive machinists and mechanics are working hard to keep vehicles—from tractors to cars to trucks, including semis—running. There’s concern in those garages and shops where employees must drive customers’ vehicles into bays. Imagine stepping into a semi cab driven by an over-the-road trucker who’s traveled who knows where. There’s real fear, with extra precautions needed to clean those cabs and protect the mechanics repairing them. Yesterday I talked to someone with a family semi truck repair business. She’s worried about exposure to COVID-19 and understandably so.

Yet, these hardworking men and women—just like those in grocery stores—continue to work. (And, yes, I’m grateful Randy still has a job.) They work to deliver products, goods and services to us. Thank you, truckers and delivery drivers. Thank you, grocery store employees. Thank you, mechanics, automotive machinists and those working the counters in parts stores. Thank you, all blue collar workers. We need you, and that is evident now, more than ever.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Marking 35 years as an automotive machinist in Northfield October 3, 2018

Randy at work in the NAPA machine shop in Northfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

MORE AND MORE, Randy hears the question, “When are you retiring?”

Not because people want him to retire. But because customers worry that he will retire before he completes work for them.

Today marks 35 years since my husband became the automotive machinist at Parts Department, Inc., Northfield, aka NAPA. He’s been in the profession even longer, beginning first as a parts man in Montana, Rochester and Faribault before shifting to automotive machining in Faribault, then Owatonna and for the long term in Northfield.

 

Randy grinds a flywheel. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Thirty-five years. It’s a long time to work in one place turning brake rotors, resurfacing heads, grinding valves and flywheels, and doing a multitude of other automotive machining tasks I don’t understand. He’s a skilled tradesman, a pro whose work is in high demand. Few do what Randy does. Because of that and his exceptional skills, he’s in high demand. Locally, regionally and beyond.

 

Randy’s toolbox. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I’m proud of Randy. He is smart, talented and driven to do the best he can for his customers. He works hard. He works long days—up until a few years ago six days a week. And up until last year, he had only 10 days of vacation annually. Now he gets twenty.

 

Just one example of all the work that awaits Randy in the NAPA automotive machine shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

His farm upbringing instilled in him a strong work ethic. That and the cost of health insurance will keep him from retiring for a few years yet. Hopefully his back and his feet will hold out. I’ve seen the physical toll of a labor intensive, on-your-feet job.

For now Randy’s customers need not worry. He has no plans for immediate retirement. But good luck finding someone to do their machining work after he retires…hopefully in a few years.

PLEASE JOIN ME in congratulating Randy on 35 years as the automotive machinist at NAPA in Northfield.

Click here to read a post I wrote about Randy on this 30-year anniversary.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

About those dirty hands July 1, 2017

My husband enjoys his cheeseburger at the 2016 North Morristown Fourth of July celebration. This photo and a comment on it prompted this post. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2016.

 

I FEEL THE NEED to defend my husband. And if I was on Facebook, I’d go directly to the source of an uninformed and hurtful comment about a photo I took of Randy’s hands while he was eating a cheeseburger at the 2016 North Morristown Fourth of July celebration.

The commenter wrote that she would not eat a burger “with those dirty hands/fingernails. Yikes.”

 

My husband at work in the automotive machine shop where he is employed as the sole employee. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2013.

 

I take issue with that. Randy is an automotive machinist and has been for about 40 years. He works in a dirty environment on heads, blocks, brake rotors, flywheels and more that are oily, greasy, filthy—whatever word you choose to define the grime he touches.

 

 

His hardworking hands are permanently imprinted with the residue of his labor. He washes his hands multiple times daily. Removing every trace of grease would be nearly impossible. It’s not like he’s coming to the table with hands just pulled from some project. They are as clean as he can get them without extensive scrubbing. To suggest otherwise is just plain wrong.

 

Just one example of all the work that awaits my husband in the NAPA automotive machine shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2013.

 

I’ve often felt that blue collar employees don’t get the respect they deserve. Randy is good at what he does. Really good. His skilled work is in high demand. Always. Few people do what he does. His skills are advanced beyond basic garage mechanics to precision automotive machining. He repairs everything from cars to vans, trucks, semis, forklifts, snowmobiles, motorcycles, tractors and more.

Randy holds an incredibly strong work ethic. I keep telling him that, at his age of 60, he doesn’t need to work so hard and long. He stopped working Saturdays only a few years ago, often puts in 9-hour plus days and, up until this summer, received only 10 vacation days annually. But he continues to work hard because he feels an obligation to his customers, the people depending on him to get their cars back on the road, their tractors in the field, their boats on the water.

I admire his dedication. And I recognize those “dirty hands/fingernails” as those of a man who is not always appreciated as he should be. Without hands-on skilled tradesmen and women, this country could not function. Randy may not have a four-year college degree, but that does not make him or his work any less important than that of a college grad.

 

Randy’s toolbox. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2013.

 

I realize I’m getting a tad off topic here. But I grow weary of a society that generally places a higher value on white collar workers. Fresh out of college, our son, now 23, started a job in the tech field at a salary more than double his dad’s pay and with much better benefits. We always want our kids to do better than us. That is a good thing. But this personal example within our family shows the disparity between blue and white collar workers and the minimal value placed on 40 years of experience and those without a four-year degree.

 

Randy enjoys a BBQ pork sandwich and a beer at the 2013 North Morristown July Fourth celebration. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

So, yeah, criticize my husband’s hands and you will hear from me. His are the hands of a man who has worked in his field for about four decades. His are the hands of hard work and dedication. His are not unwashed hands holding a burger.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Honoring my husband as he marks 30 years with the same employer October 12, 2013

5:48 a.m.

The numbers on the clock radio glow red in the early dark of an October morning as he leans across the pillow to kiss my cheek, his beard brushing my skin.

Only minutes earlier, I awakened to the angular slant of light from the bathroom cutting across the carpet outside our bedroom, the rush of water from the faucet, the jingle of coins scooped from the dresser top into his work uniform pocket.

In minutes, after he’s laced his grimy Red Wing work shoes, I will hear the door shut, imagine him pulling the rag rug into place that protects the 1995 Chrysler upholstery from grease, picture him heading out of Faribault for the 22-minute commute to work.

For 30 years he’s followed this routine, although not always leaving the house before 6 a.m. But he is busy, crazy busy, in the NAPA automotive machine shop. This is nothing new; it’s been this way for three decades.

My husband at work in the automotive machine shop where he is employed.

My husband at work in the NAPA automotive machine shop where he has worked for 30 years. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

He, my husband Randy, possesses a strong work ethic that drives him to work well before the appointed 8 a.m. start and to leave well after the appointed 5 p.m. end of his work day and to labor most Saturdays. When he takes a rare week day off—from only 10 annual vacation days—he is stressed even more trying to meet customer demands.

Every time he takes a vacation day, and those are seldom and never more than five at a time unless combined with a holiday, he must labor doubly hard. Long days before he leaves. Long days afterward. Often it hardly seems worth the time away.

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

Just one example of all the work that awaits my husband in the NAPA automotive machine shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

But Randy sometimes needs a break from pressing customers and the pile of work that never diminishes. His skills—the turning of brake rotors, the resurfacing of heads, the grinding of valves and flywheels and a multitude of other automotive machining tasks I don’t understand—is in high demand. Few do what he does and he’s good at it. Probably the best in southeastern Minnesota as evidenced by his wide regional customer base and the endless work load.

Everyone wants their car, their truck, their SUV, their van, their tractor, their combine, their snowblower, their lawnmower, their recreational vehicles, their whatever, repaired first.

In 2008, Randy was recognized by his employer for 25 years of service to Parts Department, Inc., Northfield. Randy received a plaque, dinner out and a drill.

In 2008, Randy was recognized by his employer for 25 years of service to Parts Department, Inc., Northfield. Randy received a plaque, dinner out and an air wrench. Photo by Dan Christopherson.

Did you catch that early on noted time frame of 30 years?

Randy grinds a flywheel.

Randy grinds a flywheel. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

October marks 30 years since Randy started working as the automotive machinist for Parts Department, Inc. (NAPA), Northfield.

My husband's NAPA automotive machine shop toolbox.

My husband’s NAPA automotive machine shop toolbox. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Thirty years at one business. Remarkable, isn’t it?

Even more remarkable, Randy’s labored in the automotive field for just shy of 40 years.  Only two years out of high school and with two years of trade school education, he packed his car in the spring of 1976 for Plentywood, Montana. He lasted there as a parts man for a month, returning from the middle of nowhere to settle in southeastern Minnesota.

My husband at work with a hammer, a tool he uses often as an automotive machinist.

Randy at work. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Randy was employed as a parts man in Rochester, eventually relocating to K & G Auto Parts in Faribault. There he worked as a parts man before moving into the machine shop and learning that skilled trade. He also worked in an Owatonna machine shop until the previous owner of the Northfield NAPA enticed Randy to join his business.

He genuinely loves his job, working solo in the machine shop, although Randy says he always dreamed of being a rural mail carrier. Had he chosen that career path, he would be retired by now, collecting a pension. Taking vacations. Sleeping in. Saturdays off.

Instead, dirt and grease outline his fingernails. Faded white scars mar his skin. Flecks of errant metal, from work projects, lie beneath the surface of his skin.  Sometimes, too often, his back aches. He rises early. Works long days. Sometimes falls asleep in the recliner as the evening fades. Takes well-deserved Sunday afternoon naps.

He’s worked hard to provide a steady income for our family, allowing me to stay home and raise our three children and work part-time from home and continue to pursue my passions in writing and photography. We are not wealthy in monetary terms. But the mortgage is paid on our modest house, food is always on the table, clothing on our backs, bills covered.

And it is because of my farm-raised, blue collar hardworking husband.

Please join me in congratulating Randy on his 30-year anniversary as the automotive machinist at Parts Department, Inc., Northfield. And also wish him a happy birthday, for today, October 12, is his birthday.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Happy birthday, Randy October 12, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 1:52 PM
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TODAY MY HUSBAND is celebrating his 55th birthday, which now officially makes him as old as me. Yeah, I was smart and married a younger man, albeit by only about two weeks.

I’ve been contemplating what message to write here today to him. I decided, instead, to tell you a few things about Randy.

He’s the oldest boy in a family of nine children and was born in North Dakota, where he attended a one-room country school. As the story goes, one day the students were kept inside during recess because of coyotes roaming the schoolyard. True story, he swears.

Randy moved with his family to central Minnesota when he was six or seven, or some young age like that.

It was on the family’s farm south of Buckman that Randy saved his father’s life. Yes, you read that correctly. He saved his dad’s life. My spouse seldom talks about that October 21, 1967, accident shortly after his 11th birthday.

But he was there as his dad’s hand was pulled, along with corn stalks, into the spring-loaded rollers of a corn chopper. Blades sliced off his father’s fingers. Rollers trapped his arm.

And Randy was there to disengage the power take-off. He then raced across swampland and pasture to a neighbor’s farm. To save his father’s life. (You can read the details by clicking here.)

An Allis Chalmers corn chopper like this one exhibited at the 2010 Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show, claimed my father-in-law's left hand and much of his arm in a 1967 accident. That's my husband, Randy, who saved his dad's life by running for help.

My spouse possesses a calm demeanor, meaning not much rattles him. He’s soft-spoken and funny in that quirky kind of humor way.

He does sudoku puzzles and is good at math and numbers and figuring stuff out.

His work as an automotive machinist at Parts Department, Inc., Northfield (NAPA) is always in demand. Suffice to say you better get in line. He’s that good at his job.

Randy at work in the NAPA machine shop in Northfield where he's worked since 1983.

He once owned a Harley, which was smashed in a crash, and once won a trip to the Bahamas.

Right about now, Randy’s probably eating his second or third piece of apple pie bars, his birthday treat at work. Tonight I’ll serve him his favorite cake, angel food, topped with one of his favorite fruits, raspberries.

Speaking of which, I need to bake that cake. Now.

Happy birthday and many more, Randy! (See, I used an exclamation mark, which I never use in my writing.)

I love you.

IF YOU WISH to leave a birthday message for Randy here, please do so. He reads my blog and is, indeed, one of my most vocal fans. Thank you for always supporting me in my writing, Randy.

 

He smashed his thumb November 30, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:16 AM
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MY HUSBAND CALLED late yesterday afternoon. “I’m at the clinic.” Those are words a wife does not want to hear.

“What did you do?” The question popped automatically out of my mouth.

“Smashed my thumb with a hammer.”

This did not sound good, not good at all.

“They’re going to do an x-ray and I may need stitches.”

For my automotive machinist spouse, his hands are his tools, so these types of injuries always concern me.

My husband at work with a hammer, a tool he uses often as an automotive machinist.

I hung up, then worried and fretted and worried some more while waiting for a follow-up phone call. Forty-five minutes later he called from the Northfield clinic to say he was on his way home to Faribault.

“I got three stitches.”

The injured, and stitched, left thumb. My husband says I will gross you out with this image. To abate his concerns, I've down-sized the photo.

“What’s the prognosis?”

“It’s not broken, but they found bone fragments floating around. They think it might be from a previous injury, maybe not, and want me to come back in a week for another x-ray.”

He claims he didn’t injure the thumb prior to yesterday.

I doubt that statement. Throughout our 28 ½ years of marriage, he’s hit his thumbs more than once with a hammer at work, although certainly not this severely.

Here's proof of a previous injury. Note the semi-circle scar on the right thumb, the telltale mark of stitches from an earlier injury.

This time he delivered a glancing blow to his left thumb with a two-pound hammer while pounding universal joints out of a drive shaft. Ouch.

He’s off to work this morning, despite the doctor’s instructions that he stay home.

He told her he couldn’t. Too much work and he wasn’t going to let an injury like this keep him down. He possesses a strong work ethic and a degree of German stubbornness.

The physician conceded, told him to keep the thumb clean and dry. I’m uncertain how he will manage that given the nature of his job gets his hands dirty and greasy.

My husband at work in the automotive machine shop where he is employed.

This morning he struggled to button his shirt. How will he operate machinery, deal with heavy and grimy automotive parts? But, he’s determined. My concern, a few stitches, a clumsy splint, swelling and a little pain aren’t going to stop him from working.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling