Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In loving memory of my father-in-law February 9, 2021

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Tom and Betty Helbling, photographed in 1988.

HE DIED PEACEFULLY Friday morning, two of his daughters by his side.

He is my father-in-law, Tom. Age 90. His death came quickly after a short hospitalization, discharge, sudden change in health, admittance to hospice, then gone the next day.

Mass of Christian burial for my father-in-law will be celebrated in St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Buckman.

Now we are preparing to say goodbye in the deep of a brutally cold stretch of weather here in Minnesota in the midst of a global pandemic. Both add to the challenges.

Today, though, I want to focus on Tom and my memories of the man I’ve known for nearly 40 years. A man with a large and loving family, whom he loved, even if he didn’t often openly show it.

Tom and Betty Helbling, circa early 1950s.

Tom has always been surrounded by a large family, beginning with his birth into a blended family in rural St. Anthony, North Dakota, in December 1930. After farming on the Helbling homestead, Tom and his wife, Betty, moved in 1963 with their young children to a central Minnesota farm. Their family grew to nine children, 18 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren.

As a young child, Tom briefly attended Catholic boarding school, which leads to one of my favorite stories about him. Apparently oatmeal was often served for breakfast. And Tom disliked oatmeal. One morning he stuffed the cooked grain in his pocket rather than eat it, so the story goes. I expect it wasn’t long before the nuns discovered the oatmeal mess and meted out punishment.

Yes, Tom could be particular about the foods he ate. He liked, in my opinion, the strangest foods—Braunschweiger, summer sausage, pickled beets, herring… And, yes, his son, my husband Randy, also likes herring. Shortly before his health declined, Tom enjoyed a few of those favorites delivered to his care center room by a daughter.

Ripened corn field. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Visitor restrictions due to COVID-19 were hard on Tom, as they have been for most living in congregate care centers and their families. But my father-in-law has overcome much in his life, most notably the loss of his left hand and forearm following an October 1967 farming accident. The accident happened when Tom hopped off the tractor to hand-feed corn into a plugged corn chopper. The rollers sliced off his fingers and pulled in his hand, trapping it. As Tom screamed for help, Randy, only 11 years old, disengaged the power take-off, then raced across fields and swampland to a neighbor’s farm. It’s a harrowing story that could have easily turned tragic.

My father-in-law’s prosthetic hand. Tom put a band-aid on his hand after he burned a hole in it while frying potatoes in 2009. I laughed so hard. Prior to getting his hand, Tom wore a hook to replace his amputated limb. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Despite a missing limb, Tom managed to continue milking cows and, in later years, to run a small engine repair business. He also grew and sold strawberries and pumpkins. I remember harvesting pumpkins with him one cold October evening, rain slicking the field with mud. We were drenched and miserable by the time we’d plucked those pumpkins.

One of my favorite photos of Tom giving an impromptu concert on his Lowrey organ. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

It is the creative side of Tom which I especially appreciated. He was a multi-talented life-long musician who played the piano, organ and accordion (until he lost his hand). He could play music by ear and had a piano tuning business. At age 81, he took refresher organ lessons and in 2012 gave an impromptu concert for Randy and me in the small St. Cloud apartment he shared with his second wife, Janice. His first wife, Betty, died in 1993. He treated us to Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Somewhere My Love” from the movie Dr. Zhivago. What a gift to us.

Threshing on the home place in North Dakota, a painting by my father-in-law, Tom Helbling.

Tom also painted, a hobby he took up late in life. Randy and I have two of his original oil paintings and several prints. They are a reminder of my father-in-law, of his history, of his rural upbringing, of his creative side. I consider these a legacy gift. Valued now more than ever at his passing.


© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Happy birthday, Randy October 12, 2011

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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.

 

Together let’s make this harvest season safe October 7, 2010

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Bishop Jon Anderson, Southwestern Minnesota Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, blesses the Prahl family.

 

SEVERAL WEEKS AGO I wrote about a Tractor Roll-in and Harvest Blessing Service at Trinity Lutheran Church in rural Gaylord.

Yesterday I received my September 30 issue of The Gaylord Hub, a community newspaper where I worked for two years right out of college. Even after three decades removed from Gaylord, I’m still interested in the happenings in this small town.

As I paged through the issue, I came across a photo on page four from the Trinity harvest blessing service. Pastor William Nelsen had e-mailed the same image, and several others, to me. But they were just sitting in my in-box and I wasn’t sure I would ever publish them on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

But then, yesterday, that blessing service photo in The Hub, followed by a story two pages later, prompted me to write this post. The news article shared information about an accident in which a farmer’s clothing became entangled in a power take off driven rotor shaft. The farmer sustained severe head, chest and arm injuries and was airlifted from the scene. The irony of the harvest blessing photo and the farm accident story publishing in the same issue of The Hub was not lost on me.

Yes, harvest season is well underway here in southern Minnesota. And with it comes the added danger of accidents on the farm and on roadways. Farmers are tired, stressed, overworked.

Motorists are impatient and in a hurry.

This time of year we all need to take great care as we’re out and about in rural Minnesota. If you get “stuck” behind a combine or a tractor or a slow-moving grain truck, exercise caution and don’t be in such an all-fired hurry to zoom around the farm machinery.

If you’re a farmer, please use proper signage, turn signals and flashing lights and stick to the edge of the roadway as much as you can. Bulky farm machinery limits a motorist’s ability to see around you, which can lead to accidents.

Together, with understanding and patience and, yes, even consideration, farmers and non-farmers can join in making this a safer harvest season.

 

 

Pastor Bill Nelsen blesses the Klaers family and their harvest during the service.

 

 

Pastor Bill Nelsen blesses the Kahle-Giefer family and their harvest. Farmers drove about 40 tractors and combines to the worship service attended by 200-plus worshipers.

 

 

I snapped this harvest photo along a rural road near Northfield on Sunday afternoon.

 

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photos courtesy of Margie Nelsen