Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The compelling memoir of an escapee from North Korea November 20, 2018

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SEVERAL DAYS AGO I STARTED and finished A River in Darkness—One Man’s Escape from North Korea. Masaji Ishikawa’s memoir, written in 2000 and translated in 2017, is a compelling book, the type of story you want to stay up late reading.

It was a fitting read right before Thanksgiving. Why would I say that given the content which is simultaneously revealing and absolutely heartbreaking? It is not easy to read about an oppressive government, corruption, propaganda, starvation, death, discrimination and so many other horrors.

But it is a book that needs to be read by someone like me. Someone who grew up without much but still had enough. Someone like me who is the daughter of a Korean War veteran. Someone like me who pursued a journalism degree. Someone like me who can write and speak freely. Someone like me who lives in a free country.

I needed to read Ishikawa’s statement: “The penalty for thinking was death.” To me, that proved the most powerful line in the memoir. I cannot imagine feeling that you cannot even think freely.

Upon finishing the book, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the freedoms I have. But I also felt an overwhelming sense of grief for those people who live under oppressive regimes. Still today. This book opened my eyes wide as political rhetoric runs rampant.

TELL ME: Have you read this memoir and, if so, how did you react?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Reflecting on Veterans Day November 11, 2018

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U.S. Army Cpl. Elvern Kletscher, my father, in the trenches in Korea.

 

IT’S EASY ENOUGH to write words of praise on Veterans Day. Those are words we expect. And they should be spoken, written.

But there are other words which also need exposure. Like sacrifice, pain, guilt, suffering. I saw all of those in my dad, who fought on the front lines in the Korean War. Kill or be killed. He shared little of his experiences, but just enough that I understood the horror he saw, the horror he endured, the pain he would carry with him throughout his life. Peace eluded him. I felt helpless to help him. And I don’t know that I could have, never experiencing war as he did. Eventually he joined a veterans’ support group decades after the war, when post traumatic stress disorder was finally recognized. It helped him to talk to those who understood.

Please take time today to reflect. Reflect on those who served and who still serve.

Be thankful for those who are working hard to keep America safe. Freedom is never a guarantee and today, more than ever, I am fully cognizant of that.

To my many family members and friends who have served in the U.S. military, to my readers who have done likewise, thank you for your service. Because of you, I have the freedom to write this post, to continue to write, to live in a nation where I can go to the polls and vote.

Thank you, veterans, for the personal sacrifices you made for your country. Today I honor you.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Independence Day 2018 July 3, 2018

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I WANTED TO WRITE an uplifting post focusing on the celebration of Independence Day. Freedom, and all that means in the USA.

But, instead, I find my mind shifting to the challenges this country currently faces. These are difficult times. Violence. Hatred. Anger. Attacks on peoples. The press. Policies and statements and actions that, in my opinion, do not fit a democracy.

I love this country. I value my freedom. But never in my sixty-plus years have I feared so for our nation.

Yet, I hold hope. I hold hope in the rising of voices. I hold hope in the humanity of Americans, that we still care enough about one another, about freedom, to stand strong. To rise. To seek truth and do what is right.

A happy and safe Fourth to each of you, my dear Americans.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The importance of Veterans Day to me as a writer & veteran’s daughter November 10, 2017

U.S. Army Cpl. Elvern Kletscher, my father, in the trenches in Korea.

 

WHEN I CONSIDER Veterans Day, I think beyond a general blanket of gratitude for those who have served, and are serving, our country. I see a face. I see my soldier father, an infantryman on the battlefields of Korea and recipient of the Purple Heart.

 

My dad carried home a July 31, 1953, memorial service bulletin from Sucham-dong, Korea. In the right column is listed the name of his fallen buddy, Raymond W. Scheibe.

 

My dad, Elvern Kletscher, died in 2003. But his memory remains strong in my heart as do the few stories he shared of his time fighting for his country. He witnessed unspeakable, violent deaths. And, yes, he killed the enemy, often telling his family, “It was shoot or be shot.” I cannot imagine shooting someone so near you can see the whites of their eyes.

 

My father, Elvern Kletscher, on the left with two of his soldier buddies in Korea.

 

Atop Heartbreak Ridge, Dad picked off a sniper who for days had been killing off American soldiers. He suffered a shrapnel wound there.

But his wounds ran much deeper than the physical. His wounds stretched into a lifetime of battling post traumatic stress disorder, long unrecognized. He told stories of diving to the earth when a neighbor fired at a pheasant, the sound of gunfire triggering all those horrible war memories. The neighbor laughed. Likewise, guns shot at a small town parade sent him ducking for cover.

 

My dad’s military marker in the Vesta City Cemetery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I can only imagine the demons my father fought. You cannot walk away from war-time death and violence unchanged. Only much later in life, as the decades passed and awareness of PTSD grew, did my dad find some comfort in talking to other vets with similar experiences.

 

Soldiers receive The Lord’s Supper in Korea, May 1953. Photo by my soldier father, Elvern Kletscher.

 

Dad’s strong faith also pulled him through his emotional turmoil, during and after war.

Now, as I look back, I wish I had been more understanding, more grateful. But I can’t change that. Rather, I can choose to honor my dad by writing, an expression of the freedom he fought to preserve.

 

I wrote a story (“Faith and Hope in a Land of Heartbreak”) about my dad’s war experiences in this book, published in 2005 by Harvest House Publishers.

 

As a writer, I hold dear the value of my freedom to write. No one censors my writing or tells me what to write. I treasure that. I cringe at the current overriding criticism of the press in this country, the constant allegations of “fake news.” I worry about this negative shift in thought, the efforts to suppress and discredit the media. My dad fought to keep us free. And that freedom includes a free press.

 

 

That struck me Thursday evening as I gathered with 13 Faribault area writers at a Local Authors Fair at Buckham Memorial Library. Here we were, inside this building packed with books and magazines and newspapers and more, showcasing our writing. No one stopped us at the door to check if our writing met government standards. No one stopped us from selling our books. No one stopped us from engaging in free conversation with each other and with attendees.

I am grateful to those who assured, and are assuring, that I will always have the ability to write without censorship in a country that still remains free.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A fitting quote as we heal from the baseball field shootings June 15, 2017

This plaque marks a baseball player sculpture at Memorial Park in Dundas, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

THREE YEARS AGO I photographed a plaque at Memorial Park Baseball Field in Dundas. It marks a woodcarving of a Dundas Dukes baseball player.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

Today, the day after the shooting of House Republican leader Steve Scalise, four others and a gunman on a baseball field near our nation’s capitol, these words by John Thorn seem especially fitting. Thorn is the official historian for major league baseball.

 

My great niece Kiera painted this stone, which sits on my office desk as a constant reminder to hold onto hope. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Now, more than ever, as attacks and tragedies like this continue in the U.S. and throughout the world, we need our spirits replenished, our hope restored, our losses repaired, our journeys blessed.

 

Batter up for the Faribault Lakers. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

We must continue to play ball. Violence can change us. But it cannot steal away the freedom we hold dear.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

 

Vote November 8, 2016

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The Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped African Americans exercise their right to vote under the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. Stephen Somerstein photographed Bobby Simmons, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committe. Simmons was wearing zinc oxide to prevent sunburn and wrote VOTE onto his forehead. This photo shows a section of Somerstein’s portrait of Simmons showcased in an April 2015 exhibit, “Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail,” at St. Olaf College in Northfield. I photographed the photo with permission. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

DO YOU REMEMBER a time when elections were focused primarily on the issues? Minimal or no name-calling? When candidates acted like anyone mattered outside of themselves. When candidates treated each other with decency.

Yeah, I know. It’s difficult to remember that in a year dominated by such campaign negativity. On all levels, not just national.

I’ve read signs and bumper stickers and words I can’t repeat. Likewise with TV ads I’ve heard.

No matter where you stand, what you think, how frustrated you are, remember this. You have a voice. Use your voice today. Vote.

There was a time when not everyone in this country could vote. On Election Day 1920 women voted for the first time after the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, giving them that right. And now a woman is on the ballot for President of the United States.

No matter which candidates you support today, remember, you are free to vote. And that is something for which you can be especially thankful. You have that democratic right. Use it. Vote.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

American pride on Memorial Day weekend May 25, 2015

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Downtown Waseca, Minnesota, on Memorial Day weekend.

Downtown Waseca, Minnesota, on Memorial Day weekend.

MEMORIAL DAY BRINGS a focused gratefulness for freedom. And nothing is more visually representative of freedom in the U.S. than the American flag.

Another scene from downtown Waseca, on the other side of the street.

Another scene from downtown Waseca, on the other side of the street.

This weekend those flags are flying seemingly everywhere. On front porches, from flag poles and from lamp posts.

Driving eastbound on U.S. Highway 14 between Nicollet and Mankato.

Driving eastbound on U.S. Highway 14 between Nicollet and Mankato.

I feel my national pride swell at the sight of flags flying in communities like Elysian, Waseca and Morristown. On a Saturday trip from Faribault to Belview and back, I noticed the red-white-and-blue adorning homes, businesses, pick-up trucks and even silos. Just outside of Morristown, a couple grilled on their deck, an American flag waving in the wind just inches away.

A business in downtown Belview, Minnesota.

A business in downtown Belview, Minnesota.

I am thankful to live in this country. And grateful to those men and women who died for freedom. Because of them, I am free to express myself through writing and photography. Free.

The American flag on a bag of  Crystal Sugar.

The American flag on a bag of Crystal Sugar.

On Sunday, as I diced rhubarb in my kitchen, I pulled a bag of sugar from the cupboard. And there, at the top of the bag, was printed an American flag. I paused in that moment, remembering the words I’d sung hours earlier at Trinity Lutheran Church, where I am free to worship:

God bless America, Land that I love,
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with a light from above…

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
“God Bless America” by Irving Berlin