Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

My crazy family reconnects at a rural Minnesota reunion July 29, 2014

My cousin Kirt leads his team in the first Kletscher Fear Factor competition by "agreeing" to a beauty make-over.

My cousin Kirt leads his team in the first Kletscher Fear Factor competition by “agreeing” to a beauty make-over.

WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS Vesta stays in Vegas Vesta.

My cousin Kirt sports the family name on the back of his shirt.

Kirt sports the family name on the back of his shirt.

That mantra was repeated by several of my cousins on Sunday afternoon as my extended family gathered in my hometown for the annual Kletscher family reunion.

We gather in the Vesta park across the road from corn and soybean fields. Here a John Deere tractor drives past on Sunday afternoon.

We meet in the Vesta park across the road from corn and soybean fields. Here a John Deere tractor drives past on Sunday afternoon.

Every year I anticipate this weekend celebration which brings the descendants of Henry and Ida Kletscher to the small southwestern Minnesota prairie town of Vesta. The reunion kicks off with a Saturday evening campfire and then continues the following day with a noon potluck followed by games and visiting.

The playground proves a popular area for elementary-aged through high school.

The playground proves a popular area for elementary-aged through high school.

Laughter, play, competition, conversation and great homemade food define the weekend. I love my extended family and I love this reunion.

My mom, left, and several of the aunts line up to watch the afternoon games.

My mom, left, and several of the aunts line up to watch the afternoon games. Elaine, bundled in the fleece blanket, was the oldest attendee. She’s 91.

Since adding competitive games several years ago, the connectedness between generations has grown stronger:

Teams formed and then the make-up case was opened for beauty make-overs on three guys.

Teams formed and then the make-up case was opened for a beauty contest.

First, fairy wings for Lucas...

First, fairy wings for Lucas…

Prettying up Lucas...

…and then a little make-up.

Denver undergoes a make-over for his team.

Denver undergoes a make-over for his team.

Kirt, hamming it up for the crowd.

Kirt, who wanted what happens in Vesta to stay in Vesta, puckers up.

Kirt hams it up for the crowd, which voted by clapping and hooting and hollering. He won the beauty contest.

Kirt hams it up for the crowd, which voted by clapping and hooting and hollering. He won the beauty contest.

Just like my cousins and I hold dear our childhood memories of family get togethers in a time when we all lived near one another, now our offspring and theirs, are, once a year, experiencing a similar family closeness.

Dorothy, hands behind her, races to pluck raisins from rice cereal during a contest.

Dorothy, arms behind her, races to pluck raisins from rice cereal.

My cousin Terri, who co-hosts the Emmy-nominated television show, "Nature Adventures with Terri and Todd," brought a snake for part of the Fear Factor competition. She was attempting to get many family members to overcome their fear of snakes.

My cousin Terri, right, who co-hosts the Emmy-nominated television show, “Nature Adventures with Terri and Todd,” brought a snake for part of the Fear Factor competition. She was attempting to get family members to overcome their fear of snakes.

My cousin Sandy's grandson Keelan shows no fear of snakes. Some contestants kissed the snake to earn the highest number of points.

My cousin Sandy’s grandson Keelan shows no fear of snakes. Some contestants kissed the snake to earn the highest number of points.

My cousin Dawn apparently wasn't too fond of the tapioca pudding she was racing to eat during a competition.

My cousin Dawn apparently wasn’t too fond of the tapioca pudding she was racing to eat during a competition.

I can’t emphasize too much the importance of such reunions in this crazy busy world. Grandpa and Grandma would be proud to know their children and families still care enough about each other to gather every July in the place where my great grandparents, Rudolph and Mathilda Kletscher, put down roots.

The youngest attendee, 3-week-old Maddison.

The youngest attendee, 3-week-old Maddison, came with her parents from Lakeville, 120 miles away.

Henry and Ida’s offspring of all ages came to the reunion—from their oldest daughter, Elaine, age 91, to the youngest great great granddaughter, Maddison, born only three weeks ago.

Kids and families played together in the sand, too, building memories.

Kids and families played together in the sand, too, building memories.

And as for that Vegas mantra, I warned my cousins that I couldn’t keep what happens in Vesta, in Vesta. They just laughed and said they were OK with that.

But I’m not sure my cousin Bob was OK with unknowingly eating tofu in the chocolate cream pie I brought to the potluck. When I revealed the secret ingredient, he could not hide his disgust.

“I’m supporting the soybean farmer,” I told this farmer. That didn’t seem to matter. Another memory…

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Celebrating family at the annual Kletscher reunion in southwestern Minnesota July 30, 2013

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Referees watch over the competition in which contestants filled cups, attached to their feet, with popcorn and raced to fill ice cream buckets.

Referees watch over the competition in which contestants fill cups, attached to their feet, with popcorn and race to fill ice cream buckets.

THIS YEAR THEY CALLED in the referees to control the competitors.

The competitors would be the descendants (and spouses) of Henry and Ida Kletscher, gathered on Sunday afternoon in the Vesta City Park for the annual family reunion. My aunts and uncles and cousins and their kids and their kids’ kids; my mom; four of my siblings and two of their spouses; and a single nephew.

P)lating food at the potluck meal spread across several picnic tables in the Vesta City Park shelter.

Plating food at the potluck meal spread across several picnic tables in the Vesta City Park shelter.

My first plate of food. I made sure to grab a piece of the blueberry dessert, which my Aunt Elaine brings each year. Wait too long and you miss out on a piece.

My first plate of food. I made sure to grab a piece of the blueberry dessert, which my Aunt Marilyn brings each year. Wait too long and you miss out on a piece.

Fueled by a potluck meal, preschoolers to my 90-year-old Aunt Elaine participated in an afternoon of organized competitive activities ranging from puzzle making to relay races to nail pounding to Kletscher family trivia.

In the flag race, contestants carry flags from one ice cream bucket to another.

In the flag race, contestants carry flags from one ice cream bucket to another.

Laughter erupted. Legs pounded the parched and hardened lawn. Good-natured kidding abounded.

Winners in the puzzle making competition celebrate.

Winners in the puzzle making competition celebrate. Contestants assembled 25-piece puzzles.

Teams cheered.

My cousin Greg cheats in the popcorn game in which contestants were supposed to fill cups. attached to their feet, with popcorn. He found his hands to work much better.

My cousin Greg cheats in the popcorn game in which contestants were supposed to fill cups, attached to their feet, with popcorn. He found his hands to work much better.

Cheating ran rampant, despite the two referees, who couldn’t possibly spot every rule infringement.

That would be my Aunt Janice helping to fill a squirt gun.

That would be my Aunt Janice filling a squirt gun.

In order to protect my camera, I keep my distance from the water balloon toss.

In order to protect my camera, I keep my distance from the water balloon toss.

I stepped back from the water balloon toss, dodged squirt gun fire, held my camera above the chaos to photograph the competition.

The games begin with assembling 25-piece puzzles.

The games begin with assembling 25-piece puzzles.

To a distant passerby, the goings-on may have appeared crazy and chaotic and perhaps worthy of a call to the Redwood County Sheriff’s Department.

In the nail driving contest, entrants had one minute to pound as many nails as they could into a section of wood.

In the nail driving contest, entrants had one minute to pound as many nails as they could into a section of wood.

But I observed fun—a family connecting and building memories.

Team Red poses for a photo.

Team Red poses for a photo.

In many ways, the reunion took me back to decades earlier and evenings of gathering at the farms of extended family members to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. Then I was the kid, the girl racing across a pitch black farm yard playing “Starlight Moonlight” with my cousins—connecting, building memories.

In this game, competitors soak up water with sponges and race to fill ice cream buckets.

In this game, competitors soak up water with sponges and race to fill ice cream buckets.

Today I am the photographer, capturing those memories, reveling in the blessings of belonging to a family that cares enough to come together every July in a rural southwestern Minnesota city park a skip over gravel roads from acres of cropland.

My Aunt Jeanette holds one of her newest great grandsons, who traveled from near Milwaukee with his parents and twin brother to attend the reunion. I'm guessing this is 5-month-old Landon.

My Aunt Jeanette holds one of her newest great grandsons, who traveled from near Milwaukee with his parents and twin brother to attend the reunion. At five months, Landon (or Garrett, I’m unsure which twin) is among the youngest of Henry and Ida Kletscher’s descendants. This image was shot at the Saturday evening get together. In recent years the reunion expanded to begin on Saturday evening, resuming with the Sunday noon potluck. Games were also added within the past five years to keep the young people coming and to mingle the generations.

This the land of our forefathers, the home of our hearts, the place where family memories are rooted, here on the prairie.

CHECK BACK FOR MORE photos of family reunion fun.

© Copyright 2013 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