Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Memorial Day 2020 observances, abbreviated May 22, 2020

A veteran salutes during the Memorial Day Program at Faribault’s Central Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

NEARLY EVERY MEMORIAL DAY, Randy and I honor our war dead in the same fashion. We head downtown Faribault to the parade and then go to Central Park to watch the Memorial Day program. Little changes from year to year with American flags waving, men and women in uniform marching, Scouts handing out flags, patriotic music playing, speeches given, wreaths hung by members of the American Legion Auxiliary…

 

The Rice County, Minnesota, Veterans’ Memorial in Faribault, located on the courthouse lawn.

 

There’s comfort in the familiarity of tradition.

 

Memorial pavers surround the monument, like this one honoring a fallen soldier.

 

KIA, Sgt Donald E. Ponto.

 

Another loss…

 

But this year, because of COVID-19, there will be no parade, no ceremony at the Rice County Veterans’ Memorial and no crowd gathered at Central Park. This saddens me. I always look forward to these public ways in which we show respect and gratitude for those who lost their lives in service to country. But I understand. These are unprecedented times and we need to keep each other safe. The Central Park program will go on, but without audience members gathered on lawn chairs. Rather, the ceremony will be broadcast at 10 am over local radio station KDHL, 920 AM.

 

An overview of the Rice County Veterans’ Memorial.

 

Eagle and dove details.

 

Stone slabs honor branches of the military.

 

My attendance at Memorial Day events traces back to my childhood in rural southwestern Minnesota. My dad, a veteran of the Korean War and a recipient of the Purple Heart, was active in the local American Legion. Every Memorial Day our family attended—and often participated in—the program at the Vesta Community Hall. Several times I read the poem, “In Flanders Fields.” I also sold poppies. Afterward, we piled into the Chevy for the short drive north of town to the cemetery and the gun salute and mournful playing of taps. From early on, the importance of Memorial Day imprinted upon me.

 

A Civil War monument is part of the Veterans’ Memorial.

 

I carried that tradition in raising my three children. Each Memorial Day we attended the parade along Central Avenue in Faribault. And sometimes the program in the park. Some day I hope to take my grandchildren downtown to watch flag-carrying veterans, high school bands and Cub Scouts honoring those who died in service to our country. But not this year. Not during a global pandemic.

 

A story about Cpl. Ray W. Scheibe, published in the July 23, 1953, issue of The Wolbach Messenger.

 

THIS POST IS DEDICATED to the memory of Cpl. Ray W. Scheibe. Ray, 22, was killed by an exploding mortar on June 2, 1953, in Korea, the day before he was to return home to Nebraska, to his wife and baby daughter. He was my dad’s Army buddy.

 

Honoring fallen soldiers with a special monument at the Rice County Veterans’ Memorial.

 

Blessed be Ray’s memory. And blessed be the memories of all those who have given their lives for this country.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflections after 38 years of marriage May 15, 2020

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My husband, Randy, and I exit St. John’s Lutheran Church in Vesta following our May 15, 1982, wedding. Photo by William’s Studio, Redwood Falls.

 

TODAY RANDY AND I CELEBRATE our 38th wedding anniversary. He is taking the day off from his job as an automotive machinist. It’s a much-needed break in this, his especially busy season. COVID-19 or not, vehicles, tractors, recreational toys and more still need repair. And rare are the specialists like Randy who do this type of work anymore. It’s labor intensive, demanding and requires knowledge that comes from decades of experience.

But I digress. Today is our anniversary, a day to reflect on our marriage and each other, not on a global pandemic and work.

 

MAY 15, 1982

Thirty-eight years ago, I married Randy in my small southwestern Minnesota home church, surrounded by family and friends. The ceremony included singing of my favorite hymn, “Beautiful Savior,” by the congregation and a solo of “O, Perfect Love” by a friend. The selected scripture reading was Genesis 2:22-24. There are no recordings of our wedding service, only still photos and a worship service bulletin. And memories.

 

The Vesta Hall, a community gathering place in my hometown. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

After the ceremony at St. John’s Lutheran, we gathered at the Vesta Community Hall a few blocks away for a meal catered by HyVee, followed by socializing and then a dance, with a live band. There was nothing fancy about any of this. Strips of twisted crepe paper and vases of single carnations decorated long tables. My cousins waited on guests, green and yellow gingham cotton aprons, stitched by me, protecting their dresses. Diners sat on metal folding chairs pulled up to uncovered tables.

Randy and I toasted with green punch my mom prepared. Randy still reminds me of the putrid hue. Hey, our colors were green and yellow. Not John Deere shades, though. We posed for photos with our three-layered wedding cake with my husband insisting we not smash cake into each other’s faces. I’m thankful for that request. Smart guy.

Afterward, we danced across the worn wooden floor, twirling and linking arms and enjoying the evening with family and friends. I kicked off the ballet style shoes that pinched my toes. Around midnight we left for the short drive to nearby Marshall and a hotel room that reeked of cigar smoke. Funny how you remember details like that.

 

MAY 15, 2020

Fast forward to today. It seems unfathomable that 38 years have passed since our May 15, 1982, wedding. Three kids and two grandkids later, here we are, much older, much more seasoned in life. When I think on all that’s transpired in nearly four decades, I feel especially thankful for Randy. He remains the calm and steady man I married, a good balance for me.

 

Me, next to my poem, River Stories, posted along the River Walk in Mankato as part of the Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Photo by Randy Helbling, November 2019.

 

Together we have grieved the loss of parents and other loved ones, dealt with family crisis, faced health issues, raised a family, found joy in the simple things in life, been there for one another. When he married me 38 years ago, I doubt Randy ever envisioned attending poetry readings. But he has, many times, supporting me in my writing. That says a lot for a guy who likely never cracked open a poetry book before marrying a writer. I appreciate, too, that Randy supports my photography, sometimes even pointing out photo ops I miss.

We both enjoy country drives, small towns, craft breweries, summer concerts in the park, church dinners, time with our grown children and now, especially, our sweet grandchildren. I’ve learned to like car shows, but not for the same reasons as Randy. While he’s looking under hoods, I’m looking at hood ornaments, appreciating the artistic aspect of vintage vehicles. He enjoys reading historical non-fiction. I prefer fiction. He does Sudoku. I tried once, but failed miserably. Our interests are similar, yet separate.

 

Randy grills nearly every weekend year-round. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I appreciate Randy’s many talents, from his grilling skills (and, yes, he even grills veggies like Brussels sprouts and broccoli for me) to his ability to fix almost any mechanical issue with our vehicles to his compassion in “leading” Sunday morning video church services at a local nursing home (pre-COVID).

My love for Randy remains as strong as 38 years ago. Changed, yes. But not at its core. We have done life together. Celebrated good times and, together, managed many difficult times. He has been there for me and I for him. For 38 years. And for that I am grateful.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Heartbroken on May 14 May 14, 2020

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Aunt Sue and Uncle John

SHE IS STUNNINGLY BEAUTIFUL, the young woman in the long-sleeved simple white dress with eight decorative buttons and a corsage accenting the bodice. Her thick black hair is pulled back in a pony tail held in place by a white ribbon and a sprig of flowers. Next to her stands a tall, lean man dressed in suit and tie, a single carnation pinned to his lapel.

On May 14, 1968, this couple—my Aunt Sue and Uncle John—married. Today would have been their 52nd wedding anniversary. Except Sue died last week of pancreatic cancer. Although we all understood that Sue’s cancer, diagnosed some six months ago, was terminal, her death is still difficult to accept. Her husband of nearly 52 years is heartbroken.

That heartbreak has been compounded by COVID-19. For the week Sue was hospitalized prior to her May 8 death, John could not visit her. Until the end—the day prior and the day of. And now he and his grown children and their families are left to grieve alone. The usual ways in which we comfort and support one another have vanished. You know that if you’ve lost a loved one during this global pandemic.

I wish I could be there for my uncle and cousins, to hold them close and tell them how deeply sorry I am for the loss of their wife and mother, my aunt. Instead phone calls, texts, emails, cards and flowers must suffice…until we can gather at some time to honor Aunt Sue.

She was such an incredibly beautiful woman. And also outgoing and engaging. When John and Sue would drive from Minneapolis to rural southwestern Minnesota with their two kids for family gatherings, Sue was right in the thick of conversation and always eager to play board games. During those games, we threatened to use a timer because she often took too long taking her turn. At Christmas one year, I nearly convinced her that I sharpened a candy cane with a pencil sharpener. Laughter filled the farmhouse and Sue laughed right along.

Sue loved her kids and grandkids, cats and good Italian food and life. And she loved my uncle.

Today I will call Uncle John, to offer my support, but mostly to listen. Maybe he will tell me about the beautiful young woman with the thick dark bangs and her hair pulled back. The lovely bride in the above-the-knee simple white wedding dress and his wife of not-quite 52 years.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

TV memories prompted by a vintage sign in Faribault May 13, 2020

A vintage sign at a former TV shop in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

 

TELEVISION. I remember my life without a TV. I am that old and of a poor rural upbringing which made a TV unaffordable for many years.

At some point in my youth, maybe when I was around nine-ish, my parents purchased a small black-and-white TV that rested on a wheeled metal cart. Set along a living room wall, the rack could be pushed and turned for TV viewing from the kitchen.

How exciting to get a TV and watch Lassie, Lost in Space, The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Sky King and popular westerns like Gunsmoke. Our show choices were limited to CBS, the only network reception we got on our southwestern Minnesota farm. The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite became a favorite as my interest in national and world events and journalism grew.

 

Randy remembers buying a TV here decades ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

 

I’m getting sidetracked here. But all of this traces to recent photos I took of a former TV service shop along Central Avenue in Faribault. I’ve passed by the place many times with the thought of stopping to photograph the vintage signage. Finally, I did, because I’ve learned the hard way that, if you wait too long, the opportunity will be lost. And I do appreciate the art and history of old signs.

 

The front window of the closed TV shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

 

Who remembers Zenith TVs, like those sold at Modern TV Service? Or Sylvania, RCA, Maganox? Companies that once dominated the U.S. television market. I can’t tell you the brand of my childhood TV. But I recall the excitement of getting a television and later watching a color console TV at my dad’s cousin Ruby’s house when we visited the Meier family. What a treat.

 

A few weeks ago I photographed the cloud-studded sky, I also photographed the TV antenna atop our house. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Unlike most people today, Randy and I don’t have cable TV or subscribe to any streaming services. Instead, we still rely on a rooftop antenna for reception on the single television in our house. And, living in a valley, that reception often proves unreliable. Spotty. Affected by weather (especially the wind), by a medical helicopter flying over or nearby, even a vehicle passing on the busy street. I am most frustrated that the public television station typically does not come in on our TV. Oh, well, at least we have a TV and it’s color, right? And let’s not forget the remote control, although I wish every set came with two…

TELL ME: Do you remember a time when you didn’t have a television? Anyone out there old-school like us with reception coming only from a roof-top antenna?

© Copyright 2020 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

 

What I’m drawn to photograph in rural Minnesota January 7, 2020

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One of my favorite Minnesota barns is this especially well-maintained one along a back county road west of New Ulm.

 

I FIND MYSELF, all too often in my on-the-road rural photography, focusing primarily on barns. My eyes gravitate toward these agricultural icons that I fear will vanish within the next 50 years, fallen to abandonment and/or replaced by nondescript cookie cutter metal polesheds. That saddens me. But it is the reality of the times, of the decline of the family farm.

 

Massive polesheds have replaced traditional barns on some farms, including this one along Interstate 90 in southeastern Minnesota.

 

I will continue to photograph these beloved landmarks, symbols of a bygone era of farming. Barns hold personal value to me as a farmer’s daughter. I grew up working in the barn—feeding cows, bedding straw, shoveling manure, lugging pails of still warm milk from cow to bulk tank and much more.

 

An abandoned farmhouse near Morristown, Minnesota.

 

A tiny, colorful house in Morristown, Minnesota.

 

Just blocks away in Morristown, newer homes cluster in a housing development. A tornado hit this area in 2018, destroying and heavily damaging houses.

 

While documenting these centers of farm life, I’ve mostly neglected to photograph the homes of rural Minnesota. They vary from abandoned houses with broken windows to modern-day structures.

 

In southwestern Minnesota, an aged farmhouse so familiar to me.

 

It is the decades-old farmhouses that appeal to me most, no matter their conditions. My childhood home until my early teens was a cramped three-bedroom 1 ½-story house without a bathroom. A hulking oil burning stove in the living room heated the structure. A trap door in the kitchen opened to stairs leading to a dark dirt-floored cellar where salamanders lurked. Mom stashed the bounty of her garden in fruit jars lining plank shelves.

 

A southwestern Minnesota farmhouse.

 

I am thankful to have grown up in a minimalist house, in a poor farm family. We may have been poor materialistically. But our family was rich in love. I never realized until I became an adult that I was raised in near poverty. Because of that background, I’ve never needed the most, the best, the newest.

 

In Kenyon, Minnesota, a brilliant turquoise makes this house stand out.

 

On recent road trips, I intentionally aimed my camera lens at houses. Both in small towns and in the countryside. These are not just houses. They are homes. Or memories of homes. Worthy of preserving with my camera as part of rural Minnesota history.

 

A home in the small town of Morristown, Minnesota.

 

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Celebrating winter, Minnesota style with vintage snowmobiles December 10, 2019

Snowmobiles parked along Central Avenue during the Faribo Sno-Go Club Vintage Snowmobile Show.

 

DECADES AGO, MY COUSIN Kevin roared across the field on his snowmobile with me seated behind, the cold rush of wind stinging my cheeks. About the same time period, my oldest brother also offered me a snowmobile ride, then abandoned me in the gravel pit on our farm. Not the nicest thing to do. But brothers, when they are teens, aren’t always kind to sisters.

 

Mrs. Minnesota United States Courtney Maxwell-Shey of St. Peter (and originally from Faribault, she said) poses next to a trail groomer.

 

Those are my limited snowmobile memories. I’ve never felt the urge since to ask for a snowmobile ride, not that I know anyone with a snow-traversing machine. But plenty of Minnesotans still snowmobile, often in groups, traveling along groomed trails and road ditches and across frozen lakes.

 

Chatting and checking out the snowmobiles.

 

I expect there’s a certain exhilaration in defying winter weather by embracing it. There’s a certain exhilaration, too, in racing across the snow, the power of a machine roaring beneath you. With the high-tech clothing on the market today, the experience is certainly much warmer than 40-plus years ago.

 

Warming up around the fire in low 30-degree temps and a brisk wind, next to the food and beverage tent.

 

This past Saturday, the Faribo Sno-Go Club, established in 1967, hosted a Vintage Snowmobile Show as part of Faribault’s Winterfest. Randy and I arrived well into the event to find only a minimal number of machines displayed, a bit of a disappointment. Still, we appreciated the effort. And I appreciated the trip back down memory lane.

 

Christmas ornaments add a dash of holiday flair to a snowmobile trail groomer.

 

TELL ME: Have you ever ridden on a snowmobile? If yes, I’d like to hear your memorable story.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling