Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Cannon Falls pulls out the flags for President’s visit August 15, 2011

Amy Savvy cleans the windows at Amy's Savvy Seconds, next to the Cannon Falls Chamber of Commerce, on Sunday afternoon in preparation for President Barack Obama's visit.

IN A FEW HOURS, President Barack Obama arrives in small-town Minnesota for the first stop on a Midwest bus tour that will also take him into rural parts of Iowa and Illinois.

The folks in Cannon Falls, a town of some 3,795 in southeastern Minnesota, have rolled out the flags in a patriotic welcome to our nation’s leader.

Throughout the downtown Sunday afternoon, most businesses were displaying American flags in storefront windows. Flags were also posted along the downtown streets. Some homeowners displayed flags in their yards and mini-flags lined at least a block of the roadway leading to Hannah’s Bend Park, site of the President’s visit.

Along the road to Hannah's Bend Park, at least one homeowner had decorated with mini American flags.

An American flag hangs outside Schaffer's Antiques.

A street-side flag in downtown Cannon Falls.

Vintage building signage provides the backdrop for an American flag in this historic river town.

Whether Obama will ever see the many flags in the downtown remains unknown as his route into and out of Cannon Falls remained unofficially unknown to the locals I visited with on Sunday. At least one business owner speculated he would travel U.S. Highway 52 into town, which seems the most likely route.

Warren Schaffer of Schaffer’s Antiques recalled a shutdown along that highway when President Ronald Reagan passed by Cannon Falls.

The last visit by a U.S. President to this Goodhue County town occurred in 1928, when Calvin Coolidge attended the dedication of a statue honoring Col. William Colvill, a Civil War veteran who led the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment during the battle at Gettysburg.

Most Cannon Falls residents likely feel as antique shop owner Schaffer does about Obama’s visit. “He’s the President. This is a little town. This is a big deal.”

A Spanish American flag hangs on a wall inside Schaffer's Antiques. The flag, which shop owner Warren Schaffer thinks likely was a coffin flag, is not for sale. It makes a nice wall decoration, Schaffer says.

A flag in the window of the Cannon River Winery, a busy place on a Sunday.

A shot of Cannon Falls' main drag and a flag in the window of an insurance company.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Cannon Falls prepares for President Obama’s town hall meeting August 14, 2011

Two tents were set up at the entry to Hannah's Bend Park early Sunday afternoon.

I DIDN’T EXPECT TO GET SO CLOSE, to park in the parking lot next to the Cannon Falls Community Pool, stroll across the street and walk down the hill into Hannah’s Bend Park where President Barack Obama will participate Monday morning in a town hall meeting.

But my husband and I walked right into the thick of preparations Sunday afternoon with no questions asked, just like the locals and others who’d arrived by foot, vehicles and on bike to check out the hubbub.

An overview of the south end of Hannah's Bend Park, where President Barack Obama will appear.

One of the many families visiting the park to view the pre-Presidential preparations.

Bikers came to the park to check out the town hall meeting site.

Workers had already set up, or were setting up, picnic tables, tables and chairs, bleachers, fencing, amplifiers, tents and more. They were simply doing what they were told, they said, while pointing out the Secret Service guys in khakis and shades standing along the bank of the Cannon River. Nice guys, they said.

Among the workers were Tom Leonard and his sons, 14-year-old Isaac and 13-year-old Caleb, from Festival Production Services of Lonsdale. As subcontractors for the event, they had erected the press risers and were, when I approached them, finishing up the 8 x 12-foot Presidential stage.

Tom and Isaac Leonard work on the Presidential stage.

Tom Leonard was matter-of-fact about his efforts. “For me, it’s just another gig,” he said. “It’s like anything. It’s work.”

Caleb, however, seemed a bit more impressed with putting together a stage for the President. “It makes me feel kind of important,” he said as he swung a hammer.

Perhaps Tom Leonard’s laid-back attitude comes from having done many Presidential gigs, including an inaugural ball for George W. Bush. Sunday marked just another day on a job that includes rigging up staging for rock-n-roll bands and other customers.

Marilyn and Jeryld Carstensen were in town from St. James and scored two tickets to Monday’s Presidential appearance after getting in line at 4 a.m. Sunday. Their 22-year-old daughter, Regan Carstensen, has been reporting on the Presidential visit for The Red Wing Republican Eagle, so the couple has gotten caught up in the excitement.

Media, including Twin Cities-based Eyewitness News, were in town on Sunday.

Media were already converging on Cannon Falls Sunday afternoon. At Amy’s Savvy Seconds in the downtown business district, Amy Savvy had already done several television interviews and was preparing for another when I came across her cleaning her shop windows.

Amy Savvy cleans the windows at her secondhand shop. She planned to write a message welcoming Obama.

When I returned later, a television crew was inside Amy's Savvy Seconds.

“It’s a historic thing,” Amy said of the President’s Cannon Falls stop. She appreciated the extra business in town and had opened her second-hand store Sunday, and planned to be open again on Monday, days she’s typically closed. She was also working around her grandma’s funeral set for Monday, but figured her grandma would want her to take advantage of the extra traffic downtown.

A few doors down, Warren Schaffer was tending Schaffer’s Antiques, wishing the President would stop in and buy something. I looked around, spotted an eagle and suggested it as a possible Presidential purchase. Warren promptly informed me I was looking at a whiskey bottle.

Calling himself a “middle-of-the-road” guy when it comes to politics, Warren none-the-less shares in the community’s excitement over the Presidential visit. “He’s the President. This is a little town. This is a big deal.”

A street corner in the heart of downtown Cannon Falls.

Downtown Cannon Falls, population, 3,795, had seen a lot of traffic for a Sunday, Warren observed. He expects even more on Monday; his shop will be open on a day when it’s usually shuttered.

Through-out the downtown, most businesses have displayed American flags in storefront windows or outside. At the Cannon River Winery, a sign hangs out front welcoming the President.

A sign welcoming the President hangs on the front of the Cannon River Winery.

American flags, large and small, hang in most storefront windows.

The excitement in Cannon Falls Sunday afternoon was palpable. At Hannah’s Bend Park, my first stop in town, clusters of folks gathered, pointing out the brush that had been cut days earlier from the hillside, pointing toward the area where workers labored to get everything in place for the town hall meeting…

Tom Leonard was still hard at work, jumping up and down on the bleachers, apparently testing their stability. He’ll be back on Monday, taking everything down, moving on to another day, another gig.

Tom Leonard, along with sons Isaac and Caleb, checks the stability of the bleachers.

Speakers awaiting installation at the town hall meeting site.

CHECK BACK for a second blog post featuring photos of American flags displayed in Cannon Falls for the President’s visit.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thanks for the Sputnik memories, Mr. President January 27, 2011

GROWING UP on a southwestern Minnesota dairy farm back in the 1950s and 60s, in the middle of the Cold War, I didn’t know all that much about the Soviet Union, except to fear “the Russians.”

Then along came Sputnik, the Russian satellite, which made quite an impression on my impressionable young mind.

So when President Barack Obama worked Sputnik into his Tuesday night State of the Union address and stated, “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” something niggled in my memory.

That something would be a cat.

Just to make sure I was remembering correctly, I phoned my mom, who quickly assured me that I was right. During my childhood, we had a black-and-brown mixed barn cat called Sputnik.

“I think you kids named it after the Russian satellite,” my mom said.

She was right. My oldest brother and I, enamored with the whole space thing, had named the barn cat with the stump tail (likely sliced off by a mower in the alfalfa field) Sputnik.

I hadn’t thought about that feline in decades, until the President tripped my memory Tuesday evening while referencing Sputnik in his call for American innovation.

Then Wednesday I got caught up even more in the Russian satellite memory when I learned that the President was visiting Manitowoc in eastern Wisconsin. On September 6, 1962, a 20-pound chunk of glowing debris from Sputnik IV plummeted to earth, landing on 8th Street in Manitowoc.

This Wisconsin city celebrates that monumental event every September at Sputnikfest, complete with a Miss Space Debris Pageant, Cosmic Cake Contest, Cosmic Costume Contest, a Sputnik Re-enactment and more.

How space-age cool is that?

The President’s trip to Manitowoc was clearly well-planned and orchestrated to tie in with his Sputnik speech reference. Otherwise why would he have chosen to visit this city of 32,520 southeast of Green Bay? It’s not like he’s a Packers fan, although he received a yellow and green jersey upon his arrival.

This town on the shores of Lake Michigan is also home to several green energy plants, which Obama toured, thus reemphasizing his State of the Union directive to move forward in developing clean energy alternatives.

That all said, thank you, Mr. President, for mentioning Sputnik in your speech. I hadn’t thought about that barn cat in decades.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The President’s speech: salmon, Sputnik and nation-builders January 26, 2011

President Barack Obama in Minneapolis in September 2009.

DID YOU LISTEN to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address? And, if so, what did you think?

I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but the whole speech seemed more lackluster than your typical Presidential annual summary, although Obama certainly tried.

Political commentators attribute the noticeably subdued reaction among attendees to the fact that Republicans and Democrats sat jumbled together rather than each party in its distinct spot. I agree that one would be more hesitant to strongly react to a Presidential statement when seated with members of the opposite party than when sitting with your own crowd.

On to the speech…Obama tried to convince Americans numerous times that our nation is now on the road to economic recovery. “The economy is growing again,” he said at one point.

I see some glimmer of that, but I don’t think the current situation—with the unemployment rate hovering around 9.5 percent—is quite as bright as the President believes.

“America still has the largest most prosperous economy in the world,” Obama told us. Right or not, I don’t know. I hope he’s right, but I’m no economist.

He offered encouraging words: “The future is ours to win…but to get there we can’t just stand still.”

President Obama outlined steps to move our country forward via innovation, investment in education, rebuilding America and controlling spending.

His call for clean energy and improving our infrastructure with a high-speed rail system are nothing new. I’ve heard this all before and, although the ideas are good, I question whether independent “I-love-my-car” Americans will embrace electric cars and high-speed rail. Geographically our country is much larger than nations with successful lightning-speed rail systems. And how, exactly, will this be funded?

“Innovation is how we make our living,” the President said as he defined his first step in building a stronger country.

ONE OF HIS MORE MEMORABLE QUOTES: “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.” Sputnik, for those of you who haven’t a clue, was the first earth-orbited artificial satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. I thought America had its moment when we landed on the moon.

I liked the President’s statement that “…the winner of the science fair needs to be celebrated,” although I find it odd that he compared such recognition to Super Bowl winners. I’ve long thought those who excel in academics deserve the same recognition as those who excel in sports. But I doubt you’re going to change an entire society’s attitude. I mean, will local newspapers devote a whole section to academic achievers like they do to athletes? I wish they did, but it’s not going to happen.

When addressing the topic of education, Obama called for Americans to treat teachers with the same level of respect as teachers in South Korea, who are called “nation-builders.” Yikes. That word choice really, really bothers me. That, in my mind, produces an image of students in uniforms and teachers drilling science and math into students’ heads. I’m sure the President did not mean it that way, but that was my honest, first gut reaction.

As the President discussed streamlining government and curtailing government spending, he informed us that salmon—yes, the fish—are regulated by two government agencies. That drew audience laughter and certainly made the point that reform is needed within government operations.

He proposed a freeze on annual domestic spending for the next five years.

“Our government spends more than it takes in,” Obama said. “That’s not sustainable.”

You think? And how did we get there?

Numerous times the President called for Americans—and specifically politicians—to work together. “We are part of the American family,” he said. “I believe we can, and must, work together.”

Yet, he recognized that differences will always exist and that such differences are part of the foundation of a democracy. “We will argue about everything,” Obama said. I appreciated that the President emphasized that point, that freedom of speech point.

“I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on earth,” our nation’s leader said toward the end of his speech.

Then he cheered one more time: “We do big things.”

And finally: “The state of our union is strong.”

IF YOU HAVE THOUGHTS on the State of the Union address, I’d like to hear them. What did you like or dislike? What did you believe or disbelieve? And how would you describe the state of our union?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A closer look at the U.S. mission in Iraq, from inside Iraq September 8, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:18 AM
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LIKE MANY AMERICANS, I’ve become somewhat apathetic about the war in Iraq. The conflict has dragged on for so long that I’ve lost interest and become more focused on domestic issues such as the depressed economy, high unemployment and the healthcare crisis.

Really, I’m almost ashamed to admit that indifference given I am the daughter of a Korean War veteran and the sister-in-law of two full-time Air Force men, one of whom is currently on his second tour of duty in Iraq. But days, even weeks, pass by when I don’t think much at all about those still serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. I’m just being honest here and I’m not proud of myself.

Yet, with the recent deadline for withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, I took note and wondered exactly how my deployed Air Force brother-in-law feels about the situation.

I e-mailed a list of questions and, as I expected, my relative provided some thoughtful insights from his current home at Joint Base Balad. He emphasized that his comments are solely his and not representative of the U.S. military or the U.S. government.

From his perspective, my brother-in-law seems unimpressed with the big to-do about the “last combat brigades” exiting Iraq. He writes:

To call what used to be “combat brigades” by the new “advise and assist brigades”  moniker is like calling a potato a spud. Spin it any way you want, there has been no real change to the mission. Officially, we’re providing training and support to the Iraqi security forces and police. We no longer lead any offensive missions. That’s pretty much what we’ve been doing for quite some time now!

For him personally, the ongoing draw-down means that as Air Force personnel rotate out of his Iraq assignment, they won’t be replaced at the same level. He’s slated to return to the Midwest in early December.

Next, I asked, “How do you define the results of the U.S. action in Iraq?”

He terms the “democratically” elected government as “very shaky” and “extremely ineffectual” since the elections last March.

One of the problems right now is that a lot of different factions are trying to undermine this fragile government by launching numerous attacks upon the security forces, the police, and even the common citizens. I guess the thought is that the government will not be supported if they can’t even provide for the safety of their own people! Who will be the winner in this mess? Only time will tell.

Whether a prevailing attitude among soldiers or not, my military brother-in-law says he never thought the U.S. could “solve” any problems in Iraq. Rather, he hopes that, as a result of the U.S. mission, life will be better for most people there. However, he adds:

We’ll have to wait around for 20 or 30 years to see how it plays out.

Additionally, he shares this take on Iraq’s future. (Maybe his opinion is nothing new, but I find it interesting.)

I have a personal opinion that Iran will have a great deal of influence in the (Iraqi) government because they are the neighbors and because of a common religion with the majority of Iraqis. China will gain a lot of economic advantages in the oil fields. U.S. companies aren’t investing here because the safety of their workers and security of their equipment and infrastructure cannot be guaranteed. China doesn’t worry about these problems and already has some leases in place; reportedly, they have gotten some real bargains too.

Those comments about China remind me of something my father, who fought on the front lines during the Korean Conflict, once told me. The Chinese, he said, would send 8 to 12-year-old boys out ahead of the troops into the battlefield. At the front of the line, those youth would be the first to fall, exactly as the Chinese soldiers intended. The Chinese main force would then rush into battle, over the nearly dead, screaming boys.

So my brother-in-law’s conclusion that “China doesn’t worry about these problems” touched a nerve with me. Given that observation, it would appear to me that attitudes have changed little in the 57 years since the Korean War ended. Maybe not a fair assumption, but…

China doesn’t worry about these problems….

That scares me.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling