Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

About greeting cards & why I value them May 17, 2023

Among the many retirement cards Randy recently received. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2023)

I’M OLD SCHOOL. I like to give and receive greeting cards. Why? It’s personal. Much more personal than anything sent electronically.

All of the cards in this boxed set are verses I wrote. (Source: Warner Christian Resources)

I also happen to write freelance greeting card verses for a faith-based publishing company in Anderson, Indiana. I’ve done that for years, so long I can’t recall when I started. But I appreciate that Warner Christian Resources (formerly Warner Press) prints the writer’s name on the back of each card. Currently, all the cards in the boxed set, “Sympathy—Classic Condolences,” are printed with verses I penned. Order a box of these 12 cards, four designs (click here), and you’ll read my verses and see my name on the backs of the cards. I have one other card in a 2023 get well collection.

Typically I sell a handful of verses during each annual submission period. So while not particularly lucrative, writing greeting card verses for Warner challenges me. It’s not easy coming up with new ways of delivering a message. Kind of like writing poetry, every creative word counts.

Now back to greeting cards in general. I value them. They require time to choose or craft. They require putting pen to paper to sign and/or add a personal note. They require a stop at the post office or a mailbox if mailed. In other words, greeting cards take time and effort to send or give. And to me, that says something. That someone is thinking about me or I of them. That they care, that I care.

A downward view of some of Randy’s retirement cards. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2023)

Recently, we’ve received an influx of greeting cards, starting with congratulatory wishes for Randy upon his recent retirement (well, sort of retirement as he eases into it by working fewer days each week). When I posted about his retirement, I encouraged you, my readers, to send cards. The many greetings that filled our mailbox humbled us. For Randy to receive cards from blog followers who took the time to choose or craft, sign and send greetings shows me what kind and caring hearts you have. Thank you.

My friend Valerie colored this postcard for me and wrote a get well message on the back. She knows how much I like to hang laundry on the line and how I colored when my vestibular symptoms were the worst. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2023)

Recently, I’ve also received get well cards as I deal with the difficult symptoms of vestibular neuronitis. Anyone who’s ever faced a health challenge understands just how much a card means when you’re not feeling well. Such cards uplift, encourage, show that someone cares about how you’re doing, how you’re feeling. I understand that and try to always mail cards to friends and family who need encouragement.

Lastly, Randy and I celebrated our 41st wedding anniversary on Monday. We’ve received a few cards. Early on in our marriage, we got lots of anniversary cards every May. Now? Not many. Maybe after you’ve been married for as long as us, the thought is not even there to send a card. I have a sister-in-law who considered it weird that I would mail an anniversary card to her and her husband. No matter her opinion, I still send them a card each year.

How about you? Are you old school like me and still appreciate greeting cards? Do you send them, receive them? Or do you prefer to convey wishes in another way, or not at all? I’d like to hear.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Randy is retiring after a long career as an automotive machinist April 26, 2023

My husband at work in the Parts Department, Northfield, machine shop. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2010)

NEARLY A YEAR AGO, RANDY received the devastating news that he would be losing his job of almost 39 years. Boom! Just like that, with no warning of the impending sale of Parts Department, Inc., Northfield, where he worked as the sole automotive machinist. He went to a store meeting one evening and came home with news that the business was sold and the new out-of-state owners were closing the busy and profitable machine shop. A life-long of hard work and dedication unappreciated. That event nearly broke us emotionally, mentally. Stress pressed upon us in those initial months of uncertainty. Randy was not yet full retirement age. How do you even begin to deal with job loss in your mid-sixties?

Here we are, a year later, in a much better place. It took awhile to get there. After marking his final day at NAPA on July 29, 2022, Randy was unemployed for nearly three months. It was a period of adjustment, a time of uncertainty, a time of waiting.

One of several truck loads of shop equipment moved from Northfield to rural Randolph in August 2022. (Photo credit: Randy Helbling)


Then, in mid-October, my husband started working as the automotive machinist at newly-opened Nate’s Machine Shop & Diesel Repair, rural Randolph. Nate bought the equipment from NAPA Northfield. A wise decision given so few people work as automotive machinists and there’s a high demand for the specialized, skilled service. There were a lot of really angry customers when the NAPA shop closed and Randy lost his job. That added to the stress. Randy has always been dedicated to taking care of his customers.


He won’t be doing that much longer, though. He’s transitioning into retirement. And from 4-7 pm this Friday, April 28, Nate’s Garage will host a retirement party for Randy and a grand opening of the machine shop. Randy has been training an apprentice. It takes time, patience and effort to teach someone what you’ve been doing for 43 years. But the reality is that Randy doesn’t want to work forever, even if customers think he should. They will have to trust the new shop guy, Tyler.

Those three months without work caused something to shift inside Randy. He realized that life is about much more than work. And that is the good that came from losing his job. He’s full retirement age now, too, which makes the decision to ease out of his job easier. He no longer feels obligated to be there for his customers.

And it helps that he’s now leaving on his terms, in his time, rather than being shoved out the door.

Before and after cylinder head cleaning process. (Photo credit: Randy Helbling)


It’s time to be done with long work weeks of physically demanding labor that have taken a toll on his body. He’s been working full-time since graduating from the auto mechanics, auto parts and auto parts management programs at Brainerd Vocational Technical School in 1976. He started in auto parts, at a store in Rochester, eventually relocating to Faribault. There he learned automotive machining. After a short stint in Owatonna, Randy accepted a job with NAPA Northfield, growing a customer base that stretches across the country. He grew to become one of the best in his field in southern Minnesota.

If you do the math, that’s 47 years of working full-time in the automotive field, plus the time he worked while at Brainerd Vo-Tech. So let’s just round the number to 50.

I am incredibly proud of my talented and hardworking husband. He possesses a strong work ethic and is devoted to great customer service. He’s old school that way. I’ve witnessed him solve problems that others can’t. He’s really good at what he does and he deserves to be celebrated. And thanked.

The service door entry to the machine shop at Parts Department, Northfield. Randy really wanted that machine shop sign, given he worked there for nearly 40 years. He asked, but… (Photo credit: Randy Helbling)


I welcome your presence at his retirement party (note, he won’t arrive until around 5 pm). I welcome your congratulatory messages in the comments section here. And I invite you to send him a congratulatory card the old-fashioned way, via snail mail. I want Randy to be recognized, honored, celebrated for 50 years of selfless service to others. He deserves the accolades. I want him to feel the gratitude, the love. He’s worked hard all of his life. And now it’s time for Randy to rest, to do what he wants, when he wants.

Randy’s NAPA automotive machine shop toolbox. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2010)

FYI: Nate’s Garage is located at 1471 310th Street Way, Cannon Falls. The shop is two miles south of Randolph along State Highway 56. Food and beverages will be provided by the R-Bar. The celebration is from 4-7 pm. Again, Randy won’t arrive until @ 5pm and I’ll be there if I’m feeling well enough to attend.

PLEASE CLICK HERE to read a previous post about Randy’s work as an automotive machinist, which is different from machining.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A Baby Boomer’s personal look at inflation July 15, 2022

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Nearly 16 gallons of gas cost $64 on May 22, 2022 in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

BACK ON MAY 22, gas cost $4.10/gallon here in Faribault. As the numbers on the pump scrolled up, finally locking at $64.50 for nearly 16 gallons, I felt a tinge of anxiety. My husband, Randy, commutes some 30 miles round trip to work in nearby Northfield. And at a time when he’d just learned that his job of 39 years would be cut at the end of August due to new corporate ownership, saving money was foremost on my mind. Still is.

Pumping out way too much money for gas… (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Today I almost laugh at my reaction to that May pump price. Since then, gas prices have risen even higher to $4.73 in early June, now down slightly and holding steady at $4.69. Recent media reports, however, indicate fuel prices will continue to drop with the average national price currently at $4.63/gallon.

And I thought these late May 2022 gas prices were high. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I haven’t done the math on how much more Randy’s commute is costing him this year. I do know, though, that I think twice now about out-of-town trips. Casual Sunday afternoon drives or drives simply to explore neighboring communities are mostly non-existent. It’s helped also that, since my mom’s death in January, we no longer need to travel 240 miles round trip to my native southwestern Minnesota. Not that gas expense would ever have been a consideration in visiting her.

Farm fresh eggs from a friend. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2016)

And then there’s the cost of groceries. I consider myself a price savvy shopper who buys mostly basics, avoiding convenience foods. We eat simply and aim for healthy. But the price of chicken, our meat of choice, has skyrocketed as has the price of eggs. I cringe every time I see the grocery bill and feel thankful that I’m buying for only two rather than a family. One item I refuse to give up is the 4.4 ounces of dark chocolate (five individual servings) priced at $1.99. It’s my sole indulgence.

Dining out is, for us, an occasional treat. I can’t justify the expense when I consider the multiple meals I could prepare for the price of two restaurant servings. Recently, while vacationing in the central Minnesota lakes region, we ordered appetizers and two drinks at a channel-side restaurant. That cost us $47, tip included. When I remarked on the cost, Randy reminded me that we were on vacation. Still…

As we dined on that waterside restaurant lawn, I observed that plenty of people likely hold no money concerns. Pontoons and other expensive-looking boats glided in and out of dock slips at a steady pace. I felt a bit out of place here, our rusting 2005 mini van parked in the nearby crammed parking lot among all the newer vehicles. Our lives seem vastly different from those boaters and other diners.

Our modest Faribault home, paid off many years ago. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2020)

Yet, despite the economic disparities, I feel grateful. We are debt-free. We own a house. We are now both on Medicare, a mega financial savings after forking out some $20,000 annually in recent years for health insurance premiums for insurance we couldn’t use because of high deductibles.

I try not to dwell on the numbers in our retirement accounts, which show a loss of some $30,000 in the first half of 2022. It’s disheartening, especially as we close in on retirement. Our investment advisor advises us to hang in there, that the market will rebound. We don’t necessarily have the luxury of time. But at least we have retirement and personal savings accounts and are not struggling to pay bills like many Americans.

In all of this, I also feel thankful that Randy and I both grew up poor. Our approach to life and to finances is mostly similar. We don’t need the biggest, best, newest, because we’ve never had the biggest, best, newest. But we’ve always had enough.

TELL ME: What’s your approach to finances and inflation? Are you doing anything to cut costs?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Marking 35 years as an automotive machinist in Northfield October 3, 2018

Randy at work in the NAPA machine shop in Northfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


MORE AND MORE, Randy hears the question, “When are you retiring?”

Not because people want him to retire. But because customers worry that he will retire before he completes work for them.

Today marks 35 years since my husband became the automotive machinist at Parts Department, Inc., Northfield, aka NAPA. He’s been in the profession even longer, beginning first as a parts man in Montana, Rochester and Faribault before shifting to automotive machining in Faribault, then Owatonna and for the long term in Northfield.


Randy grinds a flywheel. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Thirty-five years. It’s a long time to work in one place turning brake rotors, resurfacing heads, grinding valves and flywheels, and doing a multitude of other automotive machining tasks I don’t understand. He’s a skilled tradesman, a pro whose work is in high demand. Few do what Randy does. Because of that and his exceptional skills, he’s in high demand. Locally, regionally and beyond.


Randy’s toolbox. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


I’m proud of Randy. He is smart, talented and driven to do the best he can for his customers. He works hard. He works long days—up until a few years ago six days a week. And up until last year, he had only 10 days of vacation annually. Now he gets twenty.


Just one example of all the work that awaits Randy in the NAPA automotive machine shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


His farm upbringing instilled in him a strong work ethic. That and the cost of health insurance will keep him from retiring for a few years yet. Hopefully his back and his feet will hold out. I’ve seen the physical toll of a labor intensive, on-your-feet job.

For now Randy’s customers need not worry. He has no plans for immediate retirement. But good luck finding someone to do their machining work after he retires…hopefully in a few years.

PLEASE JOIN ME in congratulating Randy on 35 years as the automotive machinist at NAPA in Northfield.

Click here to read a post I wrote about Randy on this 30-year anniversary.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


I’ve never met Garrison Keillor, but… June 8, 2011

SO, HOW WOULD YOU feel if a photo you took was incorporated into a video/slide show narrated by Garrison Keillor?

Would you slip on your red shoes, lace up the laces and dance a polka?

Since I don’t own red shoes like Keillor and I don’t polka, I enthused to my husband repeatedly about my stroke of luck. I haven’t really boasted to anyone else. We don’t do that sort of thing here in Minnesota. But, I thought maybe I could tell a few of you. A photo I shot of winter on the Minnesota prairie is part of a video/slideshow narrated by our state’s most famous storyteller.

Now, how does this happen to a blogger like me who happily blogs along each day with words and photos from Minnesota, without a thought, not a single thought, that Keillor may someday come into my life. Well, I didn’t exactly meet him and I haven’t exactly spoken to him, but…

A MONTH AGO, Chris Jones, director of the Center for Educational Technologies at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, commented on my January 7, 2010, blog post, “Wind and snow equal brutal conditions on the Minnesota prairie.” He was inquiring about using my photo of winter on the prairie in a video/slideshow for retiring President R. Judson Carlberg and his wife, Jan.

Typically I do not personally respond to comments via email. I am cautious that way, protective of my email address and of anybody out there who may not have my best interests in mind. So I didn’t, just like that, snap your fingers, fire off a response to Jones. First I sleuthed. Honestly, I had never heard of Gordon College and I sure can’t spell Massachusetts.

Here’s what I learned from the college’s website: “Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, is among the top Christian colleges in the nation and the only nondenominational Christian college in New England. Gordon is committed to excellence in liberal arts education, spiritual development and academic freedom informed by a framework of faith.”

I am Lutheran and that all sounded conservative enough for me.

So I emailed Jones, with several questions. You really didn’t expect me to not have questions, did you? I asked Mr. Gordon College guy: “Could you explain to me the nature of this video, which photo you are interested in using and where this video will be shown?”

That’s when he dropped Garrison Keillor’s name as the video/slideshow narrator. Sure. Yeah. Use my photo. Wherever. Whenever. Fine with me. Credit me and Minnesota Prairie Roots, send me a link to the completed video and allow me to blog about this and we’ve got a deal.

And so we did. Have a deal. After I promised not to publicly share the video with you. Sorry, I wish I could because it’s an entertaining media presentation, but I gave my word.

I also gave my word that I would make it clear to you, dear readers, that Garrison Keillor doesn’t just go around every day narrating surprise media presentations for college presidents’ retirement parties.

He met Jud and Jan Carlberg on a cruise. They struck up a friendship and, later, when the college was planning the video/slideshow, a Gordon writer “thought boldly, imagining this as a wonderful surprise for the Carlbergs, and started making inquiries,” Paul Rogati, Gordon’s CET multimedia designer, shared in a follow-up email. “When Mr. Keillor agreed to record the narration, the script was written for his style of monologue, with a reference to the winters on the prairies of Minnesota. Your image was a perfect match.”

"The photograph," taken along Minnesota Highway 30 in southwestern Minnesota.

And that is how my photo taken in January 2010 along Minnesota Highway 30 in southwestern Minnesota became connected to Garrison Keillor.

My prairie picture is one of many, many, many images incorporated into this retirement tribute to a “tall Scandinavian scholar from Fall River, Massachusetts” who was inaugurated as Gordon’s seventh president “in a swirling March blizzard” in 1993.

Yes, the whole piece is pure “A Prairie Home Companion” style and it’s a pleasure listening to Keillor’s silken voice glide across the words penned by authors Jo Kadlecek and Martha Stout.

The monologue opens like Keillor’s radio show, but “on Coy Pond on the campus of Gordon College.” It is a pond which “sometimes freezes up solid enough to go ice fishing on,” Keillor professes. And “there are rumors of an ice fishing shack being built” by the retired president with more time on his hands.

Several other references are made to Minnesota in a presentation that mixes humor with factual information about the Carlbergs’ 35-year tenure at Gordon, a “college which includes Lutherans” and which offers students off-campus experiences in places like the Minnesota prairie.

Then, finally, at the end of the video, the Carlbergs are invited to “sometime come up to the prairies of Minnesota to see what winter is all about.” A snippet of my photo appears on the screen, slowly panning out to show the full winter prairie landscape frame.

I’m not sure which the Carlbergs will do first in their retirement—sneak past Gordon College security and park an ice fishing shack on Coy Pond or visit southwestern Minnesota in winter, where, no doubt, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.”


WHEN (not if) the Carlbergs travel to Minnesota in the winter, they will also see scenes like this on the southwestern Minnesota prairie:

An elevator along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

The sun begins to set on the Minnesota prairie.

Barns abound in the agricultural region of southwestern Minnesota, this one along U.S. Highway 14.

A picturesque farm site just north of Lamberton in Redwood County, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling