Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Father’s Day reflections on, for, Randy June 18, 2022

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Randy takes a quiet walk along the beach of Horseshoe Lake south of Crosslake. (Minnnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2020)

ON THIS DAY BEFORE FATHER’S DAY, I want to pause and reflect, not on my dad, but on my husband as a father. And a son.

He’s been a dad now for 36 years with an age span of eight years between our eldest daughter and our son in a family of three children. Coming from a large farm family—as the oldest boy of nine siblings—Randy understands the joys, the inner workings, the challenges within families, within life. And while he certainly parents differently than his father, basic core values are generational.

An Allis Chalmers corn chopper like this one exhibited at the 2010 Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show, claimed my father-in-law’s left hand and much of his arm in a 1967 accident. That’s my husband, Randy, who saved his dad’s life by running for help. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2010)

I want to start by reflecting on an incident in Randy’s childhood in which he, undoubtedly, saved his father’s life. On that October day in 1967, Randy rode along with his dad as he chopped corn on the family farm in rural Buckman, Minnesota. Near the far end of the field, the chopper plugged and Tom hopped off the tractor to hand-feed corn into the machine. Along with the corn, his hand was pulled into the spring-loaded rollers. The blades sliced off Tom’s fingers and the rollers trapped his arm.

In that moment, when Randy’s dad screamed in excruciating pain, his 11-year-old son disengaged the power take-off, stopping the machine from causing additional injury and death. Randy then raced along a cow pasture and across swampland to a neighbor’s farm for help. That farm accident ended with the amputation of Tom’s left hand and most of his arm. But his life was spared because of his son’s quick action.

I asked Randy if his dad ever thanked him for saving his life. He never did, he acknowledged. That saddens me and now it’s too late. Tom died in 2021. Had this happened in today’s world, I expect Randy would receive public recognition for his actions. But this story has slipped, unnoticed and unrecognized, into family history.

I’m not surprised that my father-in-law never thanked his son. He was of the generation where displays of affection, of emotions, of gratitude mostly did not happen. That was my experience growing up also. Sure we knew our parents loved us. But they didn’t necessarily express that, although their actions did in their hard work of providing for us.

Randy grinds a flywheel in his job as an automotive machinist. He’s worked in this profession for more than 40 years. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2010)

Randy models hard work, too. But his parenting differs from the prior generation in that his kids, our kids, hear their dad’s words of love and feel it in his hugs and more.

I carry visuals of him sprawled across the living room floor on a Sunday afternoon reading the comics to our girls. I see him, too, playing endless games of Monopoly with the kids or walking up the hill to the park with them. Swinging in the summer, sliding in the winter.

Grandpa and grandchildren follow the pine-edged driveway at the extended family lake cabin. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2020)

In my memory, I see him tailing kids trying to balance on a bicycle without training wheels. I see him hunched over with our eldest daughter, helping her construct an igloo from water softener salt pellets for a first grade assignment. I see him aside our son gazing at the stars. None of these interactions are particularly profound. But they are the moments which comprise life and fatherhood.

My favorite photo of Randy holding our then 10-day-old granddaughter, Isabelle. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2016)

There have certainly been hard moments too—watching our 4-year-old daughter clutch her Big Bird as she walked into a hospital operating room. Or racing down the street where our 12-year-old son was being loaded into an ambulance after he was struck by a car. Randy handled both with inherent calm.

Randy in the suit he selected at St. Clair’s for Men in Owatonna for our eldest daughter’s wedding. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2013)

In their adulthood, Randy has continued to be there for our three grown children. We’ve moved them many times from places in Minnesota to North Dakota to Wisconsin to Indiana. (The son had to do his Boston move on his own.) Randy’s repaired cars, offered advice, always been there. He walked our daughters down the aisle. And now he’s loving on our two grandchildren, extending his fathering skills to the next generation. I love watching him in that role, rooted in his experiences as a father and, before that, as a loving son who 55 years ago saved his father’s life in a central Minnesota cornfield.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflecting on fatherhood June 16, 2017

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My husband and I with our three children, taken last Christmas. Rare are the times now when we are all together given the son lives in greater Boston and one daughter lives nearly six hours distant. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

“HAS YOUR DAD ever thanked you for saving his life?” I asked my husband. I doubted my father-in-law had, yet I had to ask.

“No,” Randy answered.

“You know, if this would have happened today, you would be in the news, considered a hero.” Randy agreed.

Fifty years ago this coming October 21, the then 11-year-old central Minnesota farm boy shut off the power take-off to the corn chopper that trapped his father’s arm. With the power off, Randy then raced across the field to a neighboring farm for help. His actions saved his dad’s life.

Why do I share this story just days before Father’s Day? It is an extreme example of how relationships between fathers and their children have changed. In the 1960s, the time frame in which this accident occurred, the rural men I knew worked long hard hours on the farm. By the time they exited the barn or field, they were too exhausted to interact much with their kids. They worked tirelessly to provide for families that often included a half dozen or more children. Rare were the two-kid families.

It was, too, the norm of the times for men to be distant, uninvolved and unemotional. I remember how I craved any time with my dad that didn’t involve farm work. Taking lunch to him and my Uncle Mike in the field provided some one-on-one contact. So did the few minutes I could grab to show Dad my latest sewing project. And I loved the Sunday afternoon drives our family took to look at crops.

The generation that followed—my generation—started an evolution of change. We were more opinionated, challenging of past stereotypes and undaunted by the past. Farm boys like my husband left the farm for jobs in town. And so the subtle changes in father-child relationships began.

 

A photo of our daughters in 1988.

 

When my husband became a dad 31 years ago, he forged relationships with his two daughters and son early one. Among my fondest memories is that of Randy sprawled on the living room carpet reading the Sunday comics to his children. He also read books and played infinite games of Monopoly with our son. One sweet photo shows him painting his daughter’s toe nails.

 

Watching our son graduate from Tufts University School of Engineering with a bachelor of science degree in computer science. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

Our kids have always known they can count on their dad—to stick on a band-aid, cheer them on at a spelling bee, fix their cars, move them into and out of countless dorm rooms and apartments…

Randy has always been there—through the second daughter’s fitting of a back brace to treat her scoliosis, through the son’s being struck by a car, through the school programs in stuffy auditoriums, through the tears and joys and anguish.

 

My favorite photo of my husband holding our then 10-day-old granddaughter, Isabelle. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2016.

 

I am grateful for the strength my husband exhibits as a father and now a grandfather. Already 50 years ago, on that central Minnesota cornfield, he showed incredible strength by saving his dad’s life. Like his father before him, Randy is often quiet and unemotional. But I see at his core the love he holds for his family. And that is what matters most.

TELL ME: How do you think fatherhood has evolved? What makes a father? Or share a memory.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling