Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Chauncey, a Civil War soldier June 4, 2011

The grave of Chauncey Swartwoudt at the Cannon City Cemetery.

THE NAME ON HIS TOMBSTONE is barely readable as my husband, Randy, struggles to decipher the letters that form “Chauncey Swartwoudt.”

I like how the name rolls off my tongue—the Chauncey part at least. I’m unsure how to pronounce his surname.

He means nothing to me. His is just another tombstone marked by an American flag, among many in a Minnesota country cemetery.

A close-up of Chauncey's tombstone, decorated for Memorial Day.

Yet, because of the size of this grave marker and the rectangular border surrounding it, I am drawn to this spot in the Cannon City Cemetery on Memorial Day.

When I lean in close, I discover more. Or, more accurately, Randy uncovers a veteran’s star with difficult-to-read words. He decodes “The Grand Army of the Republic.” GAR equals veterans of the Union Army who served in the Civil War.

Randy pulls back foliage to reveal a GAR star with words that are barely readable and a design that we can't clearly see. Does anyone know what design graces the center of these old GAR stars?

Chauncey was mustered into the military on August 8, 1862, at the age of 22. He served as a Union Army private with Company C, Sixth Minnesota Volunteer Regiment. Two years, one month and three days later, on September 11, 1864, at the age of 24, he died at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri.

He was a soldier, the son of Henry and Catherine and brother of Charles. (He may have  had other siblings, but my quick research reveals only Charles.)

Nine years after Chauncey’s death, on March 15, 1873, Charles and Elizabeth Swartwoudt named their new-born son after his uncle. Little Chauncey lived only three years.

This is all I know about the elder Chauncey who fought in the Civil War, who died far from his Minnesota home. A young man of only 24, his entire life ahead of him.

Why did he die?

Detailed artwork, in the form of a cannon and cannonballs are engraved on Chauncey's tombstone.

Why is a cannon, with stacked cannonballs, etched into the cold stone of his grave marker? I’ve visited many Minnesota cemeteries and never seen such detailed art on the marker of a Civil War soldier.

It’s not like I should care. I have no connection to Chauncey. Yet I do care. He was a soldier, a son, a brother. I am a mother and a sister. He came home in a box. And a mother wept.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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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

 

 

Remembering my soldier-father and Elizabeth Taylor March 24, 2011

WHEN I HEARD the news on Wednesday of Elizabeth Taylor’s death, I didn’t think of the Hollywood star or the two-time Oscar winner, the stunning beauty with the violet eyes or the woman who married eight times, or even the starlet who struggled with addiction and was a crusader in the fight against AIDS.

Rather, I thought of my dad.

He was smitten with Liz.

He never met the Hollywood actress. But he had seen her on a United Service Organizations stage while serving during the Korean Conflict. That was enough for my Minnesota farmer turned-soldier dad to fall for her. Hard. I don’t recall him ever, in his life-time, talking about another actress. He had eyes only for Elizabeth.

His wasn’t an obsession. Nothing like that. It’s just that he seldom talked about his time on the front lines as a foot solider during the Korean War. He told us about the orphans begging for food across barbed wire fences, the sniper (he eventually killed) picking off members of his platoon, watching his buddy blown up the day before he was to return home to the States, the cold and lack of food, the digging into foxholes for protection…and then Elizabeth Taylor, dear, dear Liz.

I expect that the movie star offered a welcome and pleasant diversion for soldiers who faced death on a daily basis.

My father, Elvern Kletscher, on the left with two of his soldier buddies in Korea.

If my dad was still alive—he died eight years ago at the age of 72—I would ask him about the woman who enamored him with her beauty when she stepped onto Korean soil to entertain the troops. I don’t know details about her USO appearance. I wish I had cared enough to ask him.

I tried to find more information online, but Taylor’s USO tours don’t exactly pop up all over the Internet. She once received the USO Woman of the Year Award and won a USO Merit Award. Otherwise I didn’t find much out there.

And that is dismaying to me. Her time entertaining our servicemen, soldiers like my dad, seems as notable as her roles in Cleopatra or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

For me, Elizabeth Taylor will always be more than just another actress. She will be a reminder of my father, of the young Minnesota soldier who was struck by shrapnel at Heartbreak Ridge in Korea and was awarded the Purple Heart 47 years later. It is his memories of Liz that define her to me, not her beauty, not her accolades, not her anything except the temporary escape she gave my soldier-father nearly 60 years ago from the battlefields of Korea, from the horrors of war.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling