Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Memorial Day 2020, adapted, from southern Minnesota May 26, 2020

A star marks a veteran’s grave in the Cannon City Cemetery, rural Faribault.

 

THE RADIO PLAYED in the background as I washed dishes Memorial Day morning. I listened to honored veterans speak of the war dead and freedom and why the American flag is folded 13 times. I listened to the local Legion leader read the names of all county veterans who died in the past year. Well over one hundred. And I heard, too, the honking of horns as attendees at my community’s annual Memorial Day program in Central Park “applauded.”

 

This flag pole sits just inside the entrance to the Cannon City Cemetery.

 

COVID-19 changed so many traditions this year—including here in Faribault. There was no parade, no ceremony at the Rice County Veterans’ Memorial, no lunch at the Legion. Only the traditional program continued in the park, but with attendees sheltered inside their vehicles. Others, like me, listened at home to the live broadcast on KDHL radio.

 

U.S. Army Cpl. Elvern Kletscher, my father, in the trenches in Korea, Minnesota Prairie Roots photo 1952.

 

And, as I listened, I thought of my dad, an infantryman in the Korean War. I thought, too, of his buddy Ray, killed by a mortar. Dad saw his friend die. Dad, who died 17 years ago, carried that grief and the horrors of war with him. He suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, undiagnosed until decades after he left Korea.

 

Flags decorate veterans’ graves in Cannon City.

 

I continued washing dishes while the radio played. But when taps sounded, I stopped. To cry. Thinking of my dad. Missing him. The playing of taps often moves me into a place of grief for all the lives lost in war.

 

A past Memorial Day gathering at the Cannon City Cemetery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Later, Randy and I drove to the Cannon City Cemetery where, on a typical Memorial Day, we would attend a program under the cedar trees. We’ve grown to love this grassroots gathering of rural folks who honor the war dead with music and poetry and inspirational readings. But, because of COVID-19, that event was canceled, too.

 

Rhody Yule’s grave marker.

 

The tombstone of a Civil War soldier buried in the Cannon City Cemetery.

 

And so we roamed among the tombstones, pausing at the flag-marked graves of soldiers, including that of our friend Rhody.

 

I love this serene scene of a bird on a simple woven fence edging the cemetery.

 

Birds chirped.

 

One tombstone features a barn on one side, a tractor on the other.

 

Such beauty in this rural cemetery, from setting to nature’s details.

 

Inside and outside cemetery boundaries, the rural-ness of this place prevails in art. Natural and man-made. I delighted in that.

 

A dove on an aged tombstone brings thoughts of peace.

 

A single white rose, signifying everlasting love, lies on the bench marker for Kevin Kanne. Beautiful.

 

Tombstone art that drew my eye and reminded me of Psalm 23.

 

And the wind, which typically whips on this hillside cemetery, remained still, as if it also understood the need for calm, for reflection, for peace in the storm of COVID-19.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Veterans’ Day: Grief in a shoebox November 11, 2012

IT IS BUT A SINGLE SLIP of paper, creased and yellowing with age. Yet, it is so much more. The words typed thereon, 59 years ago, hold heartache and honor and memories of my soldier father and his buddy.

My father shipped home from Korea into the welcoming arms of family.

Cpl. Ray W. Scheibe shipped home from Korea in a box, to a grieving family.

The third section of the memorial service bulletin my soldier dad carried home from Korea.

It’s all there, on that piece of paper, a memorial service bulletin dated July 31, 1953, Sucham-dong, Korea. My father folded that paper into quarters, carried it across the ocean and across the country and back home to southwestern Minnesota and then tucked his grief inside a shoebox.

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

Cpl. Ray William Scheibe lost his life in Korea June 2, 1953, when he was hit by a round of mortar fire, according to information received from a buddy. He was a member of an infantry unit and was on patrol duty at the time of his death.—from The Wolbach Messenger, Thursday, July 23, 1953.

Sgt. Elvern Kletscher, my father, witnessed the horrific death of Ray, who was due to ship out the next day. Back in tiny Wolbach, Nebraska, Ray’s wife, Marilyn, and their 3-month-old daughter, Terri Rae, waited.

The memorial service bulletin lists the names of those soldiers who died, including Ray Scheibe.

Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13—scripture quoted in the memorial service folder dated July 31, 1953, Sucham-dong, Korea.

An in-ground marker honors my father, Elvern Kletscher, a Korean War veteran and recipient of the Purple Heart for wounds he suffered at Heartbreak Ridge in Korea. My father did not receive his Purple Heart until 2000.

This Veterans’ Day let us remember, always, those who have served and are serving.

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

The cover of the 1953 memorial service folder from Korea.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Memorial Day at Cannon City May 30, 2011

About 30 people gather at the Cannon City Cemetery for an afternoon Memorial Day observance.

IN THE SHELTER of the spruce, of the pines, we formed a semi circle, clustered together in this small country cemetery to honor the veterans buried here, 22 of them from the Civil War.

Ezekiel and Samuel. Spencer and Charles. Henry and Theodore. Emcee Mel Sanborn read the list of names as the wind whipped his words into sometimes inaudible, unintelligible syllables at the Cannon City Cemetery.

Since the late teens or early 1920s, folks have gathered in this Rice County cemetery every Memorial Day, initially called “Decoration Day,” to honor the war dead. Civil War veteran Elijah Walrod was quoted as saying that his son Luther “would strike up the Death March and lead the procession” from the nearby Cannon City School, along the country road to the cemetery.

School children—some of them in attendance at the 2011 Memorial Day observance—once marched with flags and flower bouquets and lilac wreaths and then, afterward, celebrated at the school picnic.

When the school closed in the 1960s, the Cannon City Cemetery Board took over the annual Memorial Day observance, a tradition that continues today, minus the Death March from the country school. It is an unpretentious, informal program that is touching and moving and heartfelt. Americana through and through.

My husband and I came here on this muggy afternoon to experience a small-town Memorial Day observance. We were the strangers among those who had grown up here and had loved ones buried in this ground butted against the rich black soil of farm fields.

Yet, we were welcomed like family and I felt as if I had stepped back in time to the Memorial Day observances of my youth—the days of patriotic songs and playing of taps and reading of “In Flanders Fields.” I mouthed the words silently: “In Flanders Fields the poppies grow between the crosses row on row…” These poetic lines I knew nearly from heart, having recited them as a young girl on the stage of the Vesta Community Hall some 125 miles from this cemetery.

As Don Chester strummed his guitar and clamped his harmonica, we sang “My country, ‘Tis of Thee” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and other patriotic songs.

Bob (didn't get his last name) sings as Don and Judy Chester lead the group in song. Bob attended Cannon City School and participated in Memorial Day programs here as a student.

Song sheets were handed out to attendees. Here Mel Sanborn sings "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

When Steve Bonde blasted “The Star Spangled Banner” on his trumpet, we sang along, turned toward the flag at the cemetery entrance, the brass quelling voices that drifted away with the word-flogging wind.

It mattered not how well or how loudly the 30 or so of us sang. It mattered not that a young girl darted inside the semi circle to pluck a dandelion from the grass. It mattered not that the occasional airplane droned out our voices. We were focused on the songs, “The Gettysburg Address” read by Audrey Sanborn Johnson, and, finally, Bonde’s mournful playing of taps.

Long-time Cannon City resident Bob respectfully removes his cowboy hat during the playing of taps, a tribute that moves me to tears.

When the final note ended, the small group drifted, scattering across the cemetery to visit the graves of loved ones. I wandered, drawn by American flags to the final resting places of veterans. Names I did not know in an unfamiliar cemetery I was walking for the first time.

After the program, attendees visited gravesites.

Yet, despite the unfamiliarity with this place or these people, I felt connected to them by the reason I was here—to reflect upon the sacrifices made by so many American men and women in defense of our freedom. America. Land of the free and home of the brave.

A flag waves in the wind on a soldier's grave.

A star marks a veteran's tombstone.

Can anyone explain the symbolism of these clasped hands on a veteran's grave?

A flag marks the entrance to the Cannon City Cemetery.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The veterans of Vesta

A flag placed on a veteran's grave at the Vesta Cemetery in southwestern Minnesota.

EARTH MEETS SKY HERE.

On this Memorial Day weekend, I have come to this hilltop cemetery outside of my hometown of Vesta in southwestern Minnesota to remember.

I walk the rows, between the tombstones, lean in close, read the names, memories only a thought away.

My focus is on my father and the other veterans buried here whose names I know, whose stories of war I will never fully know.

An in-ground marker honors my father, Elvern Kletscher, a Korean War veteran and recipient of the Purple Heart for wounds he suffered at Heartbreak Ridge in Korea.

How did they feel leaving family and farm? Were they scared? Were they honored to serve their country? Did they yearn for home as they shouldered their weapons? Did they leave as boys, come home as men? Were they scarred by war, forever changed?

I wondered as strong prairie winds whipped flags attached to white wooden crosses. So many flags. So many graves of men who’ve served.

If only I’d asked them to tell me their stories, these men whom I’d never thought of as soldiers, until I saw their graves marked by crosses and stars and American flags.

The local American Legion marks veterans' graves with white crosses.

Barb Schmidt teaches her grandchildren about their ancestors as they place flowers on the graves of loved ones Saturday evening at the Vesta Cemetery.

Set atop a hill, the wind catches the flags marking vets' graves.

I was surprised by the number of veterans buried in the Vesta Cemetery, their graves marked by small flags attached to white crosses. This photo shows only one small portion of the graveyard.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling