Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

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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