Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thoughts from Minnesota after the Halloween Day terrorist attack in NYC October 31, 2017

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Assorted squash in Hayfield, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, October 2016


AT THE KITCHEN COUNTER, I position the knife across the squash, pushing hard to slice through the tough skin. When that effort fails, I thwack the squash against the cutting board, splitting the garden fresh produce in half.



As I work, the television blares a news conference from the living room. I sprinkle sea salt and grind fresh pepper onto the squash, add pinches of brown sugar and dabs of butter. In between I strain to hear the words of public officials talking about the latest terrorist attack, this time in my country, in Lower Manhattan in New York City.

Far removed from Minnesota, this attack still hits home. A bike path. A school bus. The selected weapon of terror—a rental truck from The Home Depot. Ordinary. Everyday. Unexpected. People just going about their daily routines. On Halloween afternoon.

As details unfold, I hear of eight dead and a dozen or more injured, bikers and pedestrians plowed down on that bike path. And then that school bus, with two adults and two children inside also struck by the rental truck.

Now he’s in custody, a 29-year-old suspect labeled as a terrorist. Shot. Hospitalized. Under investigation.

Back in my Minnesota kitchen, I slide the pan of squash into the oven. Soon the scent of autumn permeates my home. The TV still blares. And I think of family on the East Coast, although not in NYC. I grab my cell phone and text I love you! Happy Halloween! to my son in Boston. At times like this, I want nothing more than to hold close those dearest to me.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Thoughts following an attack at a Central Minnesota mall September 20, 2016

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A vehicle travels along Interstate 90 near La Crosse in the rain Friday morning. Fog shrouds the bluffs in grey.

A vehicle travels along Interstate 90 near La Crosse, on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi River, in the rain Friday morning. Fog veils the river bluffs.

WHEN FOG DESCENDS, shrouding the landscape in a veil of grey, the value of light magnifies.

Our eyes search for light.

We look for ways to banish the grey, to illuminate our world. We want desperately to find the light and to hold it high.

Events of the past weeks have shaded our skies grey here in Minnesota—first with the discovery of Jacob Wetterling’s remains and now the stabbings of 10 individuals at Crossroads Center in St. Cloud in what appears to be a possible act of lone wolf terrorism.

That both of these major crimes happened some five miles apart in Central Minnesota is pure coincidence. But it is not lost on me that the kidnapping of 11-year-old Jacob nearly 27 years ago and the mall attack on Saturday evening are in the backyard of Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon.

I like to think that Lake Wobegon—the region in which some of my in-laws live—is a pastoral setting of grazing cows, church spires and old-timers playing cards at the Chatterbox Cafe. It is and it isn’t. In today’s world, no place, not even Central Minnesota, is safe.

Even so, we Minnesotans are a strong, determined and resilient lot. We will, through the greyness of these days, search for the light of goodness and of hope. Of that I am certain.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A threat that strikes incredibly close to home February 26, 2015

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IT’S A BIT LIKE THE ELEPHANT in the room. Do I write about it or not? To avoid the topic seems akin to closing my eyes and pretending I don’t see that which exists.

“It” would be the terrorist threat against the Mall of America.

I live 45 minutes from the mall, which the Somali terror group al-Shabab specifically names as a possible target for attack in a video released this past weekend.

Tucked away in the north land, most Minnesotans likely have felt secure here, far removed from such terrorist threats.

But I’ve always thought this mega shopping center in Bloomington could be a target for attack by terror groups or individual extremists.

Consider the name, Mall of America. “Mall” represents commerce and trade and, probably in the eyes of those who dislike Americans, consumer greed. And the “America” part of the mall’s name, well, that’s a bonus. Precisely the place these terrorists hate.

The Mall of America draws some 40 million visitors annually. With its 520 plus stores, 50 restaurants, LEGO play area, aquarium, theme park, movie theaters and more, the complex is one of the world’s top tourist destinations, according to the MOA website. Perfect target.

I’ve never been to the mall. I simply have no desire to visit. So, for me personally, I don’t need to consider whether I would feel safe going there now.

But for those planning a trip here, this threat certainly must weigh on minds, consciously or subconsciously. Northfield Middle School recently canceled an eighth grade band trip to the mall. The Orono Middle School likewise canceled a physics class visit.

How about you? If you had a daughter or granddaughter who is crazy about the American Girl doll, would you now take her to the MOA American Girl store?

Would you celebrate a child’s birthday at Nickelodeon Universe®?

Would you tour SEA LIFE® Minnesota Aquarium?

Would you see “American Sniper” in a mall theater?

A friend’s daughter works at MOA. You can bet both mom and daughter now carry a level of concern. Who wouldn’t?

The ever-changing/growing diversity of Faribault High School as seen in this post commencement gathering outside the school.

This photo shows the ever-growing diversity in my community as seen in this gathering after Faribault High School’s 2012 commencement. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

And I have to wonder about Minnesota’s Somali population. Do they now feel like they are under scrutiny? My own community of Faribault has a significant Somali population. Even before this threat, tension has existed here between some long-time locals and these newest immigrants. I hope this current situation does not heighten tensions.

I have to trust that Minnesota Nice will prevail.

Al-Shabab has also successfully recruited young Somali men in Minnesota to join its cause. That’s already been a major cause for concern among officials and those in the state’s Somali population.

I have to believe that most Minnesotans will stand sensibly strong and watchful in the face of this latest threat.


© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Remembering 9/11 in Faribault, Minnesota September 11, 2011

WE CAME. We listened. We prayed. We remembered.

This afternoon my husband and I were among perhaps 100 individuals who gathered outside the county courthouse at the Rice County Veterans Memorial in Faribault to remember September 11, 2001.

A view of the crowd in front of the Rice County Courthouse and veterans memorial.

WW II veteran George DeLay, among those in attendance, waits on the courthouse steps for the program to begin.

As traffic whizzed by on busy Fourth Street, aging veterans stood or sat, their heads bowed in quiet contemplation.

Representatives of local law enforcement and emergency personnel stood attentively.

Six-year-old Dakota, son of Faribault American Legion Post 43 Commander and Desert Storm veteran Kirk Mansfield, perched on his mother Paula’s lap on the courthouse steps clutching an American flag. Too young to have lived through this day, he is learning about 9/11 from his parents, from ceremonies like those held today.

We are all still learning, experiencing and understanding how that attack on our nation 10 years ago has affected us, changed our thinking, our perspectives on life.

“Freedom is our greatest asset and our greatest export,” former Sheriff Richard Cook, who has been active in expanding the veterans’ memorial, said. “Freedom will live and flourish.”

Veteran and chaplain Roger Schuenke led the crowd in prayer: “May the faith of our fathers guide, protect and sustain our people.”

But it was the names read by Kirk Mansfield and American Legion Auxiliary representative Louise Flom that most impacted me, that caused me to pause, to settle onto the lawn of the courthouse with my camera in my lap and to listen, just listen, instead of photographing the scene.

For nearly 10 minutes the pair read the names of 94 Minnesotans who have been killed in action since 9/11:

Chester W. Hosford of Hastings, Corey J. Goodnature of Clarks Grove, Brent W. Koch of Morton, Randy W. Pickering of Bovey, Edward J. Herrgott of Shakopee, Andrew J. Kemple of Cambridge…

Familiar names, like Jesse M. Lhotka of Alexandria (originally from Appleton), David F. Day of  Saint Louis Park (originally from Morris) and Jason G. Timmerman of Cottonwood/Tracy—all National Guard members killed on February 21, 2005, in Iraq, and whose families I interviewed several years ago for a feature published in Minnesota Moments magazine.

I remembered how speaking with Lhotka’s widow had been one of the most emotionally-challenging interviews I’d ever done in my journalism career.

This I thought as Commander Mansfield and Flom read for nearly 10 minutes. Ninety-four men whose families grieve.

This is how I remembered 9/11 today, by honoring those who have given their lives for freedom.

Veterans' names are engraved in pavers edging the Rice County Veterans Memorial, the site of today's ceremony.

Some of the 20-plus veterans who stood in a line flanking the memorial.

Jim Kiekeknapp, who served in Vietnam, played taps.

Dakota with him mom, Paula, watched from the courthouse steps.

WW II veterans Bill Korff and past commander of the local Legion came in his wheelchair.

A veteran's salute.

AND THEN ON THE WAY HOME from the courthouse, I stopped at the Faribault Fire Department to photograph the memorial there honoring the New York City firefighters who died in the Twin towers.

A memorial at the Faribault Fire Department, where a short service was also held this morning.

The Faribault firefighters pay special tribute to the fallen New York firefighters on their memorial sign.

TO BACKTRACK EVEN FURTHER in my day, when my husband and I were at a local nursing home leading a morning church service, I insisted that the eight of us gathered there sing “America, the Beautiful.”

I found verse 3 especially fitting for this day when we as Americans pause in our lives to remember September 11, 2001:

“O beautiful for heroes proved

In liberating strife,

Who more than self their country loved,

And mercy more than life!

America! America! May God thy gold refine

Till all success be nobleness

And every gain divine!”

Six-year-old Dakota and others in attendance perused the veterans' pavers after the ceremony.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling