Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Not your typical Valentine’s Day story February 14, 2020

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.

That memorable quote from the movie Forrest Gump rings so true in life. To a point. With a box of chocolates, you can choose. You can use the cheat sheet to find your preferred flavor. Let’s call that planning. Or you can take a risk and just grab a chocolate, any chocolate.

And then you bite into the sweet morsel and it’s either exactly what you expected, a disappointment or a sweet surprise.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Life is like that. Some days all goes exactly as we plan. Other days not so much. And then there are those days when you simply want to take the entire box of chocolates and toss them out because the “you never know what you’re gonna get” part is just too much to handle.

Yeah, this seems rather heavy to write about on Valentine’s Day. But there’s a reason. The other evening, while donating blood, I struck up a conversation with the young woman drawing my blood. I noticed a tattoo on her arm and inquired about the poetic sentence inked thereon. I can’t recall the exact wording, but it was beautiful and honored the loved one who penned it. Her brother. Today marks exactly six months since his unexpected death.

I told her how sorry I was for her loss. And then she asked if I wanted to hear the story behind her tattoo and that’s when the phlebotomist told me about her brother and how they’d always wanted to get the same tattoo and now it was too late. And then, while paging through her brother’s journals, she found the quote that now graces her arm.

He was a writer. And a veteran. I looked up his obit online. He struggled, after two deployments, to readjust to life.

As I sat on the table, blood flowing from my vein into a bag that would bring life-saving blood to someone, I considered this young woman, her brother and the loss of his life. She wasn’t bitter. She wasn’t angry. Sad, yes. Yet, she had no choice but to go on with life, she said. I admired her positive attitude in the newness of her grief.

She talked, too, about how writing helps her deal with her loss. Like me, she holds a degree in communications, is a published writer and loves writing. It was reaffirming, even in the darkness of the topic which prompted our conversation, to talk shop with someone who loves the craft as much as I do. I encouraged her to keep writing. She smiled. And I felt that in some way perhaps I’d helped her. And myself. We agreed that writing is therapeutic and that we can’t allow life to get in the way of our writing. No more excuses.

And then, four minutes and 17 seconds after blood began flowing, the collection bag was full and we wrapped up our conversation while she filled tubes and wrapped my arm in tape. I thanked her. And it wasn’t just for her work with the Red Cross.

There’s more.

As I sat at the snack and recovery table, I commented on a patriotic tattoo covering nearly the entire right arm of a blood donor. It honors those who serve, he said. And then the young man directly across the table—the father of three young children who came with his wife to donate—shared that he’s a veteran. His wife, too. She was by this time already giving blood. We thanked him for his service, which includes several deployments. I couldn’t help but think of the other vet, the brother gone.

This felt like one of those moments meant to be. Here a small group of people came together on a bitterly cold Minnesota winter evening to donate blood at the local Eagles Club. And by the time we all left, we felt a connection, bonding over tattoos and stories and a genuine care and appreciation for one another.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. But on this evening we got the choicest of chocolates. Without a cheat sheet. Without any planning or effort on our parts. Because sometimes life brings sweet surprises when we most need them.

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FYI: I welcome any chocolate, especially dark chocolate. Happy Valentine’s Day, dear readers! Make today the day you will reach out to someone, ask a question, listen to a story, offer support, show compassion and love.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thank you, veterans November 11, 2019

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A star marks a veteran’s grave. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I AWAKENED EARLY this morning writing this post in my head, before I fell back into a fitful sleep. Words flowed earlier. Now, though, I’ve forgotten the precise phrasing. But the essence of my thoughts remains. Thank you, veterans.

 

Howard Homeier, a WW II veteran from Kenyon, Minnesota, in his cherished 1950s pick-up truck. When I photographed him in 2009, he’d just participated in a ceremony honoring veterans. He was a member of the Kenyon Color Guard. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2009.

 

Thank you for all you sacrificed to serve, to protect our freedom and that of other nations and peoples. Thank you for placing country before self. Thank you for your bravery and fortitude, for your resilience and strength, for your ability to forge on in the most difficult of circumstances.

Thank you for setting aside your personal and family lives, for all those days and nights apart from those you love. That could not have been easy. Separation never is.

Thank you to your families for enduring this separation, for supporting you, for recognizing the importance of your work.

 

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

 

Those two words—thank you—don’t seem nearly enough. But I write them with sincerity and a depth of understanding founded in the experiences of my Korean War veteran father. I saw the toll war took on him, decades after he left Korea. He fought there in the rugged mountains of that nation, rifle in hand, firing at the enemy, hugging the earth of foxholes, taking out a sniper who killed too many of his brothers. War is hard.

And so thank you seems insufficient. But it is what I offer to you today. From my heart.

 

A veteran salutes during the Memorial Day Program at Faribault’s Central Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

ADDITIONALLY, I want to share that the above photo I took of a veteran at the 2018 Memorial Day program at Central Park in Faribault, recently won third place in the People category of National Mutual Benefit’s 2019 Photo Contest. National Mutual is a fraternal life insurance society based in Madison, Wisconsin and through which my parents purchased a policy for me as a baby.

I am honored to have this image chosen for recognition and publication. It is just one more way for me to say, “Thank you, veterans.”

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflecting on Veterans Day November 11, 2018

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U.S. Army Cpl. Elvern Kletscher, my father, in the trenches in Korea.

 

IT’S EASY ENOUGH to write words of praise on Veterans Day. Those are words we expect. And they should be spoken, written.

But there are other words which also need exposure. Like sacrifice, pain, guilt, suffering. I saw all of those in my dad, who fought on the front lines in the Korean War. Kill or be killed. He shared little of his experiences, but just enough that I understood the horror he saw, the horror he endured, the pain he would carry with him throughout his life. Peace eluded him. I felt helpless to help him. And I don’t know that I could have, never experiencing war as he did. Eventually he joined a veterans’ support group decades after the war, when post traumatic stress disorder was finally recognized. It helped him to talk to those who understood.

Please take time today to reflect. Reflect on those who served and who still serve.

Be thankful for those who are working hard to keep America safe. Freedom is never a guarantee and today, more than ever, I am fully cognizant of that.

To my many family members and friends who have served in the U.S. military, to my readers who have done likewise, thank you for your service. Because of you, I have the freedom to write this post, to continue to write, to live in a nation where I can go to the polls and vote.

Thank you, veterans, for the personal sacrifices you made for your country. Today I honor you.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Memorial Day in Faribault, a photo essay May 28, 2018

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A veteran salutes during the Memorial Day Program at Faribault’s Central Park.

 

MEMORIAL DAY IN FARIBAULT, like in so many other American towns, honors veterans through patriotic tradition.

 

Steve Bonde plays patriotic tunes on a downtown Faribault street corner before the start of the Memorial Day parade.

 

Parade goers listen to Bonde as they await the start of the parade.

 

A barber cuts hair in his barbershop across the street, parade-goers reflected in his shop window.

 

A parade follows Central Avenue through our historic downtown, ending in nearby Central Park.

 

 

 

Grand Marshall Vicki McDowell with her husband, Honorary Grand Marshall Myles McDowell.

 

Each year I expect the same—the police cars and fire trucks, the Color Guard and honored veterans,

 

 

 

 

 

the bands and Scouts,

 

 

 

the kids and candy and politicians,

 

 

 

 

 

the vintage cars and the horses.

 

 

 

 

A restored vintage Tilt-A-Whirl provides a parade viewing spot in the heart of downtown. The Tilt-A-Whirl was invented in Faribault and, up until several years ago, was still made here.

 

Only the faces change, and sometimes not even those.

 

A volunteer hands out programs at Central Park.

 

Printed on the back of the program and read by master of ceremonies Gordy Kosfeld.

 

After the parade, folks gather at Central Park for the Memorial Day program, this year the 149th.

 

A table setting at American Legion Post 43 honors the POW-MIAs.

 

Afterwards, some—mostly vets and their families—go to the Legion for a luncheon and additional remembrances.

 

The luncheon serving line set against a backdrop of photos of local Legion Post 43 commanders.

 

There’s a certain comfort in embracing this day with time-honored traditions. Traditions remind me year after year after year that we still live in a free nation. Each Memorial Day I can set my lawn chair curbside along Central Avenue. I can take photos without retribution. I can stand for my flag and applaud and smile. On this day, I am grateful.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The personal connection of war, decades after my dad left Korea May 26, 2018

The cover of a July 31, 1953, memorial service folder from Sucham-dong, Korea.

 

WAR IS MORE THAN THE FLASH of a news story, a list of statistics, a row of flags marking graves.

 

Photo by Sonny Nealon, Ray’s best friend in high school, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

War is personal. War is a flag-draped coffin, a name upon a tombstone, grief for a loved one.

 

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

 

I expect nearly every one of you could share a story of a family member who served in the Armed Forces, perhaps even gave his/her life for country.

This Memorial Day—between the travel and fun of the weekend—please reflect on the true meaning of this holiday. Remember those who died on battlefields or along roads or in trenches during too many wars.

 

Page two of the 1953 memorial service bulletin from Korea.

 

I need look no farther than a brown shoebox. It holds the memorabilia of war, of my father’s time as an infantryman on the front lines during the Korean War. Among the photos and other items is a memorial service bulletin dated July 31, 1953, Sucham-dong, Korea. It lists the names of 28 men from the 2nd Battalion, 65th Infantry Regiment who died in service to country.

 

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

 

Among those names, my dad’s Army buddy, Raymond W. Scheibe. Ray died the day before he was to return home to his wife and infant daughter. My heart breaks when I think of that, of my dad witnessing his friend’s death and then Ray’s family getting the awful news back in Nebraska. A young wife left a widow. A daughter never knowing her father. Grieving parents.

 

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

 

War is personal. To think that my dad saved this memorial service bulletin shows me the depths of his grief. He could have tossed the piece of paper after the service—after the singing of patriotic songs and reading of Scripture and prayer and roll call and a moment of silence. But he didn’t. He folded the now yellowed paper into quarters and carried it with him, across the ocean, across the country, back home to Minnesota.

 

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. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Through that action, my father, dead 15 years now, honored his soldier-friend. He assured that the next generation, me, would remember. War is personal. War is a worn slip of paper saved for 65 years.

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FYI: Many opportunities exist in the Faribault area to honor our veterans on Memorial Day. Here’s a partial list:

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The importance of Veterans Day to me as a writer & veteran’s daughter November 10, 2017

U.S. Army Cpl. Elvern Kletscher, my father, in the trenches in Korea.

 

WHEN I CONSIDER Veterans Day, I think beyond a general blanket of gratitude for those who have served, and are serving, our country. I see a face. I see my soldier father, an infantryman on the battlefields of Korea and recipient of the Purple Heart.

 

My dad carried home a July 31, 1953, memorial service bulletin from Sucham-dong, Korea. In the right column is listed the name of his fallen buddy, Raymond W. Scheibe.

 

My dad, Elvern Kletscher, died in 2003. But his memory remains strong in my heart as do the few stories he shared of his time fighting for his country. He witnessed unspeakable, violent deaths. And, yes, he killed the enemy, often telling his family, “It was shoot or be shot.” I cannot imagine shooting someone so near you can see the whites of their eyes.

 

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

 

Atop Heartbreak Ridge, Dad picked off a sniper who for days had been killing off American soldiers. He suffered a shrapnel wound there.

But his wounds ran much deeper than the physical. His wounds stretched into a lifetime of battling post traumatic stress disorder, long unrecognized. He told stories of diving to the earth when a neighbor fired at a pheasant, the sound of gunfire triggering all those horrible war memories. The neighbor laughed. Likewise, guns shot at a small town parade sent him ducking for cover.

 

My dad’s military marker in the Vesta City Cemetery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I can only imagine the demons my father fought. You cannot walk away from war-time death and violence unchanged. Only much later in life, as the decades passed and awareness of PTSD grew, did my dad find some comfort in talking to other vets with similar experiences.

 

Soldiers receive The Lord’s Supper in Korea, May 1953. Photo by my soldier father, Elvern Kletscher.

 

Dad’s strong faith also pulled him through his emotional turmoil, during and after war.

Now, as I look back, I wish I had been more understanding, more grateful. But I can’t change that. Rather, I can choose to honor my dad by writing, an expression of the freedom he fought to preserve.

 

I wrote a story (“Faith and Hope in a Land of Heartbreak”) about my dad’s war experiences in this book, published in 2005 by Harvest House Publishers.

 

As a writer, I hold dear the value of my freedom to write. No one censors my writing or tells me what to write. I treasure that. I cringe at the current overriding criticism of the press in this country, the constant allegations of “fake news.” I worry about this negative shift in thought, the efforts to suppress and discredit the media. My dad fought to keep us free. And that freedom includes a free press.

 

 

That struck me Thursday evening as I gathered with 13 Faribault area writers at a Local Authors Fair at Buckham Memorial Library. Here we were, inside this building packed with books and magazines and newspapers and more, showcasing our writing. No one stopped us at the door to check if our writing met government standards. No one stopped us from selling our books. No one stopped us from engaging in free conversation with each other and with attendees.

I am grateful to those who assured, and are assuring, that I will always have the ability to write without censorship in a country that still remains free.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Honoring the war dead in Cannon City May 30, 2017

Folks begin arriving for the 2 p.m. Memorial Day program at the Cannon City Cemetery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

VEHICLES LINED the narrow gravel driveway, angled into the grassy ditch on one side and edging the roadway on the other.

Randy pulled our lawn chairs from the van and I tucked a fleece throw under my left arm, umbrella in hand as we headed toward the crowd gathering at the Cannon City Cemetery gate. Clouds the color of bruises threatened rain on this 60-some-degree Memorial Day afternoon in rural southeastern Minnesota.

 

An art appropriate cannon marks a Civil War Veteran’s tombstone in the Cannon City Cemetery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

But weather would not keep us from this annual commemoration honoring the war dead—a tradition begun some 100 years prior in this wind-swept rural cemetery bordered by fields and pasture. On this Monday, those here would also mark the sesquicentennial of this burial place where a year ago cows moved to the fenceline to watch my friend Lois bury her husband next to his parents and grandparents.

 

The program opens with singing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Steve Bonde is on the bugle. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Randy and I have no family connection to this cemetery. But we have come here each Memorial Day for about the past five because we appreciate the grassroots simplicity of this event. Clustered under spruce and cedar among gravestones, attendees circle their lawn chairs to sing and to listen to patriotic and other readings and to the mournful playing of taps.

 

A bronze star marks a veteran’s grave. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

As I sat there, snugged under fleece and wishing I’d worn a stocking cap, I considered that my temporary discomfort was nothing compared to war. I remembered the stories my Korean War veteran father, an infantryman on the frontlines, shared of bone-chilling cold. Yes, my ears hurt. But in a short time, I would be back inside my warm home.

I am an observer. To my right, I watched a teenage boy grip a military star, American flag and white carnation with his left hand, bugle in his other hand, as the fierce wind threatened to yank all three away. Earlier, some attendees distributed flowers, provided by the Cemetery Association, to soldiers’ graves. That flower-laying tradition began 100 years ago with students from the nearby Cannon City School marching with floral wreaths to the cemetery.

 

Song sheets are distributed to those in attendance. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

This memorial service is so much about tradition—from recitation of The Pledge of Allegiance to singing of The Battle Hymn of the Republic to reading names of the 52 veterans buried here to recitation of In Flanders Fields.

 

Poppies have long been associated with honoring and remembering veterans. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

As Jean Pederson recited the haunting poem of poppies blowing between crosses in a field in Belgium, long-time Cannon City resident Bob Lewis slipped a pot of poppies onto the grass next to Jean’s motorized scooter. He’d dug them from a patch in his yard. That symbolic gesture by this veteran nearly moved me to tears as I watched 10 orange poppies wend in the wind to words of war.

Near Jean, I noticed the word LOVE sparkling along the pant leg of a teenage girl. Love and war. War and love. We love our freedom enough to fight for it.

 

A message on a retro tray I own. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Yet, we always strive for peace, a message conveyed in a reading by two women: “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with you.” Their words rose and fell with the wind, carried away—to the fields, the countryside, beyond, under a bruised sky.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
I apologize for the lack of current photos accompanying this story. I fell and broke my right shoulder recently so am unable to use my camera. I hope my words provide the visuals for you to see snippets of what I observed in Cannon City on Memorial Day.