Telling a veteran's story in patterns on a quilt
American News, Aberdeen, S.D.
Published: August 18, 2012ABERDEEN, S.D. — Sue Helling leaned over, pointing to each helicopter and explaining its story.
"This is the first helicopter he flew," she said, motioning to an OH-6 Cayuse in mid-flight.
The helicopter is one of 10 cross stitch patterns sewn into the quilt displayed in the Home Arts Building at the Brown County Fair. Helling's piece won "best of class" at this year's fair. The six helicopters, four other cross stitch patterns and the U.S. Army uniform patches tell the story of one veteran she came to know while working as a nurse for the VA clinic in Aberdeen.
Merle Kjer of Aberdeen is that veteran, and he flew the helicopters in the more than 20 years he spent as an Army pilot. Although he crashed numerous times throughout his career, his final crash ended in a 1,000-foot fall and serious injuries to his head, neck and spine, she said. He spent the next 18 months in a body cast and made the cross stitch patterns during that time.
"Each patch took anywhere from five to 10 days. I worked on them all day. I didn't have nothing else to do," he said, laughing.
He gave the cross stitch designs to Helling earlier this year, and in March she began a three-month process of designing and piecing together the quilt.
"It was a lot of fun to dream up and create it," she said.
Although she began as his nurse, both say they have become friends over the years, even though they do not see each other as much anymore.
She had made 17 or 18 quilts before, but this was the first time she designed one, she said. The process took her out of her box. And now that she looks at the final product, she said this quilt is her favorite because it has so much meaning.
"I feel like I was able to capture parts of Merle's life as a way to honor him," she said.
Each patch or pattern tells a story, and Kjer said that was one of his favorite aspects of the quilt. Helling arranged the patches from the first helicopter he flew to the last, telling the story of his career.
"It tells a story about hardships that a soldier has to go through in order to accomplish goals in the military, and it requires hours and months and constant training to gain the skills that we need to go into combat," he said.
Kjer has not yet seen the entire quilt. As Helling was making it, she would bring photos on her cellphone for him to see. His first real glimpse was at the Brown County Fair, where the quilt was folded into a small display case, revealing only a piece of his story.Helling said she plans to give it to him on a special occasion in the near future, and Kjer said if she does, he will hang the quilt on his living room wall. And though he has yet to see her work in its entirety, he said when he thinks about it he thinks about a good friend."It's gorgeous," he said. "I just love it. She did a really good job."