The tears that dropped like rain on a Minnesota prairie didn’t come from the cool air blowing on tired eyes. They came from the heart. Many more came from the soul.
“Tim, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said the prideful farmer looking across the prairie from the base of St. Patrick of Cedar Lake Catholic Church.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of this town.” He didn’t have to say anymore. The tears rolling off his cheeks filled the empty space where words disappear with the emotion of what only the eyes can see, what one’s soul can feel.
In this part of Scott County all roads lead to St. Patrick’s. But on this day people only needed one, the one where 1,800 American flags pointed the way.
When word spread days earlier that a certain son was coming home, it was hardly the celebration anyone wanted. Dale Means, was the kind of man a small town takes pride in. He was a son, a husband, and a United States Marine. On November 18th, what pride couldn’t promise a road side bomb took away. What Minnesota gave, Afghanistan claimed.
Tragically, no news travels faster than that of a fallen service member. When Larry Eckhardt heard, he knew what he had to do. He packed up his trailer full of 2,000 American flags and set out from his home in Little York, Illinois.
“Well, I went to a soldiers funeral and there was probably pretty close to about two-thousand people there and only about 50 to a hundred flags,” Eckhardt said. “I didn’t think that was right.”
More than 400 miles later Eckhardt pulled into New Prague with a full trailer, a near empty gas tank, and a plea for help. Bonnie Valek was among those who heard the call.
“Yesterday they had on the radio station, if they could get fifty volunteers, and I volunteered and they had well over a hundred on the snap of a finger,” Valek said.
In a little more than an hour, this community known for planting crops was planting flags. By the time they were done, the sons and daughters of New Prague with the help of Larry the Flagman built a tri-colored wall of patriotism that stood 1,800 strong. The flags didn’t just bring volunteers, they brought pride. Pride brought everyone else.
Among the people lining Main Street was a man in a leather jacket with a face sculpted by the cold fall wind. Upon recognizing a familiar face from television he reached out his hand with a tight grip and said, “Thank you, Tim. I’m so glad you’re here, people need to see this.” He introduced himself only as Scotty, but like so many here the only name that mattered was that of the Marine they claimed as their own.
“It’s amazing,” he said. ”When I heard about the funeral procession I had to come out. At first I was one. Then five minutes later I was ten. Then I was 50. Then 100.” He paused and looked up and down the street. “Now, I must be a thousand.”
As the hearse carrying Lance Corporal Means’ body slowly crept past the gauntlet of people, pride, and flags, there was hardly a dry eye. Jen Ophus was among those fighting off the tears.
“I think it’s… really impressive,” Ophus said. “I think it’s something that we should all do and show our respect. I don’t think it’s seen enough.”
Further down the street, Ron Dols called it an awakening experience. “Unfortunately this country doesn’t show its patriotism enough. And I think this is a good example of it.”
Lance Corporal Means may have given his life along a lonely trail a half a world away, but at this critical moment he and his family were hardly alone. His last trip to the church on the hill would be protected by 23,000 stripes and 90,000 stars. Larry Eckhardt made sure of it.
“I call it his last gift to the community,” Eckhardt said. “Because, it does bring the community together and as long as they remember the flags, they’re going to remember him.”
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Lance Corporal Mean’s funeral was #97 for Larry Eckhardt and his flags. He was leaving the next day to drive his trailer to Iowa for the funeral of another fallen soldier. To learn more about Larry Eckhardt and his flags, you can follow him on Facebook.