RICHLAND CENTER, Wis. — Turn the lazy bend south along U.S. 14 to enter this Richland County seat, and the first thing that catches your eye is the sun dancing off of rows of silver mixed with royal blue, jutting out just-so from the distant prairie on your left.
Gradually, a sea of red and white stripes emerges in your vision.
Soon, the only sound you hear is that of the wind furiously snapping hundreds of flags against their towering flagpoles. The chorus drowns out the brisk traffic whipping past you on the left.
It is eerie, it is sobering, and it is beautiful.
It is the work of volunteers at the American Legion, where all 316 flags stand in steadfast honor to all veterans, living and deceased, who served in the U.S. military from this modest town, known mostly for being the childhood home of fabled architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
At the base of each flagpole is a flat stone marker inscribed with a veteran's name, dates of service and medals won.
The breathtaking park is funded solely by individual donations and the proceeds of fundraising events held at the Legion hall.
Outside the Legion hall, a sign beckons members and non-members to come in for lunch. Inside, Pat Kraska sits at the bar, sipping on a tall ice-cold Pepsi, waiting for his meal. He is a second-generation American — his parents emigrated from Bohemia — and a second-generation veteran; his father served in World War II, and he served in the Marines during Vietnam.
"There is a flag out there honoring both my father and myself," he said. "It's pretty humbling, and it's an honor. It reminds you that when you serve your country, you are part of something bigger than yourself.
"That is a feeling that is hard to describe. Yes, it is both inspiring and gratifying, but I wish I had a better phrase or word for the sentiment."
Nate Peer, 29, tops off Kraska's Pepsi and goes into the back of the hall, to the kitchen, to check on his meal. Peer did not serve in the military but he loves working behind the bar, listening to the stories from the Legion members.
He also deeply loves being part of the community: "This is a special place, we all feel very connected to the town and each other."
On the other side of the room, Odey Zierfuss, Dave Neefe, Junior Miller and Bill Kraska are engaged in Euchre, the classic four-man card game of the Midwest; they have a combination of service that spans Korea and Vietnam, and they are proud of the community spirit that built and maintains their flag park.
"The thing you learn in the service, or volunteering in your community, is that you are a better individual when you have a purpose that is larger than just your own self-interest," Zierfuss said.
It is more than just an act of nobility; it is satisfying, meaningful and contagious, said Peer from behind the bar.
Inside the bar, the sound of the wind clanging the metal flag grommets against the poles is muted but always present – like ancient chimes dangling from a distant hillside. A gust increases the sound and, in unison, everyone pauses, listens, then goes about their business.
On Wednesday, Americans will mark the 240th celebration of Flag Day, which commemorates the adoption of the flag of the United States, on June 14, 1777, by resolution of the Second Continental Congress.
While it is not a federal holiday, plenty of cities and towns across the country plan Main Street parades, fireworks displays, barbecues and the dignified burning of tattered flags unsuitable for use.
Plenty of towns, cities and people also will not observe it at all; some may not even know the commemoration exists. Some may not care — too many, by Kraska's estimation.
"We are really losing our ability to come together in this country, even something as meaningful as our flag has torn us apart," he said, in reference to the series of NFL players who, last year, decided to take a knee rather than salute the flag during the national anthem.
Last year, on the day after the presidential election, Hampshire College students reacted to the results by calling for the removal of the American flag on their Amherst, Mass., campus, calling it a symbol of racism and hatred.
Vandals then lowered the flag and burned it on Veterans Day.
In fact, many colleges had similar displays of disrespect for the flag, lashing out at it as a symbol of the results of the election — including American University in Washington, D.C., where students burned flags and shouted "F--k white America!"
The sad truth is, the last thing that brought us together in a meaningful way was the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. When you pause and consider that, it's a damned awful way to be the only thing about which we feel compelled to come together.
If you turn on the news or go onto social media these days, it is not impossible to imagine that we would struggle terribly to come together again if another tragedy hit this country.
In many segments of our society, we are so culturally segregated from each other's differences on core values that it has become the norm to not associate with the other because we refuse to respect or accept that someone might think or feel or believe differently than we do.
Many Americans inexplicably feel rage or fear over the mere mention of something that is different than what they believe; we have become intolerant, isolationistic, and ignorant.
It is a societal trend that retards our ability as a country not only to come together; it also shields us from feeling as though we are all in this together, that despite our differences we are part of something flawed by human frailties, yes, yet still made great by the promise of liberty and freedom.
There are no easy answers for this decline in our society.
Yet, a brief visit to a town like Richland Center reminds you that all is not lost and, maybe, our path back doesn't have to come through tragedy but, instead, can come one person, one community, at a time.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.