June 1, 2004
Several friends and I, all former or current Ashbrook Scholars, decided to drive to Washington D.C. for the processional and to see President Reagan’s casket as it was lying in State this week. We were all upbeat, each trying to outdo the other in Reagan references. Nearing the Beltway, we noticed a rather large number of out-of-state vehicles sporting Republican bumper stickers, noting that they were most likely making the same trip that we were. We honked the horn, made a “W” with our fingers, and waved at the other drivers. After realizing that this probably looked only like rude gesturing, we started flashing a magazine cover with Reagan’s face on it. Before long, we started getting honks, “thumbs up” signs, and Reagan tribute pictures in return.
We took the Metro downtown, instantly noting two things: the throngs of people heading for Constitution Avenue and the heat. We moved through the crowds and were able to find a good vantage point just a few blocks away from the Capitol—at the corner of Constitution and Louisiana Avenues. We waited about three hours for the procession to get started. The temperature had to have been approaching 100 degrees, and the humidity was also very high. The sweltering conditions, exacerbated by the press of several thousand bodies, prompted one man to look up at a building (which I assume was the headquarters of one of the labor unions), gaze longingly at the people watching from the windows, and say, “I think I’d do anything, even join the union, just to be inside right now.” After pausing a moment, he changed his mind, “Nah, not worth it.”
Police officers scanned the crowds, keeping a lookout for disturbances, but I did not notice them needing to do more than occasionally ask someone to get back behind the barrier or motioning for one of the Red Cross volunteers to bring bottles of water or medical assistance to someone suffering from heat exhaustion. Members of the military stood motionless, facing inward, along both sides of the street. Several of them collapsed from the heat, and were silently removed and replaced.
The procession itself was not that long. Uniformed officers of the various branches of the military marched by, silently. Observers seemed to be torn between the two desires of absolutely respecting the moment, refusing to photograph the procession, and wanting to capture the moment on film. The compromise seemed to be quickly snapping shots before and after the caisson passed, but holding still as it was directly in front of them.
We also had the fortune to have picked the spot along the route that the fighter jets flew directly over. There were twenty-one of them; one led and was followed by five sets of four jets each. As the last flew overhead, one broke away and flew straight up, into the heavens.
Rather than go to observe the twenty-one gun salute, we decided to make our way to the line forming in front of the Capitol to view the casket. The lawn was roped off to accommodate the crowd, so it was difficult to gauge how long the line actually was. I would estimate that when we arrived it was over a mile long, although it got much longer as evening approached.
It is difficult to describe the mood of those waiting in line. The best description that I was able to come up with was that there was a near religious solemnity, which is not to say that those gathered were somber or hushed. To the contrary, everyone chatted quietly in small groups and was in good humor. There was, however, a respectful restraint entirely befitting the occasion. No one drew untoward attention to himself, and I heard no complaints about the heat. Red Cross volunteers walked the perimeter, distributing water bottles and checking for signs of illness. Several people were not able to withstand the extreme heat and humidity and were forced to seek medical assistance. One older lady who had been pulled from the line sobbed quietly and asked if she could just get back in line as soon as she was feeling strong enough. As the paramedics tried to get her into an ambulance she explained that she had loved Mr. Reagan for years, had waited in the cold to attend both of his inaugurals, and wanted to honor him now. She kept repeating that she wanted him and his dear wife to know how very much she loved them. The line moved forward before I was able to see if she was able to stay.
For most of the time that we were winding through the line a large bird, perhaps a hawk, flew over the water in front of the Capitol. It flew back and forth, in such a way that after admiring the effect for a few moments, a few people wondered aloud if it were a trained bird or joked that it was a CIA drone in place as a security measure.
Security was very strict. As we neared the front of the line we were forced to check all cameras, recording devices, large bags, and other prohibited items. Hand sanitizers, lotions, food, and all drinks were also prohibited. The closer that we got to the Capitol, the quieter and quieter everyone became. Soft chatter was replaced with hushed murmurs. Those gave way to occasional whispers and eventually turned into anticipatory silence.
When we finally entered the Capitol building, we climbed up the steps silently. Uniformed military personnel held open the black velvet curtains so that we could enter the Rotunda. The Rotunda is always breathtaking by day, but it was indescribable on Wednesday evening. The room was dimly lit, save for the flag-swathed casket, which was warmly lit. Memorial wreaths stood at the right, left, and foot of the casket—one each from the Executive Branch, the House of Representatives and (I believe) the U.S. Senate. An honor guard stood watch over the President, motionless and slightly in the shadows. Mourners were invited to pass through on either side in a half-circle that wrapped back around and then through a side exit. As we left the building, representatives thanked each individual and offered a memorial card.
We got back to our car about twelve hours after arriving. We were tired, hot, and hungry, but that did not matter. Ronald Reagan touched all of our lives and reminded us of what we ought to be.
Beth Vanderkooi is a graduate of the Ashbrook Scholar Program.