WASHINGTON — As these things go it was a less-than-ideal day for a wake. It was hot and humid and sticky in a way that only June days in D.C. can be. Except for the local police, no one wore black and very few bothered with anything approaching formal attire. My roommate, a fellow ink-stained wretch, sat across the street on the north side of Constitution Avenue in the reserved stands and stuck in a stifling “monkey suit” the whole time. He saw a woman in front of him pass out just before members of every branch of the armed services transferred the flag-draped coffin from the hearse to the caisson.
On the other side of the street, I bobbed and shifted to watch the servicemen load the casket onto the carriage and play with the flag to make sure that it would stay on. The people in front of me strained against the cordon and tried to capture as much of this on their various recording devices as possible. Behind us, girlfriends and wives sat atop their mates’ shoulders to get a better look. Others stood on lawn chairs or stepladders they’d brought from home. Teens scaled the walls in front of the Washington Monument to get a cicadas’ eye view of the proceedings.
We heard the officer behind the flag-bearer give the marching orders as the whole thing kicked into gear, and a fit of clapping erupted from this normally restrained crowd. The horses and limos started forward at a pace that was measured to get them from 16th to Capitol Hill in about an hour, where the body will lie “in state” for the next day or so, allowing thousands of visitors to pay their last respects. Nancy Reagan trailed the coffin in a stretched limo and waved to the crowd. Many of the people who started out at the coffin transfer, including yours truly, ran along with the procession, until we were forced to detour.
I followed the parade, several blocks removed, and eventually ended up in front of the reflector pond in front of the Capitol building. One woman next to me called a person with her cellphone and struck up a conversation. She said that it wasn’t her choice to be a part of the proceedings but that everything road-wise, had been shut down, and her car was stuck. “And there are people everywhere,” she added.
And they were everywhere. I have no idea what the final estimates will be but people packed the steps of the various Smithsonian museums, and the roofs of government and office buildings along the way. Coming in, I watched the armed services marching bands marching from the Washington Mall to an advance position, East of 14th Street. That force, I said, to no one in particular, would be large enough to invade a Third World Country.
Eventually the crowd started to thin and some spectators headed home. The Smithsonian Metro station was backed up with two Metro police officers, in flak jackets and blue short-sleeves, standing on the concrete perimeter of the escalators, trying to keep order. When I finally got into the packed-to-the-brim station, I found a payphone and called my father back in Washington state, and told him what had been occupying me this evening.
“Yeah, Ronald Reagan,” he said. “He did a lot of good. Too bad he hasn’t gotten much credit for it.”
I looked at the crowd and said, “Oh he will, Dad. He will.”