This column appeared in the February 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
On his death at the turn of the year, Gerald Ford was appropriately praised for his many good deeds, not least the easy dignity he brought to the presidency upon assuming it. One thing I did not care for, however, was his comment, “Our long national nightmare is over,” which was nothing more than an appeasing bone tossed at those who had turned their hatred of Richard Nixon into a cruel, destructive obsession.
I much rather preferred something Ford did earlier that day — simply the gracious way in which he and Mrs. Ford saw the Nixons off. Instead of Nixon being frog-marched from the White House, as the Joe Wilsons insisted, the overthrown president and his wife were escorted by its new proprietors down a rolled-out runway to a waiting helicopter, the foursome radiant and elegantly dressed, as if the Fords had just had the Nixons to tea. Talk about a civilized transfer of power.
Does anyone still bother to say goodbye with any ceremony? Families and friends these days deprive themselves of a ritual that once seemed indispensable, dropping people off at airports and stations with a wave and without even bothering to get out of the car. Nixon, of course, wasn’t merely going for a helicopter ride, but beelining to Andrews, from where he’d jet away for good to San Clemente. It was a major milestone. Travel used to be a lot more like that. Even shorter trips, back when people traveled less, took on an epic quality.
So it first seemed when I was very small, and I’d stand with my grandmother and sister at the top of our driveway and wave goodbye to my parents as they drove off for some big party or other in Los Angeles, a long hundred miles away from our home in Santa Barbara. A half-dozen or so years later, everyone in my California family saw my grandmother off in Los Angeles. She was all dressed up, about to board one of the first American Airlines 707s for a flight to Montreal and from there to Warsaw, her first return to Poland since her escape to America a decade earlier. Boarding in those days was up some mobile stairs on the tarmac, and like Nixon before entering his helicopter, she turned and waved before going inside. It’d be many, many months before I saw her again.
When, several years later, it was my sister’s turn to travel to Europe, she was in no hurry, choosing instead to go by ocean liner from L.A. Harbor. The boarding scene in the recent Titanic movie pretty much captured the chaos I remember from that congested, crazy sendoff on a hot early summer’s day in San Pedro. Or maybe it was just the presence of our darling Irish setter (Nixon would later have one, another sign of his basic humanity), who, thirsty tongue hanging out, stood next to me on the pier, his front paws on the railing, his eyes darting but not finding my sister who was calling to him from behind another railing on board her ship, the S.S. Oriana. By evening all was calm, and sad, as driving to the hillside home of friends in San Pedro we could see the ship silently floating out to sea, all by itself, my sister somewhere within its confines. I wouldn’t see her again for 14 months, though in occasional letters I would keep her abreast of our dog’s adventures.
What’s so good about goodbyes? Nothing really, unless they’re eventually matched by homecomings. These in my family set off a mixture of emotions. My father always ran late, and there we were, stuck in Friday evening traffic along Century Boulevard near LAX, my sister’s flight home minutes from its scheduled landing. My mother seemed, well, frantic and upset. Not to be at the gate when my sister came out of the plane was unthinkable, unimaginable, uncivilized. What happened next I can’t quite remember. The important thing is that we found her, or she found us, near the gate. All was quickly forgiven. We had a long car ride home during which to catch up.