Ronald Reagan's Ninety-Fourth Birthday
The post below is my first-hand account of viewing Ronald Reagan's coffin at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA, in June of 2004. Click on the links in the article to see a few pictures associated with the event.
7 and 8 June 2004
Moorpark College, Moorpark California and
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, California
A FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT OF THE VIEWING OF THE FLAG-DRAPED COFFIN OF PRESIDENT RONALD WILSON REAGAN
At first I did not want to go. Not because it was not an historical event or because I did not care for Ronald Reagan, but because of the crowd. Back in 1994 I went to Yorba Linda, California on the night when Richard Nixon was lying in state at his presidential library. The line of those that wished to view the coffin was over a mile long and it took in excess of nine hours to get to the viewing area. Those that reached the staging area immediately before going inside to view the coffin, after standing for so many hours, audibly huffed and puffed as they reached that area. These people were not having a good time.
So I chose not to get in line for President Nixon, and contented myself with taking some photographs outside the library. Now has come the death of President Reagan, and with it another opportunity to view the coffin of an American President. The memories of the lines at the Nixon viewing gave me pause.
I had even described my reasons for not wanting to attend the Reagan viewing to some of my friends. I explained to them the long, long lines during the Nixon coffin viewing. The long wait was going to be too much if it was like the Nixon line.
So I bought a dozen roses on Sunday (June 6, 2004) and contented myself with placing them before the sign at the entrance to the library’s driveway. This was easy as I live about a twenty-minute drive from the library here in Simi Valley. I placed them with a note expressing a desire for President Reagan to rest in peace, and expressing love and prayers for the Reagan family. I was thus easily able to participate, and there was only about thirty people or so in front of the makeshift memorial—certainly no huge crowd. It was a small price to pay.
At work on Monday, June 7, I began to think about the occasion of President Reagan lying in state at the library. My thoughts began to bother me; here was an opportunity in my own back yard to be a part of the respect being shown to President Reagan, and it was also a historical event never to be repeated. It is honest to say that both things had their influence. Not only those things, but also the fact that President Reagan was the first president I ever voted for upon reaching voting age. And I voted for him twice. So he was not just a president.
He was my President.
I loved Ronald Reagan. He had brought us out of the malaise of the previous administration. He put our economy back on track. He ended the cold war. So soon after Vietnam, he made us proud to be Americans again. He lifted us up. It seemed to be selfish, if not downright cowardly, to not participate because of not wanting to stand in line. So I decided to go. What follows is a sort of travelogue describing my experience.
GETTING TO THE LINE
I left work in the ordinary way at 5:00pm Monday, June 7. After that twenty-five minute drive home I changed clothing and inhaled a couple of hot dogs and half a small bottle of orange juice. Protein and sugar should keep me going. The news was saying there was a three-hour wait to view the coffin. Three hours? That is about like watching a long movie. I can hack that. So I got on the 118 Freeway westbound (yes, the Ronald Reagan Freeway) and headed for Collins Drive, the location of Moorpark College (Moorpark and Simi Valley are adjoining towns) where the staging area for the shuttle buses was. Only those aboard the shuttle buses were allowed into the presidential library. Under optimal traffic conditions the drive will take about ten to fifteen minutes.
Conditions were not optimal.
After only about five minutes I hit the bumper-to-bumper traffic backup of those heading for Moorpark College. During those five minutes I passed an illuminated, portable road sign that declared a three-hour delay to get to the Reagan Library. Things seemed to be right on schedule.
During the drive my mind began to wander and I started to notice things I do not normally notice. This was easy since I spent much more time still than in motion. The hills in the area still bear the marks of the fires of October 2003. Charred scrub is evident in abundance, as well as the green of new growth, now turning brown. Cows grazed lazily in one field off to my right. I spent most of the drive sandwiched front and back between two Mercedes-Benz automobiles. The driver behind me was on his cell phone most of the time. A Jaguar commercial played on the radio. At that moment, a Jaguar passed me.
Finally I reached Collins Drive, exited, and began the slow creep to the parking lot. The drive to Moorpark College had become an hour and twenty-minute drive instead of a fifteen-minute drive. Motorcycle officers were escorting buses up the center of the drive. One bus had an advertisement on the back that read, “We’re all going to the same place—Six Feet Under.” It was an advertisement for a television series on HBO. It seemed like lousy timing. I threw my head back, rolled my eyes and slowly shook my head in mild disbelief. A father and his two small children sat on a concrete park entrance sign, waving American flags and waving to the people in the cars. Other kids were playing a baseball game on a diamond next to the drive. Finally an officer directed me into the parking lot. I easily found a space and got out of my car.
THE HUMAN RIVER
The place seemed well organized. There was a Red Cross tent passing out free water. Police from various agencies patrolled including a sheriff bomb squad member. Other uniforms were in evidence. I saw Army (a second lieutenant with jump wings, and a Lieutenant Colonel), Navy (possibly a captain; lots of medals), and Air Force (a senior airman), among others.
An ambulance stood at the ready, with attendants. There was a row of twenty-five portable restrooms. I made my way to the end of the ever-bustling line, passing the Red Cross tent that was handing out free water. It was a ten-minute walk simply to get to the end of the looping, twisting line, often having to cut across it. At last, at 7:15pm, I was at the end of the line. The line extended from the bus boarding area next to the road to the parking lot, down the length of the parking lot, back again, back halfway again, down a set of stairs, along one side of the courtyard, along another side of the courtyard, two loops down a hill, back up the hill, and back down the hill to a lower parking lot. Keep in mind this is a college campus, not some small school. The parking lots were similar in size to large megaplex shopping mall parking lots. What was the total distance? There were thousands in line. It easily could have been a mile long, and in places tended to be four or five people wide.
I began chatting with two brothers whom had brought their three boys with them. The boys ranged in age from about five to nine years old. A couple behind me brought their two children, a boy and a girl, ages eleven and ten, respectively. We engaged in small talk as the cool gray skies began to darken. Onward we shuffled as the line moved. There were lots and lots of children in line, which surprised me. It seems that many parents had decided to take their kids to this event. Many were mere babies in strollers.
One of the brothers observed that there was nothing directing the crowd. That alone is amazing. There were no barriers, no cones, no ropes or anything else to form the direction of the line other than some police tape near the security checkpoint. A mile long line of humanity formed a human river across a college campus, simply through the actions of thousands of well-behaved and courteous people joining a line behind one another.
The crowd was mostly Caucasian, with many Asians, some Hispanics, and very, very few African-Americans. Some used canes, some were in wheelchairs; one girl I saw was on crutches. Onward we shuffled, sharing stories, stepping on each other’s shoes and apologizing, and feeling our feet grow increasingly sore. At one point, the two youngest sons of the two brothers had had enough. One of the brothers drove them home. By the time the brother returned, the third boy had had enough, and that same brother left again and took the third boy home. We were still in line when he returned again, and he rejoined us. By this time we had been on the line for the promised three hours. And we had a long, long way to go.
A couple got into their Lexus and we made a path for them to drive across the human lines. We waved, they waved, and we all said “goodbye” as if seeing off old friends.
After about three and a half hours on the line someone joked that we had “beaten the rush.” That brought a cynical laugh. At about 11:00pm, the crowd behind us tried to get a “wave” going. A girl in a Varsity jacket tried to get everyone to go along. Better listen to her, she’s a cheerleader I said. People were just too tired to cheer with any enthusiasm. About this time we noticed the buses had stopped running, and they remained lined up for about forty-five minutes, neither picking up nor dropping off passengers. It turned out that there was a bus driver and police escort shift change, and they were on different schedules. The line ground to a halt for almost an hour. A man entertained those near us with yo-yo tricks.
The conversation tapered off. Lots of lifting legs, shaking feet, stretching, and comments about pain were about the only thing said. We quickly tired of making those kinds of comments; everyone was feeling it, so no sense commiserating. I began doing more people watching. I was amused to see a father picking up his young son and moving him along the line. The boy was wearing a GAP hooded sweatshirt, and had sat upon the pavement Indian style, with his arms and legs both tucked under the sweatshirt. The father was picking him up and putting him down without the boy uncrossing his arms and legs. It was as if a tiny human GAP shirted Buddha with a hooded head was being repeatedly picked up and put back down, gently.
We neared the security checkpoint at about 1:00am. At this point I had waited nearly six hours. Finally we reached the security checkpoint, and security personnel (someone said they were TSA) were moving us through portable metal detectors. No cameras were allowed, and there were several confiscated cameras sitting there. No cell phones with built-in cameras were allowed either. Some people were sent back to their cars to put things away. Finally we reached the bus queue. A man with a splinted arm sat on a chair behind an ambulance. He had apparently broken his wrist or his arm. We boarded the bus.
THE FOCAL POINT OF IT ALL
I sat on the bus and felt the blood return to my feet. We drove to the library, the bus swaying, grinding, and groaning its way up the winding driveway to the top of the hill. The floral drop at the base of the hill had easily doubled in size since the previous day. We caught a glimpse of the upper parking lot of the library and people on the bus let out a series of gasps and comments. The entire parking lot was filled with media trucks with satellite dishes and extended broadcast towers. There were probably thirty or so visible, though impossible to count. We arrived precisely at 1:43am. A scrolling LED type marquee inside the bus silently announced the time. We disembarked and…joined another line. This one was only a few hundred feet long. Security people walked by and reminded us to turn off all pagers and cell phones. Do not set them to vibrate. They are to be turned off.
Brilliant television lights illuminated the courtyard, casting deep shadows. It was blinding. It was surreal, and maybe even a little creepy. To me it seemed like a scene from The X-Files; like aliens walking toward you out of a blinding light. The faces of the security people speaking to us were dark while their outlines stood in stark backlit relief because of the lights. We shuffled along still; reminders not to take photos were on signs along the way. Secret service and police were thick among us. Only a complete idiot would have tried to get away with something bad. We saw the changing of the honor guard through a window, stepping in precisely measured cadence.
There was a video camera near the door aimed at the crowd. I thought it was odd that they appeared to be videotaping the crowd. Was that for security purposes? I later learned that the video cameras were for a pool network feed for FOX, CNN, MSNBC and who knows what else. I did not know it at the time. Just opposite the first camera, some had left tiny American flags and even bags of Jelly Beans at the foot of the bronze life-sized statue (maybe larger) of President Reagan at the entrance.
Then came the moment the previous seven hours had led to. I turned to my right and through the doorway. An American flag was perfectly draped over the coffin, and one was hanging from above. The light brown coffin sat on a dais and black-draped riser, the drape gathered as bunting, with sashes. Two white flowers lay on the dais at one end of the coffin. The President’s coffin was the hub, the focus of the room. People did not turn their backs until walking out the door on the other side.
Six young people in military uniform were standing stock-still, wax museum like. I actually did a double take as I passed the first one. Only his occasionally blinking eyes moved. Around the coffin itself were five guards. One each came from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. An additional Army man stood near the entrance. Their uniforms were immaculate. They wore white gloves and clutched the bayonets at the muzzle of their rifles. I noticed the Army men had M1 Garands, and the Coast Guard man had a bolt-action rifle. The Navy man wore white spats. His shoes were like black mirrors.
I drew even with the side of the coffin. I crossed my left arm under my right. My right hand drew up over my mouth and my chin and forehead wrinkled. Tears began to appear in my eyes. There was near absolute silence. Only shuffling feet and an occasional sniffle was heard.
We slowly moved around to the other side, the crowd forming an almost omega shape around the coffin. Some were lost in thought, others wiping away tears, still others were praying. I looked back as I left, and out the door I was. A woman handed me a thank you card:
The card has a dark blue border at the edge, and then a gold border inside that one. A Presidential seal in gold is at the top. Three stars are in gold above the seal, and three more at the bottom of the card. The text reads: “With Gratitude For Your Expression Of Sympathy In Honoring The Life Of RONALD WILSON REAGAN. February 6, 1911 to June 5, 2004. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, California.” The card is an unexpected treasure.
We made our way to the buses via yet another line. We departed at 2:37am back to our cars at the college. A police escort whisked us to the entrance of the parking lot. I drove home and fell into a restful sleep.
The entire process, leaving home and returning, was nine hours. It was worth it. It was worth the long length of time and pain of the wait. I am somewhat embarrassed to even mention the pain, in the light of what our military personnel endure, but it is honest to mention it.
What did I take away from all of this besides sore feet and a card? As I gazed over the crowd at the college before we departed I saw up close a massive effort. On one level it was simply an exercise in logistics; keeping people orderly, hydrated, facilitated, secure, and transported. On another level it was a demonstration of respect for a deceased president. I stood among thousands of people that came to pay their respects to him and whom were also there simply to take part in an historical event.
What I took away from it all was this: Ronald Wilson Reagan was only one man. In the midst of that throng I was astounded by the realization of the potential of one life to affect the lives of so very many. Though not perfect, this one man lived a life of excellence and faith, and was used to change California, the United States, and the World. Over the course of nine hours I received an intense, unforgettable, close-up look at the effect of a single life lived very, very well.
On Friday of that week, I was again driving home from work. That was the day of his funeral. As I crested the top of the Santa Susanna pass on my way home to Simi Valley, I noticed a large aircraft flying unusually low over the valley, heading west. It appeared to be a 747 aircraft. That was extremely unusual, as Simi Valley is not anywhere near the approach vector of any local airport. It thus is highly unusual to see an aircraft over Simi Valley, let alone one that low. I learned later that Air Force One, carrying Nancy Reagan, the President's coffin, and the Reagan family was flying to Point Mugu, and that the pilot of Air Force One flew low over Simi Valley on the way. Air Force One was bringing the President home.
Copyright 2005 Impacted Wisdom Truth
Update: Below are a few more links to some of my favorite Ronald Reagan pictures.
Ron and Nancy
Ronald the Pitchman
Santa Ron and Good Girl
(yes, that is Reagan in that Santa costume--the nose and upper lip are a dead giveaway)
Be sure not to miss the links to other photos embedded in the article above.