This Was a Man

by Benjamin Domenech on 7:35 pm August 14, 2007

Reagan Lies in State

We got in line yesterday around 3 PM, with about a hundred people ahead of us. We were dead center in the front row, bordering on the reflecting pool, looking straight ahead at the Capitol and the glowering statue of General Grant on horseback. We waited for the arrival.

Folks were from everywhere – Iowa, Austin, Chicago, Minnesota, Kentucky, Frankfurt. Not everyone was a Republican… but someone who saw me reading NR did ask if Ramesh’s piece on Spitzer was good. It was probably the most calm and polite line I’ve ever seen in DC. It really was sweltering, but the Red Cross was there, and water was plentiful.

That mini-evacuation scare was really just frightening to the out-of-towners (anyone who works on the Hill is used to getting those sort of warnings by now), and the locals helped people out. All ages were there – old military men, young families, a baby that couldn’t have been more than a year old.

We counted the stacks of water bottles on wooden pallets scattered around the grounds. Approximately 1,800 bottles per pallet. Upwards of 110,000 bottles of water. They were going to need more.

The F-15s flew right above us, the sunlight winking off their wings. As the last fighter broke off towards heaven in The Missing Man maneuver, I knew this was one of those moments I’ll be telling my grandchildren about someday.

There was a circle of silence that surrounded the horse without a rider – it was awesome, in the true sense of the word. The murmur went through the crowd from those holding newspaper clippings – those were his boots in the stirrups. They were. But of course they would be.

At first, there were just a few hundred people in line. Then it grew. As the casket made its way slowly up Constitution, passing by the thousands who lined the streets and the balconies, watchers would break off and move up towards the line. They stood in families and groups and in crowds, on the sidewalks and the steps, knowing that others stood at home.

By the time the caisson reached us, there were tens of thousands of them, moving steadily down the mall, watching from a distance as the honor guard carried The Man Who Wrestled the Bear up the steps.

I’ve never had a soft spot for Nancy. But to see her standing up there, a frail yet strong figure at the top of the wide stairway, reaching out for one touch, was as moving a sight as I have ever seen.

The lines of the honor guard looked straight and steady as they bore him through the door. Someone cheered – and then another – and then everyone was clapping and whistling, as if welcoming home a conquering hero.

There were hours more to go in the heat as we worked our way through security and up towards the southwest entrance. The sun set when we were by the reflecting pool. We were in the first group to go in – they were counting us off, and we were numbers 143 and 144.

Up the steps, across the front, through the outer door, into the entranceway. Throats are clenched, hands held tight. The guard nods. The doors open.

The room is hushed. The crusty military man in front of us, whose legs were broken on some mission long ago, creaked up to the velvet rope and did a slow, solemn salute. We stepped together around the axis of the rotunda, as slow and deliberate as the honor guard. The draped flag shone bright in the spotlights, shimmering with color, vivid and unashamed.

We wept for a man born before our grandfathers.

One last glance, and then we are in the outside world again. The air seems lighter now. Standing atop the Capitol steps, we look across towards the Potomac – past the crowd, the trees, the monuments of heroes, and up up up to that night sky where the fighter jet rose like a soul aloft, busting through the clouds – straight on through to the kingdom of heaven.

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