O ur national nightmare makes many uncomfortable.
Standing in line waiting to see President Gerald Ford lying in state at the Capitol Rotunda Sunday morning, Dec. 31, I met Americans who reminisced about days of yore, days before war.
These citizens of Massachusetts, Washington, Florida, Maryland and Virginia lamented the infliction of airport style security measures at the U.S. Capitol.
They longed for the good old days before terrorism, war and national security plagued our consciousness. Apparently, one used to be able to saunter up to the Capitol like it was a library or the seat of a government of the people, for the people, by the people, and wander through the edifice.
While I'd been to the Capitol steps before, even seen the sunset there, Sunday was my first visit inside the Capitol, and there was no wandering around. We saw the sunrise over the Capitol, because we arrived in line at 6:15 a.m.
My father and I didn't drive to D.C. expressly to mourn the loss of the accidental president. No, we drove down the day before on our annual trek to see a Redskins game. Unfortunately, the home team lost (to the arch-rival Giants, no less).
When we heard Ford would be lying in state, we decided to go. My dad actually met Gerald Ford in 1988. Ford, a football fan who paid his way through Yale Law School by coaching the Elis, would’ve been proud we managed to link him to his game of choice.
So, back in 1976, when Ford was President, my father ran the National Football Association Clinic in Atlantic City. My pops sat down with his old classmate, former Connecticut Congressman Ron Sarasin, to discuss who they could give a service award to. Sarasin suggested Ford, and promised to deliver the President to Atlantic City.
They scheduled it, but it never happened. Ford had to cancel his appearance at the awards ceremony that summer in 1976, but promised to make it up to my father.
Come 1988, Ford was visiting Connecticut, and a young Connecticut congressman from Waterbury named John Rowland helped my dad cash in the rain check.
At a hotel in New Haven, for 30 minutes, my father and Ford talked football, mainly Michigan, Ford’s favorite team, while my mother and a photographer watched. Ford signed footballs and jerseys for Kennedy High School, Watertown High School and Western Connecticut State University. My father coached at all three schools.
Whatever the schools did with autographs, I don't know, but my father proudly displays the photo of him, my mom and President Ford on his wall. So my father had a personal reason to go.
We woke up at 5 a.m., and hoped to beat the crowds for the 9 a.m. opening of the Rotunda. We parked two blocks from the Capitol and secured spots 15 and 16 in line. Mourners 11 and 12 were a father and son from Laurel, MD.
Mourners 13 and 14 were high school exchange students from Mexico and Italy. They knew more about American history than most Americans, and had been to practically every museum and building on the Mall. They had tried to see Ford the night before, but left when they learned the line was six hours long.
Mourner 17 was Harold, a liberal from Washington state, and mourner 18 was a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security. As we waited in the dawn's early light, Park Service police distributed hand warmers and television cameras approached the line.
One reporter strolled up, didn’t identify herself, and rudely expected someone to comply with her demand for an interviewee. A reporter from Fox was much nicer, and I got him to interview my pops.
The Capitol Police kept us apprised of the schedule, and by 8:30, we had passed the reflecting pool, walked up the hill and were passing the metal detectors. We couldn’t even bring water into the Rotunda.
For the final 15 minutes of the wait, we stood on the Capitol plaza, overlooking the Washington Monument, the Mall, and the ever-growing line of mourners and well-wishers, which looked to be about 3,000 people at that point.
This was when we saw a soldier armed with an automatic rifle less than 30 feet from our line, and the discussion in the line turned to the state of war, and its impacts on our daily lives. The senior citizen from Massachusetts, she might have been number 24 or 25, she just wasn't comfortable with the sight.
I wished for the day when we can someday return to the Capitol as a place where citizens can wander freely. My desire wasn't met with derision as much as it was greeted with defeatism and depression. "Keep dreaming," I was told.
Finally, at 9, after three long hours of standing, they let us in. As we climbed the stairs, two officers handed out a sort of mass card. A quick glance at that, a few more stairs and boom, walking into the Rotunda was like being born, like walking out of the tunnel into Yankee Stadium.
The honor guard stood at attention around Ford's casket, which rested on the same catafalque used for Lincoln’s tomb. I didn't have but a moment to glance at it, because I was trying to soak in the soldiers, the huge paintings of famous moments in American history, the white stone details in the architecture, the flower arrangements, the other people walking through, the press table, the important looking men in suits, the painting on the top of the dome, and geez, I needed more than a minute in the Rotunda.
But ain't that life – wait and wait and wait and wait – and then you really only have a minute to enjoy what you labored so hard for, the end of the nightmare.
And perhaps that is all we will feel when this war ends, that boy, we worked years to defeat the colonial, imperial beast in Iraq, but in a short time, it will rear its ugly head again elsewhere, and our work will continue on, until the day we end up like President Ford, where the best you can hope for is to die in your sleep.