In California, a Community of Mourners
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2004; Page C01
SIMI VALLEY, Calif., June 7 -- The hearse bringing the body of former president Ronald Reagan to his library on the hill was followed live by the circling helicopters of the local television stations, though the scene bore little resemblance to the wild police chases that are a ghoulish fixture of Southern California news.
But as the motorcade made its way Monday morning from the mortuary in Santa Monica down Wilshire Boulevard to the 405 freeway and then on to the 118, known as the Ronald Reagan Freeway, people began to rush to highway overpasses to witness Reagan's journey. Under cool gray skies, some stood at attention and saluted the passing procession.
In the Sepulveda Pass, which traverses the Santa Monica Mountains, Jason Schwartz was out of breath from his dash from his nearby office to the bridge over the 405. "Did I make it? Is he here yet?" Schwartz asked as a few dozen motorists pulled over and got out of their cars.
And then the motorcade crested the ridge and Schwartz lined up to take a picture with the camera in his cellular phone. As the hearse passed below, two little girls waved.
Traffic, which usually hurtles along like a chariot race, slowed to a halt on both sides of one of the nation's busiest freeways as the procession made the 45-mile trip.
Cars turned on their headlights. Firefighters, perched on one bridge above the freeway, raised a large American flag as the motorcade passed below.
The public began gathering before dawn at Moorpark Community College to wait for the chance to view the former president's closed coffin. Around 11 a.m., the first shuttle buses began ferrying people to the Reagan Library a few miles away. The line grew and stretched and doubled back on itself. By noon, the wait was two hours to board the buses. The cars in the parking lots bore license plates from Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and California.
In the line, people had time to talk. Mothers carried babies; fathers held children's hands. Three young men wearing blazers and cowboy hats tried to remember which presidents had been shot, as Reagan was, and which were assassinated. A man who described himself as "a Christian surfer," dressed in T-shirt and shorts, said this "is the kind of thing missing in America, when a bunch of ordinary citizens come together for something."
Liza Alvarez came with her mother. They had showed up to see a little moment of history, to pay respects, to be a part of it. "He was a good president and a good man, I think," Alvarez said. She remembered that "I grew up with Reagan. He was the first president I really knew."
The atmosphere in the line: like a quiet block party of neighbors who had long lived side-by-side but didn't really know each other. No cameras were allowed. Cell phones were to be turned off. No food. No umbrellas or folding chairs. When several people had to give up their plastic American flags, a sheriff's deputy arranged for the Red Cross to set up a place to hold them. "We're not putting these in the trash," he promised. Everyone was searched and screened by metal detectors. There was no pushing or shoving.
Finally, in the buses, the people began to revive from the long wait, and to grow excited. It was a sad event, yes, but the gatherers were looking forward to seeing the library; it was an adventure. As the shuttles mounted the rough brown hill where the library sits, the passengers ooohed at the large encampment of media vans and reporters milling about, doing stand-ups. "Well, I hope they get this right," one guy said, in kind of a harrumph. But there wasn't much talk that had a partisan tone. Several people in the line volunteered that they were Democrats.
At the library, the crowd passed through the courtyard and moved much faster across the chipped red tile floors. As they neared the room where Reagan's body rested, people became silent. At the door was a larger-than-life statue of Reagan, titled "After the Ride." His image was as tall as two men, a giant: the smiling former president, wearing a jean jacket and boots and holding an old cowboy hat in his left hand.
Inside the chamber sat the big coffin, its wood polished under a draped flag. The carpet was blue. Someone had placed two white roses at the foot, and their petals had just begun to curl and fade.
Members of an honor guard, representing all the branches of the armed forces, stood ramrod straight, at such extreme, still attention that they almost looked like statues themselves: eyes staring ahead, white gloved hands wrapped tightly around bayonets on rifles at rest.
The people walked slowly. Some made the sign of the cross on their chests. A last look. A slight hestitation. And then they exited back into the daylight. The Red Cross offered them cups of cool water. A volunteer passed out commemorative cards, embossed with the presidential seal, one for each visitor, that read: "With gratitude for your expression of sympathy in honoring the life of Ronald Wilson Reagan, February 6, 1911 to June 5, 2004."
The lines back at the Moorpark Community College were getting longer and longer as the afternoon turned to evening. The viewing was to continue through the night, concluding at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company