A Long Wait For Moment Of Memories
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2004; Page A27
There were many reasons not to step into the line, starting with the line itself. It was long and slow. Then there was the sun: hot and glaring. And finally, the little girl: 9 years old and a little restless.
But Kayla Yurkanin said she was game. Her father, Greg, really wanted to see the coffin in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, and his enthusiasm was infectious. Like when he announced at the dinner table Tuesday that he was going to fill up the Saturn and drive 10 hours from Louisville to Washington to say goodbye to Ronald Reagan.
Did Kayla want to come along? They climbed into the car and her father stepped on the accelerator. Kayla stretched out in back and slept most of the way. A tank of gas took them to Charleston, W.Va. The next morning, they parked by the Pentagon City Metro stop, rode into town and staked out some prime real estate along Constitution Avenue about 1:30 p.m. for the 6 p.m. procession to the Capitol. At 8 p.m., Kayla collected the reward for her patience.
"Remember that root beer float at the end of the day yesterday?" her father reminded her on the second day of standing and waiting. "I sense another one at the end of the day today."
But it was only 11:10 a.m., and other milestones came first. The nine bottles of water, including one poured on Kayla's head and another on her feet. The numerous pages of Kayla's "Goosebumps" book by R.L. Stine, which she periodically consulted. The ducks in the Capitol Reflecting Pool. The cool air of the Capitol Rotunda and the hush within, where the flag-draped coffin held their gaze as they shuffled by.
"What time is it?"
"It's 20 to 12. Have some water."
His earliest memory of Reagan dates to 1979, when Yurkanin was almost 18 and was taking seriously his first presidential election. Some people were calling Reagan a warmonger, but Yurkanin -- an Air Force brat -- interpreted the candidate's emphasis on military power as a sign of strength.
"He was my first president," Yurkanin said. "He became part of our lives for a long time."
After the election, Yurkanin joined the Air Force and watched the inauguration at boot camp. Four years later, he was stationed in Spain and saw a poster, "Warhead," which pictured Reagan with a missile in his mouth; Yurkanin didn't like it but kept it as a souvenir of his time abroad.
He later was posted at Andrews Air Force Base, where he served as a flight engineer on the plane that picked up former president Richard Nixon and the rest of his family for the funeral of Pat Nixon. That plane, a regular on many presidential excursions, is now on display at the Reagan Presidential Library, he said proudly.
Those are some of Yurkanin's touchstones, personal memories that he connects to people and moments in history. This week will provide a few more, he thinks.
"My brother asked me why I wouldn't just watch this on TV," he said. "But here, all the Hollywood part of it is gone. Yesterday at the procession, I could see all those faces peering out of the limousines and I saw a woman who was tearing up, and I think she was reacting to all the supporters who lined up along the street. It's powerful."
He hopes Kayla will make similar connections later. Nine, he figures, is old enough to remember something for the rest of your life.
"Dad, my legs hurt," she said at 12:15.
"Well, stand like this. Lock one leg and bend the other. Or if you want, you can walk on your hands the rest of the way. We're almost there."
Kayla was born after Ronald Reagan announced he had Alzheimer's disease and stepped out of the public eye. But like her 5-year-old sister, she has a lot of knowledge of the news for a girl her age, thanks to television and to her father. He has told her what he thinks about Reagan: that he stood for integrity and freedom. She knew what to say when asked why she was in line: "It's a good way to honor him."
One reason that Yurkanin had told Kayla about Reagan was to explain why her sister, too young for the trip, got her name: Regan, pronounced like the president.
"I wanted to spell it different to allow her to make her own unique attachment to it," Yurkanin explained. "It feels good when you say it. It stands for something."
He said his father-in-law was named Ronald after Reagan the actor. "It isn't a cult or something," he added. "It's just something that people want as part of their life."
Kayla was hanging in there but clearly wouldn't have minded if a cold milkshake and an air-conditioned room were part of her life. Her father reminded her that they were prepared to stand in a much longer line, in hotter weather.
"Look behind us, Kayla. The line goes all the way across that street now. I think it was a good decision for us to come when we did."
By the time they reached a tent spraying mist near the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory about 1:30 p.m., Kayla was hot and tired. She was happy to get soaked under the mist. The pink sleeves of her Tinkerbell T-shirt turned red as she stood in front of a large fan and her shirt cooled in the wind.
"How much longer?" she asked.
"I can't predict that. But it really doesn't matter."
At 2:20, they walk up a carpeted ramp outside the Capitol, with its view of the Mall -- and the snaking line they endured.
"Wow," said Kayla, who was hot again. "That's a good view. I can't believe we walked all that way."
Yurkanin grabbed the two flags sticking out of the pocket of his khaki shorts and handed one to Kayla. Remember, he told her, the Rotunda is a sacred place, as sacred as a church.
The night before, Yurkanin caught C-SPAN's broadcast of visitors inside the Rotunda. He couldn't stop watching, imagining how he'd react when standing there.
"I was watching what people did," he said. "Some saluted, some blessed themselves, some were just checking out the rest of the dome. . . . It said so much."
Kayla's eyes drank in everything inside the Rotunda: the statues, the ceiling and, finally, the coffin in the middle of the room. She and her father walked slowly around it, and she never took her eyes off it. Yurkanin bit his bottom lip and followed her, stopping once to snap a salute.
Two minutes later, they were back outside. Yurkanin playfully hit Kayla in the shoulder with his baseball hat: "Always remember that," he told her.
Then she saw a fountain. "Since we just did that," she said, "now can we go swimming in that?"
They couldn't. But they could get ice cream and get ready for the drive home, and summer vacation, and everything else that will pass by the wayside while the memory of this day -- if things go according to his plan -- stays with her.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company