If you take the family out at 2 in the morning with the expectation that you will spend the entire night standing in a vast queue snaking around the Mall, you've given this some thought.

You've considered watching the whole spectacle on television, and you've decided that just doesn't cut it. You've wondered what other person you've never met would draw you out here, driving for hours or walking for miles, to be a part of a day in history. You've decided that you need to be here because this is what it means to live in this country, to say that I am part of something larger than my family, and I owe it to my country.

Bill Kavan, Scott Balthazor and Teresa Mallott flew in Thursday night from Arizona for a higher education conference in Bowie. After arriving at their hotel, they decided to head down to the Mall to wait for their few seconds in the Capitol Rotunda. Kavan, 36, ran Ronald Reagan's campaign back in elementary school; he remains a Republican. Balthazor, 32, and Mallott, 42, are Democrats. Their politics had little to do with their decision to forsake sleep on the night before their big presentation at the conference.

"Growing up, you look toward your president," Balthazor said, and he recalled the speech Reagan gave after the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, and he said: "I don't think we'll ever have a president again who is a leader. We're such a jaded society now."

Together, they recalled 20-year-old images of Reagan and Tip O'Neill, political adversaries who seemed to get along like good neighbors, and these Americans from Arizona, like so many others in this long, long line, wondered where we went off the rails, why people grew so polarized, why we split into Red and Blue, into factions that shout at each other through cable TV proxies, when that's not how we act anywhere else in our lives -- not at work, not at school, not at home.

They came in high heels, in suits, in uniform, in shorts, in T-shirts emblazoned with the peace symbol or the logo of the CIA, in jerseys with the names of a different sort of hero -- Ripken, Jeter, Elway.

Along Seventh Street, at the tail end of a line that would take seven hours to reach the Capitol, someone sang "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and 40 strangers joined in.

At the front of the queue, under metal railings near the security checkpoint, people had deposited their small children to sleep, seven of them in a row on the matted grass, their parents off somewhere in the snaking line, trusting their offspring to their fellow Americans, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the city, like it was 1942 again, like it was wartime, like we were all in this together.

As night crept toward morning, and the thousands moved closer to the reality that they were too late for a viewing, the crowd grew quiet, and the shuffling sounded like it had at Ground Zero in New York in those weeks after the attack -- a sweet sound of feet moving gently along, voices soft as if trying not to wake a child.

"It's the sounds, the smells, the sights," said John Whealan, a lawyer in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Arlington. "It's like watching a baseball game: Being there and watching on TV are two different things."

Being there, you could see an old woman all in black, her children supporting her by the elbows as she took each pained step.

And you could see Melissa Willett's family from Charles County, and her nieces from North Carolina, all prepared to stand through the night because, as Willett said, "He was the first one we knew that way, on our TVs all the time. It was a safe feeling, like you felt if you ever ran into him, he'd pat you on the back and tell you everything was all right. Like he belonged to us."

Willett, like so many others, felt a bond with Reagan because he was the first president she voted for. And because "we have him frozen in our mind as a strong person. Nancy did this wonderful thing for him and us by keeping him away from the cameras for the last years. Now we'll remember him the way he was, our TV president. There isn't that fading of power."

And all across the Mall, where Americans have demanded equality and celebrated democracy, people waited patiently, demonstrated to each other that in a time of fear and danger, they stand ready to help, even if our government hasn't bothered to ask.