Waiting for Touchdown
In an empty hangar at Andrews Air Force Base, Army Staff Sgt. Allen Durbin sits on a cooler, dressed in a T-shirt and the dark green pants of his uniform, eating mixed nuts and drinking Gatorade.
Durbin has known for months that, when the time came, he would be one of Ronald Reagan's body bearers. He puts black polish on his shoes.
Durbin is a member of the Old Guard. The unit does 15 to 20 burials a day at Arlington National Cemetery, says Army Capt. Alexis Neal, who is responsible for the soldiers greeting the plane from California.
It is hot outside and only slightly cooler inside the hangar. Uniforms wait on clothes racks. A military band warms up. A bomb-sniffing dog checks the musicians' instruments.
The honor guard members, representing all branches of the military, rehearse their duties without a coffin. The men are relaxed, all business. "This is what I do," Neal says.
At midday, the body bearers watched their West Coast counterparts handle Reagan's coffin. Someone called to see how heavy it is: 720 pounds, they were told. "Mahogany and marble," Durbin says.
The tall, brown-eyed 29-year-old jokes about how thin he is. "I hope I don't stumble; I hope I don't drop the casket," Durbin says. "I've got some big, strong Marines to help."
Durbin has spent a decade in the Army. Fifteen months ago, he parachuted into a muddy field in northern Iraq and spent nine months in the country. "I wish I was there now."
Durbin, who grew up in Indiana, says Reagan was his favorite president, though he wasn't old enough to vote for him. He even liked Reagan's acting. He has one of Reagan's most popular movies, "Knute Rockne, All American," at home on videotape and DVD.
At 4:45 p.m., the honor guard members take position on the tarmac. Ten minutes later, they see the plane in the sky.
-- Nancy Trejos and Cameron W. Barr