there are many reasons why i’m glad to be living in DC. for one, when my co-worker said to me this morning, “we’re heading down to watch president ford’s funeral procession in a few minutes. do you want to come?”, my first thought was not, are you completely insane? why would ford’s funeral procession ever be anywhere around here?, it was of course i would. yes, of course.
five of us left the building and walked a block over to 20th street. it was 9:30 – the official start time of the procession from the capitol to the national cathedral – and there were already people gathered along the curbs and in the doorways along the street. we crossed in the last seconds of a crosswalk signal (there is still traffic, somewhat unbelievably) and join some other co-workers in the middle of a shaded city block.
what surprised me the most about the whole thing was that it was actually three separate motorcades. the first came through within five minutes or so of our arrival, appearing at the far end of 20th, seven or eight blocks away, as a tiny-sized string of rhythmic light. this motorcade carried betty ford, her silhouette unmistakable through the back window of the black limousine at the center of it. then, only a few minutes after that, a longer motorcade, fronted by motorcycles and a fleet of monstrous black SUVs. the SUVs had every red and blue light on them flashing – roof, hood, mirrors, grill, wheelwells. without sound, the effect was almost cheerful, if you forgot for a moment the context of their display. the rest of the line carried dignitary after dignitary, gliding past in their sleek, shining clones of the same exact black car.
after that, nothing. No one moved – we knew it was not finished – but nothing came for a while. i realized that after fifteen minutes of clutching my half-empty au bon pain coffee cup in my bare hands, my fingers were starting to ache from the chill in the air. i grasped around in my coat pockets for my gloves and put them on. i craned my neck past the crowd along the curb, trying to see.
eventually, the final motorcade appeared down the hill, in the distance. the bevy of motorcycles rose slowly up the slope of 20th street and rumbled through, one by one, giving everything a thick feeling of vibration. then, suddenly, the hearse. as it approached the intersection, i saw at an angle the bright red and while stripes of the flag that covered the president’s coffin.
(in the moment, i have to say that the sight of this brought a hardness to the back of my throat, a pricking feeling at the top of my spine. Why, i thought later on, was this? And i remembered another image – so many other long, low boxes covered in American flags – these ones packed tightly together in a cargo plane. this image, however, is censored and suppressed. the same commitment, honor, loyalty to country, but instead of a mile-long tribute, they get hidden from view – willfully and maliciously disregarded. that, however, is a different story, and another man’s disgrace.)
the hearse slid towards us. i saw the uniformed policemen and women standing in intervals along the city block raise their hands, fingers flat and tight, to their foreheads in salute. to my right, katherine put her hand to her heart. and i bowed my head, for a moment, while he passed me by.
moments later, it was finished. the last two police cars rolled through side by side, their lazy lights swirling, and the three lanes of pavement were still. in the thin, bare branches of a tree behind me, a single bird sang out once, twice into the silence. then we all headed back to where we came from.