Friday, January 05, 2007

A husband, a father and a grandfather

Jimmy Carter is no longer my missing link. I was able to get an up-close view of our 39th president this week as he took part in laying to rest the man he succeeded in the White House, Gerald R. Ford, here in Grand Rapids, Mich.

This was an emotional week, one of those times when we journalists walk the fence between being a participant and a neutral observer serving as the eyes and ears for our readers.

But it is impossible to not be awed by the majesty of a state funeral, or to not be swept up in what became a homecoming for Grand Rapids’ favorite son.

Ford’s casket and his family arrived on Tuesday afternoon after the service in the National Cathedral in Washington. My first assignment was to be at the Ford Museum when the casket arrived for a brief ceremony before the president was to lie in repose overnight.

There is some downtime in an event like this because the Secret Service demands everyone be there hours early, partially for security.

This allowed me time to talk to some of the U.S. Army staffers who are in charge of such events. I was amazed at the amount of planning involved, literally years of work coming together. The days are planned down to the minute.

When the time came, I was brought into the museum to a perch on the second floor, overlooking the atrium where the ceremony was to take place. I was the only reporter there, a testament to my editors’ pull. I considered that both a tremendous privledge and responsibility. Everyone else relied on a C-SPAN video feed.

Some of the guests, such as the governor, were already in place. Others, including Carter and his wife, arrived in a motorcade prior to the arrival of the Fords.

Everyone stood when they heard the military band outside play “Ruffles and Flourishes” and “Hail to the Chief.” Then the color guard slowly marched into the museum, followed by the flag-draped casket carried by six soldiers, their every movement precise, polished and in perfect unison.

I confess there was a lump in my throat when they set the casket on a catafalque under a large stone presidential seal that decorates the atrium.

Then Betty Ford, her children and grandchildren were escorted to their seats. The first lady looked smaller and frailer than I imagined. The Fords are icons here in Grand Rapids. To see them in person is a reminder that they are real people showing real hurt at losing a husband, father and grandfather with the added burden of people looking over their shoulders as they grieve.

This was intended to be an arrival ceremony and it was relatively brief, with an invocation by the mayor and comments from the former head of the president’s foundation and the governor. The Army Chorus sang the hymn “Shall We Gather by the River,” chosen, I’m sure because the museum is located on the banks of the Grand River that gives the city its name.

After about an hour to remove chairs and prepare the room, the museum was opened so people could pay their respects. Plans called for the museum to be open overnight until late the next morning, when it was time for the funeral at a nearby church

The planners expected thousands of people, set up the convention center across the river to accommodate the lines.

But what happened caught everyone by surprise. So many people came pouring in that the lines snaked out of the convention hall then throughout most of downtown. I’ve never seen anything like it, stretching for block after block and over four bridges. Police were telling people they would be in line for six to eight hours, and I didn’t see a single person walk away.

Family members handed these cards to people who paid their respects.

My job was to walk the length of the line from about 9 p.m. until 2 a.m. asking people what moved them to spend the night standing for a few moments before a casket.

People freely told stories of their encounters with Ford – you meet a lot of people when you are in Congress for 25 years – and their pride that a president could hail from their city.

Others said they just wanted to be a part of history, and knew they’d never have another experience like it in their lives.

I spoke to people who came from as far as Chicago and northern points of Michigan, people with babies and elderly parents.

Amazingly, no one was tense or grumbling. I get cranky when I have to wait on line at the supermarket, and police told me there was just one incident the entire night.

In all, about 57,000 people – roughly the capacity of Shea Stadium -- passed through the museum.

Several of Ford’s children spent time greeting people on line and handing them cards with the president’s photo and a word of thanks. It was a very classy thing to do.

I finished my shift at 2 a.m. and spent about 45 minutes writing the story before heading home.

My children had been watching the arrival of the casket in Washington earlier in the week, and last week I brought them down to the museum to sign the condolence book, so we had several discussions about President Ford and what he meant to the city and the country. They asked that I wake them up when I got home and bring them downtown to view the casket.

I knew my 14-year-old would be fine, but was a little worried about how the 9-year-old would handle it. But I was proud of both of them as they respectfully walked past the president. I hope it is something they will always remember.

We didn’t arrive home until about 4 a.m. – the kids are on Christmas break, so they could sleep in – but I had to return back around 9 to help with the funeral coverage.

My assignment Wednesday was to join the media group outside the church and describe the arrival of the hearse and the ceremonies that take place before and after the funeral.

The honor guard brings President Ford into Grace Episcopal Church. The president's brother is in the light jacket on the far right. The next person in a light jacket is golfer Jack Nicklaus.

We’re used to cold, gray winters and you can usually be assured of snow in January. But we haven’t had snow in weeks and the weather was beautifully sunny and only slightly chilly.

Vice President Cheney was one of the speakers, so that called for new levels of security. Every street within three blocks of the church was blocked to traffic with dump trucks and other public works vehicles.

There were thousands of people outside the church, and they fell silent when the honor guard and Air Force band marched out of the church, again in perfect formation. Then a string of police cars and black vehicles started arriving with guests and the Ford family. The honorary pallbearers – including golfer Jack Nicklaus – were positioned at the end of the driveway.

Finally, the hearse pulled into view and stopped about 20 feet from where I was standing.

Even the post jaded onlooker cannot help but be impressed by the pageantry and the seven soldiers who carry the president in and out of the church.

If you closed your eyes you would not have believed that you were surrounded by thousands of people. The only sounds were the commanders issuing orders to the honor guard and two blocks away, those protesters who have been showing up at every military funeral for the past year. I think they were looking for a confrontation and must have been frustrated when they were ignored because they suddenly stopped and disappeared.

The scene outside the church relaxed once the service started inside. Reporters sat around watching the video feed from inside and talked with the network people who came from out of state. Some of the Army staffers told us horror stories about where they were staying after getting bumped from the main hotel, and people in the East Grand Rapids neighborhood surrounding the church all apparently felt the need to show off their shaved dogs in assorted designer jackets.

I spoke to families who had gathered there since early in the morning with blankets and snacks for the kids. One said she worried that their spread would look like a picnic and seem disrepectful, but they could think of no other way to keep the kids content.

But it was all business again when the honor guard and band reemerged. This time the family was brought out into the street to the rear of the hearse, with Mrs. Ford assisted by one of her sons and her military escort.

Shortly thereafter, the motorcade arrived back at the museum, where the president is to be buried. Again, thousands and thousands of people filled downtown.

No one was allowed close to the fenced-in area around the gravesite, but people wanted to see the 21-gun salute fired by cannons that promised to rattle windows – they did – and the 21 F-15 fighter jets that flew in formation, with one breaking off from the group and seeming to head straight up into space. Like everything else in the past two days, it was awe-inspiring.

Today we expected life to return to relative normalcy after the hectic two weeks.

The museum, which is in a city park, is practically across the street from the newspaper, and on my way to grab a sub at Jimmy John’s I figured I’d pass through the park and see the gravesite.

I was surprised to see a Secret Service agent. He was letting people walk past, but making sure no one stopped. Then I saw why.

The Ford family was once again up at the gravesite, Mrs. Ford by now using a wheelchair. There was no honor guard, no cannons, no flyovers and no crowds. Just a family saying a quiet goodbye to a husband, a father and a grandfather -- who just happened to be the president of the United States.


G-Fafif said...

Beautiful reportage, amigo.

lifl said...

Nice post Dave.

Sunshine Sis said...

You're an amazing person, Dave.

Mike V said...

Nice work, Dave, as usual.

Mets Guy in Michigan said...

Thank you, guys!

Tony Hartsfield said...

Brilliant post, Chip.

Doc G said...

Great job as usual. You have come a long way since the Pequa PowWow. I think it was the influence of your editor there! I am proud of your work.

Mets Guy in Michigan said...

Thanks Doc! It's always great to hear from the Best Man!

Hey, shoot me an e-mail. I might be passing through this summer and it would be fun to get together.

Don't worry, there's plenty of ABBA on the iPod!