When speculating to myself in the weeks before Christmas as to what I would do or try to accomplish during Break and especially the first week of January 2007, little did we know that we were do to land in the middle of a Historical Moment. The passing of Gerald R. Ford, the 38th President of these United States, just in the waning days of 2006, and the after New Year's national state funeral and final ceremonies in Grand Rapids MI -- it's not like it was totally unexpected. Ford was 93 and from news reports, his health had been deteriorating in the past year.
But I have to say this:
That these solemn events and remembrances happened at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007, and at the cusp of the change of rule in the United States Congress and changes going on at the White House -- well, it couldn't have happened at a better time both for a fitting memorial for the man or a reminder, perhaps even a rebuke or at least a warning, to some of those in charge of the government today.
A Personal View
Ford was president while I was in high school and the first year of college. He was, I believed at the time and have come to believe even stronger today, the best man at the right time to take away the bad taste of Richard Nixon and his machinations of office. And yet, his 29 months in office was probably sufficient.
A local reporter noted that a shift in just a few thousand votes in Ohio in the Ford-Carter election of 1976 would've given it to Ford. Sound familiar? Well actually... no. There was no crying foul or fraud. It was just a close election. 1976 was the first election I was eligible to vote in, and I'll tell you that I did not vote for Ford. Or Carter, for that matter. But I voted in North Carolina, so my vote "wasn't" a deciding factor. (grin) Both men have earned a great deal of respect from me over the years.
At any rate, Ford was the only president I ever "met", in the sense that I was within ten feet of him while he was shaking hands. Guilford Court House Battleground Memorial Park was the site of a Bicentennial commemoration, the Battle of Guilford Court House was Revolutionary War in case you were thinking North Carolina had to be that other war, and President Ford came to speak. The Grimsley Senior High band was honored to play, so I have played Ruffles and Flourishes and Hail to the Chief for a sitting President. I doubt I shall have such an honor again. (grin) Several band members shook Ford's hand as he made his way along the path. I stayed back and took a couple of pictures. Casey Spain, one of our percussionists and a marvelous comic actress, announced that President Ford, "stepped on my foot! And I shall never wash that foot again!" It was a lovely experience for all. On the way from Greensboro after Christmas, and after Ford had died, I told the woman at the Northwest Airlines curbside check-in that I was flying back to Grand Rapids' Gerald R. Ford International Airport -- and the woman turned out to have been a Grimsley student at that time in 1976 and as a member of the Jaycee's, was also in attendance that day. Such is the odd confluences of history and life that one runs into at interesting times in history.
Long after the facts and details fade, there are several things I shall remember about this past week. (1) The sight of the flag draped coffin in repose in front of the open doors of the House of Representatives, the Speaker's chair visible in the distance -- the one job which Ford actually wanted, as opposed to the one which history forced upon him. (2) A similar honor in front of the open doors of the Senate Chamber -- whose chair he did serve in as Vice-President of the United States and therefore President of the Senate. (3) The wind coming up in Washington on Tuesday, such that the flags of the hearse and regimental flags all flew outstretched "in the correct direction" -- blue star field in the upper left. (4) The remarkable service at the National Cathedral, whose grounds I once wandered having arrived fifteen minutes after the last tour of the day. (5) The arrival of Special Air Mission 29000 in Grand Rapids (it's only Air Force One when the sitting President is aboard), touching down quite far on the runway and just in front of the ceremonial crowd -- a very gentle touchdown with the nose wheel held up as the speed bled off, only finally reaching runway at the 4000-foot marker. (6) Smiling at the clueless cameraman, panning along the line of four artillery pieces alongside the presidential 747 firing the twenty-one gun salute -- not realizing that you fire seven volleys from three cannon, that the fourth is a reserve weapon in case there is a jam, misfeed or misfire from one of the others. (7) During the ceremony setting the coffin in repose at the museum, two wreaths were brought in and stood to either side. One from the University of Michigan and one from Yale. Undergraduate and law school. I wonder how many young people, far too young sometimes even for their parents to know or remember much of the Ford years, might be influenced by this reminder of the importance of education? (8) Having once been a pallbearer at the funeral of my Uncle Stanley, but only briefly having had to carry the coffin without the cart, I am forever in awe of all the servicemen who served the President's casket with honor and precision.
But most of all, this:
The Ford family, and all of West Michigan, is quite familiar with how fickle the weather is here -- I am sure all are as astonished as we are that the weather has been so magnificent in this stretch of the end of December and the beginning of January.
And then there has been the response of the community. Yesterday, Tuesday 2 January 2007, when the remains of Gerald R. Ford arrived, thousands of people lined the roads and streets and expressways from the Grand Rapids airport to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in downtown G.R. And then, most extraordinary, some 57,000 people stood in lines which sometimes took more than 4 hours to get through, to pass by the flag draped coffin in the lobby of the museum from about 5:30pm to 11:30am.
We had thought to go downtown in the middle of the night when we expected the crowds to be light. And eventually, by 7 or 8am, it turned out one could have a line as short as only 45 minutes. But several hours? We don't do crowds very well and I hate standing in lines -- the unnatural short steps and shuffle routine is both confining and hard on my joints. I'm not sure I've ever stood in a line for four hours in my life. At Expo 67 in Montreal, we stood for over two hours to get into the Soviet pavilion and we had some long more-than-ninety minute waits for buses at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta -- but that's it.
So we didn't go. Sometime soon, after they reopen the grounds, we'll pay our respects at the gravesite.
Honored To Serve
The 126th Army National Guard Band, playing when the casket departed the museum for the final church service on Wednesday 3 January 2007, was from Wyoming MI, right next to G.R. Indeed, Michigan no longer has any active duty full-time military bases, so there were some 550 Michigan National Guardsmen and Reservists who were called in to provide the military detachments for all the Grand Rapids ceremonies.
Lest one think that somehow this is second-rate, the B- or C-team, let me say how appropriate it is for this low-key of presidents to be served by Michigan's own -- and in a time when the current administration sees fit to mobilize National Guard and Reserve units for long term deployment overseas, the Michigan contingents are doubly appropriate.
Bring in outsiders? Michigan can see to honor its own, thank you very much.
My heart goes out to the Ford family, who have not only had to contend with the ordeal of having all this happen in such a public, national manner, but who have conducted themselves with true class. The Ford children have appeared at both the lying in state at the Capitol in Washington and the lying in repose at the Ford Museum, to personally thank some of the thousands who have come to pay their respects.
Grand Rapids turns out to be a good place to "raise 'em right."