- The Washington Times - Friday, June 11, 2004

By Cheryl Wetzstein, Monique E. Stuart and Megan Fromm


They came, thousands strong, from all across America and beyond, to mourn Ronald Reagan, taking position, one-by-one, at the end of the winding line.

They came and stood, and waited, and shuffled along, until their knees cracked and their backs ached, until the officers in charge tried to turn them away.

And still they kept coming.

You won’t see the casket, an officer told Maggie Hall, of Smithville, Va., at about 2 a.m. The line’s too long and you won’t get in before they shut it down, he said.

She took her place anyway, knowing the wait was six hours at least.

“Even if I couldn’t get in, I had to wait. I couldn’t give up,” she said. “[Reagan] was an optimist. So I was an optimist.”

The Madsen family — Joe, his wife and eight children — drove 10 hours from Wilmington, N.C., to take their place at the end of the line at 1:40 a.m., on the Mall. When officers later tried to turn them away at the Reflecting Pool, Mr. Madsen pleaded his case.

“We’re not cutting in line,” he said. “We have been waiting all night.”

After taking a look at the tired family — two of the youngest children in strollers — the gatekeepers relented.

“Sir, we can let you in, but we can’t make any promises you’ll actually get into the Rotunda,” said one guard.

Like Mrs. Hall, the Madsens got in, joining more than 100,000 others who waited in line and walked through the Rotunda to pay their respects to the former president during the 38 hours his body lay in state under the Capitol dome.

Thursday, just before midnight, people arriving at the Capitol to join the line had to walk seven blocks — to Seventh Street SW — to find the end. The wait, they were told, was seven hours.

By 1 a.m., people were feeling the strain. It took about 15 minutes to walk the length of a rope line, so mothers, children and the elderly moved ahead and camped under trees, grabbing 45 minutes or more of rest until the others in their party caught up.

By 3 a.m., every tree had sleeping adults and children under it. Others stretched out asleep on the grass under the ropes, oblivious to the hundreds of people who carefully walked by them.

Most people, including many with canes or other disabilities, soldiered on through the balmy air.

“We’re like zombies,” said one jovial black man who had joined the line after his work shift had ended. “But this is one of those things you have to do here.”

There were a smattering of Reagan-Bush T-shirts in the crowd, but for the most part, the only political statement was a simple flag pin or patriotic red, white and blue clothing. Tourists, speaking quietly in native languages, blended in with Americans of all colors, sizes and ages.

Germantown resident Kim Friedrich, who arrived at the end of the queue around 12:30 yesterday morning, was told she most likely would not make it into the Rotunda. She, too, waited anyway.

“As we went through the last line of the maze, a police chief came and told us we did the right thing by waiting,” Ms. Friedrich said.

Around 4 a.m., many people got a second wind. A few started singing “Happy Birthday” while others laughed out a few lines of the “Hokey Pokey.” A lady scooped up a lost driver’s license from the ground, saying “I’ve got to mail this to them.”

The sense of camaraderie was heightened when Red Cross workers and U.S. Park Police surprised walkers with bottles of water at Fourth Street SW and elsewhere down the line. Soon groups of young people were balancing bottles on their heads as they walked. One young father, whose wife left the line to tend to their 14-month-old daughter, used the bottle-on-the-head technique to help her find him again amid the moving mass of humanity in the rope lines.

Signs of dawn appeared around 5 a.m. as one group arrived at the Reflecting Pool on the west side of the Capitol. It was still another hour before the line wended peacefully through police checkpoints, up marble steps and into the warmly lit Rotunda.

At 7 a.m., District resident Diane Woods hustled up the Hill to catch the tail end of the line and was met head-on by a police officer who was hesitant to let her pass.

“They were doing their job. We were doing ours,” she said, referring to others, like herself, trying to squeeze into the last group heading into the Capitol. “They held their lines, we held ours.” Eventually, police let the mourners pass.

“They were very accommodating,” Ms. Woods said.

The last person through the Rotunda, Fairfax resident Michael Golias, looked back at the Capitol dome as he made his way down to the street after paying his respects to the former president.

“There are opportunities in a lifetime, and if you miss those, you’re missing something significant,” he said, reflecting on the long night, capped by a few moments before the casket. “This is one of those moments.”

When the funeral motorcade left the Capitol and the mist in the air gave way to rain, those who had waited through the long night finally headed home.

“He was my favorite president, he really was,” said Jan Holmberg of Tamaqua, Pa. “As I walked away, I said, ‘Good night, Mr. President.’ because I know it’s not forever.”w

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