As the presidential funeral train pulled into the final station, a 13-year-old school boy stood on the sidewalk in front of the Rexall drugstore where the crowd was ten deep. The kid was on his tiptoes because this was the biggest thing that had ever happened in that town and he didn’t want to miss a thing.
By today’s standards it was surprising he didn’t have his iPhone out, but there was a reason...the smartphone hadn’t been invented yet.
The day was April 2, 1969 and the funeral train of Dwight Eisenhower, America’s 34th President had just pulled into Ike’s boyhood home of Abilene, Kansas.
I know this for a fact because I was that 13-year-old boy standing on tiptoes, as an eyewitness to history.
Before the Bush train 4141 this week, Eisenhower was the last president to ride to his final resting place on the rails.
This week, 49 years later I watched as the funeral train of George Herbert Walker Bush, which was painted the same shade of sky blue as Air Force One made the final leg of his incredible journey home, not at 35,000 feet like Air Force One, but at ground level, where the people could get as close to two American presidents as they may ever be able to again.
The day in 1969 when President Eisenhower returned home, by my dumb luck of stopping to watch where I did, I wound up being barely 20 feet from the casket and I remember how despite being surrounded by thousands of people, it was pin-drop quiet.
It seemed to me that it was taking a long time for the honor guard to move the casket from the train, until the military band from Fort Riley played ‘Ruffles and Flourishes,' and it reminded us not only that a native son was returning home but this one was one of the most popular people on earth who’d been elected president twice.
That day became even more surreal to me at the time because many of the people I watched every night on the Walter Cronkite news seemed to have been beamed live into our town of 5,000 people.
Most of the Pentagon brass was in attendance including General Omar Bradley who was one of Ike’s pallbearers. There were legions of foreign diplomats and dignitaries who’d flown halfway around the globe to our little town in the middle of the map to say thank you, not only to the president of the United States, but to General Eisenhower, the Allied Forces commander who helped save the world in World War ll.
Ike’s family climbed into cars and then drove toward the Eisenhower Presidential Library Chapel just a couple blocks south on Buckeye.
Just behind the hearse was a limo I now presume to have been the only bulletproof car in Kansas, because it seemed to be jammed with important people. Former President Lyndon Johnson had to ride on jump seat, in the front, facing backward, as the then-current President, Richard Nixon got the good seat in the middle.
This week as Fox News broadcast the chopper shots of thousands gathered along the 70-mile route to College Station. I knew exactly how those people gathered in the Texas rain felt. They rearranged their schedules to make sure they would be at the various locations along the route when the train would pass.
The almost-lost American tradition of the funeral train, used once upon a time by presidents Lincoln, McKinley, Grant and FDR, gave everyday folks the chance to pay their respects to the commander in chief.
Late Thursday we saw social media snapshots of the Bush family riding one car behind the casket car, most poignantly with former President 43 facing the picture window, so those who came to salute his father could see him and his appreciation of what they were doing. He was paying respect to the people who were paying their respects.
Television is a wonderful thing, in its ability to bring the viewer up close to an event than they possibly could get on your own, but watching isn’t the same as paying your respects, in person. At least that’s how I feel almost 50 years after I first spotted that Presidential flag and heard Hail to the Chief, and we all knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore...we were a part of history.