WASHINGTON – There are times when history beckons and reporters like myself arrive on the scene.
We look from the outside in, discerning fragile, fleeting truths from interviews and observations as the scene passes by. On very rare occasions a reporter can report from the inside out, reporting not for the moment, but for posterity. My own posterity.
I did so for six hours Thursday evening and Friday morning as I stood on line with tens of thousands of others awaiting the chance to pay our respects to former President Reagan (search).
The final figure, the U.S. Capitol Police (search) now report, was more than 105,000.
I brought my two oldest children, ages 9 and 7. We arrived at 9 p.m. We left at 3 a.m. We waited six hours for precisely 55 seconds beneath the Capitol dome with the former president.
We moved silently. As did everyone. We paused briefly. As did everyone. We moved on, back into a cool summer air. We blinked in awe at the view from the hill, down the grassy slope into the mall that lay before and the multitudes awaiting to join our fraternity of memory and beyond to the radiant Washington Monument. We clutched in our hands a commemorative card, a token for a scrapbook yet to be created.
But the end was not what mattered. The journey was. Just like with Reagan.
The line began nearly a mile from the Capitol and followed a serpentine route of metal barriers and rope lines familiar to anyone who has waited for the best ride at Disneyland or Universal Studios.
As I took my place and became a part of this grand procession, I for the first time in many, many years was observing from the inside out, moving step by step, nudging my children on even as their fatigue and weariness grew.
Once the line tugged us sufficiently so there were thousands in front and thousands behind I felt a word come into my mind that I hadn't thought of ever as having anything to do with my life: countrymen.
It's a word of yore, a word of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, a word that grew less and less usable as modernity and our society's ferocious pursuit of individuality led us to believe we were a country of men and women — but not a country of countrymen who could be easily gathered or easily recognized.
I felt a kinship with strangers as the line plodded slowly toward the Capitol.
And it began with the realization that this crowd of 21st Century Americans gathered on the great expanse of the National Mall, the nation's backyard as it's often called, needed almost nothing at all to amuse itself.
All we needed and all we wanted was companionship and the common, unspoken purpose of respect and admiration for the president whose flag-draped casket awaited us beneath the glowing Capitol dome.
We needed no Jumbotrons or speakers slung over tripods, thrumming with Muzak. I saw no Walkmen, no I-Pods, no headphones of any kind to blot out the moment or recreate among us the anesthetizing veil portable music so often works to blot out humanity.
The thousands upon thousands of us seemed to want and need nothing.
The National Park Service (search) provided bottled water. Enterprising vendors sold ice cream (a smattering of sales only). One man on a Vespa arrived as if from a vapor with Domino's pizzas ($10 a box — also, just a few takers).
But there were no institutional vendors. No souvenir stands. And these deprivations mattered as much as the dust that rose in gentle clouds and clung and flew on the passing breeze.
All that was there for us — and all that we needed — was the chirping chatter of a happy, contented, confident people. We all felt part of slightly sacrificial, ennobling enterprise.
I had many moments to think and my mind considered some clichés about America: that we don't appreciate history, that we cannot discern meaningful from trivial, that we are ruled by selfishness or consumed by the religion of convenience.
I saw none of this as the line tugged my children and me closer to the dome.
This was history. And America was there. This was meaningful. And America was there. This was selfless and inconvenient. And America was there.
Everyone knew that nothing awaited them at the end of their journey but a piece of their nation's past and piece of their grateful heart. And that was more than enough.
As I told my children, everyone in this line knows they won't be one dime richer or one bit more famous when they get to the end.
And who were my countrymen?
I met them from Colorado, Ohio, Kentucky, California, Maryland, Georgia, Massachusetts, Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Oregon.
I saw senior citizens with canes and walkers, others in wheelchairs, pushed lovingly and dutifully by family or friends. I saw children as young as my own, some younger and of walking age, trudging with sturdy good humor.
I saw expectant mothers and others pushing strollers with infants who long ago slept and dreamt as the wheels below turned slowly over the thick, trampled grass. I saw one man who cradled his infant child in the crook of his arm for the entire 6-hour climb to the top of Capitol Hill.
I saw white Americans, black Americans, Latino Americans, Asia Americans, Arab Americans.
I saw crisp dress uniforms of every service: Marine Corps, Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard.
I saw my countrymen around me — and I mean around me.
These were countrymen close enough to touch or among those I would pass again and again as the line snaked back and forth against itself.
I didn't take down anyone's name. I conducted no interviews. I didn't need to ask why they were there. I didn't need to know what they were feeling.
Upon placing yourself in the line you knew. You were in line, nowhere near a computer, but as connected as ever to some simple, decent wellsprings of America.