Of the five days of national mourning that followed the initial news flash announcing the loss, I believe it will be Wednesday, June 9, that will cling to my memory with the greatest clarity.
That was the day they processed the flag-draped casket bearing the body through the streets of Washington before resting it in the Rotunda of the Capitol building. And that day I did something I do only very rarely, and almost never have done while stationed in front of a television set. I wept.
Something hit me when the historic caisson paused for the first time. All were still except the riderless horse accompanying the fallen rider. Oblivious to the former president's empty equestrian boots set backward in its stirrups, the animal appeared to be anxious, if not ready to run. For long seconds, the only sound was the discordant rush of wind rattling a microphone. It sounded like an unseen chariot race hurtling past on its way to heaven.
Finally the lean stallion relaxed. That was when the image — manipulative as I know some will accuse its makers of being — burned itself into my brain. It took a few minutes for my thoughts to coalesce into a coherent observation. When they did, I realized it wasn't just the sense of loss over President Reagan no longer being on this earth that was choking me up.
For the scene also amplified the sinking feeling I get in the pit of my stomach whenever I think about what has become of the country I love in the years since I grew up. And that happened not during Reagan's Washington years but earlier, in the 1960s and ’70s.
America was all but cracking up at the time, but you'd never have known it in my neighborhood. For one thing, every kid had two parents at home (except one friend who had lost his mother to a tragic illness). For another, most of our moms were home most of the time. Things weren't perfect by any means, but they were more or less rightly ordered.
And then there was the culture. Yes, it had its slick, dark and exploitative side. But some wise hand, working behind the scenes with the grownups around us, held the seedy stuff in check. Together they relegated smut to the margins of society.
Back then, dads and moms really did seem to know best. Or at least they didn't celebrate the sweet seductions they surely sniffed on the breeze, much less indulge themselves and act like they expected us to do the same.
By now, it seems, the dark side has long since expanded exponentially, displacing the moral order we knew and overwhelming the cultural mainstream. In fact, it has by now become the mainstream. Exit love of neighbor; enter tolerance. So long, community; hello radical-rights assertion. Nice knowing you, First Amendment; right this way, freedom of filth. And so on.
Watching the memorial procession June 9, I thought about the depth of our loss and recalled how for a heartening and hopeful time it really did look like America just might be able to take back the night. That time was when Ronald Wilson Reagan was in the White House. I thought: Who's going to fill those empty boots now?
The answer was delivered two days later by no less likely a messenger than Patti Davis, the Reagans’ famously rebellious daughter.
Davis told how, when she was a child, her father took her out onto the grounds of the Reagan family ranch a few days after a raging brush fire had swept through. The blaze had left a charred field. The “Gipper,” a man of deep Christian conviction, gently bent down and pointed to something the young girl had not noticed amid the destruction: Some tiny green shoots were beginning to peek up out of the ashes.
“You see?” he said to her. “New life always comes out of death. It looks like nothing could ever grow in this field again, but things do.”
If there's a better symbol than that for the kind of new springtime our burned-out nation needs right now, I'd like to know what it could be.
Nor could the subtext have been more striking. For who could forget that our most optimistic and forward-looking president had been missing in action for nearly a decade? Now it was as though he had come home, rallied and, just before he rode off into his final sunset, turned to leave us with a bold, yet kind, word of encouragement.
Encouragement, not in pursuit of some arbitrary achievement for which we can pat ourselves on the back later — but toward the goal of winning the prize for which God has called each of us heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Had God somehow summoned him to speak at his own funeral, Ronald Reagan would surely have urged us to keep on believing that, in America, there are always new shoots rising up from the ashes. All we have to do is see to their care, feeding — and watering. I knew all those tears would be good for something.
Mr. President, as you gave your spurs one last kick you inspired us, as you had so often before, to quit looking back and keep pressing ahead. May God reward your faith in him in the next life just as you rewarded our trust in you in this one.
David Pearson is the Register's features editor.