3:06 p.m., Tuesday afternoon, January 2, 2007. Former president Gerald R. Ford’s remains have landed in Grand Rapids, at the airport bearing his name, and I am in position on a bridge overlooking I-196, which feeds into I-96, one of two major expressways cutting east-west across the bottom half of Michigan. There are already sixty people lined up on this or the next overpass east of here. We are waiting for the motorcade, which the police officer tells me is running late.
It is light outside. Bright and clear. A good day for ceremony.
According to one of the many press releases, “the remains will depart the museum with ceremony and proceed to Grace Episcopal Church for a private funeral service.” The remains will arrive at the church with ceremony, and will depart the church with ceremony.
Two University of Michigan songs will be played as part of the arrival ceremony: “The Victors” and “The Yellow and Blue.” Most people know the first one from television, though probably not the second. Ford played football for the University of Michigan; his number was ceremonially retired. This music is meaningful and specific, and was selected in advance by Ford himself for the various ceremonies. The funeral and interment services, arrivals, and departures will be soundtracked by a preponderance of Bach and a number of traditional hymns, most of which I recognize.
I return to my car for warmth and music. I sit here on this strange-weathered day contemplating Gerald R. Ford, who is referred to almost exclusively with the full name and the R. I listen to pop music on the factory-installed stereo in my Subaru, specifically “Ceremony” by the British band New Order. I am here along with these other thousands gathering to “line the streets,” as the television stations’ websites exhort us to do, in honor of Ford’s remains’ return to their childhood home. Can remains be said to have a childhood home? Our culture certainly thinks so. Place of burial is important. It accrues meaning. Ford had asked to be interred here, in the crypt on the Ford museum grounds that has been waiting for him ever since I moved back to Michigan four years ago.
Ford is one of two important Fords in Michigan.
Now the crowd has doubled. They are waiting. I am waiting. I am waiting for them and for the motorcade, for the ceremony of it, the pomp and circumstance. Many people are dressed up for this. Black is appropriate, goth appropriate, funeral appropriate, though I’m not wearing it.
“Ceremony” is almost certainly one of New Order’s best songs. I say almost because it’s an iffy choice since it was recorded for their first single, Ceremony (1981), their first as New Order after they ceased being Joy Division after their former lead singer Ian Curtis’s suicide. It was actually penned by the band as Joy Division, but never recorded past the demo stage. Bernard Sumner, who assumed singing duties in New Order, sounds a lot like he’s channeling Ian Curtis on this track. The band reportedly had agreed to split if one of them left the band, so they re-formed as another band, the sort-of-martially-named electronic pop outfit New Order.
I don’t know what Curtis’s funeral was like, if he had one, or what.
What I wish is that I had brought my vintage Ford election campaign sign so I could hold it over my head like John Cusack does the boom box in the film Say Anything, an act that has become a kind of ceremony, a recognizable gesture, repeated I’m sure by tens of thousands of wooing boys. It is even iterated on an episode of South Park. See the boys queue outside your bedroom window, boom boxes directed up like satellite dishes to your cold, cold heart.
“Temptation,” another New Order song, and the song that I’d argue is the best pop song of the last twenty-five years, and probably the best pop song ever written, plays on the car stereo.
A Ford pulls up to the curb in front of me.
The police officer conducting crowd control for this event has informed me we are not allowed to be on the side of the interstate approaching us; we are not allowed to be above Ford’s body as it comes. We cannot darken the path with our shadows, if there was sun to be had here at all.
The light is bleakening now, white and weak and obscured by clouds, filtering through only intermittently. It feels appropriate, as if the weather is complying with the collective mood. If there won’t be snow, it will look like there could be snow. Dead puffs of leaves line trees, a little, and the cloud cover looks threatening behind it.
Here’s a douchebag in a Chevy pulling in. Those sunglasses are hard to take seriously. Come on, man.
World in Motion
According to the local news channel WoodTV8’s website, “During the interment service, a 21-aircraft flyover in a ‘missing man’ formation will fly south to north up the Grand River.” This is a sentence taken exactly from a press release (a kind of ceremonial offering to the public that describes the various rites that will be performed as part of the national, state, and private ceremonies), “Public Participation in Michigan for State Funeral Ceremonies for President Gerald R. Ford” by JTF-NCR Public Affairs. This document describes our role.
“Missing Man” formations had their roots in the British Royal Air Force in World War I to demonstrate upon return how many planes returned from a mission.
Charles Schulz, the creator of the comic strip Peanuts, got a flyby at his funeral, possibly in tribute to his use of Snoopy and the Red Baron. By British World War II–era fighter planes, no less. Daniel Ford (no relation to any of the obvious Fords), author of Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942, has an interesting article on the Missing Man formation in which he traces the history of official flybys at various funerals and important events.
The last time I saw any kind of formation of jets live was at a University of Alabama Crimson Tide football game in 2002 or 2001. The game of football, and the Alabama brand of it in particular, generates a lot of ceremony. There are fight songs (“We’re gonna beat the hell outta you… Rammer jammer yellow hammer, Give ’em hell, Alabama”). The various processions of the home team with their bands and phalanxes of cheerleaders, dancers, and backers proceed to the stadium. There are the mascots, the drum corps. The College GameDay show on ESPN with the donning of the mascot’s heads. The gathering of thousands upon thousands to line the streets for the progression of the glorious teams. The marching bands, remainders of a martial culture. Various military people were present at this game in a tribute to I don’t remember what. Probably the war in Iraq, iteration one or two. The fighter jets flew over during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It was a totally exhilarating surprise. That’s what it’s for.
Ford prearranged all of this. He reportedly “kept it simple” compared to other presidential funerals. He knew of course that he would die, and made arrangements for everything, chose the songs to be played, the pallbearers, and even asked President Jimmy Carter to speak at his funeral if Ford died first (and that he would return the favor if Carter died first). All (or most, anyway) of this aggregated ceremony is designed for us, not for him, by him. It is a last offering to the public.
In a Lonely Place
Today is a national day of mourning, an official day off for many. What can this man, this name, this president, or possibly the presidency, mean to the public, so that we should spend a day considering his life and legacy. What does it mean to Grand Rapids that the president is from here. He is a hero, a local. They would like to claim him as their own. I am not one of them, one of the West Michiganders (or Michiganians, if you prefer—there is some discussion about which nomenclature is preferred), but I am from this state where Ford’s body will soon be laid to rest. Meaning I was born here, have lived the majority of my life within its perimeters, within its Great Lake embrace.
The interstate traffic will be entirely stopped from 3 to 4:30 p.m. going West toward downtown Grand Rapids. There are cars still coming through as we wait, and two cars pull over to try to get a good view of the proceedings, and are immediately shooed away by the police, lights and all. The flow starts to dwindle. I could call it a trickle and recognize this for the cliché that it is. Clichés are a kind of ceremony, I think, well-worn ruts, smooth stones, sayings that we like to say because they reassure us, communicate a popular idea over and over, so much so that its meaning begins to fade. Pop music is filled with clichés: it is not about lyrical invention inasmuch as it is about the hook, the bit that plays on the radio, that can be repurposed now to play on cell phones as ringtones, announcing your musical taste to the world. Some pop songs in the new millennium (think the Black Eyed Peas, for instance, their music repurposed to fit commercials for the NBA finals in 2002) sound a lot like jingles, themes, ringtones with some added breaks, though I don’t mean this as a critique. It is evolution: music is now being written for this new technology, and of course it is structured differently.
We could hear jets a couple hours ago. Clearly a squadron of something. A bunch of jets flying pretty low. They sounded like fighters, maybe preparing for the missing man.
A guy wanders onto his porch with gut, sandwich, and drink. He is here to tailgate Ford’s motorcade, a collision of two different ceremonial occasions. Both are broadcast on TV; both are a public spectacle. He is getting it partly right. He is maybe here to observe or be part of the crowd gathering outside his house.
I don’t want to appear irreverent in this crowd, though I mostly am. I don’t have any personal feelings about Ford. He is a president, and that deserves something, capitalization and the permanent present tense until death, for instance, and the state funeral, and media coverage, and so forth. I don’t want to appear irreverent toward Ford in what he considers his hometown, however, for the sake of the family, for the sake of the public here slowly gathering to line the streets. Only an asshole shows up to mock or be ironic about the dead in a moment like this.
The Christmas trees are coming down, that opportunity for ceremony over. They’re still set out with the trash, reminders of the recent holiday.
My brother and his wife had their first child last April. In preparation, they have been actively developing traditions that they can pass on: it’s more obvious this year than last, and I respect this, this forward thinking. They are adapting their parents’ ceremonies and adding things of their own. This is the way ceremony is passed down when not writ in Bible or law, or helpfully on the internet. My wife and I didn’t do much to officially celebrate this Christmas. We had a tree and lights and presents. We drank absinthe (her present), listened to A Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box (also a present for her), newly released by Rhino, played Boggle. Watched a Christmas (horror) movie (Black Christmas, the original version, not the shitty 2006 remake). Ate a huge dinner. Ate leftovers. Regretted it a little. I suppose if we had a child we might need to make more of an effort to create an experience for said child to remember and dread or look forward to each year seemingly forever.
Gerald Ford dead today at the age of 83.
Gerald Ford dead today at age 84.
Gerald Ford shot dead today at age 83.
Gerald Ford shot dead today at the senseless age of 83.
Gerald Ford senselessly shot dead at the age of 83.
Gerald Ford dead today after jumping out of an office building senselessly.
Gerald Ford dead today from an overdose of crack cocaine.
Stunning news from Michigan as former president Gerald Ford was chopped into little bits by the propeller of a commuter plane.
Tragedy today as former president Gerald Ford was eaten by wolves.
He was delicious.
Stunning news from Yorba Linda as Richard Nixon’s corpse came out of its grave and strangled Gerald Ford today.
Gerald Ford was mauled senselessly by circus lions at a convenience store.
Gerald Ford is dead today and I’m gay.
—from a Saturday Night Live broadcast in 1996, with Dana Carvey playing Tom Brokaw
I remember watching this sketch from Saturday Night Live, and finding it very odd. Why Ford, I wondered? Who cared about Ford? Why foretell his death in particular? Mostly the bit is a send-up of Brokaw, projected onto Ford, a somewhat blank and serious Midwestern face. It’s hard to say why it continues to resonate, why the idea of a former president’s then-future death was entertaining, or why anything stays with us in the incomprehensible matrix of memory, but somehow this remains, and remains entertaining, and is now pertinent once more. You can watch it on YouTube if it has not been removed by the time this essay is published. Watch it in collision with the Ford funeral footage, which is probably not exciting enough to have been reposted to YouTube, though you can buy a four-DVD set of the news coverage.
And now Ford is actually dead. His crypt had been waiting for the last several years on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, yawning (or so I imagine, projecting the human onto the world), awaiting the body. After the death of Reagan and the surprising amount of emotion and ceremony surrounding that, I have been waiting for Ford to go (it is weird to say, but true) until this week, when it occurred. Potential energy, now kinetic.
And now Dana Carvey, like Gerald Ford, has passed into a kind of oblivion, if not yet physical cessation. At the time of this writing, Carvey’s most popular fan website, danacarvey.net, had not been updated since 2005. According to this website, he no longer has an official fan club, if he ever did. Maybe he will return at death, have a well-attended, broadcast funeral procession. Really, I feel closer to him, have more memories of him stored in my brain, than I do to former president Gerald R. Ford. He entertained, even haunted me. He is best associated with his impression of the first Bush president, probably, or the Church Lady bit. And as those characters have ceased to matter, so has he.
Dana Carvey, dead at 84, forgotten by the public until this very moment. He will be remembered for his bit on Gerald Ford: at least one of them is dead from an overdose of crack cocaine.
Dana Carvey passed away today, passé no more at last.
Dana Carvey, dead at 83, devoured by wolves.
There are far more people now in the street ahead. It will be a serious crowd. I will join them and brave the cold, a statement in itself of my support for them, for the city, for the state, for its lowercase s and flags. There will be many of us citizens out here. The media will be out in force. Hundreds of thousands are coming into the city to pay their respects. It is more than a little strange, a kind of tourism, maybe.
This anticipation is somehow festive. A crowd of about 150 is on the south side of Eastern Street NE waiting for the president’s body. Probably twenty kids are in attendance, and they yell periodically: “Is he coming?” “Is that him?” “He’s coming!” and so on. They could be talking about Santa, Jesus, Justin Timberlake. A man is there with a large flag that he unfurls and waves. It is surprisingly emotional, at least a little bit. Like the others in attendance, I am not sure how to respond. A woman next to me asks if we should cheer or applaud. Yet when the motorcade comes—thirty to forty cars—there is only silence, the sound of wind, of thinking, of memory.
My crowd, the growing us of this experience, is diverse. A lot of parents with their kids, eager for some kind of celebration. Our bodies are adjacent to each other; we share pheromones. It could be a parade, almost, if not for the cops and the photographers and television cameras. I’m sure there is a specified order as to who comes first in these things—it always has the appearance of order, which is what ritual, ceremony is all about. Ford’s casket comes fourth. Maybe fifth. Probably the number is symbolic. He, or what remains of him, is followed by a phalanx of American-made cars: Lincolns, Chevys, and—yes—Fords.
The public is invited via press release to queue to see the body. Ford is now seven days dead but still on display.
This Time of Night
8 p.m. I am finished baking bread and two friends and I go down to queue for the viewing of the body in repose. We park and go down only to find out that the wait time is seven hours. Thousands are lined up down here, curlicuing around corners and blocks. Neil Diamond is in the air since the queue starts next to Rosa Parks Circle, where teenagers are skating on artificial ice. It hasn’t been below freezing for a week or so, though it’s cold enough to make this more of an ordeal than it probably needs to be.
Seven hours? For this president?
We turn around. My backup plan is to come back at 2 a.m., when the line must surely be more reasonable.
1:15 a.m. My friend Charlie and I go back in his large Japanese-made SUV and join the line. We get to sit inside. There are still at least three thousand people here surrounding us. The old are here. The very young are here. A lot of high-school-age kids. There are tents. Sixty-plus lines snaking back and forth in the huge convention center. At least it’s warm enough inside. The collective energy of our thousands of bodies, all that breath and body heat collected, is something to feel. It is a little bit electric, exciting. No one has an official time on the wait, but we wait for close to two hours, and make it about a third of the way. I feel it is decision time. Charlie’s willing to go for it, but it will be an all-night experience, and he proposes an early breakfast if we can find a place that’s open. I see a handful of my students, people I have passed on the street. Some of them were probably in the crowd along the interstate with me before.
It turns out that I do not care enough to hold the line all night, lacking the proper reverence or motivation. At the halfway point, at my behest, we check out. I wonder what it would mean for me to stand in line for six hours to make it through to stand in the same room as the flag-draped closed coffin. My left foot has been aching badly for the last several days, and standing for this time has not improved it. Who stands all night to be in the same room with the body of the former president just for a moment before being ushered through?
No active cell phones were officially allowed. Nor were cameras, though many had their cell phones anyhow. The idea was to preserve a kind of silence, probably, or to make it impossible for people to snap pictures?
In the next days I talk with a couple dozen people who stayed in line, who got into the inner sanctum, had their minute or two with the flag-draped coffin, signed the official guest book, got their name inscribed in history. Of course the coffin isn’t open, so there is a barrier between the world and the body, not to mention the whole thing is roped off, and security is everywhere so as to enforce order, decorum. So they waited to pay their respects.
State of the Nation
Back to the procession. A set of kids are snacking on a bag of Doritos as we watch the motorcade. They treat this like a parade, sans music and candy. The television news commentators tell us that we are all becoming a part of history. Is that our motivation, to be one with history? Or is it an outpouring of support for the hometown boy turned president? Or a show of confidence in what Ford represents to the culture, meaning (with air quotes) “Midwestern values” like hard work and honesty and unpretentiousness? Are the crowds gathering to make a statement to the contrary of the current red-state/blue-state culture? Is the caption for this photograph We Are In Fact One?
It’s strange to be part of a crowd here in reverence for a dead president. It is unsettling to be standing in a crowd at all, physically part of an obvious us, in proximity, and probably in solidarity by default. In my lifetime I have disapproved of most of our presidents, and have not had much reverence for them.
I don’t listen to country, kick ass for the Lord, or support the war. My family has few connections to the military, though we spent several years in Saudi Arabia, where my dad worked for the government, and we spent significant time on a military compound. He did not go to war. Went to grad school, quite probably with the intention of avoiding the draft. He and my mother went to Africa soon after. We are a crowd of recent academics. While I have a friend in the service, I don’t think about the idea of serving one’s country in this way much, if at all, except to think about how strange it is, and to be thankful for others’ observation of this duty, at least in the abstract. I know something about that culture, and the world beyond this country. I watch the coverage of the wars on television.
A week after Ford’s remains have been finally and permanently interred, and several days after the media coverage has subsided in favor of something more exciting and less reverent, I am at the bar where I sing karaoke some Friday nights. A woman dedicates the Bette Midler song “Wind Beneath My Wings” to her son, who’s coming home in a couple weeks from Iraq, whom everyone in the bar seems to know well. There are cheers. My instinct is to laugh, but I cannot. I feel embarrassed not to have anyone close to me who is serving in this way. It’s easy to distance myself from these ideas, this part of our culture, of our culture’s martial interactions with other cultures, all the procedures designed to corral the edge of the inhabited world into the impression of solidity. I can laugh it off. I can be irreverent. This irreverence implies a kind of recognition, though, that the subject at hand does have some potential gravity that I have no access to. I can have my ironic moment listening to this performance: I can hold myself above the crowd here at the Point, on Grand Rapids’ more blue-collar West side—and the crowd is totally into it, not examining but enjoying it, as it should be, as we should be, since karaoke is a participation in a culture, both the culture that produced the song being sung and the culture that is listening to the (often not very good) performances of the song. If I am a good citizen of karaoke, I need to get behind her. Part of you can sit back and remark how everybody (but you, but us, as this implies) sucks, or how good they are, but part of you—again, if you are a good citizen of karaoke country, if you live by its bill of rights, its constitution, its random set of bylaws (no jumping the rotation, no booing the singers, no matter how bad, though maybe if they’re unenthusiastic it’s acceptable: if they’re not buying into the culture, the culture does not need to buy into them)—must endorse it. Your presence endorses it. By virtue of your ass being in the chair, and your hand probably lifting a drink to your open mouth, you’re there, and that counts for something. So I applaud. And she is good, and her son will, I think, be proud, as she is proud of him.
I think you should sing periodically too, though I don’t think this is the rule. If you are an enthusiastic member of the audience, you are doing your part here as a citizen, but still It Is Good to participate more actively. It’s like you’re running for public office, not just voting, though you’re likely to lose, and that losing is part of the experience, a civic lesson, a contribution. Losing, you fall backward into a network of other arms—if this isn’t making too much of this—and are conveyed back to the stage for your encore.
I do sing, though my instinct is to do Erasure, or Cher, or something celebratory and provocative in straight bars like this. My first song flops totally, though for the life of me (a weird cliché, again, that familiar stone in the hand, designed to increase the gravity of the statement, suggesting that if it were worth my life even then I could not possibly remember) I can’t remember what I sang now when trying to revisit this experience. This is even weirder that I can’t remember, can’t recover the memory of not being rewarded or appreciated.
The second one is a more considered choice: you can’t go wrong with “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” (which I have gloriously performed at an open mic in college, culminating with me smashing my guitar on the stage and storming off—the closest I got to my rock moment, my preaching from the pulpit, my place on the ballot, really), and it goes well, though the guy in the rotation just in front of me does another Poison song, “Something to Believe In,” which is more ponderous, is later, post-awesome Poison, but to his credit, it is a much less obvious choice, and I am suddenly self-conscious about my own decision. Is it too easy, I wonder? Too open for camp? As the intro starts up the crowd is suddenly entirely with me: We are, no doubt, an us, and it is fabulous. I am part of something. I tell CC to take it to the bridge, and at least I think the crowd cheers. Last week I did Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself” (song No. 2, chronologically, on my best-pop-songs compilation) and that went over well, as it should, a song about our essential (maybe even existential) aloneness and working through it. When we sing these songs we are one with Billy Idol, with the soul of pop, with the populace. Regardless of our inability to perform them adequately, our participation is important. Buying the records and making mix tapes in high school for girls we totally loved was important, and remains important. Ranking songs and making exhaustively researched lists is important, both to my participation in the culture (teenage geek boy) and to my demonstration of knowledge of and in this culture, my acknowledgment of the importance of pop.
This is my civic participation, and as I do it, my little shell of irony recedes. It will go back up later, certainly, but for now I am subsumed in something new for me.
Even the guy who insists on doing the same songs every Friday night (The Beastie Boys’ “Fight for Your Right to Party” with added swears, Puddle of Mudd’s “She Hates Me,” receiving the same treatment), and not all that well, but with great enthusiasm: He pats me on the back later, introduces himself. He is a genial guy. We are men here. Possibly we will play some pool.
All of this is unexpectedly moving.
Round & Round
Ceremony is order, arbitrary, evolving, but not too quickly, stilled by the call to history, to stricture, to authority. I have applied an artificial order to this essay, parceling this story into unrelated moments, titling each section after songs by New Order (an Easter egg for music geeks, and now you get your invitation into the club), creating a kind of new order, a momentary rigidity, an exoskeleton through which fact or thought can move and become a citizenry, a sudden we.
Dreams Never End
“The Gerald Ford Funeral Video Compilation features the arrival ceremony at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, California, official ceremonies in Washington, DC, services in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and final interment at the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum. Official events in Washington include the arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, the funeral motorcade to the Capitol, official funeral services in the Capitol Rotunda and the National Cathedral. This video set is available on four DVDs or five VHS tapes.”
“Nearly 50,000 people signed the Condolence Books on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids and Library in Ann Arbor beginning at 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday, December 27, 2006, through 5:00 p.m. Thursday, January 4, 2007.
“An estimated 36,000 visited the U.S. Capitol Rotunda as President Ford lay in State.
“As President Ford lay in repose at the museum, Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday morning, some 62,000 people paid their respects, including the estimated 57,000 people who entered the queue through DeVos Place and waited patiently in line.
“In addition, an estimated 75,000 people lined the streets of Grand Rapids to welcome President Ford home on January 2, 2007 and during the funeral services on January 3, 2007.
“Pallbearers for the services in Grand Rapids, Michigan: Martin J. Allen Jr., Mary Sue Coleman, Richard M. DeVos, Richard A. Ford, David G. Frey, Pepi Gramshammer, Robert L. Hooker, Frederick H. G. Meijer, Jack Nicklaus, Leon W. Parma, Glenn ‘Bo’ Schembechler (In Memoriam), Peter F. Secchia, L. William Seidman, and Steve Van Andel.”
Some of these people—most, even—are honorary pallbearers (at least one was dead at the time). They did not physically bear the pall, the cloth spread over the coffin, hearse, or tomb. It is a ceremonial designation.