Friday, December 29, 2006

President Ford's Funeral - Palm Desert

Gerald R. Ford Funeral - Palm Desert's St. Margaret's Episcopal Church

The day couldn't have been more perfect for waiting if it had been planned. It hovered at the 72° for most of the afternoon, no sign of clouds and hot air balloons dotting the sky just east of the Indian Wells Tennis Gardens.
There were barely 150 people in line when my father and I arrived to wait for the shuttles at 1:30 (took me a while to get there, the traffic from my house was backed up for a while). As the crowd grew I noticed how laid-back and well-dressed so many of the people were and mentioned to my father how like the residents of the valley that really was.
We waited and talked with those around us, most of which were in the older age bracket, 60's to 90's, yet there were still many people with young children and teens. We waited more until the line started to reach the grassy parking area of the 16,000 seat tennis stadium and after an hour and a half the gates to the Garden were open and we filed past 3 sets of Sheriff's officers (who were reminding us what we were NOT allowed to take with us, " explosives") and briskly walked around to the other side of the stadium. The winter sun was just enough to keep us toasty but not uncomfortable as we were facing the lovely San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountain ranges to the south west...where St. Margaret's is quietly nestled.
As if precisely timed, the moment the sun set behind the Santa Rosas the buses (which had been running and parked out of view) started to roll along to the back gate. There were 5 banks of Sheriff's officers who conducted searches and metal detector passes of each individual before letting them head towards and enter the buses. Each bus was equipped with one Sheriff's officer.

Map from IWTG to St. Margaret's

There were about 30 or so buses which had come from the Orange County Transit Authority (about a 3 hour drive from Indian Wells). Some buses came from elsewhere and a few of the buses were of the articulated variety...the big city buses. ;)
By this time darkness had fallen upon us as we drove up Palms to Pines Highway. Through what seemed like endless pylons, police cars and secret service vehicles, we could see the front of St. Margaret's illuminated from a single light, nothing else was lit, not even the church parking lights. Our eyes were naturally drawn to the end of the large wall of windows which lined the south side of building. The last window glowed with the American flag-draped casket of former President Ford.
Each bus, we were in the first five to arrive, was unloaded and the mourners/visitors were instructed by yet more of the Sheriff's team to follow the stairs leading up to the front doors. Our regular ushers were there to greet each person and to give them two commemorative items, one from St. Margaret's and one from the family of the President Ford.

Front of commemorative handouts

Back of commemorative handouts

Then through the second set of doors. St. Margaret's was dimly lit save for the soft spotlights cascading down upon Ford, three large, round white wreaths, two gorgeous floral displays and the four honor guardsmen, one from each branch of the military*.
Much like Ford, the display, was unassuming, relatively unadorned and simply understated. The ushers led us down the south side of the church who's windows overlook the glowing lights of Palm could not help but look out. This shot shows daylight:
Down to the front, almost behind "The President's Pew" and then down to the center aisle where each one of us was greeted and sincerely thanked by Jack Ford (John "Jack" Gardner Ford, pictured on the left), President Ford's second son (he had very large and rough hands!).
It was very, very quiet (I learned later that the silence turned to whispers with the following visitors), no music, no sounds. My father and I walked up to the casket, I said a silent prayer for the family and my father saluted, at that point I let a tear or two loose.
We exited through the wall of glass doors on the north-side of St. Margaret's which lead to the garden and maze and out to the front of the church and the bus.

Once we got back to the stadium we were told there were condolence books available (from the Rancho Mirage Public Library) if we wanted to sign them and we were given an insert from the Desert Sun devoted to Ford. Many people were being interviewed by various news crews for the evening's newscast around the tables set for the condolence books.

By the time we got back to our cars it was 6:30, a slight chill in the air but very mild, clear and dry with the stars shining brightly above us.

*These young men fly from Washington, D.C. to accompany/guard those state and military funerals, the Air Force division is commanded by my cousin's wife out of Washington D.C. (many of her special unit stand guard over the Constitution of the United States).