By: Carlo Massimo
Several hundred people had already lined up along the edge of the Vietnam Memorial by 8:00 a.m. The air was damp but notably cool. It was the first breath of a new season, and squirrels on the lawn were gathering nuts.
At the Capitol, the body of Senator John McCain was lying in state. The funeral itself was scheduled to take place at The Washington National Cathedral. But the procession would stop to lay a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The Vietnam war shaped McCain into the Senator he became.
A man with a soldier’s memorial flag tucked under his arm gazed out toward the wall of names and said, swallowing hard, “We lost a member of our family – our American family.”
Furthermore, the crowd was as a mix of very young and very old. Teenagers seemed to have come on their own. And whole families with small children stood by veterans in uniform to pay their respects. All along the fence people carried signs. An elderly Vietnamese man held a sign that said this: “We will never forget the man who saved our children.” A group of victim advocates from various organizations held a sign that said this: “Forever in our hearts and history.”
“He was an advocate for advocates,” one group of people told the Current Newspapers. “He was a voice of reason,” said another. “Senator McCain was our moral compass.”
One family, a young couple and three girls under ten, drove from Ohio to see the funeral. It was important for the girls to see, said the mother. The father agreed. “He taught us how to lose with dignity,” he said. “Today’s climate is all about winning at all costs.”
And he cut himself off to avoid saying what was almost tangibly on everyone’s mind. Senator McCain was the American Americans have always fought to be: a man like the eagle on the Presidential seal, holding arrows in one talon but looking at the olive branch. It’s an increasingly rare species in public life.
“God knows I disagreed with him,” another man said while shouldering his American flag a little higher.
The first police motorcycle came screaming down Constitution Avenue around 9:00 a.m. After that, several other police motorcycles appeared. Then, the heavy bikes with sidecars and the police SUVs arrived. The hearse passed a few moments later. Then, a long column of black SUVs came with a second hearse. The crowd was swelling with latecomers and nobody spoke.
The cars parked. Down the incline of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, along the wall of names, came Senator McCain’s family, too far from the crowd to be distinct. They carried a wreath inscribed In honor of all who served. When they placed it in the corner of the walkway, they turned to leave. And the crowd broke out in solemn applause.
The motorcycles and cars took off. The United States Park Police let the crowd file by the wreath to take photos and pay their respects. After that, the crowd slowly dispersed. The last of the black SUVs disappeared on its way to the Cathedral, and the little girls from Ohio ran to pet a policeman’s horse.