A Personal Remembrance of a Great Man
By Joe Giardiello
“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny.
We can preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on
earth, or we can sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of
darkness. If we fail, at least let
or children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief
moment here. We did all that could
-- Ronald Reagan, 1964
Overcast skies greeted Simi Valley last Sunday morning.
Fitting I suppose. But maybe it would have been more appropriate to have one of
those brilliant Southern California mornings of sun and mild ocean breezes.
Anyway, the gloom that pervaded fit my mood just perfectly.
It was still too soon after hearing the news to feel the optimism with
which Ronald Reagan looked at life.
You can see the back of the Reagan Library on the hillside
just a few miles from my home. The
gleaming body of Air Force One, in the midst of being prepared as the
library’s newest exhibit, can be seen reaching out over the hillside, still
waiting to have its wings reattached to resume its proud service to President
I impulsively pulled off the highway exit that goes past
the library. The entrance is just a
few miles on the left, and for some reason I felt I had to see it.
Already, barely half a day from when the world first learned of the great
man’s passing, an impromptu memorial has started to appear.
Flags, signs, a red, white and blue teddy bear.
Hand written notes – some pages long – were already gathered at the
entrance to the library’s drive. I
stopped and added a small American Flag pin to the collection.
A Political Awakening
I was just 15 years old when Reagan ran for president in
1980. Coming from a Democratic
family, I wasn’t supporting Reagan. Despite
what was happening with our hostages in Iran, despite a national economy in
freefall, the best hope to restore American pride could not possibly be a cowboy
actor from California.
Not that I understood politics at the time.
My feeling was simply because our family supported Democrats.
Besides, Reagan was a “warmonger” and would almost certainly have had
us in a shooting war with the Soviet Union before you knew it.
That would make me draft age quite possibly around the time the missiles
started flying. The math of a
Reagan presidency just didn’t seem to be working in my favor.
The speculation that Reagan would quickly have us in a war
with the world’s other superpower is not something we simply remember in
hindsight. His opponents really
discussed such possibilities as the coming of World War III should Reagan be
elected president. Still too
young to cast a real ballot, I obediently voted for Jimmy Carter in the student
But wouldn’t you know it, the actor won.
What kind of world were we in for now, my undeveloped mind wondered.
I would soon be taught a valuable political lesson.
People of earlier generations remember where they were when
they heard Roosevelt died. Others
remember what they were doing when President Kennedy was shot.
I remember where I was when I heard of the assassination attempt on
Ronald Reagan. I was on a
city bus coming home from school when an old, rail-thin gentleman got on the
bus. He sat down across the aisle
from me with his head down. He
suddenly looked up and swiveled his head from side-to-side and said to no one in
particular, “Have you heard the president was shot?”
The words ricocheted through me. The president was shot?
That didn’t happen anymore. That
was something that was read about in the history books.
A rapid discussion ensued between a handful of people on
the bus around me. No one seemed to
know if the president was still alive. One
person said he heard he was. Another
said he was certain someone had died, but he didn’t know who.
Someone else mentioned Kennedy and said how his assassination had
affected him. I sat in dumb
When I finally got home, after the longest bus ride of my
life, I sat glued to the television in the kitchen, listening to the newscasters
repeat the same information over and over, not really sure how the president was
doing, first announcing the death of the president’s press secretary, then
changing the story. What kind of
bullets were used, were they still in the president.
And then there was the speculation that no one wanted to even think
about: Was this part of some
nefarious grand plan by America’s enemies, possibly the opening act of a
preemptive nuclear first strike.
The president’s quips and one-liners from the operating
table have now passed into legend. And
the Gipper made more than one convert that day. Anyone who would stare into the face of death and laugh was
someone I could like. At first, it
was the sheer force of Reagan’s personality that won me over.
I still didn’t have the first clue about the difference in tax rates or
what a medium range ballistic missile was.
The knowledge of issues came over time under the long distance tutelage
from the White House.
But the blinders were finally removed.
I was secure in the knowledge that America was in good hands after all.
Then came Grenada.
The Cubans, under dictator Fidel Castro, were trying to set
up a client state in the tiny island nation of Grenada in order to export terror
and destabilize the region’s democracies. Reagan made the momentous decision to join the Caribbean
nations to remove the threat. With
minimal loss of life, the ultimate Cold Warrior took the first step in the
rollback of international Communism. Hundreds
of Cuban military troops and warehouses full of military equipment were found.
Construction had already started on a runway that could accommodate
long-range Soviet bombers. “We
got there just in time,” Reagan told us.
That afternoon, I went to visit the Navy recruiter for the
first time, eventually signing up to serve my county and my president as an
Intelligence Analyst. A committed
Reaganite by the time of his reelection campaign, I was able to watch the
returns the night before I reported to begin my Navy service.
My mother, a lifelong Roosevelt Democrat voted for her first Republican
My first duty station was overseas.
The only U.S. news access we had was the previous days airing of the CBS
Evening News with Dan Rather which played at noon on Armed Forces television.
Each day a group of us would gather in the conference room and watch the
news. We all came supplied with a
handful of rubber bands, which would rain down on the TV with each pronouncement
by Mr. Rather about some perceived ill of Ronald Reagan. There were thousand of rubber bands that hit that television
over the years.
I also began subscribing to political magazines around this
time. National Review, the magazine
Reagan read, was the first and most influential in my life.
If Reagan gave conservatism a human face, Bill Buckley made it cool.
When I came back stateside after four years overseas, I was
stationed in San Diego. Michael
Reagan had a local radio show at that time and I was an avid listener.
By now out of office for a few years, Reagan was going to be on his
son’s show. I called in over an
hour early to be able to speak to the president and was able to talk the call
screener into letting me stay on hold until the show started.
When it finally became time to take calls, I was first up.
I thanked the president for his leadership in ending the cold war.
He gave his trademark “Welllll” and said he sure was honored when
people said things like that about him and then proceeded to give everyone else
credit for the toppling of the evil empire.
Ironically, it was also Ronald Reagan who caused me to leave the service. By 1989 I was a Soviet Surface Forces Analyst. The only problem was there was no longer a Soviet Surface Force to worry about. With the start of the first Gulf War, I requested the opportunity to serve in the Middle East. But in the perverse way of any bureaucracy, they decided I was a Soviet analyst and may be needed in that capacity. Ronald Reagan’s steadfastness in the face of the Soviet threat and some of our own countrymen who opposed his policies had put me out of a job. As the song goes, “After all these years I’ve found, my occupational hazard being my occupation's just not around.”
“This is like a conservative Woodstock,” my friend Dan
said after surveying the thousands of people in the line that snaked through the
campus of Moorpark College waiting to get on the bus to take them to the viewing
at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.
Woodstock without the drugs and the rain and the music.
But the people were there. Oh,
the people. Our group decided we would go at 10:00 Tuesday evening to
avoid the throngs figuring the after-work crowd would be thinned out by then.
No such luck.
People were sleeping anywhere they could find a spot.
Cardboard boxes were used to build makeshift shelters.
People even used newspapers as blankets against the cold – or what
passes for the cold in Southern California.
And they just kept coming – over 106,000 based on news
reports. Rumors in the line
abounded as to the amount of time it would take.
Four hours, seven hours, some even suggested 10 hours.
And from the look of the line, nothing would have surprised us.
And yet, there was hardly even a suggestion that we should decide not to
wait it out. The only people around
us who seemed to be leaving were those who had to go to work the next morning
and weren’t sure if they would be out of the line in time.
A memorial tent was set up at the college for people to leave their remembrances of the president. Besides the usual flowers and gift there were dozens of handwritten notes and letters. One declared in large letter, “Thank you for helping the people of Guatemala and helping to make us free.” Many thanked the president for making them believe in America again. Someone left one of those familiar Styrofoam hats you see at political conventions, a faded and cracking “Reagan 76” sticker still attached.
You enter the large front courtyard of the Reagan Library
through a gate. In the center is a
large fountain. The line to pay
last respects formed on the right side as you entered. It was eerily quiet. Through
the crowd on the other end of the courtyard you could see the red, white and
blue of the flag that adorned the casket.
As you prepared to enter the lobby of the library building,
there was a wholly unnecessary sign reminding you to “maintain silence.”
But there really was not much of a chance that anyone would violate that
rule, sign or no sign. The only sound you could hear were the respectful foot falls
on the tiled floor.
The line circled the flag-draped casket.
It was surrounded by an honor guard – representing the Army, Navy, Air
Force, Marines and Coast Guard – that was changed every thirty minutes.
Silent eyes remained fixed on the casket as we circled, our
heads pivoting as we made the small loop. Eyes
moistened, hearts beat a little faster. Minds wandered to that one moment, that one incident that, to
you, defined Ronald Reagan. It was
an intensely personal experience shared by thousands of souls.
Here and there someone would pause as if to say a silent
prayer. Another stopped and saluted
his former Commander-in-Chief. The
honor guard, all of who seemed hardly old enough to even remember Reagan as
president, stood in reverent silence, the crisp lines of their uniforms a
testament to the care and dedication they put into this final tribute.
The temptation for one final look over your shoulder as
your approached the door to exit was irresistible.
It was real. He was truly
It was all over in about three minutes.
Nine hours of waiting for three minutes.
And worth every second. I
envied those who still had the experience ahead of them in both California and
in Washington, D.C.
Ronald Reagan changed my life, as he did so many others, in
a profound and fundamental way. So
how do you appropriately end an essay that says goodbye to your hero?
Maybe by quoting the great man himself on the future of the nation he
loved and served so ably:
“Some may try and tell us that this is the end of an
era. But what they overlook is that
in America every day is a new beginning, and every sunset is merely the latest
milestone on a voyage that never ends. For
this is the land that has never become, but is always in the act of becoming.
Emerson was right: America
is the Land of Tomorrows.”
God Bless You, Ronald Reagan. I shall never forget.
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