THE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING GERALD FORD LIES IN THE KARAOKE BARS OF GRAND RAPIDS.
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.
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