A Great Man Passes By

Damon Runyon

W class="firstwords">ashington, April 14.—The funeral cortège of the late President Roosevelt, a comparatively small, war-begrimed cavalcade, passed through the streets of Washington this morning from the railroad station to the White House, where simple religious services were held this afternoon before the body was taken to his old home in Hyde Park for burial tomorrow.

The procession was the only touch of military pomp to the funeral of the dead chieftain of the mightiest armed force on the face of the earth.

Hundreds of thousands of the people of Washington packed the sidewalks along Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues, and watched the passing of the mournful troop.

At the corner of 12th Street and Constitution Avenue stood a well-dressed, confident-appearing man, a prosperous businessman, perhaps, with a boy in his mid-teens but tall for his years. He could look over the heads of most of those wedged in 10-deep ahead of him.

“I remember his smile, father,” the boy was saying. “I mean I remember it from the pictures of him in the newsreels. It was such a wonderful smile. It crinkled his face up all around his eyes.”

“Yes, he smiled a lot,” the man said. “I used to say he smiled to think of the way he had fellows like me over a barrel. I hated him.

“I hated him most of the 12 years he lived in this town. I mean I hated him politically. Now I wonder why. He only did the best he could. No man could do more.”

Against a sky of crystal, flocks of silvery planes roared overhead at intervals, gleaming in the sunlight. But when the noise of their motors had died away the whole city seemed strangely quiet.

The shrill whistles of the traffic policemen, the clip-clop of feet hurrying over the pavements and the low hum of human voices were the only sounds and they carried far in the eerie silence.

It was as if by signal everyone had said, “Let us all be very quiet,” and the whole community fell into restrained mood as it awaited the passing of the funeral party this morning.

Yet one knew that at this very moment, across two oceans, the American guns this man who lies dead had mobilized were bombing what was at once the thunder of his triumph and the vast volleys for those who died in the service of their country, as he had undoubtedly died.

“He wore funny hats, father,” the boy said. “I remember the one he had on when he was in North Africa to see the soldiers, and he was riding in a jeep. He turned his hat up in the front and back. He wore funny hats when he went fishing, too.”

“Yes, and I used to think his head was too big for them—for any hat,” the man said. “I know now that was a foolish idea. Why should he have been swell headed—a great man like him? What crazy things I said about him!”

It was hot. Sweat ran down the faces of the steel-helmeted soldiers standing along the street in heavy flannel shirts. These were no parade troops. They wore crumpled-looking uniforms, they looked field stained.

A man, coatless and bareheaded, carrying a sleepy-looking child in his arms, held the youngster up so it could see over the heads of the crowd and softly said, “Look, look.”

Someday that child may be telling its grandchildren that she saw the funeral of President Roosevelt as grandparents used to tell of seeing the funeral of President Lincoln.

Mothers leading children by the hands instructed them to wiggle in between the close-packed spectators to the front lines. No one complained about the children.

Everyone talked in a low voice. There was an impatient turning of heads as some people setting up empty boxes on which to stand chattered loudly for a moment, their voices disturbing the funeral hush.

Small boys perched in the trees along the avenue now green in the early spring.

Footloose soldiers and sailors including officers wandered through the crowd. Canadian service girls in their spic and span uniforms and long black stockings stepped smartly along the street.

Heads showed in clusters at every window in the low temporary war buildings and on the steps and in every jutting place on the solemn looking government buildings that would afford a foothold.

Tradesmen wearing aprons and artisans wearing overalls pressed against the police lines.

Now the tump of drums, at first faint and far-off, but quickly getting stronger, broke the silence and then came the wail of a funeral march played by a band, and an auto loaded with officers passed, then a squad of motorcycle policemen on their machines. The street signals on the avenue kept changing to “stop” and “go” all through the procession.

The people stood with their arms folded, those in back of the first row teetering on their tiptoes trying to get at least a fleeting glimpse of the procession.

The Marine band, the musicians in white caps and blue uniforms, their great silver horns flashing, footed it along to the slow strains of the funeral music.

“They say he always had to wear a terrible steel brace like poor little Jackie Clark and like Cousin Nellie, too,” the boy said. “They say he suffered greatly just as they do. Is that true, father? He must have been very brave.”

“Yes,” the man said, “he suffered greatly. I read once he fought all the better because he fought in chains. He was a game man. That I always said. A very game man. No man could be gamer.”

Now came a battalion from Annapolis, the cadet officers with drawn swords, the cadets in blue uniforms with white caps and white leggings and guns slanted across their shoulders.

Then a battalion of field artillery, the soldiers sitting stiffly upright on their gun carriers which moved four abreast, the engines throttled down so that they made scarcely any noise.

Used-looking field pieces painted a dingy red were towed behind trucks loaded with their crews, and the faces of all these soldiers seemed absolutely expressionless under their helmets.

“I remember so many little things about him, father,” said the boy. “I remember his nose-glasses. I often wondered how he kept them on his nose, even when he was out in a storm. He never seemed to mind what kind of weather it was.”

“Yes,” the man said, “I guess all the people will remember little things about him in the years to come. I once said that when it came to weather he didn’t mind hell or high water if he had to put one of his ideas across. But it was a snide remark. I made too many snide remarks about him in his lifetime.”

Another band, some colored artillerymen marching on foot, then a band of sailor musicians, their dolorous march music throbbing on the still air.

A battalion of bluejackets and then a battalion of women’s armed force units, the Wacs and Waves and women Marines marching rather loosely in the absence of quickstep music.

Movie cameramen on trucks weaved along the line of march. The crowd watched in silence.

And now at last came the flag-swathed casket on an artillery caisson drawn by six strapping big gray horses in brightly polished harness, four of them mounted by soldiers.

The President’s flags were borne just behind the caisson and then came the automobiles loaded with the great men of the nation. But with the passing of the casket, the crowd began breaking up, still strangely silent. They had seen the funeral cortège of a fellow citizen, who in other nations and other times would have had the death panoply of a Caesar but who, as it was, probably had more than he would have wished.

“I remember when he got his little dog Fala,” the boy said. “I think they must have loved each other a great deal, father, as much as my Mugs and I love each other. You could tell it in the newsreels when they were together. I think he must have been a very kind man to be so nice to a little dog. I hope they take good care of Fala.”

“Yes,” the man said, “he was a kind man. He was kind to many people. I used to say I hated him when he was alive but now it is difficult for me to pick out any one reason why. How could I hate a kind man?”