Sunset Serenade

by Calendar Hacksaw

Many of us view government employees with a jaundiced eye. It's assumed they live well off our tax dollars and in return supply us with little more than abundant bureaucracy. But lumping together all such civil servants is a dangerous practice, as it ignores the realities faced by our law enforcement and fire department first responders, public health officials, highway maintenance workers, and many other "invisible faces" who make our lives go smoothly.

Here's a story about a group of them, and to keep it simple, I've only given a name to one. Had I offered him the option, I'm sure he would have chosen to remain anonymous as well.

Eighty government employees gathered for a hastily-called meeting on a Sunday morning in early June. Most had been enjoying a normal weekend until they got the call the previous afternoon. Mitch, in his mid-50s and normally given to wearing a Stetson and boots, had been out surfing that day, then napped until awoken by his ringing telephone. For more than four years he knew the call would eventually come. For more than four years, Mitch and the others had withheld information from their bosses and co-workers. When they attended meetings, it was to "plan a drill." They made up excuses to test vital equipment and prepare for the day when "Operation Serenade" would emerge from beneath its veil of secrecy and enjoy a brief season in the sun. Now was the time.

Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, was dead.

"Okay, guys; we've only got one chance to do it right." Speaking was the Commander of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department's East Valley Station, heading up the Incident Command Team responsible for the local government and public safety response to accommodate the bookend events which would transpire over the course of the next six days. First, the former President would lie in repose at the Presidential Library in Simi Valley. Then, there would be the State Funeral in Washington, D.C., followed by a return to Ventura County and the sunset burial.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Operation Serenade was the brainchild of two of the President's advance men from his White House days, who made the commitment years ago that they would orchestrate Ronald Reagan's farewell. One would handle the West Coast events, while the other would attend to the Capitol observance.

Why all the secrecy? Death always involves sensitivities, and the passing of an American President is no different. Even though Mrs. Reagan had played an active role in planning the events, it was a painful parting for her; pain we all witnessed in her eyes, and shared during the days to follow.

And, there was the matter of Homeland Security; the "fear factor." Great symbolism was involved, and the Reagan remembrance constituted a big target. The famous and powerful from around the nation and around the globe would be coming to Ventura County to pay their respects. Accommodations would have to be made, and security would be paramount.

In spite of the years of planning, no one could have accurately predicted the public response that followed. Around the clock, Americans flocked to Moorpark College and boarded buses for the short trip to the Presidential Library. Moorpark has 11,000 parking spaces, which planners thought adequate for the anticipated response. But in the end, 106,000 mourners walked past the casket in Simi Valley. The 118 freeway and surrounding surface streets became a virtual parking lot around the clock as the Reagan faithful made the pilgrimage to pay their final respects.

It's been said that "At the feast of the ego, everyone goes away hungry." But that wasn't a threat this time; the 80 members of the Ventura County team knew what was expected and delivered without hesitation. Their enthusiasm enabled them to rise to meet each evolving need or challenge; to function as "one big organism," as Mitch put it. From portable toilets and bottled water to 600 turkey sandwiches and a fleet of MTA buses, needed supplies and services rolled in.

For most of the week that followed, the Sheriff's Department's Emergency Operations Center served as the headquarters for all activity. The EOC had performed well in the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake a decade earlier, and much of the needed infrastructure and preparations were still in place. For all practical purposes, once workers arrived at the EOC, they had no way to leave and return except by helicopter. All manner of food and supplies had to be brought in. Workers had to be fed and quartered. Sure, problems arose, such as assigning the Sheriff's SWAT team to a sleeping space on a floor directly above the orchestra's practice room, but everyone had to give and take. And give and take they did, again and again.

This was not just a Ventura County event; many other agencies and jurisdictions were involved, including the Secret Service, FBI, Simi Valley, several fire departments, and others too numerous to mention. It was an exercise in cooperation and interoperability. Emergency responders don't always work well together. This time they did, and the results showed. The live television coverage let people around the world see a different view of the United States and the regard its citizens hold for their leaders. Many of the famous who were afforded access to the Presidential Library via the VIP entry chose instead to wait in line with the public. There was no pushing, no shoving, no cutting in line. Civilization was at its best.

When such an event concludes, it's not possible for the government workers to simply walk out the door and head home. Demobilization is also a significant challenge, and one of the most important tasks is for all concerned to gather one final time to review the "lessons learned." Granted, there will likely never be another former President lying in repose in Ventura County during our lifetimes, but other events ranging from major earthquakes to floods and fires will require the same degree of interagency cooperation.

And when this group finally did gather, they reaped their true reward in these few words spoken by the United States Secret Service agent-in-charge: "It couldn't have gone any better."

Calendar Hacksaw was nowhere near Ventura County when all this transpired, but he doffs his hat to those whose efforts made this remembrance so special. He wasn't a registered Republican when Reagan was in office, never voted for him, only talked with him once, but in the end that didn't matter because he was our President.

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