His­tory for small-town Texas: Crowds turn out for Bush’s train.

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY AN­NIE GOWEN an­[email protected]­post.com

NAVA­SOTA, TEXAS — They stood in the rain for hours, wait­ing. Ranch­ers, re­tirees and Cub Scouts clutch­ing tiny flags in the cold , wait­ing to see the train car­ry­ing the cas­ket of Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush through the cen­ter of town.

After the pomp and cir­cum­stance of Bush’s me­mo­rial ser­vice at St. Mar­tin’s Epis­co­pal Church in Hous­ton on Thurs­day, his cas­ket was trans­ferred to a win­dowed car in a train pow­ered by a Union Pa­cific lo­co­mo­tive long ago painted “4141” in his honor. The train made a 70-mile jour­ney to Col­lege Sta­tion, where Bush would be laid to rest at his pres­i­den­tial li­brary, through the win­try farm­land of the state Bush had grown to love.

As pres­i­dent, Bush had vowed to bring his mes­sage of hope and growth “to the loneli­est town on the qui­etest street.” Now his train was pass­ing through tiny Texas towns with only a few dozen res­i­dents.

“Is it com­ing?” ev­ery­body kept ask­ing, peer­ing down the tracks, where the res­i­dents of Nava­sota — pop­u­la­tion 8,000 — were lined up for blocks un­der their um­brel­las.

Few among them re­mem­bered the last time a pres­i­dent’s cas­ket had trav­eled by fu­neral train — that was 1969, with Eisen­hower — but all were aware they were wit­ness­ing his­tory.

“We’re los­ing the last of the Great­est Gen­er­a­tion,” said Shane Wer­chan, 46, a sales­man. “It re­ally is the end of an era. We will never see a pres­i­dent like him again.”

The Bush train was per­haps the most ex­cit­ing thing that had ever hap­pened in Nava­sota, a tiny town built around the railroad and cot­ton farms in 1854. It’s not far from the sym­bolic heart of the state, Wash­ing­ton-on-the-Bra­zos, where Texas de­clared its in­de­pen­dence from Mex­ico in 1836. Nava­sota’s pic­turesque down­town in­cludes a hard­ware store selling red Ra­dio Flyer wag­ons, a cof­fee shop owned by the mayor, an­tique stores and a weekly news­pa­per’s of­fice.

On Thurs­day, Mary Fon­taine, 76, a Navy vet­eran who served in Viet­nam with the WAVES — or Women Ac­cepted for Vol­un­teer Emer­gency Ser­vice — was hand­ing out flags at the cor­ner of Railroad Street and Wash­ing­ton Av­enue, where lo­cals said the cot­ton bales were stacked high dur­ing the town’s hey­day. This week, the build­ings were hung with red, white and blue bunt­ing and a sign that read “Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush. Thank You For A Life­time Of Ser­vice.”

With ev­ery flag, Fon­taine cheer­ily asked the re­cip­i­ent to “pray for our coun­try.”

“We need it now more than ever ’ cause we’re very di­vided,” Fon­taine said. “This has brought the pa­tri­o­tism out in all of us, and we need to em­brace it and stand tall.”

Bush, who died Fri­day at the age of 94, was born in Mas­sachusetts to a fam­ily of wealth. He was praised in eu­lo­gies for his pa­tri­cian grace and sense of duty and ser­vice, which in­cluded a ca­reer in pol­i­tics that be­gan in 1966 when he was elected to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and con­tin­ued as en­voy to the United Na­tions and China, di­rec­tor of the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency and vice pres­i­dent.

But his heart re­mained with his adopted home state of Texas, where he and his wife, Bar­bara, moved in 1948 so he could try his hand at the oil in­dus­try. The cou­ple re­turned to Hous­ton to live after he was de­feated for a sec­ond term as pres­i­dent in 1992.

Corine Licht, 71, a re­tired Wal­mart cashier, re­called Thurs­day that when her home was dam­aged dur­ing a gas ex­plo­sion, Bush, then a Repub­li­can con­gress­man, “was the only per­son that came out to help us.”

“He was wear­ing a longsleeved shirt and khaki pants, no suit, and he walked all over the neigh­bor­hood, shook our hands, and asked ev­ery­body if they needed any­thing,” Licht re­called. “I have al­ways re­mem­bered that.”

Bush had been de­lighted when Union Pa­cific un­veiled the lo­co­mo­tive in his honor in 2005, painted blue and white, the col­ors of Air Force One, and dubbed “4141,” a nod to his place in his­tory as the 41st pres­i­dent.

At the time, Bush said it re­minded him of train trav­els with his fam­ily as a young boy, and he even took a turn be­hind the con­trols.

“We just rode on rail­roads all the time and I’ve never for­got­ten it,” Bush said then.

He re­sponded with sim­i­lar en­thu­si­asm when staff at his pres­i­den­tial li­brary on the cam­pus of Texas A&M Univer­sity raised the idea of us­ing the lo­co­mo­tive as part of the fu­neral pro­ceed­ings, said David Jones, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Ge­orge H.W. Bush Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary Foun­da­tion. The li­brary had used the lo­co­mo­tive for ear­lier events.

Somber fu­neral train pro­ces­sions have long been a part of Amer­i­can his­tory, be­gin­ning with Abra­ham Lin­coln’s fu­neral train in 1865, which made a jour­ney of 1,600 miles.

Ear­lier this week, Bush’s spokesman, Jim Mc­Grath, said in a tweet that the former pres­i­dent had re­acted with “typ­i­cal hu­mil­ity” when briefed about the plans for his fu­neral in 2011, ask­ing, “Do you think any­one will come?”

And, Thurs­day, they did come. In Nava­sota, on­look­ers gath­ered from all around. They in­cluded school­child­ren who had been let out early for the “life­time op­por­tu­nity,” as the lo­cal schools su­per­in­ten­dent wrote in a note sent to par­ents.

Among them was James Scog­gin, 81, from Katy, a re­tired Navy lieu­tenant com­man­der who, like Bush, sur­vived bail­ing out of his plane un­der fire dur­ing com­bat.

“I just came to say thank you,” Scog­gin said. “I think he was the best pres­i­dent we ever had.”

Scog­gin brushed off his own near-death ex­pe­ri­ence in Viet­nam, when he was quickly res­cued by a he­li­copter and was only do­ing what he had been trained for.

“It was no big deal,” he said.

Fi­nally, in the dis­tance, the train horns be­gan to wail. He­li­copters and a drone cir­cled over­head. Soggy flags, both Amer­i­can and Texan, were un­furled and lo­cals rushed to the tracks.

“U. S.A.! U. S.A.!” they chanted.

Then the train emerged — first the blue-and-white lo­co­mo­tive, then a string of an­tique train cars, then a quick glimpse of the cas­ket in a train car em­bla­zoned with an Amer­i­can flag. A cheer grew louder when the crowd spot­ted former pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush peek­ing out the win­dow in the car be­hind his fa­ther’s cas­ket, smil­ing and wav­ing.

Then — whoosh! — the train passed, on to the burial, the fi­nal cer­e­mony of the week’s events.

Af­ter­ward, lo­cal res­i­dent Donna Orozco, 57, an ac­coun­tant, grew emo­tional when she spoke about the day’s events.

“I feel hum­bled,” she said, tear­ing up. “This is prob­a­bly some­thing we will never see again.”

DAVID J. PHILLIP/POOL/REUTERS

ABOVE: The flag-draped cas­ket of former pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush passes through Mag­no­lia, Tex., on Thurs­day, along the route from Spring to Col­lege Sta­tion, Tex.

MICHAEL S. WIL­LIAMSON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Left: One the small towns it trav­eled through was Nava­sota, where peo­ple lined the railroad tracks through down­town to see the his­toric pro­ces­sion.

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