A recent trip to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to see the embalmed body of Chairman Mao Zedong reminded me of a time in 1972 when as a child, we gathered in line to view the body of Harry S Truman, the 33rd president of the United States.
We were visiting relatives in Missouri, as we frequently did in the early 70’s. Harry S. Truman, the former president had passed away and his body was lying in state at his presidential library in Missouri. It was decided by the adults in our family that we must go and be a part of this moment in history.
As a child, who would want to go stand in line in the freezing cold temperatures to see a dead body? There were so many other things to do, like….play cards, or board games, or watch tv. I had no interest in going. It didn’t matter though, because we were gathering our coats and heading out to stand with the hundreds of others who were waiting in line. I remember packing into my aunt and uncle’s station wagon, which I loved because it had seats that faced backward in the rear of the car! So cool!
Anyway, we parked the car then had to take a bus to the presidential library to wait, and wait, and wait. It was so cold with precipitation falling from the sky. Why on earth did we have to stand in the cold winter weather waiting to see a dead body? I needed to use the restroom, but we couldn’t get out of line.
This is the only thing I remember about that evening, yes we did eventually make it through the library for the viewing, but I could not tell you anything about it. This did not interest me as a child. I only remember the wait, the weather and the need for a restroom.
Fast forward to 2019 and I am standing in line with friends, Jayne and Simon from New Zealand, in the freezing Beijing winter with thousands, and I mean thousands of people waiting to see Chairman Mao, who by the way, has already been lying there for more than 40 years!! And just as so many years ago in Missouri, precipitation is falling from the sky. It is snowing! The first significant snowfall of the season. However, it wasn’t snowing when we left our apartments that morning.
Needless to say, we were cold! Jayne seemed to be the coldest and the hungriest. I needed to go to the restroom. Simon seemed good to go, but later bought a green Chinese ushanka cap with earflaps to protect his head, or because I came to realize he enjoys shopping for cheap, tacky, Chinese souvenirs.
Simon looked like a guard with his hat on his head and when he got ahead of Jayne and I, he was a bit harder to locate as he blended right in with the crowd.
We waited in line with the local Chinese for about an hour to file by the body of their former leader, who has been lying there since the 80’s, so it’s nothing new! But Chairman Mao was one of the most influential and controversial political figures in the 20th century, so today was just as good a day as any to get out and wait in line to pay their respects to their former leader.
I wondered if the kids who were standing in line with their families waiting to pay homage to the permanent resident of Tiananmen Square would remember
filing by Chairman Mao’s flag draped, crystal coffin. Perhaps they will only remember standing in the long line and the bitter cold, winter snow. I wondered if they were with their cousins waiting in line. I knew they didn’t come in a cool station wagon with rear facing seats, as most, including ourselves, came by subway and two feet.
The line wrapped this way and that and just when we thought we must be getting close to the front, we turned the corner and saw that hundreds more people were in lines that we didn’t even know were there.
We probably had another hour to wait in line before we got to the mausoleum. An executive decision was made, and we stepped out of line. Our morning plans for viewing Chairman Mao’s body were thwarted. Our toes were numb, stomachs were empty and bladders were full, well at least mine was full.
Simon found his way to a tacky souvenir cart and bought a souvenir pin to remind him of his day’s outing, Jayne found a KFC to satisfy her hunger, and miles later, down this street and that, I found my toilet!
Perhaps we can go again when the weather is a little warmer.