Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Inauguration Tale

Hi friends,

We are just back from the Inauguration and I wanted to get this down in writing before the excitement and the memories fade.

All in all, we had a very fun and inspiring trip to Washington. Lynne and I, and 2 other friends from Lexington, drove up on Saturday. (I practiced “texting” on the way up.) We got an idea of what was to come at our first rest stop in Maryland, when a woman from Iowa came up to the car, asked if we were going to the Inauguration, and shook our hands.

We stayed the next four nights with 2 friends of a friend of ours who grew up in the DC area. This arrangement worked out really well, as the six of us had a lot in common and we enjoyed each other’s company.

The first day that we were there, we left the house around 10 to go downtown. The “Opening Event” at the Lincoln Memorial was supposed to start at 2 pm, and I thought that we would go to the National Museum of the American Indian first, have lunch there, and just walk down to the Lincoln Memorial closer to 2 pm. Our plans changed, however, when we came up out of the Metro (around 10:45 a.m.) and saw thousands of people already streaming down the Washington Mall for the concert. One sight that made my heart jump with joy was the army of port-o-potties lined up for our use—an issue that we had been concerned about for a month. Anyway, we joined the throng, waiting about 15 minutes in a line to go through security, and then onto the Mall. We found a place on the left of the reflecting pool, and sat down to wait. Luckily, the temperature was in the high 30’s and we were dressed warmly. The crowd was truly diverse, but was younger than I expected; lots of high school/college aged people. We were particularly looking forward to the Invocation by Bishop Gene Robinson, so after the long wait, it was exciting to see him (through the binoculars) walk up to the podium. It was very disappointing that the sound system didn’t seem to work until the last 30 seconds of his prayer, after which the HBO logo was splashed on the stage and on the Jumbotrons, and the drums introduced the beginning of the concert. I hope you all watched or will watch the concert, which was a moving mix of readings from and about Lincoln, FDR, Rosa Parks, ML King and JFK, as well as music from a wide selection of outstanding artists. There were some truly beautiful visual moments, like when Tom Hanks was reading quotes from Lincoln, and Lincoln’s image was projected on the four Jumbotrons that I could see, with the stately columns of the Lincoln Memorial rising in the background. We recognized the older generation of artists (Tom Hanks, Bruce Springstein, James Taylor, Patti LaBelle, John Mellencamp and Pete Seeger), but had to ask the younger people standing near us who the younger ones were (am I the only person in the world who has never heard Beyonce sing before?)

Of course, hearing from Barack Obama was the highlight for me, and he gave a signature eloquent speech. We didn’t stray from our patch of the Washington Mall until the concert was over at dusk, at which point we flowed back with the crowd into the Metro and rolled our way home.

On Monday we had a leisurely morning, and then again took the Metro downtown. This time, we did go to the National Museum of the American Indian, where a live Salsa band was filling the atrium with outstanding music and the audience was dancing. I met my sister and niece there, and we took advantage of their cafĂ©, which offers a great selection of native American food (everything from enchiladas to salmon). Everywhere, people were friendly and talkative, and I started a habit of chatting with anyone I encountered, asking “Where are you from?”, and “Do you have tickets?” and “Are you going to the parade or the Inauguration?”

We planned to go home early and have a low key evening in preparation for a big day on Tuesday, but when we walked out of the museum, it was dusk, the Capitol was lit up in all its grandeur, and on the Mall, it was a festive atmosphere of people strolling around and taking pictures and enjoying the evening. So we joined them, walking around the frozen reflecting pool towards the statue of Grant, getting as close to the Capitol as possible, browsing the t-shirt stands, and taking our own pictures.

Then we got the idea to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, along the route that the parade would take in the morning. We did, marveling at the beautiful buildings, passing the FBI and the Archives, the famous Washington Grille. It was dark and everywhere were sirens, police and workers putting up bleachers and barriers to get ready for the parade. We kept walking and talked to all kinds of people, got interviewed by the local ABC TV station, and didn’t stop until we reached the White House, 1.6 miles later. The closest we could get was across Lafayette Park, from where we could see the White House, also dramatically lit up in the dark. A hushed crowd had gathered there also, taking pictures and talking, so we joined it. From that point, you look one direction and see the White House and look the other direction to see the Washington Monument across the grassy lawn of the Ellipse. I did the right thing and called my mother to tell her I was standing in front of the White House.

Kudos to the original architects and planners of this elegant city. There were police all over the place, but all seemed friendly and relaxed. One spoke to us with a teacher’s sternness when we crossed a street against the light on our way towards the White House. “Ladies, you have to look at the signals!”

Now we had to find a Metro station so we could go home, and a nice man who was there with his family poured over a Metro map by the light of his cell phone and gave us excellent directions to the “Federal Triangle” stop, just a few blocks away. Before we left the Metro station that night, we charged up our Metro card (with Barack Obama’s image on it) so that we would be ready to roll in the morning.

Although the Metro started running at 4:00 a.m. 4:30 a.m. was our agreed upon wake up time, so we dutifully rolled out of bed (actually, off the air mattress) when the alarm went off Tuesday morning. The four of us from Kentucky were out of the house on our way to the Metro at 5:15 a.m. Our local hosts had decided that TV coverage was good enough. The train was only partly full, but with every stop, more happy people poured in, so by the time we reached downtown, it was shoulder to shoulder with excited Obama supporters. I alternated between riding high on the enthusiasm of everyone around me, and flashbacks to trainloads of people naively packed into trains in the dark days of Germany. I was in the back of the crowd when the train doors opened to let us out at the L’Enfant plaza, and I almost couldn’t get off the train because the platform was so crowded. The four of us held on to each other as we climbed up the (not working) escalator to street level. We were swept along in the dark for several blocks with an enthusiastic crowd of thousands. At one point, we had to go down a narrow space next to the Hirschborn Museum and the press of the crowd was a little scary, but then in a minute we spilled out onto the grassy Mall. The first ¾ mile of the Mall was already packed with people, so we walked to the middle of the Mall, and close to a Jumbotron, and put our blanket down. Within minutes we were surrounded by more attendees, standing shoulder to shoulder as far as we could see. The crowd included a lot more (elegantly attired) older people this time, especially Aftrican-Americans. We couldn’t move from our spot—partly because there was no room to walk, and because we wouldn’t be able to find our group again if we left it. It was about 6:15 a.m. and 19 degrees, with a cold wind. Five hours to wait…

Some Girl Scouts came by and passed out American flags, which later we waved with abandon to signal approval and enthusiasm. Text messaging came in handy, as cell phones calls didn’t go through after about the first hour. We chatted with people around us (a group of 4 who had driven down from New Jersey that morning, a family group from Louisville in front of us.) I give thanks for hand warmers, long underwear, snacks and friendly people. At 8, the Jumbotrons lit up, (the crowd cheered in response) giving safety tips and Metro updates, and then re-played the concert from Sunday. That entertainment helped pass the time. I got insight to the life of a dog as I sat on the blanket, trying to conserve energy, and looked at the crowd from the vantage point of knees to feet, occasionally shifting position to avoid being stepped on by the regular flow of people jockeying for a better position. The sun finally rose up above the eastern city scape, and we began to warm up. The temperature rose to 23 degrees.

The Jumbotrons finally switched to views of dignitaries arriving at the Inauguration, I guess the same views that you saw on TV. At 11 am, the “pre-show” entertainment started. The rest of the Inauguration was well broadcast, but I have to convey the energy that I felt from the sea of celebrating people who cheered and cried with me when Obama was sworn in and gave his Inaugural speech. I alternated between taking pictures and waving the American flag, hugging my friends and crying.

When it was all over, the Mall was a total mess of newspapers, food wrappers, Kleenex and random hats and gloves left by the sea of people. We made a bee line for the port-a-potties, then went back towards the Museum for a leisurely lunch. On the way, we stopped to help an elderly woman who had tripped and hit her face on a park bench. We summoned a medic from an ambulance that was parked across the street. We were four happy people when we finally made it onto the Metro later that day, still having to wait about 10-15 minutes just to get into the station. The crowd was tired and more subdued, but still friendly and helpful. We were glued to the TV that evening, and pouring over the newspapers to find out how many people were there. At last estimate, 1.9 million, and no Inauguration related arrests.

We got back in the car this morning (Wednesday), to head back west to Kentucky. By the time we reached Morgantown, WV, it was time to stop for a lunch break at McDonald’s. In the rest room, we ran into a young mother with an Obama pin on, and found out she was on her way back from the Inauguration also. She said, “I wish I could bottle the energy I felt from being there.” That pretty much sums up my feeling also. It was fun and historic, yes, but unexpectedly moving and energizing. Here it is, 10:30, and I need to get to bed. I’m glad to be back in Lexington, but we are re-playing the Sunday concert and still processing the enormity of this event. We have searched for our faces (so far to no avail) in the aerial pictures of the mall.

In one sentence: a once in a lifetime experience.

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