Inauguration Day, January 20, 2009: A Family Adventure

“Hope is not blind optimism. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and fight for it.”

 Barack Obama as quoted by E. J. Dionne, 12-30-2016

These words take me back eight years to January 20, 2009 when my son, daughter and I stood with a crowd of two million people, all of them a living, breathing physical expression of hope. Let me share some of that unforgettable experience with you.

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      By 3 AM we are all up.  Mark rouses himself from the couch, having given up his bed to his sister Gaby and me, his mom, for our Inauguration Week visit to his South Riding, VA apartment. With hotel rooms starting at $600 a night, I wouldn’t be here otherwise. 

      We decided that our AIS time would be 3:30 AM. With all highways to the National Mall closed, the sole transit is the metro with parking lots predicted to be filled by 5:30.

     “We can do it,” Mark said the night before.  “Yes, we can!” Gaby and I echoed in a campaign mantra response.

      We dress in layers of underwear, warm clothes, thermal socks and additional face protectors we bought the day after the twenty-degree, 20 mph wind made our faces numb.

     Today food will have no higher priority than sleep. Nevertheless, I grab three apples and the last banana, which has been on the counter undesired for some time, and hand them to Mark where they disappear into his many-pocketed cargo pants.

     We go down the steps into the dark night. Gaby scrambles into the back seat of the two-door Saturn and we begin the 20-minute ride to the Vienna Metro Station, end stop of the Orange Line.

     The line of cars crawls along to the parking garages.  It has taken an hour, but we find  a  parking place.

     Along the walkway to the train, some cute college girls are selling Krispy Kreme donuts. Whether it’s the girls or the donuts, Mark can’t resist and buys a box, and I buy an Inaugural edition of the Washington Post.

     We find seats together on the train. It soon becomes SRO and platforms teem with people who will have to wait for another train.

    At L’Enfant station our car empties out and cheery volunteers in red-knit hats meet us and direct us the few blocks to the mall.

     We walk down the middle of empty streets, passing the Department of Interior and the State Department. The bustling buildings stand silent. It’s like an apocalyptic movie when only the hero is left walking eerily alone.

     But we are not alone. People are pouring in from all directions. It is after 6:00 AM.  In the dim light of dawn we can see that the space close to the Capitol Building is filled. We spot a Jumbotron, head for it, and spread out a blanket to claim our spot.

   “Donut time,” Mark announces opening the box, and we munch on Krispy Kremes as more and more people fill the space.

    A little boy comes over. “Could I buy one of those donuts?” he asks shyly.  “Oh here, go ahead, take one.” Mark says and starts to give him the whole box, but I shake my head. “We might want more later.”  I say softly to Mark. The little boy goes away happy, but probably not as happy as he could have been.

     I stand up to take pictures. I look toward the East and see  . . .the sun coming up!  We haven’t seen the sun in five gray overcast days, yet on this day of Obama’s inauguration Old Sol has joined the crowd, giving me a title for my photo– “The Dawning of a New Day.”  Later, someone tells me that Obama never had bad weather for any major outdoor speech.

     Predictions were uncertain about the size of the crowd. The Washington Post gave two possibilities: “Projection One:  2.1 million, A Tight Squeeze. In dense crowds a person occupies an area of about 2.5 square feet, an area the size of the front page of The Washington Post. Projection Two 1.1 million,  Some Breathing Room. A person can comfortably stand amongst a crowd in an area of about five square feet, the size of an opened newspaper.” By 9:00 we have passed Projection 2 and are heading for the Tight Squeeze.

    The wind has picked up, coming from behind, and we drape our blanket around us. The HBO tape of the Lincoln Memorial concert that we attended on Sunday is projected on the Jumbotron. At the concert, I could hear everything and danced and sang along with the performers, but I never actually saw anything but the backs of the people in front of me. I said to my kids as we left, “This was the best concert I never saw.”

     “Mom,” Gaby suggests, remembering my earlier stature-challenged experience, “Fold up the blanket and make a stepstool.” I follow her advice and tuck the Washington Post in for another added inch. This works. I am now 5’4” instead of 5’0” and can see the Jumbotron perfectly.

      The screen switches to live coverage. Five gigantic flags draped from the Capitol Building form the backdrop. The middle flag is our current flag.  On either side hang the 1819 flags with 21 stars. This was the year that Illinois, Obama’s home state, was admitted to the Union.  On either side of the 1819 flags, hang the original 13-star flags that represent our country’s birth.   Sharpshooters are visible on the roof.

     A platform has been built on the West Capital steps to seat 2600 distinguished guests.  Below are chairs for 240,000 ticket holders, who were lucky enough to obtain them from their representatives in Congress.

     I feel not only the physical body warmth of the crowd, but a happy, mellow warmth radiating from inside the people gathered here. We are all half-frozen but no one complains. From all over the country, we are in this together.

     The camera focuses on the dignitaries who walk through a hallway before they find their seats on stage. The former presidents and their wives catch my attention.  Jimmy Carter and Rosalyn look great. I am struck by the feeble appearance of the first President Bush.  His painful shuffling, along with Dick Cheney in a wheelchair, form a vivid contrast with the vitality of Barack and Michelle Obama. It is indeed the passing of the torch, the next generation’s turn.

     Next we see Malia and Sasha. Dressed in their J. Crew outfits, Malia wears an empire-waisted, deep blue coat with black tights, shoes and gloves, and Sasha is dressed in a pink jacket with an orange skirt, scarf and gloves, red tights and matching red shoes.  They are adorable.

     Michelle comes on stage. We think she will sit down, but she keeps standing, turning from side to side. A lady beside us has been entertaining us with her remarks. Perched on a covered garbage can, she needs no loudspeaker.  Her red-orange knit scarf and hat make her visible, and her bell-like voice with its down home twang make everyone around her laugh. This time she calls, “What’s wrong, Michelle?  Did somebody take your seat, Baby?”

     At last all are seated. Diane Feinstein calls the event to order and gives opening remarks. Dr. Rick Warren from Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA steps up to give the invocation. This choice by Obama was controversial and led to protests by gay rights groups because of Warren’s conservative positions.

     Aretha Franklin is introduced. Her gray wool coat matches an oversized felt hat featuring a prominent bow lined with rhinestones. Her powerful voice rings through the speakers sending “My Country Tis of Thee” to the farthest parts of the mall. “Let Freedom Ring,” she sings. “Let it, Let it, Let it, Let It RING!”

     Joe Biden and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, John Paul Stevens, are introduced for the Vice Presidential oath of office. The speaker addresses the crowd: “Would you all please stand?” This causes a ripple of laughter in my area, since most of us have been standing for five hours.

     A quartet assembles, consisting of Itzhak Perlman on violin, Yo-Yo Ma on cello,  Gabriela Montero wearing fingerless gloves on piano and Anthony McGill on clarinet. They are an ethnically diverse group–Jewish Perlman, Chinese Ma, Montero from Venezuela and African-American McGill. They play John Williams “Air and Simple Gifts.” The joyful music is in tune with the mood of the crowd. People are courteous, laughing easily, clapping their mitten-muffled applause, and calling out approval.

    We’ve come to the high point of the event—the oath of office. Diane Feinstein introduces Chief Justice John Roberts. (Obama was one of the senators who voted against his confirmation, the first time a Supreme Court justice has sworn in a president who voted against him).

     Obama and his wife come forward. Michelle holds the red-velvet Bible that Abraham Lincoln used for his oath of office. Obama has been passionate about Lincoln since first following in his footsteps in Springfield, Illinois. Obama retraced part of Lincoln’s trip to his first swearing-in by riding a train from Philadelphia to Washington, and now, in this moment, he places his left hand on the Lincoln Bible and raises his right.

     From then on the oath does not go smoothly. The justice intends to say, “I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear,” but Obama starts repeating it before the last phrase.  Then Roberts says, “that I will execute the office of president of the United States faithfully.” He has put the word faithfully in the wrong order. Obama recognizes the mistake and stops, giving Roberts a chance to correct his error, which he does, but then Obama repeats it as Roberts had erroneously said it the first time.

     Nevertheless they get through it—the Marine Band plays Hail to the Chief, the cannons fire off a 21-gun salute and the mall erupts into a cheering flag-waving mass, two-million strong.

     Obama’s inaugural address is 18 minutes long, about 2400 words, compared to the shortest–135 words by George Washington, and the longest–William Henry Harrison at 8,445 words.

     Obama’s demeanor is serious, and his tone passionate. I’ve never seen him speak for this length of time without a smile.

     Obama is the first to ever directly address the Muslim world in an inaugural speech with the words, “We seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

     To leaders who are corrupt, deceitful and believe in silencing the dissent of their people, he says, “You are on the wrong side of history, but we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” I feel these words ripple up my spine, as I stand on the cold ground in the cold air. It seems the people around me are feeling it, too. In total silence the crowd of two million hear him speaking to each of us individually.

     Obama ends with a personal reference: “This is the meaning of our liberty. . . and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

     This resonates with my family, too. My husband Ollie, when a young teen, was the only black representative of the Boy Scout troop from Colorado Springs on a train trip to the East Coast. He remembered it all his life, with fond memories except for one. In Baltimore, when the group went to lunch, he was not allowed into the restaurant. His leaders never noticed, and he walked alone and hungry back to the train station. On the way back, a pigeon flew over him and pooped on his Boy Scout hat. He looked up, saw that it was a white pigeon and said to himself, “Even the white pigeons don’t like me.” How I wish my husband could have been here with us, but he succumbed to cancer seven years ago.

      Reverend Doctor Joseph E. Lowery stands to give the benediction. A retired Atlanta pastor, he is considered the dean of the civil rights movement, and cofounded along with Martin Luther King, Jr., The Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

      He begins by quoting “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson, the song known as the Negro National Anthem. He prays for the nation, and again quotes scripture with his own update, “Help us, Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks shall be turned into tractors . . . when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.”

     Lowery closes with words from the 1930s blues song “Get Back,” by Chicago artist Big Bill Broonzy, when he says in prayer, “Lord, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the redman can get ahead man, and when white will embrace what is right.” Every phrase invokes laughter from the crowd, mostly black, where I stand. It is recognition of a time when laughter helped get you through hard times. But for those who hear those lyrics for the first time and are unfamiliar with black culture, it unleashes a backlash in days to come accusing Lowery of being racist.

      The crowd disperses and we follow. We get in a line that widens and slows down until it is barely moving. Some people coming from the opposite direction tell us, “You can’t get out that way.” We take their word and turn back going against the crowd.

      It is after one o’clock. We’ve had nothing to drink, only donuts to eat. We check our map and head for the closest metro station.

     Mark is carrying blankets and the Krispy Kreme box.  I offer to carry the donut box, thinking there might be a couple left, but I open it to see the donuts are gone and he has put the apples and banana in it.

     Our feet warmed up from 40 minutes of walking back and forth trying to get off the mall, but now that we’ve come to a complete stop, they start to get cold again, even though our bodies are warm from the closeness of the crowd.

     A new worry emerges. It is past two. We need to get to the metro, and drive to the airport to get Gaby on her plane by 4. The crowd moves a little.  Hope.  No, only three baby steps. Mark, who at 6’4” can see over the crowd, tells us he sees army people dressed in fatigues at the entrance of the metro, administering crowd control to prevent a stampede to the three escalators that move people down to the train platform.

     I now deduce a pattern. A ten –minute wait and just when you think it’s unbearable, three baby steps forward.

     “Mark, I can’t stand this?  What is going on?”

      “The army people are letting a few on at a time,” he says. “ Maybe about ten.”

     “But are we in line?”  I desperately ask the foolish question.

     “Mom, there is no line. There are people as far as you can see in every direction.”

      I get the picture. We are part of a mass–a many-footed organism proceeding as slowly as slime.

     A tall black guy to my right reminds me of Mohammed Ali with his nonstop entertaining chatter. Part of a group all wearing orange knit hats, and tall like Mark, he advises them of what’s happening.

     In this tightest of squeezes, people are calm. No one pushes. An unintended jostle brings apologies all around. Even the children are patient and well behaved.

     In the three-baby-step dance, Ali Orange Hat has ended up beside me. “Lady, you wouldn’t happen to have any donuts in that box?  I haven’t had anything to eat all day.” 

     “I’m sorry,” I say as I manage to get the lid open to show him.  “Would you like an apple or banana?” The banana which left home in less than good shape, looks worse. 

     “I would love an apple,” he says. “This is great.  Lady, I owe you. If I ever get up there, you’ll go ahead of me.”

     Ali has become my ally. “That’s nice of you.” I look behind me and grab Gaby’s sleeve, “ but I’ve got my daughter with me.”

     “Oh, your daughter. He looks at Gaby.  She goes, too.” 

    Gaby reaches behind, taking hold of Mark. “I’ve got my brother with me,” she says.

     Ali Orange Hat pauses only a second. “He fends for himself.”

      We’ve been in this non-line for an hour. At last it is our turn. True to his word, Ali Orange Hat has made sure we are on the escalator ahead of him. We ride to the bottom where the smaller number of people are moving freely, if slowly, to the metro gates. We wait for Mark. We’re not worried. It would be impossible to be lost and he’s too big to be trampled. Finally we see him at the top of the moving stairs, still holding the blankets, a big smile on his face as he joins us. “This could have been a LOT worse!” he says. 

     The first train is full. But in seven minutes the next one approaches and we miraculously find three seats together. We’ve made it again. Unless the train breaks down we will get to Vienna station in plenty of time to get Gaby to Dulles Airport, only fifteen minutes from there.

     Mark and Gaby sit across from me. Suddenly I remember–I never got the photo I had promised Harriet. Harriet Wallace, my 95-year old friend, had hip replacement surgery the same day I left for Washington.  Before I left she gave me a red and white sweater she had knitted. I vowed that I would wear it to the Inauguration and take a picture to show her, that even though she didn’t get to see the man she voted for take the oath of office, her sweater would be there.

     I hand Mark my camera and he snaps the picture. He hands it back and when I look at it, I laugh out loud. Talk about a wrung through the wringer look! Hat askew, scraggly hair, glasses slid down my nose and a weary forced smile. I am a Train Wreck. On the other hand, there’s Harriet’s sweater, and the Obama button pinned proudly to my jacket.  And most of all, there is Hope.

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Lucy Bell is a retired teacher and writing consultant. Her thirty-five year teaching career included creating FIRSTWRITE, a program that helped hundreds of teachers teach first graders creative writing, even before they could spell. She is currently a featured contributor for the online magazine US Represented and the literary journal Almagre Review. Molly and the Cat who Stole Her Tongue is her first children’s novel.