Saturday, January 24, 2009

Back to the Train

... we lingered atop the Washington Monument for a bit longer, savoring the sun, the people, and the historical moment that we all witnessed. Still,  an annoying whirring sound began to play over the speakers of the Jumbotron which we quickly identified as a helicopter. 'It must be George Bush taking off!' said someone nearby. 'Hooray!' said another. The sound grew more intense and then, lift-off, of the 43rd President and into the history books.

As a fitting last act of his disastrous reign of terror on the citizens, his helicopter stirred up a massive load of dirt and debris that enveloped the monument and the people there upon. We wiped our eyes and dusted off our coats and hats and sang, 'Hey, hey, good-bye!' The words, 'Free at Last!' banged around in my head as well.

We looked down The Mall toward the Capitol in the distance and set off to that location, fully aware that many detours could be ahead of us. Because the parade was to move up Pennsylvania Avenue, a quick check of the map indicated that we should take the south side of The Mall where security would now most likely be minimal and our path less obstructed.

Apparently many others had the same idea as we joined the masses of people moving in a northeasterly direction. Oddly placed barricades prolonged our decent; they surely were meant for some purpose, but what was beyond our understanding. Those roadblocks funneled people into a narrow and now highly congested point of exit, fittingly near the Department of Agriculture. We were not unlike a herd of cattle at this time.

The problem with the congestion was compounded by an ambulance that was heading toward us, it and we unable to move. The ear-shattering honks of its horns could not part this mass of humanity. We were trapped, much like our morning entrapment shortly after we exited the train station five hours ago. Pinned down by a fence, a wall and an ambulance, we had to turn around and head back where we were a half-hour ago. "Turn around!" people shouted. Like a slow-motion movie, the thousand-legged creature began to inch forward, away from the cul de sac.

We stopped to rest on a wall near the Tidal Basin, just past the Holocaust Museum. Six hours in the below-freezing temperatures had sapped our energy and numbed our feet and faces as we sat on the cold stones. 'Keep moving,' a line from some survival film, played in my head. I encouraged them to move on, despite the statement from my grandson that he could not walk any further. As we plodded past the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, no one was interested in the fact that our money came from that building. We were headed for L'Enfant Plaza on 12th Street where, I recalled, there were food vendors. The word 'food' is a broad-ranging term, as we soon discovered. We dined on a pretzel and a hot dog. That was it. Again we sat on a cold cement fence as we devoured the precious manna.

After 'lunch,' we raised up our tired bodies and moved toward the Smithsonian Museums, so-called warming-stations. We offer the Park Service much gratitude for opening the doors of these buildings to us. The tower of the Smithsonian Castle was a sight for cold eyes and we quickly headed there. Thankfully, there were no lines. We sat down, or rather lay down, in an art gallery, on the carpet with no shame at all. It was soft and warm. Survival.

Others were sprawled out in similar fashion throughout the museum. It was exactly what our bodies needed. Quiet conversations could be heard, showing respect to the museum on which we lay. Long lines formed at the restrooms and my grandson and I shared the men's room with the ladies: they used the stalls while the men used the urinals. Odd, but effective.

Refreshed and less chilled, we plodded on, out the Mall door and down Jefferson Drive. The Capitol was much closer now and we could see the flags hanging from the front. Just ahead was the National Air and Space Museum which became our next refuge. Rather than lying down, this time we walked slowly through several exhibits, although we were not too much interested in their historical significance. I expected my grandson to be excited upon seeing the aircraft, but he was too sapped of energy to be much impressed. Neither were we and, noting that it was already after 4 o-clock, we needed to move along because our train was set to leave at 6 PM.

As we left the museum and turned right, we saw ahead of us the tail end of the assembly of 'the parade.' Our progress was halted at 4th Street as fences blocked our way. Our tolerance for dead-ends was running low at this time, but we went back inside the museum to exit out onto Independence Avenue. Surely we could cross 4th Street here, as the map indicated that this street was the boundary of the 'closed' area. Yet, there was the fence, guarded by police. This time we were lucky: just as we were about to head one block further south, the gate swung open to allow us to pass though. Moses and the parting of the Red Sea.

It was oddly interesting that the Capitol lay just ahead yet there were no fences or barriers between that gleaming building and us. We strolled [well, moved] up Maryland Avenue to the Reflecting Pool which was frozen. Some youngsters were sliding on the ice, a most peculiar sight.

Past the pool, we walked along 1st. Street, stopping exactly in front of the stage upon which Barack Obama took his Oath of Office. Our eyes took it all in; our hearts understood the power of this place. Empty folding chairs from our position all the way to the steps for those fortunate people who were eye-witnesses to this day.

We lingered a bit, then, pressed for time, walked around the back of the Capitol, pausing only to snap a photo or two. Union Station was just ahead. Our journey was coming to a close. Just ahead we once again became engulfed in masses of people who were stopped just outside of the station. What now? Why couldn't we just walk into the station as we had done 9 hours earlier? I had no tolerance for this; none!

Someone on a bullhorn was blurting out, "MARC on the left, Amtrak on the right! Hold up your tickets!" We were ticketed for the MARC train so we had to weave our way 'to the left' while we were met by Amtrak folks moving to where we had been. Such nonsense. The crowd had little tolerance for any more of this line-forming, herding stuff. One man yelled out, "Define left!" Another behind me shouted, "I'm on the 5:10 train!" I looked at my watch. 5:10. Ours was in 55 minutes. We were so close, but yet so far.

Slowly we approached the 'gate' ahead, trying to stay 'on the left.' Beyond the gate, the folks on the right merged with us on the left. "Brilliant idea!" I shouted back at the gate-keepers, my frustration level at 10. "Papa," my grandson said to me, "why did we have to stay to the left; we're all walking down the same hallway now?" "Indeed we are!" I replied. "It didn't make any sense," he said. "No, Nicholas, it didn't." I left it at that, although I could have given a speech.

A sign ahead, "MARC TRAINS." At last. Another cluster of humanity looking intently ahead. Another bullhorn: "Passengers with the CR-1, CR-2, CR-3 and CR-4 tickets ONLY move forward; all other ticket-holders please step aside!" We were FR-2. We stepped 'aside' which begged the earlier question, 'define aside.' The CR passengers held up their tickets like school lavatory passes to get through the crowd. "Only ticket holders with CR-1...." My wife said, "I don't know how much longer I can stand!" That was a given.

About thirty minutes later 'FR-2' was called which sounded a lot like, 'You won the lottery!' Ten hours earlier we left this station with great anticipation of a memorable and exciting day. It was much more than that. The cold, the standing, the dead-ends, and other annoyances proved to be a splendid adventure in survival. As we now sat in our warm coach and relaxed for the first time in many hours, the rhythmic click-clack of the track under our feet and slight jostling of the coach helped calm our spirit. Only then had we the opportunity to reflect back on the magic of this extraordinarily wondrous day. It will be forever written in the books of history that this nation had the wisdom and courage to elect its first African-American President. Well done, America! And we were eye-witnesses of this page of history.

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