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.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Onto the Hill

...our stumbling, meandering  route from the train station led us around the White House.  We were startled to come across the portico of the White House only a few yards away from us during out trek up 14th Street.  There it was, awaiting its newest tenant.

With the tip of the Washington Monument always in our sight, we were led to the base of the hill upon which it was built,  The first President; and now the 44th.

  The grass was brown and straw-like in its winter hibernation, yet it seemed welcoming to our pavement-worn feet.  The sun was approaching its zenith on this mid-January day, and its rays bathed and soothed our frozen faces. 

We were able to walk quite close to the monument as this area seemed to be the last to be populated.  My mind flashed to the historic land rush in the West when the pioneers staked their claims to the free lands before them. A Jumbotron was positioned nicely to the left of the Capitol and our small party at last stopped to stake out our vantage point.  I looked back and saw tens of hundreds more folks now pouring like ants onto the grassy knoll. It was a good place to be, surrounded by others who were similarly determined to witness history.

The mood was joyous but not overly verbose. People chatted quietly with others, often asking where they began their journey.  Some children, not yet mature enough to sense the importance of the moment, were pushing playfully with each other until their mother stepped in to settle them.  We stood next to a Swede with ruddy and full-bearded face who was peering through a brass eye glass.  He and his wife brought small folding chairs which remained unused.  They had flown from LA to witness this historic moment.  Most people stood statue-like, facing the giant screen, awaiting their first glimpse of the President-elect and his family.

A roar went up as Bill and Hilary marched in and another as Joe and Jill Biden's smiling faces appeared on the screen. Boos arose as the camera found George Bush.  More cheers as other faces glided on and off of the Jumbotron.  Then, as Dick Cheney came rolling on in his wheelchair, real disgust was heard everywhere, which quickly changed to laughter as the sight of the man, tucked under a blanket in a wheel chair, struck the crowd as an ironically fitting end to his reign of terror on this nation.  

Hoots, hollers, and cheers erupted as Michelle and Barack Obama appeared, walking towards their appointed places on the stage. This is what these millions had come for.  The man was about to become the President on this cold and sunny Tuesday. The sound from the speakers was slower reaching us than the picture, as your science teacher surely explained, which created a most intriguing effect: we heard erupting cheering from the Capitol side of the mall which was out of sync with what our giant screen displayed.

As Chief Justice Roberts rose to administer the Oath of Office, the mass of people became perfectly silent; it was a sacred moment.  Then, as the words, " help me God." flowed from President Obama's lips, a roar like a freight train pierced the silence, which carried on for several wonderful minutes.  At last.

My thoughts turned to the many black people surrounding me.  What were they experiencing at this moment?  And of Gladys Gaines, the 81-year-old black woman from Flint, Michigan who sat next to my wife on the train this morning.  Born in 1928 into a segregated nation, barely 8 years after women won the right to vote, today she witnessed one from her race raised up to the presidency of this nation.  Although standing on a mere hill, Gladys has been to the mountain top.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Our Slog into History

It was not an easy path to witness the Inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama, but then, neither was his path to the Presidency. My wife, daughter, grandson and I drove to Frederick, Maryland and spend the night before at the home of a friend of our daughter. We were up at 5 AM on Inauguration Day and arrived at the MARC Train Station at 6:15. We were dressed for tobogganing.

The station was quite cheery with a large Obama Inauguration sign to welcome us. People of all ages and colors poured in, each with eager anticipation on their faces. Many asked, "Is this the station to D.C.?" because they did not want to miss the historical moment.

A group of black folks was huddled on one side of the room and we found out that their Greyhound bus, scheduled to pick them up at this station at 5:30, has not yet arrived. They were anxious, yet hopeful that they would get to The Mall.

Our train loaded at 7:00 and we were off at the scheduled time, 7:15. My daughter wrote, 'President Obama' on the fogged-up window and the sunrise created an interesting image.

An air of excitement and gladness filled our car as the whistle blew and train wheels clacked across town and country crossings. An elderly black woman, Gladys Gaines, sat next to my wife and she, never one to miss a conversation, chatted with her along the way. The 81-year-old from Flint Michigan had ridden here with others in her church group. She was very

happy to be on the train because the bus from Flint had a blow-out and was disabled for 5 hours as they sat along the highway, the tow truck driver unable to remove the rusted lugnuts. The group had only 2 hourse of sleep.

"Honey," she said to my wife, "I wouldn't miss this for anything and God got us back on the highway in time." She said that it was hard to believe, having lived the life she had, that she was here to watch a black man be sworn in as President. "Lord, I've been through a lot in my lifetime," she stated. My wife filmed her interview on her FlipCam and I will try to get it on here when I figure it out.

An hour later, we stopped in Union Station and applauded our destination. As we stepped onto the platform, we saw hundreds of folks leaving their coaches all around us.

With a crisp heel, we moved with the crowds and into the main building. Amtrak workers held 'Welcome' signs and 'This Way' signs to guide us out into the cold morning air of the city. Interestingly, our first 'sight' was a row of perhaps 100 blue porta-potties, some of the 5000 that were set out for us. Our daughter had packed her own toilet tissue for the occasion.

The sun shone brightly and made it difficult to see more 'This Way' signs that people held for us. We spotted the Mall This Way sign and headed towards it with several thousand others. Soon, however, it was apparent that things were not going to go as smoothly as the past hour. A mass of humanity came to a dead stop near a tall fence at the end of Louisiana Avenue. A large sign read, Purple Ticket Entrance. As we had no tickets at all, we realized that this was not where we ought to be, but there were no more Mall This Way signs to guide us.

Not only that, but many hundreds of others had now arrive behind us, with even more train people behind them. We were at a dead-end.

[note: this Purple Gate was, we later learned, the site of much confusion as folks with these tickets were not able to get into their 'reserved' seats at all.  YouTube of this gate]

We were stuck in a sea of humanity, unable to move in any direction. We swayed like a wheat field in the wind, one way, then the next. It was becoming dangerous and several people yelled, "We just want to get out!" and "Let us through!" We joined the chorus of others saying, "We have no tickets, let us through!" Very slowly, a snake of people began to move out of the mass and we followed along, being jostled as we wove free. That was a scary situation that darkened our spirits greatly.

The map shows our 'dead-end' and the retreat we had to conduct. I had this map in hand and knew that the black double-headed arrows were the designated 'cross-over' points, implying that pedestrians could move through these openings. But I was wrong. And no one knew much more than I. Faces lost their pleasant smiles as they understood that The Mall [green on the map] seemed to be cordoned off. It was now about 9 o'clock and a bit of panic set in. No one knew where to go, even the police officers we passed along the way.

What I did not realize was that the double-arrows on 3rd Street indicated walking on the I-395 roadway tunnel that went under The Mall. However, where we were, there were no ramps to get down there. And so, we kept on moving westward and northward, looking for another opening. Unfortunately, there were no more entrances to The Mall, only to the parade route. Each of the parade route entrances were surrounded by tens of hundreds of people waiting to go through security. Thus, we slogged onward, finding much the same. It was now 10 o'clock and we were heading towards the White House.

Our only hope of getting onto The Mall, I realized, was to go around the White House and down to the Washington Monument.

That was quite a trek, especially with frozen hands, faces, and feet. My daughter had a tear in her eye and fear on her face and I knew what she was thinking.

Soon we were walking with many other people who had the same plan, Up 14th Street and along I Street, our parade marched, hoping to reach the monument by noon. We had come so far that we couldn't miss the Inauguration by a few blocks. Of course, we had no idea if there would be barriers and security checks with masses of people waiting to get through.

The bright sun shone on our faces to warm us up as we walked down 18th with the tip of the monument visible on our left. Closer and closer we came and then, as if by some magical magnetic wizardry, The Mall's brown grass, bathed in that glorious sun, lay before us, no fences, no barriers at all.

It was our own, Free At Last moment and we scurried forward, bones aching, but happy to be there at last.

It was 11:15; we could once again breath easily as we walked up towards the monument to find a good standing location.
Behind us, throngs of others followed, filling up the entire area by the noon hour. It was good to be there, with all of these other fine peope, awaiting the moment we had dreamed of...

Inauguration Photos

Here are some of the photos that I took on Inauguration Day with minimum commentary.

My oldest grandson and my daughter about to board the train from Frederick, MD to D.C.

The crowd entering Union Station about 8 AM from the Amtrak trains .

Some of the two million visitors walking towards The Mall about 9 AM.

The crowd gathers at the base of the Washington Monument. This man had a flag autographed with the names of his friends.

The Washington Monument site fills up as a bright and warming sun shines down on the historic site.

The bitter cold could not keep the smiles off of the faces of the eager crowd.

Silence fell over the assembled masses as the Oath of Office was taken.

People lingered atop the Washington Monument after the ceremony, discussing the historic moment they had witnessed.

The Smithsonian Museums opened its doors for the weary visitors to relax.

Late in the afternoon we made our way to the front of the Capitol.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Off to the Inauguration

I'll be sure to blog about my experience when I return.

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