Back on election night in November, I hovered over my computer. I had three web sites delivering exit poll data, and I was refreshing each more or less constantly. I wasn’t going to bed until I was reasonably certain of the outcome. I half jokingly told Susan that if McCain won, I’d start looking for housing in Toronto. The next day, instead of looking up Canadian realtors, I called a travel agent. It seemed very important that we attend President-elect Obama’s inauguration.
It wasn’t until this afternoon, when we arrived in Washington DC, that I appreciated how many others shared the same feeling. “It’s going to be packed with people,” many at home had said. “It will be cold and I’d rather watch it on TV,” said others. As we left our house at 4 am this morning and crawled at 20 MPH along unplowed upstate NY highways, I wondered if they were right. Because of the snow, we arrived 90 minutes later than we’d planned, and caught our group at the airport with only minutes to spare, just as they were boarding the motor coach.
Our bus was filled with people of many colors, from all over the world. I sat next to a woman named Kimberly, who owns a crisis management consulting business in Alabama. As we talked, we recognized in one another a kindred spirit; our lives couldn’t be more different, yet we both longed for a restoration of hope and stature for our country, and for a renewed call to sacrifice and service for the common good. It turned out that Kimberly brought many of her family along from all over the country – her mother said that she couldn’t remember a similar atmosphere of “electric anticipation,” even when JFK had been elected. The roads outside our windows were packed with cars, and traffic moved quite slowly; still, there was barely a horn honked or an angry face to be seen.
We visited the Newseum, and I didn’t have great expectations (we were here for Tuesday’s main event, after all – I expected this to be a minor extra.) The Newseum is a brand new museum dedicated to (what else?) news. But it caught me by surprise. One exhibit featured newspaper and television coverage of the events of 9/11; standing 26’ tall in the center of the room was a section of the radio antenna that had previously stood atop one of the towers. Suddenly I had tears in my eyes. Another exhibit showed Pulitzer prize-winning photographs and the stories behind them. It was almost unbearable to contemplate many of the images and the realities they depicted. Still another exhibit showed the current front pages of papers from all over the world, as well as from every state in the US. Susan noted that all of them featured stories about the President-elect, with the lone exception of Alaska – the Anchorage paper featured a cover story about Sarah Palin’s pipeline. In the central atrium of the Newseum hangs a gigantic widescreen; it was showing the concert taking place at that moment only a mile or so away at the Lincoln Memorial. The screen was positioned such that people could view it from all six floors of the building – every balcony had a row of people two- and three-deep watching the simulcast. When Barack Obama took the stage and gave a five-minute speech, our crowd hushed. As he spoke, I looked around me and saw smiles and tears, and I was moved in a way that is difficult to describe. Suddenly I remembered why I’d had the impulse to bring my family into this throng of millions. As the President-elect concluded, everyone in the museum applauded – to a television screen!
We enjoyed dinner at a seafood restaurant in Georgetown. The traffic congestion again made me glad that someone else was driving. We sat with a couple from Houston – Beverly and Rodney. When Susan, Sarah and I held hands to say grace, we were surprised when our table mates also held our hands to join us. I said the prayer, and found out later that Rodney is a preacher! (Beverly: “Chris, I’m glad you said the blessing. If my husband had started, we wouldn’t have been finished before the meal was over.”) Once again, we were pleased to find instant and fertile common ground with strangers. I shared the story of the spiritual journey our family has been on during the past year, and Beverly and Rodney shared some of their own story. We agreed to exchange e-mail addresses before the trip is over.
Back at the hotel now, and I can’t sleep. Earlier, we watched the replay of the afternoon’s concert on HBO, and listened again to Obama’s speech.
“And yet, as I stand here today, what gives me the greatest hope of all is not the stone and marble that surrounds us today, but what fills the spaces in between. It is you – Americans of every race and region and station who came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you want to help us get there.
“It is the same thing that gave me hope from the day we began this campaign for the presidency nearly two years ago; a belief that if we could just recognize ourselves in one another and bring everyone together – Democrats, Republicans, independents; Latino, Asian and Native American; black and white, gay and straight, disabled and not -then not only would we restore hope and opportunity in places that yearned for both, but maybe, just maybe, we might perfect our union in the process.”
I like bus tours. This is our second tour, after the one we took in Europe. There’s something about the shared activity and common purpose that draws the group together, and makes an instant community. We look out for one another, ensuring the bus doesn’t leave if someone is missing. We share food, stories, and new adventures together. Something new on this trip has been sharing our faith and ideology with each other as well.
Nobody we’ve met on this trip has been shy about their faith in God. At dinner tonight we were seated with six women from New Orleans. We didn’t know them yet, so Susan, Sarah and I quietly held hands to say a blessing before the meal. “Hurry,” one of them called to the others. “Sit down so we can say grace!” Once again I prayed and together the table practically shouted “Amen!” at the end. Three times today I shared parts of my spiritual journey with new friends, and I was blessed with their stories in return. I’ve never been as impressed with God working in people’s lives (mine included!) as I have been on this trip.
Kimberly’s husband was a basketball and tennis coach at a school until he had an accident that completely disabled him; he had to re-learn how to walk, talk and feed himself. When he was well along in his recovery, Kimberly found out she had cancer and she spent the next nine months in chemotherapy. She is fearless in giving God glory for every good thing in her life now, including the joys of this trip. She challenged me to see things the same way.
Our dinner companions from Louisiana were all displaced by Hurricane Katrina – three of them aren’t yet back in their own homes. Besides losing houses, they lost communities – churches, schools, grocery stores, libraries, hospitals and doctors, and neighborhoods of friends. These things will take years to rebuild, and will never be what they once were. These women trust that God is working on something better than what they knew before – they remain confident that everything happens for a reason, even aid money that was promised and never delivered, or delivered years late; even contractors that charge three times the going rate and never finish the job; even the impossibility of getting new insurance coverage or making claims against policies they had before.
Today’s activities began early, as our tour guide brought us to a grocery store to stock up on munchies and cash for tomorrow. Jim said that he was pretty sure that all ATMs in DC will run out of money, and it will be practically impossible to buy food at the inauguration. He gave us plastic bags and told us to put some food in them, plus a handful of tissues in case the port-a-johns run out of toilet paper.
We went to the National Museum of Crime and Punishment, which sounds a bit obscure and tacky; it wasn’t. The design of the museum alone should have Disney imagineers taking notes. My favorite exhibit was of famous mobsters, followed by another of famous prisons (complete with cell replicas.) Next we visited Ford’s Theatre and the house across the street where Lincoln died. This was moving and appropriate, and special for me because I knew it was my friend Richard’s favorite historical site in DC. We went to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (along with several thousand others) and saw Dorothy’s ruby slippers, the original Kermit the Frog, an exhibit of the gowns First Ladies have worn throughout history, the original 15-striped Star Spangled Banner flag, and about a hundred other things. The place was absolutely packed with people. One interesting presentation was a debate and question-and-answer featuring Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson.
Next we visited monuments. First the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial (The Wall). Although I’ve seen pictures of this, I was surprised to see it in person – it wasn’t what I’d expected. The biggest surprise was that the surface of the wall itself is highly reflective – visitors are forced to see themselves as they look over the names of those who died in Vietnam. The line to see the Lincoln Memorial looked to be an hour long, but we waited (it was about 30 minutes, and well worth waiting for). Still 22 hours before the inauguration and already the crowds were larger than many of the tour guides had ever seen before. I have a picture of my mother holding me on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when I was three years old. Although many things that seemed large in youth diminish with age, this memorial seems far larger to me now than I remember it. I imagine many of the people there shared the same feeling, as we stood in awe before the Lincoln statue and read his words on the walls around us. We finished the afternoon at the Marine Corps monument (the Iwo Jima statue). This reminded me of finishing the Marine Corps Marathon back in 2001, the last time I’d been here.
Our dinner was very good, and the entire group seemed to share the feeling that this tour package was a good deal: someone else was driving, someone else was taking care of dinner reservations, someone else was picking up museum tickets and paying for the meals…
After dinner we drove to the Jefferson Memorial, and in the crystal cold air we could see the White House glowing in the distance, and JFK’s eternal flame off in another direction. The Washington Monument towered over everything, and Jefferson’s words in the incredible setting helped us to reflect on the fact that our nation’s soul depends on its ideas and ideals. We haven’t always lived up to our aspirations – even those memorialized here didn’t always do so. It seems in recent years that our leaders have played on our selfishness to their advantage – “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” and “Read my lips…” etc. The sense in the air right now – the “electric anticipation” that Kimberly’s mother noted yesterday – is a hunger for something closer to “Ask not what your country can do for you…” I hope and I believe that we will be called to such a vision tomorrow. The fact that we are here with millions of others (the largest crowd in the Capital’s history, they are now saying) gives me hope that we are ready to heed and answer such a call.
This morning we awoke at 4 am, dressed in layers as instructed, carried only our IDs and some cash, plus whatever snacks we wanted. My strategy was to fast all day – I didn’t want to end up in a port-a-john (I’d had enough of those last week at the Disney races.) It was COLD, and I say that as an Upstate New Yorker. Our Chicago guy (Brett) had originally planned to sleep out on the Mall before he’d booked his spot on the tour, but he said it was a bit windy even for him… We bundled on to the bus by 5:30 and fell back asleep.
Did I mention that I like bus tours? Eric, our driver, deserves combat pay for this week. It took about 90 minutes to get into DC, and only busses were allowed past a certain point. We’d expected to park at a designated spot, only to be told that the police had scrapped the idea at the last minute – the next thing we knew, we were told to “GOGOGO!!” out of the bus, before the gridlocked traffic could start to move again. Half un-layered, we spilled onto the street carrying jackets and food and were swept into a migrating throng of people.
The walk wasn’t far, but the crowds even at 7:00 am were terrific. Our group was predominantly female, average age late fifties and (I’m pretty certain) non-athletic to boot. While Susan kept a hand on Sarah, I became a sheep dog, trying to keep the back of the pack with the rest. In the midst of the overall chaos was great jubilation. I write that knowing it sounds like a joke, or a cliche or something; it just seems accurate. There were soldiers and police and boy scouts and other volunteers all over – they greeted us with smiles and shouts like “THANK YOU FOR COMING TODAY! THIS IS A GREAT DAY!” The crowd itself might best be described as a great big, lumbering dog – enthusiastic, ready to lick you all over, not too organized but essentially harmless. Someone said it was “a love-in without the drugs,” and that sounds right, too.
Our guide Jim picked a spot just about center between the Capitol and the Washington monument, in the middle of the mall. Directly in front of us was the stage and the podium (granted, it was a half mile or so away.) We had a good view of a Jumbotron screen and we could hear everything pretty well, although there was a second or so delay and a lot of echoes off the buildings around us. Using binoculars I could just about see figures on the stage in the distance; more interesting was counting the snipers on rooftops (I got up to 30, but there were certainly more than that.)
Can you imagine standing out in 15-degree windchill for five hours? I can’t either, yet it went by surprisingly quickly. We stomped our feet (that was all we had room to move) and the bravest people tried to get to the port-a-johns. Susan went fairly early and it took her about an hour to get back to us – it was difficult to find our group again once she was outside of it. She ended up getting swept in a moving current of people from behind then around in front of us, and she had to battle back against a current to finally reach us again. Another man from our group took his son around 9 am, and didn’t reunite with his wife until 3:30 in the afternoon! Cell phones were just about useless; we’d been told that text messaging would work, but that was also sporadic (many texts were finally delivered hours later.)
As the VIPs started to arrive, we watched them on the screens. Cameras were set up along the route and in the Capitol (the next day we were able to see many of the cameras still rigged on the path they had walked through the building.) To my dismay, many “booed” the Bushes and a few others – these were among the few “off” moments in an otherwise joyful day. People around us were talking about the various politicians they’d met as we saw them on the screens; Sarah was disappointed that I’d never met anyone we were seeing until Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman performed right before the President was sworn in. When I told her I’d met both of them (“In person, for real?” “Yes, in person.”) she was satisfied that I wasn’t a complete nobody.
What you might not have been able to tell from the television coverage was that when Rick Warren said the Lord’s Prayer during his invocation, a good majority of the crowd said it with him. It was an amazing thing to hear, and to be a part of. Many around us were already crying by that point. Rev. Lowery’s benediction was another high point, prompting repeated and ever louder “Amens” as he continued. Of course, the Presidential oath of office was the best moment for the crowd, which erupted in celebration. During the inaugural address, everyone silenced and very little else could be heard but the President’s voice.
Afterward, the crowd broke up. There was no possibility of getting to the parade route, as police had closed off access due to capacity crowds by 9 am. A second disappointment came as we saw the debris the crowd left behind – the President should have added “If you carried it in, please carry it to a trash can…” Unbelievable. We knew our bus would be unable to leave the city until after dinner. Some of us found some wall space in one of the Smithsonian buildings and we spent a couple of hours warming up before venturing back out to find the bus. Some of our members were now having difficulty moving, but none of them complained. They repeated that they wouldn’t have missed it for anything and they’d do it again. If you’ll pardon what seems crass now that I write it, this is what I thought in the moment: “God bless the limitless faith and stamina of these old black women.” I know I was cold and tired, and I can’t even imagine how they must have felt. Somehow, we all made it back to the bus, which seemed to be a mile away. Some of our group had scored tickets to get much closer to the proceedings, and they also began to rejoin us. Incredibly, nobody was lost by the time dinner came around.
By this time we all seemed like old friends, and though the food wasn’t as good as our first two meals, it was the easiest and friendliest time of all. Susan was taught how to eat a crayfish by one of our New Orleans ladies. (I should have taken a video… Susan’s facial expressions were so funny, but she actually ate it, ripping the head off and everything!) On the bus again, we watched DVDs (an election night recap and also Kevin Costner’s Swing Vote – DUMB) and dozed on the drive back to the hotel. Some of our group had tickets to the Home State Ball, so they were headed back out via taxi (I guess if you spend $300 on a ticket, a $70 taxi ride isn’t out of the question.)
Susan, Sarah and I watched the first three Presidential appearances on TV. I loved Beyonce’s rendition of At Last for the first dance at the Neighborhood Ball – I never cared for her before, but between this and her God Bless America on Sunday I’ll give her points for class and for a drop-dead knockout voice. Between Presidential appearances I was surprised at the inane blather on CNN. As someone who doesn’t see much TV, I was again reminded why I avoid it as idiot commentators spoke about nothing at all just to fill air time. This was the final down point of the day – even if we now have a new President, and great hopes for a better tomorrow, it seems guaranteed that mass culture will remain firmly geared to the IQ level and attention span of an average four-year-old.
Nevertheless, it was a day for the ages, and something we will remember for a very long time. As we drifted to exhausted sleep, I reflected that although the event was special in itself, what has really made the trip wonderful is the people we’ve shared it with. I’m not ordinarily one to say that God pulls strings like this, but our group certainly seems to have been assembled according to a plan.
It’s hard to believe we head home today. In many ways this trip has flown by, but it seems we’ve been away for a month. I reminded Susan that we’d just returned from Orlando a week ago and she said, “No, two weeks…” Our friends from New Orleans and Alabama are amazed that we might not get in our driveway when we get home. “Are your neighbors all away, too?” The northeast is cold in more ways than one…
Our group is down to 14 now. Many have earlier flights, and Kimberly’s family is taking the bus home (the trip will be 24+ hours!) I have a collection of e-mail addresses and promises to write. Seeing the hugs and tears, Sarah said, “We sure make a big deal out of goodbyes in this group!”
Our first stop was the Capitol. The Capitol Visitor’s Center is brand new, and accommodates many hundreds of people with ease. As expected, Washington is still packed with people, and the crowds are pretty huge everywhere. Our tour guide at the Capitol was outstanding – in thirty minutes I learned ten times as much as I’d ever known about the building and its history. We had lunch in the cafeteria, bought a few cards in the gift shop then headed out again. It seemed colder than the day before, but the sun was brilliant and everything seemed to sparkle.
Although we were hoping to get to the White House, traffic patterns didn’t allow us to get close on this trip. We might have walked, but it would have sacrificed the rest of our itinerary. Sarah was bummed, but I made a few promises (“Next time!”) I hope I can keep and she offered a provisional smile.
Our final tour stop was Arlington National Cemetery. This is another stop that I’d originally thought I might not be interested in; however, it provided a fitting end to our trip. One highlight was seeing JFK’s resting place, and his eternal flame. We’d seen it from afar on Monday night, and now up close. In 1988 I went through a time where I devoured every book I could find on Kennedy – all of that came rushing back as I stood there, looking on his words etched in stone and at the DC monuments beyond. All around us were stories of lives full of purpose and meaning; all had presumably made a difference in the lives of those they touched.
At the Tomb of the Unknowns we watched the changing of the guard. It struck me that military ritual is in many ways similar to religious ritual. While it inspires awe and respect, it can also mask and help to cover up great wrongs. We must maintain our respect for everything that tradition represents, but never forget to always hold each other accountable. Our ultimate allegiance is not to earthly institutions and leaders, but to God. Like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, Arlington Cemetery is both overwhelming and intimate. It forces the viewer to consider an immense scale of human sacrifice, yet at the same time places one within and among those who have sacrificed, if only in a small way. We must all look for the best within ourselves and offer it to one another – this is the heart of the message President Obama delivered yesterday.
We dropped some at the airport, and the rest continued back to the hotel. Brett (Chicago) and Eunice (LA) couldn’t bear to say goodbye, so they changed their flights and headed off on further adventures together. Beverly and Rodney planned to drive up to New York City before heading back to Houston. For our part, Susan, Sarah and I gave our thank-you cards to Jim and Eric, then got into our car and started back to New York.
We were home by 1:00 AM, and we even made it in the driveway.