January 20, 2009 is a date that will be remembered for a long, long time. Getting to the scene in this picture is a real story and part of the experience that made this day so special.
We learned on January 6th that we had tickets when Congressman David Price (NC-4) sent us an email:
"Thank you for contacting my office to request tickets to the Inaugural Swearing-In Ceremony for President-elect Barack Obama on Tuesday, January 20, 2009. I am pleased to offer you two (2) standing tickets to attend this historic event.
"The enthusiasm surrounding the election of Barack Obama to be our nation's forty-fourth president has been overwhelming. I received requests for over 25,000 tickets - but had only 198 tickets to distribute."
The plan was to go to his DC office and pick up the two tickets on Monday. We received a second message saying that Congressman Price wanted to make it simpler and we could pick up our tickets on Friday at his Chapel Hill Office. We were also asked which way we would be coming into DC on the 20th so that we would have tickets that would make traveling easier. We ended up with "Blue" standing area tickets since we were staying with friends in Maryland. We thank Congressman Price for his thoughtfulness. Many in the crowd told of the long wait at the various congressional offices, so we were happy we didn't have to do that.
We left Chapel Hill on Monday at 1 AM and drove to Maryland. Traffic started picking up around Stafford, VA, but it was nothing like what it became later in the day and on Tuesday. After resting a little bit, we decided to do a dry run. Our friends lived near the Largo Metro station. Since the Blue Line starts there, it was a prime place to be. People actually drove out to Largo to start there because the Metro people said trains would not stop at stations if there were more people waiting than there was space.
Our dry run took a while as the Metro set its all-time rider record on Monday. Of course they would break it on Tuesday! Moving around with the crowds was an experience, and it was clear that the energy that you felt was widely shared. Our plan for Tuesday was shaped by what we saw on the dry run and knowing the location of our ticket gate in relation to the Metro stop was useful information.
Our host and good friend took us to the Largo station a 6 AM Tuesday morning. Those trying to park were backed up on the roads but we had no problem getting dropped off at the "kiss-and-ride" lane. We moved with the crowd and used the fare cards that we bought on Monday and got right on a waiting and empty car. That was easy!
Unlike other prior Metro experiences, we had a trainman who could be understood and he provided useful information the entire trip. We came above ground at RFK Stadium and the entire grounds were covered with the amazing sight of more buses than we had ever seen. As we neared our stop, the announcement came that the Federal Center station closed because of the crowds and we had to get off at the Capitol South station. It seemed like thousands got off the train and joined thousands more in the station, all trying to get up the stairs. At the top, there were signs directing people where to go. That was useful to us as we just followed the "Blue" signs. It's now a little after 7 AM and the temperature was about 17 degrees. We walked the several blocks to find our "Blue" gate line and it really wasn't a bad walk. When we found the line it already had several offshoots and it appeared that the plan for an orderly wait was breaking down fast. In spite of the confusion, people were very accommodating and seemed to have the patience of Job.
Waiting for the gates to open was a key element of the "experience." The tickets said opening was at 9 AM but people said it had changed to 8 AM. The wait was made easier because people were in a celebratory mood. We sang patriotic songs, TV theme songs, Gospel, Pop and whatever someone started. People talked about their trip and why they were so happy to be eyewitnesses. Some tried to call friends and share the mood with them but the cell service was spotty because of the high demand. The question of the morning was, "Where are you from?" We met people from all over who came by plane, train, bus car,and foot. We met students who had walked from Georgetown as well as the editor of the University of Pittsburgh student paper. She was impressed that we lived in Chapel Hill because she said that The Daily Tar Heel sets the standard for student journalism. We also saw friends by happenstance and even a celebrity. Coach Dungy, formerly of the Colts, was really good about letting people take his picture.
A little before 10 AM we were almost at the Blue Gate. The sun was shining and the mood of the crowd was even more energized. People who had working cell phones were getting reports from friends who had gotten through security. The word was that the TSA, yes, the same friendly people from the airports, were doing the screens and they were moving people pretty quickly.
When we got closer it seemed like we were in line with new people because there was a lot of merging going on. In the small world category, a friend who is an Episcopal priest ended up behind us and we chatted some more of the time away. Finally we negotiated the maze to the security machines and walked quickly to an area where we thought we might be able to see the ceremony. Tree limbs blocked the jumbotrons but with my small portable TV (that will be useless next month because it isn't digital) I could see the ceremony pretty well. If you have good eyes, look to the left of the tree limbs and just above the presidential seal and you can see President Obama delivering his speech.
People paid attention and listened to the words being spoken. They sang the National Anthem with gusto. They cheered the introductions. The only downer to me was when they booed President Bush, something I thought was unnecessary. But other than that, the joy of the day seemed to guide everyone's spirit. There were people shedding tears, people with wide grins, and the feelings seemed to make most unaware of how cold it was. This was my fourth inaugural but so unlike the other three.
Why did so many come to DC to be eyewitnesses? Much has already been written trying to answer this question. Pride is often cited for the reason. I also think it was because people wanted to be a part of what they believed would be a new beginning for America and they wanted to celebrated the hope for change that President Obama represents. The millions who came and carved out time from their normal routine did so because they cared. The dream of Martin Luther King that was celebrated on Monday may not have been fully realized, but most probably would say it was closer than it has ever been. Being there was the exclamation point on the hopes and dreams of so many. That's why I'm smiling!