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Jan. 20th 2009: Inauguration of Barack Obama

“Our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers,… shaped by every language and culture

drawn from every end of this earth and we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united….” – apt words delivered with perfection. .

For that one day, most of us set aside our work, our worries, held hands in a celebration that illumined our love for this nation, that validated the democratic principles it stood for.

My ears were still echoing with all the jubilant chants of the millions, of a variety of hues as Obama had talked about, as we were herded en masse towards L ‘Enfant Plaza station only to be reversed to head towards the Smithsonian. The purpose of everyone’s visit had been fulfilled.  It was as if the hundreds of thousands of us were drunk in the moment, still dazed and in an absolute reverie of what we had experienced. No one seemed to mind the wrong directions given earlier by the mounted police and any number of security guards lining Jefferson Drive. People were chatting, laughing and some were still crying. Jumbled music played from roadside stereos. The pavement belonged to feet and the power of limbs, not wheels.

The sun was merciful easing the sting of the brisk wind that we had experienced earlier. Groups of students rested on sidewalks. Steps and ledges were filling up with men, women and kids proudly donning gear emblazoned with the words – Hope or Change. His face was everywhere along with plenty of pictures of the first family. We would all get to our destinations before sundown, but now was no time to hurry.

Eight hours had passed since we had arrived at the National Mall in the early hours before sunrise. My husband Raghu, a dear friend from Canada Kumar, and I strode into the Mall in the early pre-dawn hours, wearing many layers of warm clothes,  and we huddled together along with thousands of others and soon secured a good vantage spot by the first jumbotron to the right of the Capitol.

Our early morning trip to the National Mall had been rehearsed the previous day. With thousands of people descending on Washington D.C., we had left nothing to chance.

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Rosslyn Metro was just a few blocks from our hotel and we walked down the previous day,  getting our first taste of the bitter chill. Not since our Michigan days over 20 years ago, had I felt so cold – too frozen to talk, the lips would not comply, even as the mind felt ready to take on  adventure. The snows of Lake Tahoe had definitely not prepared us for this. I was determined to not be daunted by the bone-chilling wind or the silently cold, cruel sky.

We were here for a purpose, to witness history in the making; to be part of that oral and written history felt like a rare privilege. We wanted to relate this experience to our children, family and friends here and in India.  Riding down what seemed like the tallest escalator we soon found warmth five stories down on the Metro train!

A fellow passenger, a cheery young, African-American woman struck up a conversation with me. “You remind me of my children’s doctor,” she said.. When I asked her about where she came from, she replied, “I’m from Miami. You look so much like Dr. Patel, a calm and sweet presence whenever I take my kids to see her.” I felt simple joy at this expression of likeness and remarked, “We’re from California, and originally from India. And, interestingly, I am a pediatrician as well.” Hearing this coincidence, she was obviously delighted.

We got off at the  Smithsonian, and walked on the dry grass and dirt of the Mall. Twilight rolled into darkness and tall giant flood lights lit up the way. Barricades  were set up around us. A television crew with pole cameras and bright lights drew a small group of curious onlookers. We saw the logo of CNN and stamped on one of the cameras. We learnt that the celebrity  was Soledad O’ Brien. We moved on.

We moved to see the seated section for the privileged quarter of a million who had managed to secure tickets. We saw a huge portable caravan with more floodlights with a transparent wall sheeting and a deck inside. Wow, the Keith Olbermann show was being taped live in there! Keith O. was sitting at his desk, teleprompters on monitor screens several feet from him on both sides. A few hundred who had gathered around cheered “Obama” every time the telecamera spanned over the crowd. Oh – I’d almost forgotten – the first celebrity I saw was at the airport when we landed. I had seen Jesse Jackson browsing in a bookstore.

A security  guard told us that the gates would open the next morning at 4 a.m. and asked us about the time we planned to be there. When she heard that we were planning to be there by 7 a.m. she pointed to a spot, halfway close to the Washington Monument – uh, oh, we better get in here real early in the morning, I thought to myself! We rode back to Arlington. Too tired to find a place to eat that night, we ate the delicious, spicy hot idlis our friend had packed for us. There were only  a few hours left for us to get ready and leave again for for the Mall and this time for the real deal! The Great day!

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The station was already filled with people around 4:45 when we got in. Obama’s face was everywhere! The skies had not even revealed a trace of light, a crisp chill gnawed at my exposed nose but if it worried me, I was not going to let that show!

Having read the list of prohibited items online, we each took only our waist bag with wallet and ID and a small fold-out zippered shopping bag. But on the Mall when we arrived at 5:30 a.m. there were people with huge blankets, flasks for coffee, hot chocolate, and big flags. I did not see any security guards checking any belongings or people. Yet, it was interesting to see silhouettes of dark figures with rifles in hand atop buildings all around us – I learnt later that they were sharpshooters. Ever so often, a bright-eyed helicopter hovered by, with rays streaming down and out.

We must have stood for about an hour –  having jockeyed for position through the first wave of thousands of people, by which time I felt the piercing sting of cold in my fingers under my ‘warmest’ liner gloves and my ski gloves. Raghu’s toes were going from burning to numb. Wiggling the digits constantly to warmth was in vain. Despair was setting with the mind numbing cold. We saw some folks huddled by an Ingersoll generator – it seemed to be powering up a floodlight above. At its rear it was spewing out some heat and we crossed over the little fence to get close to those snuggled by it. Yes, it was a makeshift warming station! I leaned over, shivering to catch some warmth. A pleasant large black woman put her arms around me and pulled me in – Oh, my God, honey, you seem frozen she said, pushing aside a couple of people and pulled my arms to reach the hot exhaust, the pungent aroma spreading the warmth. Disregarding the noxious fumes, the heat it put out kept us there for a while. My blood flow seemed to respond and my heart warmed up; the woman and I exchanged a happy note and we managed to return to our places.

Music videos from the previous day entertained us and dancing to it kept us warm. The amazing speech announcing his candidacy from Illinois played on the big screen. The acceptance at the Democratic convention to the cheering crowds in Colorado enthralled the eagerly building throngs. The ever-inspiring and emotional, “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King transported us back over 40 years to another historic day. The crowds listened intently and in silence – the power and intense passion of that speech truly transcends time and place, I thought.

The bands of Will.i.am. and Usher played and Bill Bono enlivened his audience with his musical tribute to Obama. Stevie Wonder got thunderous cheers and Beyonce and Seal, and some whose names I was not familiar with (sign of my age!) made beautiful music. Though we had missed the pre-inaugural concerts at the Lincoln Memorial, it seemed live and present on the jumbotron. I thought of how the masses at MLK’s speech must have listened on the speakers, not being able to see the podium on jumbo screens like we did.

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The most important hour was soon to be here! Excitement mounted as motorcades streamed live on the screen. The screen images also revealed the astounding crowd of humanity that stretched behind us. It was simply fabulous – black, white, brown, small, big, medium, young and old and in-betweens, all with a single mission, impassioned by the power of the day. All of us waved the American flags passed out earlier by the Girl Scouts. It was great to feel that oneness.

Having emigrated from India, this was a pivotal time in this nation we chose, a land that has fostered immigrants from far and wide for over three centuries. So, when the bards, Seeger and Springsteen sang, “This land is your land, this land is my land…” it was simply exhilarating! They brought tears to my eyes. Oh, I should mention that the words and the lyrics were also shown on the big screen for us to sing along

I recalled the time our son sent us pictures and blogs from when he volunteered in the Iowa caucus in the depths of winter, pondered over the energy of all the youth who worked  on this campaign for change, igniting the absolute faith which enveloped this nation and a good part of the world. I took in the scene we were in and reflected on all that I had thus far learnt about this country.

The congregation stood together, cheered on wildly, but remained quite orderly. Kids were propped up on the shoulders of their dads, moms, grandparents, young girls atop their stronger boy-friends, all poised to capture the vision – the ‘darshan’ as we call it in India. Some were perched as high as possible on leafless tree limbs. I was reminded of the strong baobab tree in Africa, a tree with such character revered by the Kenyans, that Barack talks about in his memoir, – Dreams from my father.

The dignitaries were announced as they began arriving. Ted Kennedy was cheered on loudly. The Clintons were welcomed with applause, President Carter and on and on. Our binoculars brought the scene up close, but was cumbersome to use with the bulky gloves. I resigned to watching the scene unfold on the jumbo screen and took in the joyous uproar each time.

Oh, then the Obama girls, Malia and Sasha, tall and beautiful walked up to rousing cheer and love from the people. And then charming Michelle, our first black first lady entered in an almost regal yellow gold dress, so fitting and so reminiscent of a line of powerful and elegant black women, her mother included.

The crowds went wild and ecstatic as Barack walked up in his black suit and red tie, dapper and stately. How utterly proud must his recently departed grandmother feel watching from heaven, I thought; she was the one who had raised him with firm affection. And his grandfather, whose endearing picture carrying his grinning grandson on his shoulders had adorned a thousand magazine pages in the run up to the election.And the free-spirited dreamer of his mom he called as the one constant in his life, the one to whom he felt he owed the best in him.

If those who left this earth would for once reveal their being, there undoubtedly would be loud cries of laughter, tears and “yeahs” uttered by countless people – the African slaves who had endured the punishment they never deserved, their American children deprived of the good lives that they did deserve, the spirit of Dr. King and Abraham Lincoln, of Mahalia Jackson, of the emancipated slaves of the Great Migration – the path paved by them! And, there would also be whites who tirelessly and quietly helped their black neighbors as brothers and sisters.

The quintessential moment came amidst thunderous chants, cheers and joyful tears, the waving of millions of American flags and Barack Obama, the first non-white American President took the most sacred oath in the land. Perfect strangers hugged each other, at the Mall and across the nation. Tears brimmed my lids. Many were sobbing. I could not imagine the joy, the pride, amidst disbelief that those who lived during the civil rights era must have felt of this sweet moment.

The Oath was served, his hand on the very same Bible which President Lincoln used for his great inaugural. The justice mixed up the words slightly which I only learnt later. The reveille of the 21-gun salute, the highest honor in this land ushered in the rule of the first African-American president. Hail to the Chief boomed from the Navy Band.

President Obama began his speech to explosive cheers, and the waving of millions of American flags – it was hard not to feel proud of being American. I held up my cell phone as he spoke the first few lines, to have the recording heard by our kids, my mother and my siblings since they could not be part of the immediate scene. I could not help thinking of how keenly my father, who passed away recently would have enjoyed all this.

His was a humble and inspiring speech, captivating, flawless delivery in a lilting baritone, addressing our whole nation and to some extent the world at large, rightfully praising the “reaffirmation of our enduring spirit and the greatness of our nation……” It was certainly a speech truthful about our troubled times and calling on all the people to work through the burden, to take responsibility and for the government to help and to lead. It showed the humility of a community organizer and revealed the scholarship of a statesman.

Dazzled as we were by the events of the day, the tenets proposed by our President, and most certainly reluctant to leave yet, the benediction of Rev. Lowry came with his poignant speech lively in his gravelly voice. Then when Elizabeth Alexander delivered her poem/lyrical prose of “Praise song for the day,” extolling the hard work of people, of love and of hope, our hearts rejoiced along with the millions. Oh, and we heard the Bush helicopter depart from Washington D.C. flying over the Mall.

We slowly streamed out onto the roads. As we were finally directed to the Federal Center SW Metro, queues for the Orange and Blue lines, there were earfuls of interesting conversations as we waited and inched along. No one was in a hurry. The whole city was in a state of revelry.

The sun almost lulled me into a stupor as I half listened and moved. We were now allowed to go down the escalator to the station and I was sad thinking that the ticket slot would soon eat up the special Obama-printed tickets. I soon realized that the metro rides all across the city were free for the day. We got to keep our Obama tickets!

We boarded the train, nary a sound, but our thoughts in a delighted chatter, and joined the returning masses. Too content in our hearts, we sat almost too absorbed in the festivities for some time. The colonnade of the Mall stretching from The Capitol to the Washington Monument bore witness to the extraordinary Inaugural Day.

Having lived in Philadelphia and visiting the Capital often, I thought of the love one of my sisters felt towards Washington, DC.

I was beginning to feel some of that same giddiness myself!

 

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