The journey began early in the morning of January 20th. Before the sun rose on that crisp, cold Tuesday morning, we set out to see history in the making. Our flight from MacArthur Airport took off promptly at 7:20 a.m.. We arrived in Baltimore at 8:20 a.m. and boarded an Amtrak train to Washington, D.C. at 9:15 a.m. It was a day of miracles.
Plans to attend the inauguration of our 44th president were only finalized on the Monday night before. A friend from Washington, D.C., offered me a ticket to stand on the East lawn. Needless to say, I could not refuse. What an opportunity, to witness this historic happening in our nation's capital. A former student, who is a social studies teacher and his significant other who is also a teacher made this historic journey with me. We had plane tickets, but no train tickets from Baltimore to Washington. Miraculously, when I got to the ticket window, there were three seats left on the 9:15 a.m. Amtrak train to Washington, D.C. It was a half hour train ride. The city was already experiencing three or four hour delays on all of its highways and throughout its subway system. Ultimately, our train was 10 minutes late, because of all of the traffic and intense security.
As our train took off from Baltimore-Washington Airport, the spirit and energy on the train was overwhelming. There were people from all over the country, who traveled by car, by bus, and by plane for this historic day. As we made the half-hour commute and I listened to the excitement and conversation all around me, I felt like I was on the Freedom Train. It was extraordinary.
When we arrived in Union Station, one could feel the electricity in the air. Thousands of people were converging on Washington, by way of Union Station. As we navigated our way through the crowd to the outside, there was a massive sea of humanity, chanting and singing and making their way to the Capitol. We just followed the crowd. I met up with my Washington connection. He had a ticket for me to stand on the East lawn to witness President Barack Obama s swearing-in. The crowd was overwhelming. It was hard to move any other way, but the way the crowd was walking. So we walked.
From 1974 to 1979, I was privileged to do graduate work, teach and live in Washington, D.C., so I know the city pretty well. Our challenge was that we needed to get on the other side of the Capitol to utilize my ticket. It became apparent pretty quickly that that was not going to happen before the President was sworn in. The screening lines by the Secret Service were endless. We decided to settle on getting as close to the Capitol as possible and to be near a large speaker so we could hear.
Another miracle happened. Totally by accident, we fell upon a side street that had a very small line. Instead of thousands before us, there were a few hundred. It was amazing, there was no pushing or shoving, but rather wonderful conversation with singing and chanting. Although it was bitter cold and we were not standing in the sun as we waited, the warmth of crowd made it all bearable.
After we were screened, we found ourselves at Pennsylvania Avenue, along the parade route, on 4th St. We had great positioning and a sound tower right behind us. As we waited for the ceremonies to begin, former President Bush and his motorcade passed right in front of us, as did President Barack Obama. When the new President passed, the crowd went wild, it was exciting to witness. The singing and chanting got louder, as we waited for the new President to be sworn in.
The city of Washington was on fire with enthusiasm and optimism, as we prepared to celebrate this historic inauguration. When the formal ceremony began with all the noise and chanting, you could have heard a pin drop. They were many moving moments during the formal ceremony. When Pastor Warren delivered the invocation, he ended with the Lord's Prayer. It was breathtaking to hear over a million people praying the Our Father. Where I was standing, there was no room even for the Holy Spirit. People were praying their hearts out, holding hands swaying back and forth. It was a sight to behold. For an instant, all the things that divide us seemed not to exist. There was a sense of camaraderie and togetherness that was life giving.
After the President s swearing-in, he gave his inaugural address. Again, the silence among the crowd was deafening. His call for a new beginning was challenging and affirming. However, he conveyed a real sense of urgency in what he said and the way he said it. "The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward the precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation; the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."
His words were filled with confidence and tremendous hope. He was clear in his address that he was not a miracle worker, but rather if we were to transform America we needed to do it together. He called Americans to volunteer for public service and paraphrased Senator John McCain and said: "Americans need a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves."
Probably his greatest statement had to do with the historic importance of this moment: the election of the first African-American President. He described it to prolonged and vibrant applause: "this is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago, might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you and take a most sacred oath."
After the formal swearing in ceremony was completed, a new President and Vice President and their families went to lunch. Before the parade began, there was roughly a three hour break. So, we went on a mission to find something to eat. That was a challenge because behind the barricades there was little or nothing available and no place really to get warm. So, we took our chances, left the security of the parade route and join the thousands of people who packed the streets of Washington. We found a small coffee shop, waited on line inside, warmed our toes and got a sandwich and drink.
As we made our way back to the parade route, I heard someone calling my name. It was an African-American man in his late 30s. Initially I didn't recognize him. It had been 35 years since I last saw him. Derek was a former student of mine from Washington. He hugged me and then introduced me to his wife and two sons. He briefly talked about the old days when he was in school and I was his teacher. He thanked me for making a difference in his life. That brief conversation and reconnection made my inauguration adventure even more profound.
The crown jewel to our adventure on Inauguration Day was to be invited to a presidential luncheon at the famous Willard Hotel. The law firm that was sponsoring the party reserved a very special suite of rooms on the third floor. It was the Dr. Martin Luther King Suite. It was the suite of rooms that Dr. King used before he gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. As a former junior high school social studies teacher, it was overwhelming to be able to celebrate the inauguration of our first African-American president in that space.
After that experience, we made our way back to Union Station, along with thousands of others who were preparing for the journey home. Although everyone was tired and exhausted, there was still a tremendous spirit of unity and hope in the air as the singing and chanting continued. We boarded our train for Baltimore on time and made our flight connection for Islip- MacArthur Airport. As we journeyed home, I could not help but feel a deep sense of gratitude for having been able to participate in such a life giving event for our nation. It was America at its best and I was never so proud to be an American.