Arriving on the National Mall on a sheet of diamonds

On the day that Barack Obama became President of the United States, the Potomac River was frozen. In the dark, pre-dawn hours, the river ice reflected a gray and ominous sheen.

But in the afternoon, after Obama had taken the oath of office in front of an immense crowd still astonished that such a thing was actually happening in front of their eyes, the Potomac’s ice changed character. Almost as if Obama’s inaugural committee had planned it, the river turned into a sparkling expanse of what looked like crushed diamonds. Now, that’s a president who knows how to make an entrance.

Was it cold on this particularly historic event? Oh, no colder than the seventh moon of Saturn. It was cold enough – particularly with a wind that could peel the paint off an oil tanker – to make a person renounce the religion of his ancestors in exchange for a lukewarm cup of coffee.

It was the kind of cold that I and my traveling companions – my daughter Quinlyn and my brother Michael – will be boring our loved ones with for decades ahead. And what’s more, we lingered in that cold for eight hours, either walking or standing just about the whole time. At the end of the day, my feet were hamburger, my back had seized up, my face had turned into a rubber mask, and my kid was contacting a lawyer.

Still, going to the first-ever inauguration of a non-white person in U.S. history was worth every torment – though, don’t put me under oath and ask me if I would do it all over again.

What made the day magical was the unexpected. To get a jump on the crowds, we went absurdly early. That meant our first experience of the event everyone has been wringing their hands over for weeks – 4 million! No, 5 million! – was as a ghost town.

We arrived from our subway stop around 4 a.m. and walked the bridge across the Potomac virtually alone, giving a certain dizzying surrealism to the whole event. And I’m left with moments I’m sure I’ll die with.

At the Lincoln Memorial, in the wee hours before dawn, only a handful of visitors moved in and out of the great marble chamber where Abe sat on his throne. A few wandered away, and suddenly it struck me with a sense of crippling awe, that I was utterly alone with Abraham Lincoln’s iconic likeness on the one and only day an African-American had ever become president.

We had assumed that even at the ungodly hour, people would be carpeting the National Mall, but we virtually had the thing to ourselves for a couple of hours. We saw the black wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the blackness, but the numbing cold had robbed Quinlyn of proper daughterly curiosity about American history. As the sun rose we found ourselves with the Washington Monument at our back and the majestic tableau of the U.S. Capitol before us.

It was an astounding ritual as we watched the world’s strongest nation exercise peaceful transfer of power while our extremities went numb. After Aretha Franklin’s arresting version of “My Country Tis of Thee,” my usually blasé brother pointed silently to his eye, where he had managed to squeeze out an already half-frozen tear.

After Obama’s address, we adjourned into a maze of madness trying to escape the Mall, only to be driven well to the south against our will. But even that had its pleasures.

We looked up in time to see Marine One, the helicopter now transporting former President George W. Bush out of Washington D.C., hover above the Capitol and circle the crowd. Most of us on the ground, even many experiencing cold-induced organ failure, knew who was in the bird. Thus, thousands of people were afforded the satisfying thrill of saluting an outgoing president as he flies into history. Sadly, there were very few “atta boys” directed at him, and I indulged in the fantasy that Bush’s final experience of Washington D.C. was looking down at me, though he was more likely gazing out at the Potomac and its crystallized icy surface, ringing the city like God’s own diamond necklace.

Contact Wallace Baine at 429-2427

or wbaine@santacruzsentinel.com.

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