Saturday, January 24, 2009

Shall We Dance?

Washington, D.C. Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A day this special should never end! The evening after the inaugural was to be as special as the day itself. My wife and I were invited to prom night at Union Station: The Eastern Ball honoring those who hail from New England. It was a wonderful night in quite an unusual venue.

If you haven’t been there before, your first impression of dancing in a train station might not be that appealing. This was certainly not the case tonight. Union Station had been transformed into a palace of marble and stone. Its ornate architecture was anointed with patriotic buntings and decorations. Colored lights, combined with a variety of different motifs, gave each area an entertaining theme.

The ball formally began at 10 pm. A long line formed early to pass through metal detectors, security screening and coat check. Three stages were set in various corners of the main floor. A party band was playing Motown hits when we arrived. The crowd was a random mix of old, middle-aged and young. Everyone looked elegant in a variety of tuxedos and ball gowns. A vendor was taking souvenir pictures using the ball’s logo, a commemorative inaugural seal, as a background. Two stages sat dormant. What would happen next? You had to wait and find out!

At 11:30, the musical gears changed dramatically as the stage on the left in the main room hosted legendary singer James Taylor along with a backup band featuring Russ Kunkel on drums and his sister Kate Taylor as one of the backup singers.

Watching Taylor’s set was a really unusual experience. I found myself on a line for bar drinks that happened to be right nearby the stage. Not knowing that his set was about to start, or where it was to be performed, I received a flute of champagne for my wife and – poof – all of a sudden James Taylor was singing just a few feet away! The setting couldn’t be more informal. The entertainment was stunning! “That’s James Taylor singing over there!”

James Taylor’s set was heavy in his old standards like “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Up on the Roof” with some tasty deeper cuts like “Copperline.” He spiced it up by doing some covers, most memorably Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman.” It was sweet and mellow and completely appropriate for the crowd. They loved him. He loved them. So what if he was singing at a party in a train station!

Taylor sang so sweetly for about an hour and said he would be back for a second set in about fifteen minutes. Actually, Joe and Jill Biden showed up nearly immediately thereafter by surprise on the opposite stage. After a brief welcome speech by the new Vice President, the couple took a polite dance with Mrs. Biden dressed in bright red.

Tired and weary at half past midnight, my wife and I were almost about to go when we noticed that a color guard and marching band were assembling behind the stage the Bidens had just used. The rumor in the crowd was that the new President would be appearing at about 2:30 am (!) since this was to be their last event of the evening. We were very glad we stayed!

A silence fell over the crowd as the color guard began to march on stage. An announcer proclaimed “Ladies and gentleman! The President and First Lady of the United States!” Michelle Obama, in a long white gown, appeared from the right side of the stage followed by her husband, in a conservative tuxedo, from the left. A quick speech followed, by the new President, with the theme of “This is just the beginning!” As a farewell for the evening, Mr. and Mrs. Obama danced to Etta James’ version of “At last, my love has come along.” Everyone held cameras and cell phones over their heads to document the moment. It was the perfect ending of a perfect day.

Now that the ceremony was over, we decided to make a fast break for the coat check room, on the lower level, to beat the enormous crowds. We were very lucky to be one of the first on line. We headed up to the main floor to catch James Taylor’s second set for a moment or two before we headed out to find a cab home.

Outside Union Station was not appealing. Porta-potties lined the street and they had run over. Lots of paper and other debris littered every street. It was as if two million people had visited D.C. all at once! Unfortunately, the cab line in front of the station was non-existent with concrete barricades blocking the main entrance for security. We launched out onto the nearest street corner, by the Postal Service building, and tried to hail a cab competing with dozens of other couples. We saw Obama’s nearly-endless motorcade leave Union Station. There must have been two dozen vehicles in procession, with flashing red and blue strobe lights, heading rapidly for The White House. We finally hopped into a cab and arrived home around 1:30am. Oh, what a night!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

We Begin Today

Washington, D.C. Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Have you ever seen two million joyous people together in celebration?

What an amazing and unusual sight to see! The District was closed for the day. The Metro trains were packed to capacity. The streets had become seas of people. Major roads were completely closed to vehicular traffic. The tone of the crowd was positive and patient. They were all here to celebrate America.

No need for Metro tickets today. The trains ran free. Too many people! Without a single incident, the crowds continually poured into the National Mall starting right after midnight. My family was honored to be some of the very few who secured reserved invitations. Our goal was to reach The Purple Gate and take our stand with a thousand other people off to the left of the capital steps. Away we went!

Today was a day for walking. You simply had no choice! In a most organized fashion, people arrived en masse from all over the world. Every street corner featured hawkers selling commemorative t-shirts, pins, hats, and calendars. The most popular vendors of all were selling life-saving packets: hand warmers! It was much colder than expected - in the low 20s with brisk wind included. The sky was clear. The sun warmed the steps of The Capitol and the crowd.

The gates around The Capitol were scheduled to open at 9:30 am. We arrived about half an hour earlier and found our place in a crush of people on Louisiana Avenue. Shoulder-to-shoulder we became friends with out new neighbors quickly: A couple who had come from Greensboro, North Carolina, friends who worked on the Obama campaign in Alaska, an excited young lady from Brooklyn. It was a cornucopia of America united in glee.

The civility of the crowd was admirable. If emergency personnel or an official needed to get through the crush, room was promptly made. We all thought the situation was unique, unusual and unordinary, yet everyone played their part with care and calm.

When the gates finally opened, at about a quarter to ten, all went through a security check with a long line of metal detectors. Oh, did we enjoy the freedom of leaving the crush of people! It was short-lived. It appeared that a couple of thousand people had been invited to stand in the small triangle of space allocated to us. Shorter and younger people simply couldn't see over the taller members of the crowd. Not being satisfied by our fate, we decided to move around to find a place with a better view.

We almost found it: A tiny wedge of space by a makeshift staircase separating sections bordered by a large bush. After standing there for a few minutes, we saw a few people go into the large bush and never come out. Our curiosity got the better of us, so we followed into the bush. Inside the green, nothing could be seen. Someone asked "What's on the other side of the bush?" and the immediate reply was "Narnia!" We all laughed aloud.

What actually was past the bush was Nirvana! It was a wide-open section set aside for a more elite group of invitees with room to spare. We enjoyed a beautifully centered view of The Capitol steps with all its flags, buntings and adornments. Some of the people were quite clever. The floor was covered with wood chips, not grass. I'm not quite sure how they did it, but many people created mounds of the chips to provide an extra six inches of height to see the event. We shared the boost with others and it made a big difference in our view.

Looking back on the crowd was a sight to behold. Although our view was somewhat blocked by fences and partitions, we could see an endless sea of people reaching far beyond the Washington Monument about a mile away. People who could not manage to squeeze into the mall pressed into adjoining streets hoping to get a glimpse of a Jumbotron screen or just hear the words being spoken. District was on pause. The inaugural was all that mattered.

Just before the ceremony began, the huge Jumbotron screens showed all the dignitaries and honored guests arriving. President Bush's image brought loud boos quickly retorted by a nearby woman yelling "Hey, we're all Americans today!" which drew applause. Of course, any images of the Obamas brought thunderous cheers.

The crowd had a good sense of humor. The inaugural began with formal introductions of all the attendees as they emerged from the main archway decorated with a stately red velvet bunting. As President Bush was announced the crowd began to loudly sing the old pop song "Na-na-na-na-hey-hey-hey-goodbye!" Laughter abounded! Wasn't it symbolic that Vice President Cheney was attending in a wheelchair? Also funny were chairlady Dianne Feinstein's calls for us to stand or be seated. For a grand majority of us, sitting was simply not an option! So few had seats!

The pacing of the inaugural was thoughtful. Periods of spoken word were blended with song like chorus and verse. Aretha Franklin magnificently sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee." Yo-Yo Ma and other gifted musicians performed an Aaron Copeland melody. The military band sounded sweet with fine pomp and circumstance.

The ceremony had a serious tone. It is time to get back to work. It is time to stop decay. It is time to reclaim our freedoms. It is time to make the government once more ours. "You will be judged by what you can build, not what you destroy." All I could think was: "It's about time this happened. Why wasn't it sooner?" What a thunderous sound was heard when Obama ended his speech!

As the ceremony ended with a benediction, the crowd was overcome with joy. As we all began to leave, we were startled by the unexpected appearance of a single presidential helicopter rising above the left side of The Capitol. Many yelled "Goodbye, Bush" and some impolite epithets. A new time had officially begun.

As the crowd began to dissipate, it evoked images of the end of the world. Few vehicles, if any, were moving about. Throngs of people jammed the streets. Legions of police and troops aided the masses homeward. Interstate 95, and many other major roads, was devoid of all traffic replaced by seas of people. It was an once-in-a-lifetime event that continued for hours.

The crowd left quite a mess. The entire city was dotted with overflowing garbage pails, rows and rows of endless porta-potties and debris rolling across the Mall and the streets like tumbleweeds. Vendors prices had suddenly halved and they were eager to unload their remaining goods. I even saw one character selling Obama condoms!

The stress and length of this momentous day did not deter the crowd from being polite, orderly and conservative. Everyone was smiling and cheering. Chants of "O-bam-a! O-bam-a!" rose at any occasion. We walked by L'Enfant Plaza to see an enthusiastic bazaar and party going on with many vendors selling souvenirs, food and nearly everything the day called for. People were walking and walking and walking for hours after. It seemed to go on forever. The Metro stations that remained open were jammed with police allowing metered groups of riders down slowly as room allowed. Long lines were everywhere! Eventually, at long last, we all arrived home. What a day it was!

We were not just celebrating the freedom this country has enjoyed for over 200 years. We were celebrating our new-found freedom and our new hope. We have reaffirmed everything that our country stands for. Now, finally, again we are free to proceed and further our precious country into the future. Will we succeed? Two million people gathered to exclaim: Yes we can.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Sing For Obama!

Sunday, January 18, 2009. Washington, D.C.

From morning's light, the city was calm and organized. The entire District seemed focused on only one thing: a huge concert in honor of the new President-Elect, Barack Obama. A mass-migration was underway. Thousands of volunteers directed the masses toward the audience holding areas surrounding the Reflecting Pool. As we walked from Foggy Bottom Metro station, volunteer greeters and guides aided us every step of the way. We reached our destination with grace and little stress.

In front of us was the concert stage assembled at the foot of The Lincoln Memorial. The crowd extended as far as the eye could see, far beyond The Washington Monument pointing towards the sky. Seas of people came to celebrate packed in like sardines shoulder to shoulder. Not a soul was sitting. The crowd was tight and anxious.

Hours of waiting passed quickly. Large Jumbotron screens intermittently showed pre-taped presentations by some of the performers. People sang along to prerecorded music. Even Elmo made an appearance or two. The atmosphere was probably very similar to what you would expect attending a fair during the Renaissance. Some people brought signs. Some brought blankets. Many had hats, buttons, shirts, and pictures of Obama. Some happily sang just because they were there.

The cable TV network, Home Box Office, was airing the concert live, so the show started quite promptly at 2:30 pm. It began with a prayer. The crowd across the Pool from us began chanting that they could not hear. The public address system was not turned on and they did not want to miss a second. Cheers followed when the sound was restored. The calm of the audience was memorable. Not one nasty incident stopped the show.

People were so delighted to attend. Time and time again I saw groups of people come together to hug and take group pictures of each other using The Lincoln Memorial as a background. There was no shortage of smiles. Happiness and glee abounded. Each cheer was filled with joy. One and all were celebrating the freedom, hope and pride enjoyed by all Americans.

An endless list of celebrities came to perform. Most memorable were Bruce Springsteen singing, early in the concert, in front of a massive chorus wearing bright red robes. Stevie Wonder was wonderful. Bono was elegant fronting Ireland's legendary U2. His words, between songs, were thoughtful and humble. Beyonce' ended the concert with a heartfelt rendition of "My Country 'Tis of Thee." Each new celebrity introduction just added to the amazement of the list of stars assembled to honor Obama and his achievements.

By far, the performer who nailed the show was Garth Brooks. I have never been a big fan of his, but now I really understand why he is heralded as a superstar of live entertainment. He knew how to motivate an audience and brought the crowd to a loud crescendo. In the center of his three-song medley was the Isley Brothers' standard "Shout!" and we did! Looking back at the crowds, it was amazing to see a million people dancing in waves along to a great song. When Garth sang "a little bit lower now" everyone in the crowd really bowed down low! It was an amazing sight. Seeing everyone jump, hands up, and yell "SHOUT!" brought the celebration to a peak. What a time it was!

The grand finale was remarkable still. Centered amongst all the performers was the great-grandfather of American folk music Pete Seeger. His song, "This Land is Your Land," served as a strong finale for the afternoon. All attending truly felt "We Are One."

How memorable this moment was for me. Early in my childhood, I remembered Pete Seeger being portrayed as a disowned mutt - a victim of the McCarthy red scare era. Mr. Seeger was blacklisted and disrespected by the government and the press. Pete never let go of his beliefs and never dropped his convictions. He had so much in common with the civil rights leaders of the past. Popular or not, he always sang out for what America stands for and could be. Today, the color of his skin was not important. Pete Seeger was blind to skin color decades before. Today, he has rightfully regained all his respect and renown for his talents, his convictions and his unending grasp of liberty and justice. Barack Obama is aware of his history and achievement and allowed him an overdue day in the sun. Pete Seeger will always be my hero.

This is only the beginning. The inaugural of the 44th president will occur Tuesday at noon. We begin a new era of hope and joy. Now we have inspiration. Now we have a reason for collaboration. A new day is finally here. Steady on!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Little Angel

Our little angel is celebrating her 59th Christmas. For years and years she has been a part of our family’s holiday tradition atop our tree.

Long ago, back in 1950, the angel first came to life in my parent’s apartment. My Mom and Dad had just moved into a small four-and-a-half room flat and began to decorate for their first Christmas. They had a fresh, small tree that sat atop a coffee table in a tree stand with Santa’s picture on it. It was a warm, cozy and quiet time.

World War II had just ended and things were getting back to normal. Hope filled the air. My parents had just bought their first TV set, but did not have a lot of money. They had only one set of Christmas lights. They were called Noma lights and they had old fashioned big bulbs in many colors. My Dad patiently twisted little pieces of wire to attach the lights to the tree. Instead of buying reflectors for the lights, my parents made star-shaped ones from miniature aluminum pie plates they had saved. A few ornaments and a little silver tinsel and gold garland created a quite respectable tree.

On top of the tree sat the little angel. Without a sound, the angel’s soft expression offered the same peace and tranquility you might feel walking outside into a new snow. Thankful for every little thing, my parents felt peace and contentment like the joy the wise men offered Mary. It was a Christmas to remember.

The years flew by as I was born and grew tall. Each and every year, we would decorate the tree on Christmas Eve. My Mom, my Dad and I would finish just before midnight. We would see the Pope celebrating mass on TV and I would be allowed to open just one present. Off to sleep I would go wondering what might be found under the tree in the morning. Sometimes the top of the tree would be shared with an illuminated star, but the angel always held an authoritative position seated on a high prominent branch. She brought a warm glow to all who saw her.

As I moved on to my first house, the angel followed. By now her presence was expected as an assured ornament atop the tree. It wasn’t Christmas without her. There she would be smiling down upon us year after year. As time went by her little wooden face darkened but her rosy cheeks and expression never faded. Her golden adornments still caught the light each time you passed. With such authority she stood watching over her flock of the faithful.

Decades later, the little angel watches over my own loving family throughout every holiday season. Country vistas create a beautiful background for our tree. The lights and ornaments have changed over the years but the happiness remains. Life is good and filled with joy. New young faces delight with presents upon presents on Christmas morning. Celebration follows us wherever we go.

By surprise, I actually discovered a little ceramic statue of a woman with a scarf over her head and a long blue cloak that looks remarkably like our trusty angel. I’m sure she must be a long-lost sister! My yearly Christmas wish is to have the little angel visit with us for decades to come. God bless the little angel who watches over us!