Jan. 20, 2009 — I mentioned in an earlier post that I’d probably be up the night before Inauguration Day, and was I ever right…
Up at midnight, shower, shave, into my uniform, downstairs to the hotel lobby to meet the rest of the band. We’re on the bus and headed for D.C. at 2:00 a.m., to beat the traffic rush and any potential road closures. Coffee break at 3:00 a.m. at the Delaware House service area on the Delaware Turnpike. Pass Baltimore at about 4:15 a.m. Arrive, after dealing with one unexpected road closure, in the parade staging area at the Pentagon. It’s 5:30 a.m. and we’re seven hours away from our screening area time. Daylight is still two hours away. Sleep, anyone?
As the sun rises, we look out across the Pentagon south parking lot, and the memories flood back. I spent a week working in this very place on the disaster response to the Sep. 11 attacks, and here I am again. We’re allowed to stretch our legs, and I walk down to the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial, which had just been dedicated last Sep. 11. This is a place of solemnity and repose. There are 184 memorial benches, each with a tiny water pool that, surprisingly, has not frozen in the bitter cold. Each bench bears the name of a victim, and is oriented along the axis the plane followed as it crashed into the building. Each is also aligned with a plaque showing the birth year of the victim.
As the morning progresses,more buses pull in. They’re screening each parade division in turn, and Division 6, ours, is the last one. We mingle with other groups: high school bands from Washington State, Illinois and Arkansas; the University of Utah marching band; and the ENTIRE Corps of Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, all 1400 or so.
Screening time arrives, and we head over to the north parking lot, where the next two hours is a blur of emptying everything off the buses, carrying them through security, picking up lunch, and reuniting with our vehicles. Once the process is complete, our entire division gets a police escort across the Potomac River to the assembly area at the Ellipse south of the White House.
Our buses pull up on 17th Street, and what should greet my eyes as we disembark but the banner on the east portico of the American Red Cross headquarters building, right next to our lead bus: “Welcome To Our Honorary Chairman President Obama”.
We’re in the Ellipse until nearly 5:30 p.m., when we finally march off down Constitution Avenue toward the parade start point near the Capitol. We’ve photographed the band with the White House in the background , mingled some more, warmed up from the cold, and steeled our nerves for that final leg up Pennsylvania Avenue.
Six p.m., and it’s finally our turn! We wheel onto the Avenue, music playing, flags flying, in the gathering dark. The parade is running late, and many of the spectators have left to escape the cold. But we sound off loud and proud for those who remain, and our energy carries us up toward the reviewing stand.
We make the turn off 15th Street, and there it is, that brightly-lit reviewing area where each parade unit gets to honor our new President. The horns come up, the flags sweep, and we’re performing for Barack and Michelle Obama, who are positively grooving to our music. They smile, we wave, and all too soon we’re done. As we cross the finish line, we take a collective breath and marvel at our experience. Then it’s back to the buses for the trip back to Philadelphia and the plane ride home.
Surprise, surprise…our buses are still in the same spot along 17th Street where we left them earlier, right next to Red Cross headquarters and that imposing banner.
Congratulations, Mr. President. In ways large and small, the American Red Cross and its people welcome and salute you.
(Thomas McCann is a Public Affairs volunteer for the Oregon Trail Chapter and the color guard captain for the Get A Life Marching Band of Portland, Ore.)