Monday, January 26, 2009

How To Witness History

How To Witness History

So for those keeping score, this is how one goes about witnessing a historical event. In most cases it is not known that the event one is witnessing is historical but there are rare instances when you can actually plan on seeing history made and the inauguration of the 44th President of the Good Ol’ U.S. of A. was just such and event.

The set up was perfect. The band had been flown up to Washington to play the Black Tie And Boots Ball put on by the Texas Society. This was my third time playing this ball (two for the W. Bush inaugurations) so I knew what to expect. Lots of people wearing lots of tuxedos listing to lots of music and drinking lots of booze. All in all these parties are fun but not terribly different from events we play throughout the year. The big difference is that the following day there is always an inauguration and, to be perfectly honest, I never had much of a desire to see one before. Not so this time.

Elizabeth, Floyd Domino (who would be on this gig) and I had started planning our assault on the Mall a month prior. Floyd had researched our escape route and purchased train tickets from Union Station to BWI airport a month before the event. I had purchased the metro tickets on the 19th. We were savvy travelers making sure we had planned accordingly…or so we thought.

As the date approached news of what to expect started trickling in. Four million people would be in attendance. Make that five million. Two percent of America would be squeezed into a narrow strip of earth in our nation’s capitol. Only a mad man would go there willingly. It was a fool’s errand. A one-way trip into a logistical quagmire!!!!!

Elizabeth, who had said that there was nothing on Earth that could keep her from the festivities, grew less impassioned as the time grew nearer. She had, after all, given birth to our daughter on the 27th of December and I think the prospect of flying with a newborn or leaving her for three days seemed less and less reasonable or desirable. It was with mixed emotions that she bowed out of the trip entirely. Only Floyd and I remained.

Floyd Domino, among his other accomplishments attended the Woodstock Festival. “It sucked,” he has beed heard to say, “but I was THERE.” This would be our motto. It might suck but, by gum, we would be THERE.

“What about the other band members?” you ask. “Why are they not going to attend the ceremony with you?” Well, not all musicians are created equal and the bunch I travel with had no desire at all to live this moment of history anywhere but in a hotel room. As a matter of fact after we arrived in D.C. their attitude became one of gamblers betting against a horse. “You’ll never make it to the train.” “This guy who lives here says there is NO WAY you’ll get out of there.” “You’re big boys. You’ve got credit cards.” These were the words of encouragement we heard from our fellows. And to be honest, I started doubting the plan myself. The plan was this: We get up early, take the free shuttle to the metro where we board a train that will get us close to the Mall. We find a place to view the festivities from a jumbotron that will afford us an easy exit. Once the “prez” was sworn in we would walk to Union Station in time to catch our 1:06 pm train, which would easily get us to BWI with enough time to catch our 3:30 PM flight. But as we acquainted ourselves with the lay of the land, and with the words of the nay-sayers ringing in my ears, this plan started looking more and more flawed.

There were too many people, too many security stations and a big old parade route standing exactly between us and our destination. It seemed like a fool-proof plan from the warmth and security of Austin but once we started checking things out I started getting cold feet. No really. Freezing feet.

Floyd and I met at 5 AM and got a little nosh to start us out. Then onto the shuttle to the metro. No problems so far. No people either. Then as we got closer to L’Enfant Plaza Station we started meeting our fellow revelers. Thousands of them. Packed into the train and then the station. At 6am! There was something unknown going on at the exit of the station which kept these thousands from leaving the station. Trapped like rats. Then something gave way and we all started exiting. I think the problem was that the escalators weren’t working because we all had to walk up the 3 or 4 flights of escalator steps to the sound of a woman’s bull-horn-amplified voice yelling “Let’s go people. Keep Moving. Hussle!” (I kid you not. She really said that). And there were little old ladies there. It was 100 heart attacks waiting to happen. At this point I started wondering how many of my fellow Americans would surely perish from this Earth on January 20th 2009. But we kept moving, by God.

From there it was a short walk to the Mall but the temperature started coming into play now. F-f-f-f-f-freeezing. I’m glad I listened to Elizabeth and took the big coat. My first instinct was to go light and that would have been my quick undoing. Score one for the Mrs. We got to our pre-planned jumbotron after a quick morning hot dog (nothing says celebration like a hot dog). Floyd opted for the half-smoke. I guess it’s a local delicacy or something. I think Barack had enjoyed one on TV just days earlier so Floyd felt obliged to try one. Seemed like a big hot dog to me.

So there we were. On the Mall, in front of our giant TV, meeting our neighbors from New Jersey and Arkansas, freezing to death and reading announcements on how to avoid frostbite. History, baby. It was then I started sweating our exit strategy.

According to the map provided by my pal Gary via the Washing Post standing between us and Union Station were at least two security checkpoints and the presidential parade route. There were designated crossings across Pennsylvania Ave. but the notes said they had been closed in past parades and Constitution Ave was being used as the parade staging ground. Talk about “Can’t get there from here.” So as the Mall really starts filling up and the jumbos play the concert from the Lincoln Memorial from two days earlier, I start to panic a bit.

And let’s talk about that concert. Josh Groban? Didn’t Dylan endorse this guy? Where was he? And why is Garth Brooks the only rep from the country music world? Was Willie busy? He got three songs and Stevie Wonder got one. What’s up with that? And for those of you who think you know the American public, here’s one for you: When Garth sang “Shout” (a minor hit for the Isleys but a major hit for Otis Day) the crowd erupted! And I’m talking at least 50% African Americans out there rocking out to a hick from Yukon, OK. No one else got that kind of rise. That goofball with his cowboy hat still knows what the friends and neighbors want. Maybe he should run for President…forget I said that.

So the show finally starts and we are now subjected to the sound man from hell. They’ve got the mics on the different cameras set to different levels so the announcer is one volume and the the dignitaries arriving are ten times as loud. I wouldn’t have been surprised if all 1.5 million of us on the Mall would have heard the senior member of the ways and means committee lean over and strike a deal with minority whip. I could hear Clarence Thomas’ robes russle. Those mics were cranked.

In between playing “guess the dude on the screen” (we did not have any commentators on our T.V.s) I’m starting to wonder if we should leave for the station before the swearing in. If we leave at noon then we have exactly one hour to walk what appears to be 2.5 miles. We had decided to walk around the Capitol building to get to Union Station but would there be security between us and it? Crowds? Demonstrating Republicans? Floyd tried to calm me. And I needed to be calmed.

One thing about Floyd you may not know, other than being one of the best pianists on the whole friggin’ planet, is he is also a bit of a Forest Gump when it comes to big events. Floyd was not only at Woodstock, but he also attended Monterey Pop, he’s been to NBA championship games, he saw Tommy Tune read a review (that’s a good story, I promise). And this was going to be one more biggie for him. And here I was suggesting we leave before the swearing in. I deserved to be slapped and chastised. But he didn’t do that. He calmed me and assured me we would make it but he explained to me that to miss the moment was a crime against intrepid travel. How true. How true. I would stay and damn the torpedoes (and the spousal doghouse I would be in if I missed the plane).

At 11:30 we eased our way out of the middle of the crowd toward our exit. On my way to the porta potty I saw some park rangers and asked who the people were standing a block off the Mall. “Those are people waiting to get in.” he said. I was looking at people standing a block away from a place where all you could see was a jumbotron. This was really getting crowded.

And there we stood with one million of our closest friends and saw Joe Biden get sworn in, Yo Yo Ma and company play a beautiful Shaker hymn and Aretha Franklin sing the most memorable “Let Freedom Ring” I have ever heard. Then it was time. And the crowd, that massive crowd, was completely hushed as Barack Obama took the oath of office. Then they erupted.

Check out the movie

Then we had to haul ass and haul ass we did. Our route took us parallel to the Mall and it was a little like leaving the game early and hearing the crowd roar from the parking lot but there would be time to hear the speech later. We were trucking along E street, under the Mall via the 3rd St. tunnel, up to Massachusetts Ave. and up to the train station. No security, very light crowds and we made it there just as the train was boarding. Faces burning with the cold, feet just thawed out and very tired muscles but we made it. It was then on to the airport and then home.

Sure it was cold and whipped my butt but it was an awesome and totally memorable day. And we were THERE!



It was a lovely story and you told it with such enthusiasm.

Bruce James said...

I live in the DC area -- on that note, when are you guys coming back to the Birchmere? -- and between the weather forecasts and the dire warnings of huge crowds and overly crowded Metro trains, plus long waits and lots of standing, I decided to stay home and watch it all on TV. I, too, got a kick that Garth got 3 songs and the other stars had to share even one. I guess when you've sold 10 times more recordings than anyone else there, you can cash in the cache. Looking forward to seeing you all back in the DC area soon.