2009-01-30 / Columnists

Local Artist Experiences Obama Inauguration

Special To The Wave By Patrick Clark Artist, Rockaway Park

Many had a long cold wait but only managed to see the ceremony on one of the giant television screens that were set up at intervals all over the mall. Many had a long cold wait but only managed to see the ceremony on one of the giant television screens that were set up at intervals all over the mall. Just outside our Capitol Hill townhouse, four little kids, all bundled up with lunches swinging in plastic bags, marched down the sidewalk in the dark. I realized then that 4:00 a.m. was not too early to roll. Near the Capitol Building, pockets of people were heading down Independence Avenue, so I picked up the pace. Past the Capitol at the tickets-only gate, the crowd grew to hundreds and overflowed the sidewalks into the street where the pace picked up so we non-ticket folks could jump ahead.

The first non-ticket gate was blockaded tight and we were waved on a couple more blocks to the next. Our happy mob of new friends bottlenecked and progressed like penguins, laughing and hooting through the gate which led down a narrow path between two museums and out onto the Mall and then flowed into a stampede three times our size jogging up towards the Capitol Building. I don't know about the other gates, but we had no delays at all with security since there was absolutely none for this quarter million non-ticket-holders. That worked quite well since our electrified mob was up to nothing but good and thrilled to be routed right up an express lane to the Mall. No security complaints here, my lips are sealed.

Clark with Congressman Anthony Weiner in his Capitol office. Weiner held an open house for all those from his district who traveled to Washington, D.C. for the inaugural ceremonies. Clark with Congressman Anthony Weiner in his Capitol office. Weiner held an open house for all those from his district who traveled to Washington, D.C. for the inaugural ceremonies. Soon we'd be trying to sleep in the frigid pitch-dark, huddled on the ground like an army of well dressed and layered campers in the arctic. If I'd known there'd be no security, I would have brought a down sleeping bag. Instead, we all joined in jumping jacks, jogging in place, jumping up and down and anything to get blood back in the toes and fingers. Thankfully it was a clear morning and it warmed up a bit with the sunrise.

The crowd came back to life and let out a big cheer when our Jumbotron kicked on at 9:00 a.m. and played reruns of Sunday's Lincoln Memorial concert. We sang along with "This Land is Your Land" by Pete Seeger and the "Star Spangled Banner." Even the teenagers knew the words to "Bye, Bye Miss American Pie …" As "swearing in" approached, strangers laughed and shared stories through chattering teeth about how far they'd come to reach this coveted position near the front of the Mall.

Rockaway artist Patrick Clark poses on the National Mall waiting for the inaugural ceremony to begin. Rockaway artist Patrick Clark poses on the National Mall waiting for the inaugural ceremony to begin. There were large groups of high school kids with matching American flag ski caps, college kids everywhere, and stately, elderly black women in elegant full length furs and Fifth Avenue attire. I spoke with people from England, Ukraine, Ireland, France, Korea, Kenya, Michigan, Washington State and Kansas.

When the cameras scanned the Mall we'd respond with cheers and wave the flags the Boy and Girl Scouts passed out just after sunrise. When my brother in Idaho called I told him to find me in the crowd, I was the one waving the little American flag.

And it was me. Me and nearly two million others who came as a grand mosaic of American humanity to bear witness to this historic moment. We came to stand proudly with the new winds of healing and hope and to cheer not so much for this man of color becoming president, but for the truly free nation that had finally risen beyond segregation to elect him. We were passionate and we all somehow needed to make the pilgrimage.

I remember the excitement when John Kennedy was elected. He was Catholic like us in a Protestant country where Catholics had been second class citizens. It was radical change then, even for a boy of only eight. When President Kennedy helicoptered into our town in 1962, the entire population formed a massive crowd that erupted in wild cheers. It felt like that again when Obama emerged out onto the Capitol platform.

Later that day, as I left Congressman Weiner's open house, I passed a stately gentleman. Full of joy, he said, "How are ya?" and I greeted warmly back. A couple steps later I stopped and said, "No, I'm not fine, I'm great, this is an amazing day, I'm awesome!"

He was a minister from South Carolina and shared stirring stories about Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy and the March on Selma. He told me where he was when Dr. King was assassinated, that he'd seen him the day before. He spoke about the suffering of racial persecution and the unbridled joy of this historic day. And I told him what it was like for a young white kid in the North to experience the tragedy of losing RFK and Dr. King, how it felt when our older brothers were all sent off to war, and that when we marched in anti-war demonstrations in high school it was not just to rally against the war, but against the assassinations of Dr. King, the Kennedy brothers and the killing of the students at Kent State. I told him I thought it wasn't just blacks who were "Free At Last," but that the whole nation was free at last.

It was the thrill of the day, and all two million of us there stood proudly in witness of an historic moment of change. Together we marked an incredible milestone, marching ahead, a nation ready to get back up as President Obama said, "and dust ourselves off" and start the hard work of rebuilding our good nation.

And now a week and a half later it's back to work and the excitement is starting to wane, but the experience was eternally worth it. The aching bones and freezing toes are nearly forgotten now.

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