Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I Kinda Wish I'd Been in DC

by Libby Hellmann

I grew up in Washington (yes, in the city itself), so I never saw it as a tourist destination. Nor did I give much thought to the patriotism and symbolism its monuments evoked. I played and fought with kids from Lebanon, Morroco, and Rhodesia, whose embassies were on my block. I went to the White House for tea… smoked my first cigarette behind the Capitol… my first joint at the Lincoln Memorial. I demonstrated against the war on the Mall and sold underground newspapers on the streets of Georgetown. I worked at PBS and was probably the only person in the country to watch the Watergate hearings twice a day. I met people who only wanted to talk to me because they wanted air time, and I only talked to them because I wanted a story.

Before 1960, though, DC was a sleepy Southern town. Congress left in June and didn’t dare return until mid-September. Summers were hot and humid – DC is literally built on a swamp -- and it was segregated. There were separate water fountains for “Whites” and “Negroes.” But it was a safe city, and I took the bus or the streetcar or my bike all over town. There was an Easter egg roll on the White House lawn every spring, and if you looked carefully, you might spot Ike or Mamie smiling at the kids.

That changed when JFK was inaugurated. Overnight Washington became a glittering, sophisticated mecca. The Kennedys infused the town with excitement and hope and youth. You knew from the beginning, when Robert Frost read a poem at the Inaugural, when Kennedy asked what we could do for our country, that things were going to be different.

Which might have been why my mother took me to Kennedy’s inaugural parade. Traditionally, native Washingtonians never go near politically staged events. We know better. But my mother made an exception this time. I think she knew that Kennedy's election was a watershed event. I remember taking the bus down to Pennsylvania Avenue and standing on the sidewalks in the cold with the crowd. Since I was a kid, people let me through to the front – there was no phalanx of police then -- and I had a first-rate view of the procession. I remember the President’s car slowly passing -- it was a convertible – and how it seemed to stop as it came abreast of us. I jumped up and down, waving and shouting, and to this day I was sure Mrs. Kennedy looked directly at me and smiled.

For over forty years I never went to – or wanted to go -- another inauguration. The pageantry just wasn’t very meaningful. Until yesterday. I found myself wishing I could have taken my own kids down to Pennsylvania Avenue. It would have been tough to get through security, stand for hours in bitter cold, endure the lack of facilities. But the opportunity for a glimpse of history, to bear witness to another watershed event, would have been worth it.

What did you think of yesterday?

21 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

I thought it was fabulous. And I enjoyed your piece too. My brother lives there and it would never occur to him to go into an event like this because of the traffic, etc. I wonder how many of the people on that mall were from someplace else. Just like New Year's Eve in Times Square.

Maryann Mercer said...

I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat...and my thought was that it was the most natural thing in the world for Barack Obama to be standing up there, something no one would have thought fifty years ago. I also thought...how much humanity this man brings to the office. How much determination to bring the American people into the loop, to make us want to give back for what this country has always given us, even in the bad times. I was just happy to be able to watch the proceedings before I went into work...and to know that the torch had been passed to someone who will not only keep it burning but will labor to make sure it burns brighter. Great piece Libby :o)

Steven said...

your memory is the same as Mom's. Billie, Jason, his friend Ginsu, and Lynn and Jerry Srebalus (Billie's half-sister from NC) went to the Mall at 5AM and stood with 1 million others between the Capitol and the Washington Monument and saw (on the Jumbotron) and heard the ceremony. I stayed back at the apt. with Mom and we shared a bottle of champagne!

Deane Edelman said...

You and Frank Rich in last Sunday's Week in Review have some of the same memories!

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/18/opinion/18rich.html?_r=1

Of course I share them too. I TV Hopped with friends and neighbors yesterday, and went to the Peace Ball last night - my first Inaugural Ball after living here practically my whole life. I liked it because there were no politicians or lobbyists - only peace activists.

Sara Paretsky said...

My husband and I and watched with a smallish crowd at a Hyde Park bar. I actually received a ticket to the Inauguration, but for personal reasons couldn’t make the journey. We thought Barack gave a good and forceful speech, an honest look at the problems ahead, and were relieved and ecstatic when he said he would restore science to its rightful place. The emotion of the moment--many of us in the room were weeping. And when the Navy sang the Star Spangled Banner, we all got to our feet and joined in, to our surprise--I hadn't thought I would ever want to sing the National Anthem with real emotion again. The invocation seemed truly offensive to me; a young friend of mine who drove to DC to take part also found it offensive, but said many in the crowd around her were moved by it. The person who did move me was Joseph Lowery. I had forgotten the old Civil Rights invocation--we used to say it, hear it, back in the sixties.

My atheist husband was pleased that Obama acknowledged "non-believers" in his call to people of all faiths; surely a presidential first.
We sang "Ding-dong, the witch is dead," as Bush got onto his helicopter, perhaps childish. Jo Willis says that when Bush appeared on stage the crowd broke into the chant Sox fans use when an opposing pitcher is removed: sha-na-na-na, hey, hey, move on. Also childish, but my goodness he deserves way more than a raspberry.

Libby Hellmann said...

Sara, re the invocation: Something no one has picked up on... Yes, Warren did his Jesus thing... but he started the invocation with the Sh'ma... if you get the chance to see it, watch.. he pretty much says it verbatim...

Not sure what it means, but it's something...

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