Chuck Beach's Adventure as a Peace Corps Marcher in Obama Inauguration Parade
On December 16, when Peace Corps sent word that I had won the lottery to march in the Inauguration Parade, they said I had until January 17 to let them know if I was coming. The next day, I received a correction. The deadline for responding was 5:00PM EST on December 17. I had about three hours to decide. I found I could get a flight to Washington on the afternoon of January 19 and the last flight out, at 7:40PM, on January 20, Inauguration Day. A place to sleep the night of January 19 was a greater problem. My company's Travel people said the closest hotel I could get was Baltimore. I have a niece in Rockville, MD, about an hour from DC by metro. She has an extra room. I told Peace Corps I would march.
Almost as soon as I accepted, things began to get more complicated. The time we had to be at the initial staging area at Pentagon City in Arlington changed from around 9:00AM to 7:30AM and finally to 7:00AM. Getting from Rockville, MD, to Pentagon City by 7:00AM would be a challenge. The Friday before the inauguration, rooms began opening up nearer Washington. I was able to get a room at a hotel in Crystal City, one metro stop from Pentagon City.
Inauguration Day morning everything went smoothly. I got up at 4:30AM. The restaurant at the motel opened early, and I was able to get breakfast. The hotel shuttle took me to the Crystal City metro stop. The train came the second I got to the station. I reached the Peace Corps buses at Pentagon City with 15 minutes to spare. It was still pitch black. What I had anticipated would be the most challenging part of the day had gone off without a hitch. I emailed my wife, who had served with me in Libya and Tunisia, that my adventure was "not very exciting yet."
The person who sat next to me on the bus had served in the Peace Corps in 1967, a year earlier than Jane and I had begun our service. Most of the other Volunteers were much younger. The older Volunteers had served in countries in South America, Africa, or Asia that, at the time, the US was trying to keep "non-communist." Most of the younger Volunteers had served in former Soviet republics -- a remarkable transition. On the buses, Peace Corps staff gave us i.d. badges, which we were to keep visible at all times, a card we could show to security people if we became incapacitated and had to drop out of the parade, and a card with evacuation instructions in case of a general emergency.
After an hour or so, the buses took off for the Pentagon parking lot, where we--and approximately 17,000 other people--went through security. As might be expected, the military's security check was orderly and efficient. We went into tents where we walked through metal detectors, and military personnel searched our backpacks. When we exited the tents, we picked up boxed breakfasts and lunches; got back on our buses; and waited another 45 minutes or so before we became part of a caravan of buses heading for DC. The bridges into Washington from Virginia were closed to all traffic except the buses and security vehicles. My understanding is that the authorities wanted to keep the roads out of Washington open in case they had to evacuate the city. The caravan moved without interruption to the White House Ellipse--an area between the White House and the Washington Monument. The mall and the sidewalks were packed. I have seen crowds as large on TV, but never in person. In spite of the crowds, the roadways were completely clear of pedestrians. We chosen few were directed into a secure area with huge heated tents and adequate port-a-potties. Peace Corps handed out the country flags, which we were to carry in the parade. Being the only Libyan Volunteer, I got to carry the solid green Libyan flag. I, along with all the other Volunteers, received a gray fleece scarf with the Peace Corps logo and the words, "Inaugural Parade 2009." We also met our military escort, a young Air Force sergeant, whose main duty was to get us to our assigned position in the parade and to assist us in case of an emergency.
I am not sure how many tents were at the Ellipse, but different divisions of the parade were in different tents. We shared our tent with a Marine contingent, some fire fighters, and a number of high school and college bands. We ate our lunches in the tent and watched the inauguration on large screen TVs. Since I had eaten breakfast at the hotel, I ate my boxed breakfast for lunch and saved my lunch for supper, which turned out to be a wise decision. Sometime after the swearing in, our military escort instructed us to get ready to march. People holding a Peace Corps banner led the group; the flags of the original Peace Corps countries followed; and the rest of us fell in line in rows of 9 in alphabetical order by country. I was between Liberia and Kazakhstan, which Jane pointed out when I got home was not alphabetical order. Once we started marching, any semblance of order disappeared, but the wind was blowing briskly, so the flags were flying. We made a colorful group. We "marched" down Constitution Avenue for a ways and stopped. For the next couple of hours, we went almost nowhere. For a while we would march ten or twenty yards and stop. Finally we just stopped. The temperature at the start was around freezing; it dropped steadily. The sun was out, but any benefit was blown away by the wind. It was cold. Initially Peace Corps had told us we could not have cell phones during the parade. We revolted, and they changed the instruction to we could not "use" cell phones during the parade. After a while, people began getting text messages and calls about Sen. Kennedy's seizure at the post-inaugural lunch. Once he was taken to the hospital, we thought we would be on the move again. Nothing happened. Then Obama left the Capitol to go to the reviewing stand at the White House. His decision to get out of the car and walk at several points in the parade I am sure endeared him to the people watching on TV and the people along Pennsylvania Avenue, but those of us on Constitution Avenue were re-considering our votes. At one point, one of the Peace Corps organizers called for everyone carrying a flag, which was virtually all of us, to gather round. We thought he had information, but he just wanted us to keep him warm. We huddled tightly together like emperor penguins in "March of the Penguins." It worked--at least for those of us near the center. The band behind us saw what we were doing and joined in.
By the time we started marching, the sun had almost set. When we made the turn onto Pennsylvania Avenue, we were met with empty bleachers. The crowds had left. A friend of mine, who knew I was in the parade, waved to me from the curb in front of his office. The farther down Pennsylvania Avenue we got, the darker it got. By the time we reached the reviewing stand at the White House, night had fallen, but seeing the President and the First Lady was the highlight of the day. The reviewing stand was on the edge of the line of march. The President, Vice President, and their wives were in the front row. We were only a few yards away. We could not stop or take pictures. Peace Corps had made clear that the Secret Service would treat any camera or cell phone pointed toward the president as a "hostile act." Since we were not playing instruments, we could wave to the President, and he waved back. He seemed to enjoy the "conversation" as much as we did.
We kept marching back to the buses. The original plan was for the buses to leave the area around 5:00PM. It was already 6:00PM. Security would not let the buses leave until everyone who had come on the buses was "accounted for." Since a number of people lived in DC, some people never returned to the buses. As time passed, my chances of making the 7:40PM flight from Reagan were getting slim. At 6:30PM, one of the organizers pointed to the Foggy Bottom metro station a block away. He told me I could catch the Blue Line and it would take me to the airport. I ran to the metro. On the platform, I met two other Volunteers, one of whom lived in the area. He was taking the Blue Line to a stop beyond the airport, so I followed him. The three of us jumped on the next train. My guide was talking with someone else, so it took him about three stops to notice we had jumped on an Orange Line train. By the time I got to Reagan, my flight had left. The American Airlines employee at the counter said he could not put me on the standby list for the next day's flights, but he assured me the counter would open up an hour earlier than normal--3:00AM--the next day. Since all the Wednesday flights were fully booked, I assumed my best chance of getting out was the 6:00AM flight. I figured someone would oversleep.
Going to a hotel made little sense if I was to be back at the airport at 3:00AM. I found an empty row of seats on the middle level of the airport. Several other passengers sharing my predicament had already staked out resting places. I ate the lunch I had saved and settled in for the night. Due to noise restrictions, not a lot of planes fly in or out of DC at night. The airport gets pretty quiet. All the shops close at 10:00PM, and the airport turns the heat down. The next time I spend a night at Reagan in January, I'll bring a blanket. Shortly before 3:00AM, I returned to the American Airlines counter. I was not the first in line. I got on the standby list for the 6:00AM flight. Due to my check-in time and to my "permanent Platinum" status with American, I was first on the standby list. I went through airport security and waited. By 4:30AM the airport was packed. Everyone showed up for the 6:00AM flight. Although standbys are automatically rolled over to succeeding flights, I assumed that I had missed my best chance of getting out on Wednesday. Having nothing better to do, I went to the gate for the 7:05AM flight and waited. Apparently, someone got caught in traffic or had a change of plans. I got on the flight. The plane arrived at DFW 45 minutes early.
I had a blast. I also acquired an appreciation of the importance of an exit strategy and an empathy for those who have shared my lack of foresight.
Chuck Beach RPCV (Libya 1968-69; Tunisia 1969-71)