A Face in the Crowd?

November 5, 2008

NaBloPoMo 2008My cousin Eddie, ten years older than I am, was a first-year law student when John Kennedy was elected president. He was just the right age and sensibility to be energized by the promise of the new administration. Not long after the election he announced his decision to go to Washington and witness the inauguration in person.

As I recall, his mother and my mother, who were sisters, were not enthusiastic about this plan. Always cautious and reluctant to take risks, they couldn’t understand why Eddie would want to undertake such a journey. It’s not far, only a little more than a hundred miles, but oh the driving! The parking! The walking! Hard enough for an able-bodied person! Eddie, they reminded him (as if he had not considered this) used a prosthetic arm and leg, the result of a train accident when he was seven. You’ll get tired! You’ll get robbed! You’ll be sorry!

Eddie was far stronger and more confident than his mother or his aunt would give him credit for. (And that, I think, could be said of all their children. We grew into ourselves in spite of our mothers’ efforts to limit us). He went to the inauguration, navigating the snow-clogged city to stand in the windy cold and accept the challenge of the charismatic young president to serve in the struggle “against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” He sent my mother a postcard showing a snow-covered Capitol Park on which he’d circled a figure in the crowd and written “Veni, Vidi, Told-ja-so!”

Eddie would go on from that day to graduate from law school, move to Washington, marry and raise six children while serving eight presidents and the health care needs of the poor with the energy, faith, and devotion that President Kennedy challenged him to find in himself. I thought of my cousin this morning as I watched the rebroadcasts of Barack Obama urging us to accept the challenge of “a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other.”

I am no stranger to the energy of a crowd that gathers around an inspiring figure. I was a face in the crowd once myself in Washington, thirty-nine years ago next week, as a participant in the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. Just two months ago I stood a hundred feet from Barack Obama when he visited Lancaster, and I felt the power of his promise. And suddenly today I want to be where all that energy will be concentrated on Inauguration Day.

On a whim, then, I searched online for a place to stay and made a reservation for what might be the last available hotel room within 200 miles of Washington for the night of January 19. It’s in Baltimore, 37 miles out but across the street from a Metro station. And they’re still charging their regular rate. (My favorite DC-area hotel, a Days Inn in Arlington, Virginia where I stay every December when I go to the Emily Dickinson birthday tribute at the Folger, offered to put me on a waiting list. They’re charging $500 for the same room I’ll pay $88 for next month.)

I’ll be in the middle of a gallivant anyway. January 19, Martin Luther King Day, is the last day of a writers’ conference I’m attending in Cape May, New Jersey. It had been my intention to linger some and process the input I get from that event. (New Jersey beachfront hotel rooms are quite reasonable in January!) In September when I applied for the conference spot I didn’t make the connection to the timing of the inauguration. And two months ago I didn’t have the feeling I have now about what this event means in our national history and my personal history.

Yeah, yeah, I know. You need tickets, requested from your congressional representative, to be on the parade route and to get anywhere near the official proceedings. (I have submitted a request, with not much hope.) I’ll see more and see it better on my big screen high definition TV at home. (And I might, eventually, decide to do just that.)  But being close is not the point. Being there is.

In 1999, recalling my 1969 gallivant, I wrote that “I no longer have that kind of endless energy, nor do I undertake trips where the accommodations can be described as crashing.” But as I also wrote of my travels since 1999, especially the trip last year to Wyoming, that they’ve made me younger and wilder and more energetic than I was when I left my career.

I have until the day I’m scheduled to leave Cape May to decide. I’ll let you know. Maybe you can follow me on Twitter.

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