Editor’s note: On a whim – and “a fit of post-election euphoria” – Patricia Berg and her husband, Tom Hultberg, decided the day after the election to join the Inaugural revelry, despite knowing no one in the Washington area and disliking large crowds. Berg, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, are filing daily “postcards” through today recounting some of their experiences there. Here are Monday’s postcard and Tuesday’s.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — It’s official: Barack Obama is the first African-American U.S. president, and we were in town for the occasion. Are we glad we made the trek? Certainly. Did we get to see the big moment? Not even close.
We dragged ourselves up and out the door at 3:15 Tuesday morning. We were feeling pretty smug, sailing along the highway in the dark, until we tried to exit at the Metro train station out in Franconia, a suburb at the end of the line. We had hoped the crowds wouldn’t begin that far from the city.
But as we approached the exit, we began to see the extent of our naïveté. At 4 a.m., the exit was – well, imagine trying to get off I-94 at the Fifth Street exit before a Vikings-Packers division championship playoff, with a few hundred thousand other fans holding free tickets but no assigned seats.
After an hour of stop and go, mostly stop, we did a U-turn and put the car into a shopping mall lot. We hoofed it a mile to the station, streaming in with hundreds more, similarly bundled up and bouncing along in the dark. We were feeling good.
By 6 a.m., we were pulling out of the station, drinking in the energy and marveling that people could be so darned chipper at such an hour. We were such smarty-pants, having gotten a seat on the train and everything. Another hour and we spilled out into the Capitol South station and the real adventure began.
Metro staffers had devised a system of traffic control inside the station. A voice boomed, “Red light! Red light!” and everyone stopped moving. Then, as the voice chanted, “Keep it moving! Keep it moving!” the crowd would reply, “Yes, we can!” and surge forward a few feet.
We surfaced at the Capitol South station at the northeast corner of the Capitol Mall. It was a constant struggle to point ourselves toward the gate for silver ticket holders at Third and Independence, but by 8:45, we were there. It’s not that we walked; we were swept in that direction like flotsam in the tide.
At one point along the way, the police carved a path to make way for an ambulance. They pushed hard against us, and for a few minutes it was hard to breathe. People grumbled, but in a cheerful way.
We made it to the gate, but that’s as far as we got. For the next two hours, we stood waving our tickets in the air, but it never opened. We chanted “Let us in!” for a few minutes. Three young people serenaded us for a while with barbershop harmonies. We were near a guy who had to be 6-foot-9, and he became our lookout tower. His reports were dismal, however. The gate was deserted; we were not getting in. And no Jumbotron in sight.
After three hours, we packed it in. As we shoved our way to the edge of the crowd, we added our voices to the deafening cheer that went up as power changed hands, peacefully, at the 56th inauguration in U.S. history.
Patricia Berg is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.