By JOHN FLOWERS
ADDISON COUNTY — The sea of humanity that gathered in the nation’s capital on Jan. 20 for the inauguration of President Barack Obama has now receded, and local residents have trickled back to Addison County with pictures and memories they said would last a lifetime.
Several county residents — ranging from teens to senior citizens — made what they equated to a pilgrimage to Washington D.C. last week, converging on the National Mall in a crowd estimated at between 1 million and 2 million people.
With unprecedented security checks, a ban on vehicle travel near the Capitol Grounds and walkways choked with pedestrians, many Addison County residents had to be content to get within a mile of the podium from which Obama took the oath and delivered his speech.
Fortunately, distant spectators were able to catch images of the ceremony on a series of jumbo screens that had been erected around the National Mall.
Rachel Reed, a Middlebury Union High School student, took in the scene from the Washington Monument. The inauguration was the culmination of a series of activities Reed attended as part of the Presidential Youth Inaugural Conference, which drew 15,000 students from throughout the country.
Reed and her colleagues arrived at the National Mall at around 9 a.m. on a very cold inauguration day.
“You could see the Capitol Building a few football fields away,” Reed said of her vantage point.
Still, the great distance from the podium did not diminish the moment for her.
“It was the coolest experience,” Reed said. “When (Obama) came out, the energy was amazing. People were jumping up and down, crying.”
She said she was amazed by the kindness and camaraderie exhibited by the many spectators of different colors, creeds and ethnic backgrounds.
“People shared blankets and warmers,” Reed said. “It was a very ‘united’ feeling.”
Gerry and Betsy Gossens of Salisbury also made the trek to Washington D.C. They were fortunate enough to find accommodations with family who live near the D.C. area. They were able to get within around 1.25 miles of the Capitol Building.
“By 9 a.m. on Tuesday, the first million people were already on the Mall and the second million were streaming in on all the roads leading to the Mall or the parade route,” said Betsy Gossens. “The amazing thing was that despite the obstacles and heavy security, there were very few complainers and the vast majority of the folks were happy, talking with great enthusiasm about the occasion, and really enjoying themselves. This was the nice and unusual feeling that permeated such a huge crowd of people. Even though we did not have a front row seat, we were delighted to be a part of this amazing event.”
State Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, had cast one of Vermont’s three electoral votes for Obama and was therefore in line for a ticket to the inauguration. After spending two-and-a-half hours going through security, she took her seat in a section that was around 100 yards from the podium. She was pleased to be sitting in a very diverse crowd of spectators.
“There were a lot of people of different walks of life and all ages; it was a real mix,” Ayer said. “There was a real cross-section of ethnicity, race and wealth.”
Ayer was pleased with Obama’s speech, which she said “hit the right tone” of describing, in no uncertain terms, the nation’s economic crisis and the need for everyone to sacrifice to solve the problems at hand.
“It was a speech for everybody,” said Ayer, who plans to frame her engraved invitation.
David White of Middlebury compiled a log of his thoughts as he began his trip to the National Mall on Jan. 20. Here are some of his entries:
“7 a.m.: The Washington Metro, Shady Grove: After the first few stops, our car couldn’t hold another person. Throughout the day, our shared joy and exuberance overcame the discomfort and challenges of the cold and crowded city.
“8:30 a.m.: Inside the traffic-free perimeter, thousands of people filled the streets, streaming toward the Mall... National Guardsmen stood at the ready, smiling and posing for pictures.
“8:45 am.: Reached the Mall, a mile from the Capitol, the Washington Monument in the foreground circled by American Flags, snapping crisply in the wind... Most of the crowd, estimated at 2 million strong, was drawn toward the huge amplified viewing screens situated along the Mall.
“Noon: Tears of joy, pride and relief... Applause and thunderous chants of ‘Obama... Obama... Obama...’ Rapt attention as he was sworn in... A deafening reaction as he said ‘So help me God.’ Silent awe as our new president spoke and articulated both the challenges that lie before us and his vision for a ‘new age.’
“As he concluded and Rev. Lowery delivered the Benediction, many hugged, wiped away tears and turned to head home, inspired to begin the work ahead.”
Charlie Kireker of Weybridge was fortunate to get a seat around 150 yards from the podium. He said he was struck not only by the substance of Obama’s speech, but by how well such a huge crowd comported itself under difficult conditions.
“People were very well-behaved; they were very cooperative and orderly,” Kireker said. “There was a spirit of harmony and friendship everywhere.”
Sure, people could have viewed the event on TV in the comfort of their own homes. But a lot of people didn’t see that as an option, noted Kireker.
“They wanted to be here to be part of the experience,” Kireker said. “Most of the people I talked to wouldn’t have traded in (the experience) for the warmth of a living room.”