Military police and soldiers standing beside their armored jeeps guarded every side street leading down to the mall. They were friendly, helpful, and probably cold, as the temperatures hovered in the high 20s until the sun came up. Once behind the Capitol, we joined throngs of people clasping green-bordered tickets as we circled the perimeter of the Capitol grounds, snaking around and finally through the Botanical Gardens to our checkpoint.
By 8 am we were through the big white tented security area (where no one even asked to see our tickets). They were much more concerned about our electronics, asking us to please turn them all on and place them on the table to be inspected.
Once through security, we were out in the open with the Capitol dome off in the distance. By this time, our section of the mall was about two thirds full. We thought about standing next to a fir tree near the back of the section for the straightest, full-on view, but opted to go right and stand on a mound of cedar chips for our 3-hour wait for the swearing in.
There, we caught glimpses of the podium through the trees. It felt like being in the upper deck of a stadium during a rock concert -- you needed binoculars to see who was doing what on stage, so you relied mostly on the Jumbotron for close-up views. We were surrounded by wonderful folks from Ohio, Oregon, New York and several Washington D.C natives. We did group stretches as we waited. Some people carved out a little space on the ground to sit and play cards. My sister made an ill-advised trip to the porta potty, where people were pressed up against the doors, making it impossible to pry one open. She texted me that she couldn't find her way back to where I was standing, so I waved my hat in the air until I saw her come into sight.
People cheered when Democratic celebrities like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Jimmy Carter, and Supreme Court justice Sonya Sodemeyer appeared on the big screen. People booed lustily when Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan showed up on the jumbotron. It felt like Woodstock without the music - a gathering of all those who'd volunteered, donated, hoped, or just simply voted for "four more years."
What made our position most fortuitous though was being far away from that fir tree we'd considered standing near. A crazy anti-abortion activist in a bright orange jacket climbed up to a precariously swaying branch beyond the reach of police and ranted almost non-stop during the 90 minute ceremony, as he waved a sign accusing Obama of being a baby killer. He didn't even stop during the invocation, which you'd expect a God-fearing man to do. He did stop to listen to Beyonce's rendition of the Star Spangled Banner though. (Which was terrific and not lip-synched, as some have suggested).
Barack Obama's 19-minute speech stirred his supporters, as it called for continuing the work of our forefathers and urged inclusiveness. "We were made for this time," he said.
The speech was followed by Maine poet Richard Blanco's reciting of an original poem. The crowd didn't seem to connect with his message, but if you read it online, you'll see how appropriate his words were.
By 1 p.m. the festivities had ended. We waited in line almost as long to get off the grounds of the Capitol as we'd waited to get onto them. We headed for our next stop: the parade route, for a glimpse of the president and Michelle Obama as they went past the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue."
From where we stood, we couldn't tell if Beyonce was lip-synching. But this story asserts that there's no way she could have been. It was a stirring rendition either way!