Future Reflections         Summer 2009

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Witnessing History

by Sean M. Whalen

Sean WhalenReprinted from TheStudent Slate, the Newsletter of the National Association of Blind Students, Winter-Spring 2009.

From the Editor: In the NFB we often speak about equipping children and teens with good blindness skills so they can participate in life on terms of equality. Sean Whalen, former president of the Wisconsin Association of Blind Students, served as an intern on Capitol Hill. In this essay he recounts how he drew upon his skills and his sense of adventure to be present at an unforgettable historic event.

It was Tuesday, January 20, 2009, 1:00 a.m., and there I sat with a cell phone plastered to one ear and a land line to the other, listening, as I had been for the past thirty-five minutes, to rival cab companies here in Arlington, Virginia, inform me that all dispatch operators were busy and assure me that calls were being answered in the order they were received. That seemed to me a reasonable order in which to answer them, so I continued to hold, with the anticipation of witnessing a great moment in American history building inside me. It was, after all, the day that Barack Hussein Obama, a man whom I had spent almost two years supporting and virtually my entire October and early November campaigning for in Fairfax, would place his hand on Lincoln’s Bible and take the oath of office, thus becoming the 44th President of the United States. Through the Congressional internship that I had done in Representative Ron Kind’s office, I was lucky enough to get my hands on a ticket to the Inauguration. On the final day of my internship, the Chief of Staff took me and another intern aside, to inform us that we would each be given one ticket to the swearing-in ceremony. I had planned to be a face in the crowd on the National Mall on Inauguration Day, but the promise of gaining entry to the ticketed area added a whole new level of excitement.

As my mind meandered, a tired voice on the other end of the line snapped me back into the moment. "Redtop Cab, may I have your pickup address?" I had a moment’s hesitation as I tried to discern from which phone the voice had come, but after clearing that up, I provided all the necessary information. "We'll have a cab out in ten minutes," the man said, and hung up the phone hurriedly. I found it somewhat amusing that I had just spent nearly an hour waiting for dispatch and would now wait only ten minutes for the cab itself. Perhaps they ought to have brought in some drivers and put them on the phones. At any rate, I grabbed my cash, my keys and my cane, and after quadruple checking that my purple ticket was in fact in my coat pocket, headed for the door.

As I stepped out into the eighteen-degree night to wait for my cab, I felt confident that I would beat the rush to the gates. The Metro was not to start running until 4:00 a.m. and I figured that chartered buses would not be rolling in until around 6:00. I also felt a slight thrill at doing something so ridiculous. Some people, labeled "crazies," had been queued up since 11:00 the night before. But, let's face it, the 2:00 a.m. departure wasn't completely sane itself.

 "Where to?" the driver asked. I told him that I wanted to go as close to the entry gate at 1st and Louisiana Southeast as he could get me. The drive over the river into the District was smooth sailing with no traffic to be found. However, once we entered DC itself, it became clear that "as close as he could get me" wasn't going to be all that close. All streets around the Capitol had already been barricaded and there was no way to proceed but on foot. I tried to get some information from the driver about exactly where he was letting me off, but the most I could glean from the conversation was that we were near L’Enfant Plaza. Fortunately, there were police posted at every single corner, and, though they were brought in from all over the US and had no idea where anything was, they could at least tell me which corner they were posted at. I struck out, and through numerous "What is the name of this street?" inquiries, got my bearings and headed south down 2nd Street. Crowds were already starting to gather on street corners and the excitement and anticipation were definitely in the air. Once I crossed into the Southeast quadrant, I asked another Inauguration-goer if he knew which way to turn to head toward Louisiana Avenue and the purple gate. He was quite confused. He had been heading up 2nd Street in the other direction looking for the very same gate. It turned out that he was right. When my ticket was given to me, I was told to go to 1st and Louisiana Southeast, but really, the gate was located at 1st and Louisiana Northwest. Either my informant was holding the map upside down, or he was completely sadistic. Either way, I was now headed back in the right direction. I finally arrived, at about 3:30 a.m. and after over an hour of walking, at my gate. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had beaten the crowd, even more so than I could have hoped. This gate was for tens of thousands of ticketed guests, and I was somewhere between thirty-fifth and forty-fifth in line. This is the first time that visions of the front row started to dance in my mind.

 Over the next four-and-a-half hours in line, I was part of something that I had never before in my life experienced. Differences in race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and age and disability seemed to disappear, or more accurately, simply ceased to matter. We all exchanged our stories of how we got there and why we felt it so important to come. We cracked jokes and shared laughs. We sang songs together and took part in group calisthenics to keep the blood flowing to our frozen feet. Most of all, we just took in the atmosphere of palpable excitement and tried to grasp the enormity of what was about to happen.

By 6:00, the masses started to pour in. Many, on their way to the back of the line, tried to execute the stop, linger, and be absorbed into the line approach. As you might guess, those of us who had been waiting for hours were having none of that. We called them all out and raised enough of a ruckus that police came and made sure that the people at the front of the line actually belonged there. By 7:00 the sun was up and the opening of the gates felt imminent. And then, finally, at just before 8:00, the gates were opened and the rush was on. The line was no more. In its place was a mass of humanity surging toward the security checkpoints. As I rushed in, a man named Crenshaw from Atlanta, with whom I had been talking a lot in line, shoved me toward a particular checkpoint and yelled over his shoulder, "go there, that one's short."  And it was. There was one person in front of me.

Then it was all metal and electronics on the table, through the metal detector, refill the pockets, and on ahead to the ticket checkers.  "Tickets in hand!" they shouted to the oncoming crowd.  I whipped the ticket out of my pocket and waved it in their direction as I tried to remain ahead of the majority of the flood of people. From there, it was a footrace. Truth be told, I wasn't quite sure where to go, but I knew I wanted to get there quick. Some were literally sprinting, most were somewhere between an ultra-brisk walk and a jog. I followed the flow of people until, all of a sudden, I found myself run up against a chest-high metal barricade. Could it be? Oh yes, indeed it was! I had found my way to the very front row of standing room. There were 25,000 seated guests in front of me, but roughly one and a half million standing behind me, all the way to the back of the National Mall.

 The next two hours, up until the official start of the program, were spent talking to new people and listening to others exclaim at every new sighting of an A-list celebrity walking about just below in the seated area. At 10:00 the program started. However there was nothing too exciting until 11:30 or so. The huge crowd roared as Joe Biden was introduced and took his oath. We then enjoyed the musical stylings, though actually prerecorded, of Yo-Yo Ma et al. Then, after nearly ten hours in the freezing cold, the moment finally came. Barack Obama took from Chief Justice John Roberts the Presidential Oath of Office. Though Roberts’ brilliant legal mind couldn’t quite handle memorizing and properly reciting a thirty-five-word oath, it was no less powerful when Obama said “So help me God.” And the twenty-one-gun salute was fired off. It was almost surreal to be right there among the ecstatic crowd at that moment. He then delivered his Inaugural Address. To spare you my political and rhetorical commentary, I will say only this--the speech was absolutely moving. It was inspirational, well-delivered, and befitting the moment. The feeling of actually being there and taking part in this great moment in American history was nearly indescribable. It is absolutely an experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

After the ceremony, the mobs of people tried to make their way out of the area. I, being familiar with the area, was a hot commodity. I gave many directions to nearby Metro stations and helped untold numbers figure out which trains were going where. Nobody seemed too bothered that I was blind; they were just happy to find anybody who had any reliable information. I plugged my way down Pennsylvania Avenue eight or so blocks to the Eastern Market Metro station, hoping that it would be less crowded than other stations in the more immediate vicinity. It was. Rather than waiting for hours to board a train, I was from street to seat in about forty minutes. Once I got off the Metro, it was a brisk walk home, and a much needed seat on a soft couch in a warm living room to take in the parade and news on TV.

 While there are many things that stand out in this story, the fact that I am blind is really not one of them. Therein lies the message. The Inauguration was a microcosm of life. Were there a few things that I had to do differently from the sighted public? Absolutely. Were there things that it might have been desirable, convenient, or aesthetically pleasing to see? Yes, I’m sure. Did my being blind dominate the landscape or dictate what I was going to do?  Certainly not. This was an incredible experience, and blindness does not stop us from leading incredible lives.

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