Inauguration Day: A Parade of Memories


The images of a charismatic new President of the United States being inaugurated on a frigid day before millions of cheering Americans evoked in this writer memories of a similar inauguration nearly a half-century ago.

It was the day before my seventh birthday – January 20th, 1961 — and like most kids of that age, my memories are both fleeting and anecdotal.  For example, though I remember it was a very cold day, with the snow intermittently falling and thick on the ground, I don’t recall any of the drive from the suburban town of Falls Church, Virginia into Washington, DC, passing through Arlington and across the Potomac nearby the Jefferson Memorial.

We drove in a 1957 Chrysler, with bench seats, big fins and a push-button automatic transmission on the dashboard.  My dad wore a homburg hat and a heavy overcoat, and I imagine he wore a sport coat with a white shirt and tie underneath, and heavy fur lined boots.  My mother wore one of the long woolen coats she’d bought when my old man was stationed in Germany (where I was born) and a fur pillbox hat.  I don’t remember what I wore – but whatever it was, it wasn’t enough.

I was a pretty precocious child, so though I was a bit confused about the concept of an inauguration, I had a pretty good understanding that I was about to see the new President of the United States, John F. Kennedy drive by.

I had seen the previous president drive past just a few months before.  But that I had been a little different.  My father, who was an Air Force captain, worked in intelligence at the Office of Special Investigations in an old WWII office building just a couple blocks down the Mall from the Capitol building.  For some reason, President Eisenhower was going to pass in a motorcade down a side street beside my dad’s office – so he brought me in that day and as the cars drove by, I looked down and waved from a third floor window.  All I saw that day of the old general was a quick glimpse of a bald head.  I figured that today would be much the same, just with a different President.

Because my old man’s job was to be the liaison between the OSI and the CIA, FBI, Pentagon and the various intelligence services, he knew his way around DC – so, while thousands of other people circled around looking for, and paying exorbitantly for, parking places I remember we whipped right into a half-empty parking lot behind some office building about a half-mile from Pennsylvania Avenue.

About this time, as we made our way along the icy and snow-dirty sidewalks, the excitement finally hit me.  Obviously, as the growing crowds around me underscored, whatever was about to happen was going to be Something Big.

The sidewalks were already filling along Pennsylvania Avenue, pushing right out to the edge of the curb above gutters that were filled with wet, cold slush.  We made our way along the sidewalk, hugging the walls of various office buildings until we found a gap in the crowd and quickly filled it.  I had a cheap Kodak camera on a vinyl strap around my neck and it was already wound with a roll of black and white film.

And then we waited.

I experienced many important, even historic, things that day.  But I remember most was just how bitterly, miserably cold it was.  I wouldn’t be that cold again until I was a college, caught in a sleet storm in an open dune buggy in Alaska.  At least then I had some control over my fate; as a seven year old all I could do was shiver, occasionally whine, and hope that the grown-ups would rescue me.

Eventually, my parents took pity on me – no doubt because they too were starting to freeze – and they began to take turns walking me back into the office building behind us.  It belonged to some kind of government agency (the memory of which one is long gone) and the rather nervous guard at the front desk initially refused entry to anyone.  But eventually took pity on the army of hypothermic citizens outside and let us come in and thaw in the entryway.

Needless to say, I soon grew to love being in that entryway – and dreaded every time I had to go back outside.

After what seemed forever, but was likely nearly two hours, the Inaugural parade began.  I remember hearing it in the distance, but not being able to see around the grown-ups around me.  Then they were right in front of me.  I remember big, beautifully caparisoned horses ridden by stern soldiers in their dress blues, brass marching bands, artillery pieces and caissons and lots of big, open-topped Cadillacs carrying various dignitaries I’d never heard off.

Then, pre-warned by first a murmuring, then applause, from the crowd around me, came the Presidents.  I lifted up my camera and clicked and cranked it as fast as I could.

I watched five past and future Presidents drive past that day:  Truman (I remember he looked very dour), Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.  I missed a sixth, Hoover, because the snowstorm had cancelled his flight.  And had we been closer to the Capitol, I might have even seen a seventh:  young Congressman Gerald Ford.  What I remember most about that moment – and it is still vivid after nearly a half-century – was how very different John Kennedy looked from the rest of them.  He was young, handsome, dapper in the casual way one only finds in someone born to wealth, and hugely appealing.  Even at my age, I could sense that something was changing, that a new era was arriving that was very different from the one I knew; the comfortable, well-worn world that was inhabited by the older people standing around me.

It would soon be a time of changes for me and my family.  The next summer we would drive out past the lonely little roadhouse at an intersection at Tyson’s Corners, to circle all four leaves of the first highway cloverleaf we’d ever seen . . .then on out to catch sight of Saarinen’s great winged terminal as it rose above what would soon be Dulles Airport.  And the woods at Pine Springs, where my friend Scott Christopher (now a noted photographer in Santa Fe) and I explored and caught crayfish and turtles, was gutted to make way for a new housing development.

That October, my mother bundled me in a blanket at midnight to drive into D.C. to pick up my father, who had night duty.  He was shaking when he got into the car, and poured a tall highball when he got home:  it was the Cuban Missile Crisis, and manning the code machines at OSI headquarters, he knew more of what was happening than almost anyone alive.  Though I was too young to notice, he drank more in the evenings after that.  In the end, it was a blizzard, and the lure of a job back in California where he’d grown up, that led us to move away from Virginia forever.  My old man took his promotion to Major, his newest medal, and filed for retirement.  Then he dumped the coat and hat, bought a T-Bird, packed us up, and drove us out on Route 66 to California.

Almost a year later, now a fifth grader at Monte Loma Elementary School in Mountain View, while out in the schoolyard (shared by, of all people, fourth-grader Steve Jobs) I first learned that John Kennedy had been assassinated.  I remember my teacher crying as she came into the classroom.  To her, and to my classmates, Kennedy was a distant symbol, a larger-than-life being.  But to me, he was that grinning, infinitely self-assured, figure in the open limousine.  It seemed impossible that he could actually disappear from the world.

For us, the inauguration ended that day with a freezing trudge back to the car.  The journey seemed twice as long as had walking in that morning.  The car took forever to crank over, but it finally started, and when my father turned on the radio, we heard the reassuring voice of Edward R. Murrow describing the day’s events.  As it turned out, we had missed almost everything everyone remembers about that day:  JFK tipping his hat to his father, Robert Frost’s poem, Kennedy’s famous “Ask not” speech.

My parents had somehow scored an invitation to one of the lesser inaugural balls, but were too tired – and too wary of driving back into the city that night in such nasty weather.  So my mom cooked up some oyster stew – it was the only thing that would warm us – and we sat and talked about the day.  We carefully set aside a copy of the day’s Washington Star, and I unrolled the commemorative pennant, with the attached campaign button, that I had bought that morning from a street vendor.  I still have it, buried in a trunk until the day when, with luck, I am one last survivors of that day.  That moment is coming ever closer.

Even at that young age, I was right about that day.  Everything did change after that.  From that moment, the world began to accelerate . . .and it hasn’t stopped since.  Now we have elected another young and charismatic president, and I can’t help thinking that history is once again about to hit another point of inflection, darting off in a new direction that will be both better and worse than we can ever imagine.

I didn’t watch much of President Obama’s inauguration on Tuesday, the day before my 55th birthday.  I haven’t watched parades for a very long time.   I’ve been immersed in the speeded up technology world for so long that these public events now seem dreadfully slow and boring to me, the speeches programmatic and dreary.

So, I watched a little of Aretha and Yo-Yo Ma, watched the muddled oath, enjoyed the invocation, and listened (to my dismay) to the official poem.  I quickly read the address on Matt Drudge, then only listened to the actual address for a couple seconds to hear the President’s cadences . . .then moved on read various livebloggers, drunkbloggers, commentators, read a little history on past Inaugural addresses and Wikipedia-ed the Kennedy Inauguration to check my facts.  I caught a few snippets of the parade later on cable news and on YouTube to assure myself I hadn’t missed anything, then moved on to fashion commentators blogging about the various Inaugural Balls.  I experienced more in 30 seconds than I did all day in-person in 1961, and in more than an hour of watching the event on TV in the 1980s.

Finally, just for fun, I searched Google Maps for my old house and Pine Spring School.  Those evocative images, and the sights I saw from the Obama Inauguration, reminded what it had once been like to be young, to see a brand new President. . . and to be very, very cold.