I was there!

by Gary Dickelman, DCW staff

This article was originally published in the March 2009 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 37, Number 12).

January 20, 2009 — Washington, DC . . . To understand the feeling of being in the Capitol for the inauguration of President Barack Obama, imagine the last time you attended the DCI World Championship, then capture the moment during the winning corps’ finals performance when it became obvious that you and perhaps 30,000 others were witnessing the championship performance — and vocalizing accordingly — then multiply the volume,          excitement and density of people by 70 or so.

“I was there,” proclaimed the buttons donned by so many to underscore being part of the          historic event.

My trek began right around sunrise as I left my Annandale, VA, home, bound for the nearest DC Metro (rail/subway) station, via motorcycle. Yes, the temperature was in the teens, but    motorcycle parking is free and available, unlike auto parking.

By 7:00 AM, the multi-story parking garages throughout the Metro system were reported full. To actually find space on a train, many of us realized that we had to board a near empty train southbound (away from the city) and travel to the beginning of the line, where we could be on an inbound train.

The experience was reminiscent of my travels on the infamous Tokyo subway system, with nary a millimeter to spare (but sans “push-men”). Young parents were carrying their infants in backpacks and strangers were assisting to keep the little ones happy during the arduous journey.

There was excitement in the air as people from all over the U.S., the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Columbia, Bolivia, Germany, Italy and several African nations (to name a few represented in my car alone) chatted with nervous excitement about the profound experience of which they were a part.

The trip took twice as long as usual, as trains converging on the city had extra cars and were packed to capacity. Downtown stations were converted to one-way only, using both tracks for discharging passengers. A steady stream of humanity poured into the streets within a few blocks of the National Mall, but just outside a secure area around the parade route.

By “secure,” I mean that portable fences and gates had been constructed, replete with concrete barriers, creating a perimeter around the U.S. Capitol and along Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues to the White House and beyond. One did not need to look very hard to see uniformed police with identifying marks from almost anywhere in the country, military personnel, Secret Service and Department of Homeland Security agents keeping a watchful eye on the throngs.

There were fairly strict rules regarding what could and could not be carried onto the parade grounds. Security checks began at 7:00 AM; by 10:00 AM all but one or two checkpoints were closed, as the parade grounds were filled to    capacity. The parade was scheduled to begin at 2:30 PM, but did not start until after 3:30.

My Drum Corps World press credentials were helpful in gaining access to the parade route within sight and sound of the swearing-in ceremony on the Capitol steps.

Before finding my way to the parade ground entry point, I stopped by Union Station (just a few blocks from the Capitol) to take in the experience. I assisted a fellow journalist with getting his laptop connected to the Starbuck’s Internet hotspot so that he could file his story. I had brief but exciting conversations with out-of-town visitors, locals and even some of the homeless regulars who find temporary relief from the cold inside the station.

In a word, there was excitement. But what I noticed mostly was the density of humanity in the boarding areas, glued to the TV sets that were broadcasting CNN. The moment a member of the Obama family would appear on the screen, as their journey to the Capitol was being recorded at every step of the way, all of Union Station was engulfed in excited cheers. As long-time DCI commentator Steve Rondinaro would often say, the place was “ELECTRIC.”

By now we have all been impressed with President Obama’s mandate for transparency and openness. The edict stands in stark contrast to the veritable fortress that was erected around the Capitol, the parade route and the White House.

In his most recent book, “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas L. Friedman describes the contrast between the quaint former U.S. Embassy on the Palazzo Corpi in Istambul, Turkey, with the new facilities that comprise “22 acres . . . [with] protective walls that are at least 100 feet away [from the embassy and consulate buildings]. Those walls and            barriers must protect against explosions and    ramming attacks from vehicles, and they must be difficult to climb.”

According to a terrorist, whose attempt to breach the new compound was thwarted by Turkish security, “. . . the new U.S. Consulate was so secure, ‘they don’t let birds fly there . . .’ ”

Such was the parade route, with its recently erected tall perimeter fences, concrete barriers, security booths, cross-street barriers and literally thousands of security officials who cordially but firmly ensured order and kept our elected officials out of harm’s way.

In fact (and contrary to published parade route pedestrian cross points), there was only one way to get from one side of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other — walk the I-395 tunnel, which was closed to vehicular traffic for the occasion. In fact, ALL of I-395 was closed to traffic within and for many miles south of the city, as were all of the bridges that span the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Washington, D.C., was buttoned tight for the inauguration.

In spite of the long lines, crowds, early entry point closures, searches and the many people turned away from the parade route because they were carrying backpacks that were larger than permitted, one did not hear much complaining. There was simply too much excitement and joy in the air.

I ask each reader to consider — did you think you would witness the inauguration of an African American President of the United States in your lifetime? In his inauguration speech, President Obama noted that less than 60 years ago his father “might not have been served at a local restaurant.”

Indeed, when the Blessed Sacrament Golden Knights returned victorious from a National Championship competition in Miami, FL, in the 1950s, the corps’ yearbook records, with sadness, how the African American members had to eat their meals on the bus, banned from the establishments where their Caucasian counterparts were permitted to dine.

We experienced similar bigotry as late as 1969 during our trip to the American Legion Nationals in Atlanta, GA. Our corps, which was about 50% minorities, was detained and harrassed when one of our busses’ mirrors inadvertently clipped that of a tractor-trailor (“semi”) traveling in the opposite direction. To mitigate further such   incidents, the older African American members organized the bus seating so that only the white guys would be visible in the windows.

Clearly the passing of the Civil Rights bill under President Johnson several years earlier did not eradicate prejudice, any more than the Imancipation Proclamation immediately             transformed deep-rooted discrimination in the latter half of the 19th century. But these bold acts of law by courageous Americans paved the way for change, for this day to become possible.

Indeed, drum corps was not immune to bigotry during its formative years — not as a rule or as an institution, but because it represented a cross-section of a society that had years of painful lessons ahead. If not official membership rules, then there was surely de facto discrimination among the many obviously all-white junior and senior corps that marched the fields and parade grounds of our nation.

Slowly but surely, things began to change, but not without struggles. Conditions in the inner cities of our nation reflected discrimination and racial tension. The 1967 riots in Newark and Detriot put further strains on many drum corps struggling to survive in these areas as the            economic bases of churches and civic institutions of sponsorship declined or disappeared. And these conditions created barriers for potential new membership from outside the cities.

The old formula for forming and sustaining a neighborhood corps was no longer viable and it would take years for a new model to emerge. Arguably, drum corps never really recovered, as is evident from the continuously declining numbers over the past years.

The organizational model and the evolution of civil rights, as rule of law and common practice, needed to progress if the institution of drum corps, and others, were to survive.
Fast-forward several decades, and we now have the amazing example of Barack Obama’s campaign and election to the presidency of the to further underscore what is now good in this country. What an amazing message and example for the world at large and at a time when we so desparately need it! “So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled,” said President Obama on January 20.

Think about the now-famous poster and its variants, found here — http://www.depauw.edu/ photos/PhotoDB_Repository/2007/8/Barack%20Obama%20Capitol.jpg — of Barack Obama’s image against the backdrop of the U.S. Capitol. Our president. We saw on November 4 the tears in Jesse Jackson’s eyes when it became clear that Obama had won the election.

I could not count the number of tears of joy I saw between 11:00 AM and noon on January 20 in D.C., as cannons roared and voices soared, in a cacopheny not heard here since Martin Luther King so eloquently expressed his dream. “Hope.” “Yes, we can!” Indeed, the event introduces a very bright future on so many levels, in spite of the multitude of challenges facing our country and the world today.

“It was such an honor to see our newly-inaugurated President Obama wave proudly as we spun in tribute of him. It felt, for that moment, as though the cold temperatures were gone and my exhaustion had disappeared, for I had never felt so proud to be a Cadet.”

Cadet alumnus, parade participant Marc Paulo Guzman

“. . . I was in awe of how many people were there . . . as far as the eye could see . . . bright lights, announcers, Obama and Biden! We were on the world stage for nearly a minute. It was awesome!”

Cadet Bradley Bower

“. . . to be a member of the Cadets, a group that I have dreamed about being a part of for so long, and to represent them for the President of the U.S., is something I will never forget. It was a bonding experience for the members . . . I will be proud . . . for the rest of my life.”

Cadet Vanessa Wudyka

The Cadets and the Colts did the drum corps world proud with heartfelt, quality performances befitting of such an historic event. I was most impressed with the manner in which these            representatives of the drum corps world presented and conducted themselves.

As a former member of a championship corps, I know how difficult it is to field a quality unit in January. These days members are auditioning and being selected for the upcoming season. There may be some remnant of quality from the prior year’s competitive season, but it is mostly a brand-new game, with members just learning how to wear the uniform, march and play the trademark style of the group — and they are simply learning each others’ names. So I was particularly impressed with the degree of uniformity and class projected by these corps in January, a formative month of the 2009 season.

I recorded and posted two videos on YouTube, each as the Colts and The Cadets entered the parade at 4th and Pennsylvania: The Cadets at http://www.youtube.com/watch?

v=l2uGH5tl4Y8; the Colts at http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v= mFOS-FP8SeE.

The Colts were near the end of the first division and The Cadets were in the second          division. That means they entered the parade somewhere between 4:15 and 4:45 PM. The members had been waiting in a heated tent earlier in the day, but were directed to line up outside at approximately noon. The parade was not scheduled to begin until 2:30, but was delayed until after 3:30 because Senator Ted Kennedy experienced a seizure during the inauguration luncheon.

The temperature was about 20 degrees F and dropping as the parade got underway and the sun dipped behind the D.C. buildings. I was wearing triple-quilted and padded winter motorcycling attire and I was cold.

These poor young people of the Colts and The Cadets had been standing around in the frigid weather for about 4.5 hours. The valves on the tubas had frozen. Drummers’ fingers and hands were approaching frostbite. Formation protocol was broken even by the waiting military units, to move around, huddle or otherwise find ways to stay warm and lucid.

In the distance, I could see members of the Colts and Cadets huddled together in tight groups at their assigned places. What a way to bond with your new corps mates! I can just imagine what was going though the minds of the rookies. “I am suddenly a Colt / Cadet; I am freezing, tired and miserable; it is now almost impossible to play or even move; and I am going to play for the most historical presidential inauguration since that of George Washington!”

But somehow the strains of 76 Trombones and National Emblem March (Colts), and America the Beautiful and Battle Hymn of the Republic (The Cadets) came through loud, clear and proudly, as they entered Pennsylvania Avenue.

As you watch the videos of the Colts and The Cadets, bear in mind the challenging 4.5 hours that they had just endured. What you see is class, quality, pride and excitement among these exhausted, frozen corps persons. Following this, I invite you to visit c-span.com (http://www.c-span.com/Watch/watch.aspx?MediaId=HP-R-14534) and experience the parade from the White House reviewing stand, which was about 45 parade-minutes past my parade entry videos.

Notice any difference? As good as they were upon entry, the contrast is amazing. It is like watching a summer contest in June, followed by the championships in August, separated by about an hour. It it something that the best of the best drum corps learn, which is to perform with the greatest excellence when it counts.

Such was the manner in which Phantom Regiment performed in 2008 to cop the DCI title and all the other title holders that have come before them since 1972; and prior to that, each winner of a VFW, American Legion, Dream, World Open and CYO Nationals. But here the Colts and The Cadets were performing for a “championship” that transcends any DCI title. They were continuing the proud traditions of their fine drum corps organizations while   bestowing honor and respect upon the newly-elected President, Vice President and their families. What an amazing experience and what world-class performances!

I am no doubt biased toward drum corps, if not overtly psychologically so. After 50
years of tuning my ears and soul to the sweets sounds of dynamic brass and rudimental percussion, I was awe-struck as first the Colts, then The Cadets marched by. To be sure, I thoroughly enjoyed the Old Guard, The President’s Own and Delaware’s Fighting Blue Hens.

The high school marching units of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were equally impressive. I was blown away by the LGBA (Lesbian and Gay Band Association) band, arguably the best sounding one in the parade, and, of course, the magnificent 1,200 VMI Cadets, marching in formation toward the end of the parade.

But the moment a band approached that marched with what has become know as “corps style,” my ears would perk up and my heart rate would increase. When the Colts and The Cadets stepped foot onto Pennsylvania Avenue, I was spellbound. This was drum corps at its finest, performing for an historic occasion, the inauguration of the first African American President of the United States.

I can imagine the corps members’ thrills as I recall fondly the first time I wore a Blessed Sacrament uniform, which was in the prestigious Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City, 1967. We spent several rehearsals brushing up a few pieces from the ’67 season and we learned a drill to perform at the reviewing stand to the tune of that year’s color presentation, Phantom Regiment March.

I recall vividly the dense crowds, the famous announcers, the television cameras — and being scared to death that I would screw up! It was like a dream. Not only was I marching in a parade that was being broadcast to millions as we marched, but I was marching for the first time with the legendary Golden Knights, a powerhouse of the era.

The alumni were encouraging and nurturing (but firm!), and the event was clearly a first bonding experience. Surely participating in the inaugural parade, and with a World Class DCI corps, was at least as much of a thrill as I experienced so many years ago. After all, on this January 20 it was an awesome and emotional thrill just to be in Washington, D.C.!

The Colts and The Cadets have since returned to Allentown and Dubuque, respectively, and are back to the business of building World Class DCI corps for the 2009 season. The members are now at their schools or homes, coming to terms with a surreal experience.

The event was clearly a milestone for the drum corps world, as it had been when the “Corps of the 1950s,” the St. Vincent’s Cadets, marched proudly for the inauguration of President Eisenhower.

Within a few days of President Obama’s inauguration, for example, the posted YouTube videos have been viewed about 10,000 times. We fans are typically starved for drum corps in the middle of winter, thus catching a glimpse of two DCI corps in January is a rare treat.

Place that in context with the unbelievable event that was Barack Obama’s inauguration and you have something that rivals drum corps’ second weekend in August.

Thank you, Cadets and Colts, for brightening a cold, drab Winter day, for reminding us of all that is good in America as you honored the 44th President on this most historic occasion. Keep up the exceptional work and spirit, and we’ll see you again in June!