Colts create memories at Obama inaugural parade

by Scott Arthofer and Brian Jones

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

The announcement came that “The Colts Drum & Bugle Corps has been accepted to perform in the Presidential Inaugural Parade.”

Wow, I thought. What a great honor by itself, but to then be performing in such an historical inauguration made it all the more exciting.

It was then announced that not only current members were eligible to attend, but also alumni. It did seem like a great opportunity. After all, it had been 20 years since my last season with the corps. I kept thinking, would I be the oldest one on the trip? Would I know anyone? Would I feel out of place?

Finally, after some convincing from friends, I decided to make the trip. Due to the high interest and the limited number of available spots, I would be going as a spectator rather than a performer. Although disappointed I wouldn’t be in the parade, this gave me a better opportunity to take in the whole inaugural experience. And since my partner, Brian, was also going along, I knew I would know at least one other person.

The day finally arrived to head to Washington. When I walked into the Colts’ hall, I was relieved to see some of the volunteers were people I knew, as well as a few people I had marched with. The hall looked like it was the first day of tour, with luggage and instruments spread out throughout the building.

Everything was loaded onto five buses — four of the Colts’ and one charter — two vans, a box truck and the equipment trailer. It was a surreal experience as I looked out the window when we pulled out, heading down the road, watching the busses with Colts written on the side. It seemed like it was only yesterday I was on tour, not 20 years ago. I felt at home.

One thing about spending 24 hours on a bus is, you get a chance to catch up with friends, meet new ones and exchange old stories. Overall, it was a pretty smooth ride to D.C., despite some ice and snow. We did experience one bus breakdown, but it would not have been a drum corps trip without one. I did realize bus breakdowns are much easier to deal with now, with access to cell phones, laptops and the Internet.

We arrived at our housing site, the Model Secondary School for the Deaf, Sunday evening. After getting everything unloaded, dinner and a much-needed shower, it was time to relax while the corps had a brief practice.

Monday was a free day for the spectators. After a meeting covering tips about using the Metro and what to do if you needed to contact someone, we were off to experience D.C. We walked to the closest Metro stop and rode to Union Station. Having been to D.C. before, we noticed the atmosphere was different this time. It felt like New Year’s Eve.

The United States Capitol is breathtaking on a normal day, but as we turned the corner and saw the front of it, we were speechless. It looked like a stadium. There were bleachers, podiums, stages and hundreds — maybe thousands — of folding chairs on the lawn, all with a backdrop of patriotic banners and flags. I think that was the first time it really hit me that we were going to witness something truly remarkable.

As we made our way to the “Mall” — the area between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial — it was like Hollywood for a political junkie like me. Television crews from all over the world were doing broadcasts. We stopped to watch the Kenyan Boys Choir perform on CNN, made our way to where MSNBC had their mobile studio set up and even managed to get on TV for a brief moment.

Crews at the Lincoln Memorial were busy    taking down the stage from the concert the night before. We headed downtown and got a glimpse of the presidential viewing box in front of the White House. Further downtown, buildings were adorned with flags and signs welcoming the new President.

I think the most appropriate sign was the one that read, “Welcome, Mr. President” and “Thank you, Mr. President.” Very classy. Later that night, back at the school, the corps was busy doing a dress rehearsal. Uniforms were fitted, music was learned and they were ready to go!

Tuesday morning we all awoke at 4:30 AM. The corps showered, ate and headed for the busses. We put on our many layers of clothing and started to walk to the Metro station. We knew security would be tight, but there was a group of National Guard on every corner from the school to the Metro station. Once there, even at this early hour, the Metro was packed with excited people. Everyone wanted to make sure they arrived early to ensure they were able to get in to see the events.

Once off the train, it was a sea of people heading in all directions to get to their correct line. We finally found the line — or rather, the mass — for the parade. It looked like fans at a football game. Everyone wearing hats, shirts and whatever else they could find to support their team, in this case, President Obama. After about an hour, the gates finally opened. We were one of the lucky ones that made it to the parade route before they decided it was too full and turned people away. We had a great spot, front row at the beginning of the route. We could even see the Capitol down the street to the left.

With it still being hours away from the start of the inauguration, it gave us plenty of time to talk to people around us. Not only were there people from all over the United States, but also from around the world. Even the police in front of us were from Fort Worth and later Miami.

Every now and then, something would happen to keep everyone’s attention up. At one point we were treated to the motorcade leaving the White House tea on the way to the Capitol. Also to pass the time, people would just start singing or telling jokes.

Even though we were not able to see the inauguration, we did hear it as they had speakers piping coverage over NPR. Finally, after hours of waiting in lines, the time had finally come for President Obama to take his oath. As soon as he was sworn in, the crowd erupted in cheers, dancing and hugging. It was certainly a historic moment.

After a few more hours of waiting in the cold, the parade was finally about to begin. The police kept saying, watch for the motorcycles which means the President is on his way. Soon, we heard the rumble of the motorcycles coming down the street. As the President’s motorcade passed by, the crowd erupted in cheers. I didn’t know if I should take pictures or waive at the President. I managed to do both!

Now that the main attraction had passed, the majority of the crowd was content to politely watch the parade. However, for me, I still had the anticipation of watching my alma mater march down Pennsylvania Avenue.

The moment the Colts turned the corner, I was filled with pride. They looked and sounded fantastic. As much as I would have liked to have been marching with them, it was still great to be standing on Pennsylvania Avenue cheering as they passed by.

Later that evening, when we were all back at the school, we shared our stories over dinner. The spectators talked about where they were able to watch the events and who they met or saw. The participants talked about the tight security they had to go through and seeing the President as they marched by.

Then, just like a normal drum corps day, we packed the busses and cleaned the school. However, before we loaded the busses, Greg Orwoll called a special meeting. He made a few announcements and introduced the volunteers so they could get the thanks they deserved.

Then something happened that was truly a surprise. Several years ago, the Colts started handing out triangles to members for every year they marched. However, since this was a newer tradition, many of the alumni on the trip had never received a triangle. All alumni present were then given their triangles and asked to say a few words. It was another highlight to an amazing trip.

On the way home, we continued to share stories, take pictures of our new friends and exchange e-mails. One thing I learned over the past few days was that the instruments may have changed over the past 20 years, but the kids have not. Drum corps people are still the hardest working, most dedicated people you will find. This was truly a trip I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

There was a little bit of sad news amidst all the excitement and history. On Sunday, Greg informed us Robert Buelow, one of the founders of the corps, passed away on Saturday, the same day we left for D.C. I somehow have a feeling he didn’t miss the performance.