[EDITOR'S NOTE: THIS STORY COMES FROM A FEATURES CLASS I TOOK WHILE AT BOSTON UNIVERSITY. I LIKE THE WAY IT CAME OUT AND WISH I HAD THE MEANS TO HAVE HAD IT PUBLISHED AT THE TIME OF ITS COMPLETION]
At 1 a.m., with the bus broken down on Route 95 North, just outside of New Rochelle, New York, Clyde Thomas had a decision to make. His daughter was getting cold and there seemed to be little the driver was able to do about the bus “losing pressure.” Should Thomas stay with the bus or try and find his own way? “Everyone was mumbling that we were going to miss the event,” said Thomas.
The event was the Inauguration of Barack Obama, an event that drew close to two million people to Washington D.C. to witness what was called the historic swearing in of the country’s first black president. Thomas had discussed with is his wife the idea of going to the inauguration in October of 2008 if Obama won. “We were pretty set that if Barack won, we’d go to the inauguration. We just didn’t know if we’d be able to go as a family or not,” said Thomas, 63, a retired employee at City Hall for the Water and Sewer Commission.
The concern stemmed from the fact that Thomas wanted to take his daughter, Honney, to the event but was unsure if he would be able to get tickets. “I knew she would be out of school because the day before was the holiday celebration of Martin Luther King. The next day was a ‘planning day’ for her middle school,” said Thomas, who has a wiry, runner’s frame, horned-rimmed glasses and a deep mahogany color that is offset by a graying goatee.
With Obama’s win official, the next piece of business was for Thomas to secure tickets. The process involved requesting tickets from a local congressman. Thomas had an in.
Before he retired, Thomas would often do consulting work in conjunction with then City Councilor Stephen Lynch. The friendship they developed allowed Thomas to make a phone call on November 8, 2008, to Danny Lynch, Lynch’s aide to ask about receiving tickets to the inauguration.
The phone conversation was simple, according to Thomas, like two old friends catching up with each other. Eventually Thomas broached the subject of inauguration tickets, but Lynch was ahead of him.
“Danny, I need a favor...” Thomas started.
“You need inauguration tickets right?”
“Yeah…” Thomas answered.
“You’ve been with us for a while, it’s no problem. I’ll see what I can do.” Lynch responded.
“Thanks, I really mean it. I appreciate this.” Thomas replied.
“You’ll go even if I don’t… I’ll give you my tickets. Just put in an official request by email.” Lynch finished.
Thomas followed instructions and sent an email to Congressman Lynch requesting tickets and then waited. On November 18, 2008, Thomas received confirmation from the office of Congressman Lynch that his request for inauguration tickets was granted. He received two tickets that put him in the “Purple Section,” on the north side of the Capitol running along First Street, NW between Constitution Avenue, NW and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.
Once the tickets were confirmed, transportation was necessary. However, Thomas was not concerned. “I never gave much thought to transportation. I assumed we’d probably drive or take a bus. I didn’t give it much more thought than that,” said Thomas.
Getting to D.C.
Three days before the inauguration, Thomas connected with Harold Austin. Austin was running a bus excursion from Boston to D.C. and back for $250 per person. Thomas paid $150 for two tickets because Austin was looking to fill seats. The cheap price of the tickets would be indicative of the level of service Thomas and his daughter would receive.
The bus was scheduled to leave at 7:30 p.m. on January 19, to avoid traffic. Arriving at Madison Park at 7 p.m., Thomas and his daughter did not see the bus waiting for them as promised. The bus didn’t arrive at the park until 9 p.m., the driver claiming that there were some issues with the brakes and lights that slowed them down.
“Why didn’t we fly, Dad? I think we should fly,” said Honney when she saw the bus pull into the park.
The bus left Boston and traveled along 95 North through Rhode Island and Connecticut without incident, but outside of New Rochelle the situation changed.
The driver informed the passengers that the bus was “losing pressure” and that they would have to pull over. The bus stopped in the yellow-lined triangle space separating the highway and exit 18. Unsure if the bus was losing anti-freeze or if a water pump had broken, the bus driver did not want to take a chance and have something fail while on the highway.
At 1 a.m. the temperature outside of New Rochelle was 16 degrees Fahrenheit. The engine was off and the chill was evident. “It was tense on the bus, people were not happy with the service and it didn’t look like the bus driver or the bus company was doing anything,” said Thomas.
“It was really cold, and I was sad because I didn’t think we were going to make it to the inauguration,” said Honney. She is a small girl, 10 years old and no more than 4’6 with a thin frame like her father and a coffee-ice-cream-colored complexion. That day, she wore a red knit cap, red gloves and scarf, a brown corduroy jacket with fluffy fleece lining, adorned with an Obama pin and shin-high Ugg boots. A matching brown purse contained a mini nebulizer to help with her asthma.
Despite her cold weather gear, Honney was still cold while her father made the decision that they would not miss the inauguration.
“In my heart I always felt we’d get there on time,” Thomas said. After five hours on the side of the highway, Thomas and several other passengers on the bus called cabs to ferry them from the stranded bus to a Marriott Hotel just off Exit 18. At this point, Thomas called his wife, Kiki, to inform her of what transpired with the bus.
“I thought he was calling me to tell me they had stopped for breakfast somewhere and were well on their way to Washington,” Kiki recalls. “Instead I learn that the bus has broken down and they might be stranded somewhere in up-state New York.”
Thomas and Kiki are a good team. Once she learned what happened, Kiki immediately logged onto her computer and began to look up flights leaving from LaGuardia Airport. “I told her we would need to fly to D.C. if we wanted to be on time and she told me she was already looking at flights and found a 7:30 a.m. Delta shuttle going to D.C. There were two seats left.” Thomas said.
It was 6 a.m. Thomas and Honney were in a cab on their way to a hotel. Thomas asked the cab driver to drop off the people they were with and to then take them straight to LaGuardia Airport. Once at the airport, Thomas purchased tickets and proceeded to the gate. All seemed to be going well until his daughter asked him a question.
“Dad, why do our tickets have these squiggly lines on them?” An innocent question and observation that meant both Thomas and Honney would be subjected to a second baggage check and search. It was 7:15 a.m.
Despite his initial fear, the extra bag check and search did not slow them down. “At 7:30 a.m. I received a phone call from Clyde saying he and Honney were seated on the plane about to take off. I was shocked and said a silent prayer thanking God for granting them travel mercies,” said Kiki.
Their flight landed at 8:30 a.m. at Reagan International Airport. Moving quickly, Thomas and Honney boarded a blue line Metro train. They needed to transfer to a red line Metro train at China Town in order to arrive at the Purple Section entrance. However, when they arrived at the China Town stop, they were not allowed to transfer to the red line because in the commotion to get to the Mall, someone had fallen on the tracks.
The walk from the China Town stop, to their section entrance was a circuitous route around the far side of the Capitol and the Mall. Thomas wore thermal underwear to fight the chill of the day as well as wool socks, brown corduroy pants, and a brown sweater over a black turtleneck shirt. Leather gloves and a paisley scarf helped complete the outfit with his “Sunday Best” black top coat.
Upon reaching their section entrance, Thomas and Honney were allowed onto the Mall a mere 200 yards from the stage. “If the bus hadn’t broken down we would have been closer,” said Thomas.
Thomas’s memories of the swearing in and speech are a hazy jumble. “When Dianne Feinstein introduced Obama, and said ‘President Barack Hussein Obama’ I couldn’t hear anything. Tears welled up in my eyes,” Thomas said. Recalling the memory, Thomas must pause to collect himself. His eyes become watery.
Honney remembers watching the procession of the Supreme Court Justices from a tree before a park ranger came along and told to get down.
On that day Thomas felt a “sense of overwhelming patriotism and unity.” He wished Martin Luther King was alive to see the event and he even thought of his grandfather, the first black person Thomas knew that voted. “He would have been in tears,” Thomas said.
The trip home was less eventful. Thomas and Honney caught a 4:10 p.m. train from Union Station that got them into South Station at 8:30 p.m. In their travels, they had used almost every mode of transportation available.
When he recounts the story, people balk at the idea of spending so much money just to get to Washington, D.C., for a few hours. But Thomas is firm in his conviction that you cannot put a value on going to the inauguration of the first black president. “I’d do it again, despite all the complications,” Thomas said. “I might have even hitch-hiked to get there.”
His only complaint is that he is not sure if Honney understands the historical significance of the inauguration. However, he underestimates her. “I knew I would see history, so I was glad to go,” she said.