March 16, 2009

Inauguration Week, Day 1

For me, as a tour guide in Washington, DC, the Inauguration of Barack Obama as our 44th President actually began on the Friday before the swearing-in, January 16. That was the day I spent in training with the company I was going to be working for over the next five days. (I don't know how the tour company would feel about being included in my blog, so I'll just refer to them as WS.) The training was excellent, but the best part was that WS loaded all of the guides down with hand and foot warmers, space blankets, and other goodies to help us make it through the cold weather. They had set up an outstanding support system, too, in terms of communications, problem-solving teams, logistics, etc. We all knew it was going to be a tough week, but we also knew the support we would need was already in place.

The excitement really started the next day, Saturday, January 17. I was assigned to a 3-bus group, a band from somewhere in Alabama. They were coming to DC for the inauguration and to perform at a couple of different venues, but they were not part of the official parade. They only had 4 hours that morning for some quick sightseeing and then they were heading off to perform. It was a beautiful day, but very cold! When I left home around 7:00 am, it was 8 degrees above 0 and the wind was blowing! Now, I was a Girl Scout and a Scout Leader for many, many years, so I know how to deal with being out in cold weather. I wore many layers, from silk thermal underwear out to gloves, hat and scarf over my warmest coat. Still, it was definitely the coldest day I had ever spent as a tour guide. I did learn a valuable lesson that day about using foot warmers, too. I had never tried them, so I read the directions carefully and thoroughly. It said not to put the warmers against your skin once they were activated (opened to the air), but to attach them to the outside of your socks. I did just that, placing a warmer under the ball and toes of each foot. What it didn't say was that the more you walk on them, the hotter they get! By the time we had walked through Arlington National Cemetery and back to the bus (about a 90-minute stroll), I had a blister on my left foot from the heat of the warmer! The whole time we were walking back from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to the bus, I felt like someone had given me an old-fashioned hot foot! The minute we were back on the bus, I tore off my boots, took off the foot warmers and repositioned them on the TOP of my feet.

The scheduled itinerary called for us to take the group to Arlington National Cemetery and the Marine Corps War Memorial (more popularly known as Iwo Jima), then to the World War II Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial/Korean War Veterans Memorial/Vietnam Veterans Memorial (which we do all as one stop). The busses picked us up in front of the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue, a very common place for guides to meet their groups. I arrived early, of course, and the busses were a bit late coming in because they had traveled all the way from Alabama overnight. I huddled around with the other guides who were waiting for groups. There really wasn't anywhere to protect us from the wind because the bleachers for the Inaugural Parade had already been put up and we couldn't get to the overhang/protected part of the front of the OPO. I just figured it would be a good way to get used to the cold since we would be in it all morning.

The group arrived, the three of us guides each boarded a bus and off we went. The first challenge -- and one that I often face as a DC Tour Guide -- was that of the three bus drivers, two had never been to DC before and one had been here just one time! That meant that in addition to telling the high school students and chaperones all about DC, I would have to give my driver directions as to how to get around. This makes the job twice as difficult, but it's just part of the challenge we sometimes face.

We headed first for Arlington National Cemetery. There's a routine that we follow when leading groups through ANC. We start at the Visitor's Center (giving them a chance for a potty break), then head to the John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy graves. If time permits, we walk up to the Custis-Lee Mansion (also known as Arlington House) that overlooks the cemetery and has a great view of DC, then go to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to watch the changing of the guard ceremony. If you've never been to Arlington, it is quite an experience. Row upon row upon row of headstones, all of people who served our country in the Armed Forces. Many of them died in battle, but many died later of natural causes. The important thing to remember isn't about how they died, but how they chose to live at least part of their lives protecting our freedoms! It's a point I try to convey to the groups I take to visit there. I also give the students a little talk about what I call "memorial behavior" -- being silent, respectful, reverent while they are visiting ANC and any of the other war memorials in the area. These high school students were very well behaved. Sometimes I'm not as lucky when I'm leading 8th graders around in the Spring.

The other thing I explain to my school groups is that Arlington National Cemetery is uphill, even when it's downhill. I know that sounds strange, but by the time you're finished walking around for two hours, you know what I mean! ANC is the most physically demanding of all the places I take groups, but it is well worth the effort. (Fortunately, when I occasionally get to guide a group of adults or senior citizens, they usually purchase the Tourmobile tickets so we don't have to do all that walking!)

This day was a bit different from other visits to ANC because it was only 15 degrees when we started walking from the Visitor's Center to the JFK gravesite. I told the group that the last time I had led a group of students up the hill, it had been the Spring of 2008....and the temperature that day was a heat index of 108 degrees! Quite a difference! If I have my druthers, I think I prefer the cold because just walking around the cemetery makes you so hot. When it's a hot day in June and I'm leading a group, it is much more exhausting and strenuous!

The cemetery was a bit crowded, but not as much as I've seen it in the Spring at the height of the season. We skipped the Custis-Lee Mansion because we really didn't have time for it that day, so we headed from the Kennedy gravesite to the Changing of the Guard. During the winter, the guard is changed every hour on the hour, so you have to time it right or wait a whole additional hour to see the ceremony. We made it to the Tomb of the Unknown just in time for the ceremony! Whew!

After we were done at Arlington, we headed straight for DC. Our time was already running short, so the school leaders opted to skip Iwo Jima. We knew there would be a lot of traffic in town and weren't sure how long it would take for us to get around. We crossed the Memorial Bridge, drove around the Lincoln Memorial the best we could (some of the roads were blocked off in preparation for the big Inaugural Concert on Sunday), and went to the WWII memorial. This is one of my favorite memorials, although it is much prettier in the spring and summer when the fountains are filled and running. It really misses something without the water. I gave the group my usual spiel and sent them off to look around.

While I was waiting for the group to regather near the wall of stars, I could swear that I heard James Taylor music coming from somewhere! I kept looking around for speakers or someone with a loud iPod, but didn't see anything. Then it occurred to me -- the music was coming from the Lincoln Memorial, further down the mall. There was a rehearsal going on for Sunday's concert and James Taylor was one of the performers. How cool was that? After we finished up at WWII, we decided to walk down the path along the reflecting pool to see the Lincoln Memorial. We continued to hear music -- bands warming up, singers practicing, directions being given. When we got to Lincoln, we were able to stand across the road from the memorial and see some of the rehearsal. We actually saw Sheryl Crow doing a couple of numbers! Of course, to the students, this was far more interesting than looking at some old, historic buildings! Unfortunately, because of the rehearsal, we weren't able to go up to the Lincoln Memorial or even see much of it because it was blocked off by bleachers, platforms, lights, jumbotrons, etc. We also couldn't get over to the Korean War Memorial because of the crowds, but we did have the opportunity to go visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, always of interest to these groups. By the time we finished that, it was time for the group to head to lunch and for me to head home.

The first day was done.....almost, but not quite. My tour guiding for that day was finished, but I still had another adventure ahead that evening....

As you can tell from the title of my blog, music is also a big part of my life. I sing women's barbershop harmony in a Sweet Adelines chorus as well as in a women's quartet. The Lead of our quartet arranged for us to perform at an "Inaugural Ball" being held at the high school where she teaches. Of course, it was that Saturday evening, so even though I was tired, I had to go. You can't very well have a quartet if one person is missing, can you? We got all dolled up (sorry, that's a really old term!) in our sequined tops and headed for the school. I was so glad that we did, even though my feet hurt and I was beat! It was so much fun! Of course, we love to perform any chance we get, but this was such an unusual venue for us. We even had our picture taken with President-elect Obama.....well, at least it was a cut-out of him! The audience was appreciative and seemed to like our mixture of patriotic and humorous songs. We got rave reviews and prolonged applause, which was a great ending to a very long day.

Thus ended the first day. My next post will be about my meeting with the school groups I would guide for the next four days, including through the Inauguration itself. Until then, stay well.


  1. heart...this is such a delightful post! James Taylor is awesome, even now! Interesting point regarding the foot warmers, I'll bet you could not take your shoes off fast enough! I've heard you ladies sing, so I have no doubt it was a magical evening!
    I'm looking forward to your next post!
    Wait...I'm looking forward to dinner tomorrow night, then the next post :)

  2. I really enjoy reading about your adventures guiding tours through DC. When you said you sang with the Sweet Adelines, I couldn't believe it! I am an Adeline (although I'm currently taking a break from active participation) with the Mollyockett chapter in Norway, Maine. I sang with them for many years, and plan to get back to it when my life is a little less nuts. Love that 4 part harmony!