Today’s presidential inauguration reminded me of the good and bad in taking part in the inaugural parade 24 years ago.
As the 1992 presidential campaign wound down, the Washington, D.C., chapter of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers asked if members would like to march in the inaugural parade.
Like most locals, I avoided going near the Mall when the crowds came to town, but I couldn’t resist the chance to take part in this national event. Neither could Joyce Campbell, another RPCV from the 275-strong Ethiopia I group. We signed on.
We waited weeks to hear whether an RPCV with political connections could convince the parade organizers to allow us to publicize the Peace Corps. Twenty-two years after its founding, some 150,000 had served, but many people had forgotten about this one-to-one foreign aid program. (Today more than 7,000 PCVS are serving, and 225,000 RPCVs have served in 141 countries.)
The parade was to begin at 2 p.m. At 8:30 a.m., Joyce and I met to ride the Metro from Silver Spring, Maryland, through D.C. into Arlington, Virginia. We met our group—about 100 RPCVs who had served in 50 or so countries—in the enormous Pentagon parking lot.
After learning our assigned positions, we boarded buses and rode to our waiting spot on the Mall near the Museum of American History (at least a half mile from the Capitol). The buses dropped us off around 10:30, leaving us to mill around with no place to sit.
The temperature was near freezing, and the sun shone halfheartedly. Having worn a heavy sweater beneath a super-warm coat and warm hiking socks under snow boots, I stayed warm as long as I kept moving.
At noon, speakers broadcast the inauguration ceremony and, memorably, Maya Angelou reading her poem. Then the new president and Congress had lunch in the Capitol. We ate box lunches in the cold.
We didn’t line up with our flags until well after 2, and we didn’t move for another hour. Instead of going all the way to the Capitol, we cut left to Pennsylvania Avenue around 4th Street. The crowd had thinned out by then (coming up on 4 p.m.).
Joyce, a later Ethiopia RPCV, and I took turns carrying the heavy, long-poled Ethiopian flag. A nearby band gave a beat to march to as, adrenalin flowing, we moved at an irregular pace up Pennsylvania toward the White House.
With the sun dimming, we turned onto the last block and saw nearly empty bleachers across from the president’s viewing stand. He’d delegated greeting the marchers to the vice president. Al Gore, the only one in the viewing stand focused on the parade, gave us a big thumbs up.
Our group broke up right after we passed Blair House. We turned in the flag at the waiting bus and headed for the nearest Metro stop.
Like the Peace Corps, the inaugural parade had been tiring and taxing, but being part of the Peace Corps for two years and of a historic transition for one day had been well worth it.