Marching Into History This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category.

December 28, 2009
It was 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 20, 2009, but we were already five hours into our day. The sleepy spattering of chitchat on the bus was picking up as we neared our destination. I faced away from the window as a fellow flutist zipped up the back of my white uniform jacket. She abruptly stopped midway. Had it gotten caught again? But the noise on the bus had stopped along with my zipper. I turned and caught a glimpse of the incredible scene.

I had previously lived in Washington, D.C., for five years, so I was used to crowds, excitement, and the cold. Since we moved I dearly missed the East Coast. Of course, it's hard to complain about living in Honolulu, Hawaii. And I felt especially privileged to be a student at Punahou School, Barack Obama's alma mater.

When I learned my high school band would march in the inaugural parade, I felt glad to be returning home, whereas most of my bandmates were experiencing Washington for the first time. I was expecting a huge crowd, but as I turned to look out the window, the mass of people I saw was much greater than I had anticipated.

My eyes were caught in a sea of smiles, a cheerful greeting. People were pressed together, packed against the metal barriers – and probably thankful for the closeness given the intense chill of the day.

The crowd was dense from this street up the slight hill, extending all the way to the Washington Monument. People surrounded the monument on three sides. I stared out at black faces, yellow faces, pale faces, tanned faces: American faces. As I took in the grins, stretching from ear to ear, I sat frozen. One little girl in a periwinkle hat unfroze me as her arms waved wildly, greeting us as we drove by.

We were going to march and play for all these people? I sat back in my seat, playing the music in my head and watching my fingers race up and down my invisible flute. I looked out the other side of the bus toward the Capitol, where the crowds were possibly even bigger. The sea of people continued until they turned into an indistinguishable blob of color.

The bus stopped, and, stepping off, I was immediately engulfed in a frenzy. First, our instruments had to be quickly unloaded – all 140 of them – because our buses had to leave. We hastily assembled our instruments and put the cases back on the bus. Check.

Security raced us into warming tents. Stepping inside brought relief but not comfort. Sixty-degree air replaced the 17 degrees outside. As I stepped through the tent's yawning mouth, chaotic colors swirled around me, and the swooping dips and peaks overhead mimicked those of a circus tent. We joined other bands and marching groups from all over the country. I saw tassels and feathers dangling from grinning instrumentalists, intricately braided hair on the Chicago Tumbling Team, and stiff perfection from the military units. Most were smiling and animated, talking with friends.

A woman switched on the TV and the boisterous noise quieted abruptly. The thunderous voice of a newscaster resonated through the tent. Barack Obama, our new president, was beginning his speech, and the tent hushed again. The picture flickered in and out, and the audio skipped ahead of the video. I shut my eyes against the disjointed scene and just listened. The crowd was solemn until the end, when cheers erupted. The inauguration was over, and the parade would begin – soon, we thought. Although joy rushed through me, apprehension lurked in the shadows, growing steadily.

After braving the long line for the port-a-potties and collecting my hand warmers, I joined my bandmates outside. The chill raked at any exposed skin and constricted my chest as I tried to breathe. After a few minutes, my lungs adjusted, and I began to breathe normally.

To keep the circulation going, we were instructed to wiggle our fingers. Between the gloves and the biting cold, our digits were not feeling very nimble. We were also told to continually blow through our instruments to prevent the valves from freezing shut. For us flutists, it also kept our instrument from freezing to our lips like a popsicle, as well as melted the spit icicles clinging to the inside, which would warp the pitch. (Disgusting, yes, but strangely fascinating to have an icicle in my flute!)

We played through our three songs, “Aloha Oe,” “Men of Punahou,” and the theme from Brahms Symphony No. 1, and eventually were told to go to our parade position. First came the nine Army units, then us. Our marching band of 140 instrumentalists, color guard, Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps, and a few cheerleaders were the first civilian unit in the lineup!

The trip from our home in Honolulu to Washington, D.C., had taken 24 hours with three flights and a long bus ride. We could feel every mile as we stood waiting to step into the view of a billion people all over the world!

The parade should have started, but it didn't. The inaugural lunch was running late. As the temperature dropped, I could sense the excitement dropping with it, like a balloon with a minuscule pinprick. The flutist next to me was shaking with every gust of wind that crept through the seams of her uniform. I was shivering too.

Our band director told us to do what we could to stay warm, so a group of us formed a gigantic ball in an attempt to share body heat. I noticed that people were suddenly snapping pictures of us, and so I stepped away from our huddled mass to see why. I was rewarded with one of the most comical sights I have ever seen. Fifty of us made up the tight huddle, and crowning this sight were 50 bucket hats topped with white feathered plumes!

Finally, the order was given to “Fall in!” and eagerly we complied. “Band … attenTlON! Mark time, FIRST!” our three drum majors called. We echoed with, “Toe, toe, heel, heel,” to start our feet moving to the beat, and then the front rank stepped off. We continued to mumble the beat, dropping the words into the icy air.

As we finally began to march, strangely, all my anxiety dissolved and I was flooded with a heat that allowed my fingers to dance over the keys as our first roll-off sounded. We rounded the first corner and I prepared myself to be awed by the crowd we had glimpsed from the bus.

What I saw instead was a small number of people scattered along the roadsides. Where was everyone? (I later learned that many had taken refuge in heated buildings and were watching from windows.) I then noticed that my feet were off step, and I vowed not to think of anything but my feet, position, and music from then on.

The day grew colder as the sun sank in the sky, but my internal heat kept up with the chill. I was actually comfortable now that I was moving.

The number of spectators increased as we neared the reviewing stand where our new president sat. The band behind us was loud enough to confuse a few people's steps, including me, as we puzzled over which beat to follow.

The speakers along the route repeated the same information over and over, not one correctly pronouncing “Aloha Oe.” We heard “Aloha Oh” many times, but not “Aloha Oye,” which is the correct way to say it. I didn't really blame them: I still can't pronounce half of the Hawaiian streets.

The reviewing stand was in view now, and I quickly averted my eyes before the “Wow” factor could catch up with me. Our roll-off sounded, and I snapped my icy flute to my lips. The first note was not shaky as I had feared, but crisp and clear, slicing through the air. I may have only imagined it, but our music seemed to ring with pride as we passed our fellow alumnus, commander-in-chief, and president.

Marching past the reviewing stand was a blur. I felt my heart beating double time and my chest growing tight with excitement, but I didn't dare turn my eyes for fear of tripping and having my atrocious mistake caught on television.

When I got home, however, I watched the replay on TV. Obama's smile lit up his face when he saw us, which was more of an honor than any official statement of appreciation. The grinning president returned the shakas (a Hawaiian greeting gesture) of my friends, the banner carriers. Our time in front of the president was short, but as I saw our small moment repeated over and over on news programs, our vignette was stretched out to be ten times longer and more important.

Our procession continued down less populated streets overshadowed by tall townhouses. I kept searching for THE END, where we would all come to a stop, congratulate one another, shake hands, smile, have some microphones stuck in our faces, and maybe drink hot cocoa.

However, the parade didn't really end but just fizzled out as the separate bands marched to their buses. I lurched up the steps, all of my energy dissipated. Snippets of conversations filtered to my ears, “Did you see?” “Yeah! He shakaed at us!” “Awesome!” “I saw him shaka too!” “The whole family did!” Soon, my own imaginings of the rumored presidential shaka filled my exhausted head. The wearying frenzy finally over, I allowed my mind to drift back through the long, amazing day.

The end of the inauguration trip was much like the end of the actual parade. This fantastic activity, speculated about and planned for months, simply dissipated. When we got back from the parade, we ate a quick dinner and were on the bus to the airport by 2 a.m. That Thursday, I was back at school.

When I got up to speak at my ninth grade class assembly a few weeks later, I shook with nerves. I marveled at how I could march in front of nearly everyone in the world who has a TV, not to mention the president of the United States of America, and yet still have the jitters in front of my classmates. That is what the inauguration was, though. An awe-inspiring day that, in some ways, changed everything, but in the end, we still returned to our normal lives, which were very much the same.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category. This piece won the January 2010 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.

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