Opinion: Long, cold hours before Obama’s inauguration, crowds already gather

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WASHINGTON -- Although open to visitors at all times, the Lincoln Memorial is generally deserted most Monday nights. Especially on frigid winter nights like this one.

But tonight, on the eve of the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, the prodigious sculpture of the 16th U.S. president won’t find any moments of rest.

At a quarter past midnight, workers buzzed around the monument, making final adjustments to the stage. A cameraman was peering through a viewfinder to ensure that viewers at home -- and those unlucky folks on the National Mall who are too far away to make out more than a couple specks on stage -- don’t miss a moment of the event.

Park rangers were scattered about, with large coats, joking with each other in an attempt to forget the cold and pass the time -- less than 12 more hours. They were also there to ensure no one tries to camp out overnight.


‘You can’t put up a tent. You can’t throw down a blanket. You can sit in a lawn chair,’ said one ranger. ‘That’s just what our lawyer tells us,’ he said, when asked about the unusual technicalities.

‘Why would you want to [camp out] anyway? It’s really cold out,’ the ranger pointed out.

Ritchie Hansell, a Briton studying at Brown University, flew out with a few of his friends for the inauguration. The group briefly considered braving the outdoors overnight. ‘We thought about it for a minute,’ Hansell said. ‘But it is way too cold.’

It was 24 degrees in Washington as of 2 a.m., according to the Weather Channel. That’s 11 with the wind chill.

But the cold wasn’t going to stop some enthusiastic Los Angeles residents. Joyce Jordan, who works at a law firm in L.A., was excited to be in the nation’s capital with her family -- and, of course, millions of other people.

‘Being a child of the 50’s, I never thought that there would be an opportunity where I would have a black president in my lifetime,’ Jordan said. ‘Ever.’

Not the chilly weather, nor the fact that she doesn’t have tickets -- she planned to arrive at 5:30 a.m. to ensure a decent spot -- was going to stand in her way of witnessing Obama’s inauguration, she said. Tonight, Jordan was touring the monuments with her family. ‘It was 83 when I left town on Friday,’ she said. ‘It’s cold. I can’t wait to go back home.’

Is anyone really going to try to camp out? Maybe not.

But someone might, which is why the Department of the Interior will be on duty around the clock.

It won’t be long until the crowds start pouring in any way. While the Mall, a nearly two-mile-long stretch of grass, officially stays open all night, the rangers expect the hordes to start showing up around 4 a.m. The inauguration doesn’t begin until noon, but recommendations are to secure a spot by 7:30.

Arthur Moore, a mechanic from Boston, went immediately to the Lincoln Memorial after his plane landed. His cousin was giving him the tour. When asked why he decided to fly to the event, he gave the same answer that many people declared tonight: to be a part of history. Moore planned to return in the morning about 6 a.m.

For Tennessee native Kenneth Nesbitt, another late-night Lincoln Memorial dweller, the story is pretty similar. He doesn’t have tickets to the inauguration. He has come to witness history. But he’ll be one-upping Moore -- he’s coming at 5.

Jim Marsh has lived in the Washington area for nearly eight years, but had never toured the monuments. So, tonight, the Gaithersburg, Md., resident was finally making the rounds and sharing some ‘history,’ as he said, with his daughter.

‘My father brought me to the antiwar protest when I was her age,’ Marsh said. ‘My mom is Japanese; my godmother is West Indian. You know, my whole life has been about tolerance.’

And with today’s swearing-in of the nation’s first African American president, it looked like nothing is going to stand in the way of the racial-equality theme. Not sleep. Not crowds. Not even Mother Nature herself.

-- Mark Milian

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Photo credits: Mark Milian / Los Angeles Times