Marching into history


Wednesday, January 21
WASHINGTON -- The Brattleboro Union High School band marched its way into the history books Tuesday afternoon.

When the story is written of the election of America's first black president, the BUHS marching band will forever have its place in that tale, appearing just after 6 p.m. on Jan. 20, in the inauguration parade of President Barack Obama.

The band members' day started before the sun came up as they dressed in their uniforms and headed out from their hotel in Bethesda, Md., toward the nation's capital.

The group shared a few tense moments in the early morning when the bus driver missed the exit in the middle of epic traffic conditions. BUHS band director Steve Rice said he had to beg a police officer to allow the bus to turn back over the Potomac River, and it must have helped to have 81 teenagers dressed in matching purple uniforms because they were allowed to drive back toward the Pentagon.

They cleared security, and waited, and then joined a convoy of 50 other buses to the White House, where they again were asked to wait.

While the band prepared to take its place in the parade, Obama was taking the oath of office on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building. The day was part religious revival, part political rally and part rock concert.

In the streets, vendors sold Obama air fresheners, buttons, T-shirts and posters.

As much as police and Inauguration Committee members prepared for the crush of humanity, they were overwhelmed at points all over the city.

Lines stretched for miles outside the Metro stations early in the morning and at entrance points frustrated attendees were turned around by volunteers who received conflicting instructions from their superiors.

Hundreds of ticketholders could not get in to the Capitol grounds in time and people were stranded on one side of the parade route, or the other, as Pennsylvania Avenue was closed to crossing traffic.

But just after 12 noon, as Obama was sworn in as the nation's 44th president, everyone in the area was just where they needed to be.

Rice said the band was making its way toward the White House and at the moment that Obama was taking his oath, the bus crossed in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

More than a million people stretched out in front of them as far as the eye could see and Rice said that all of the freezing rehearsals and preparations could not have truly prepared the busload of Vermonters for what they felt at that moment.

"It was an amazing moment," Rice said in a telephone interview later that night. "We were listening to Obama take the oath and everyone cheered when he finished. Then, when he was giving the speech, no one on the bus said a word, and we were looking at all those people on the mall and we went right by the Lincoln Memorial. I can't overstate the effect it had on everybody."

All over the area, Obama's words were carried over loudspeakers. People cried and hugged each other.

They cheered when he was sworn in as the president of the United States.

Lori Kort, 26, a Vermont native who now lives in Washington, D.C., said she was inspired by Obama early in his campaign.

She took to the freezing streets while it was still dark and staked out a place along the parade route.

Kort is engaged to marry a man of Tunisian descent and she said Obama's successful election will open doors for her children who will grow up in a country that has elected a black president.

"More kids of Arab descent are going to have opportunities," she said after Obama gave his speech. "They are going to grow up in a world where they are respected."

All along the parade route, people said they wanted to come to Washington to be a part of history.

They were not looking for a good view, and there was little need to add to the crowd numbers, but people said one after the other that they wanted to experience the event.

"America is in a tough jam right now, but this is a great country and I think we can work our way out of it," said John Maher, 70, who owns a home in Manchester, Vt. "This is an historic event of a lifetime and people want to be a part of it."

The BUHS band was scheduled to march between 3 and 4 p.m. but the parade was almost two hours behind schedule.

A few of the students were fighting colds and Rice said there was even a chance one or two might miss their chance to march. The military escort who was working with the band tracked down some blankets and Rice said the BUHS students huddled together to stay warm.

They waited in the cold, in line, with their instruments, but when the Navy band that preceded them turned the corner on Pennsylvania Avenue, they were ready for their turn.

After a month of rehearsing in the BUHS parking lot, in temperatures much colder than even Tuesday, the band sounded strong.

They didn't rush.

The lines were straight and the members rolled the steps just like they practiced.

At the end of the day, Rice said the BUHS marching band deserved to be among the 90 or so high school bands that were chosen to have a part in Obama's historic inauguration.

"There were some difficult moments but they played beautifully," Rice said. "I was very proud of them. It was really memorable. It was a great performance. We really represented Vermont well today."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at or 802-254-2311 ext. 279.


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