Family jaunts to D.C. to be part of history even at its fringe

SATURDAY'S HERO

January 23, 1993|By ROB KASPER

It began, as so many family guilt trips do, with the thought, "This is something the kids really should see . . ."

That is how we ended up in Washington sinking in the inaugural mud as Bill Clinton was sworn in as president.

I think that is who was sworn in. From our vantage point, in a boggy park somewhere between the Capitol Reflecting Pool and the Department of Labor building, about half a mile from the podium, it was hard to tell. Even with the high-powered binoculars borrowed from neighbors, I couldn't see through the trees that blocked our view. As chief binocular manipulator, I reported from time to time that I had just caught a glimpse of either the overcoat of the new leader of the free world or a tree limb.

Not that the kids, 12 and 7, were paying much attention. Right around the time that the president was saying that the nation had been drifting, the 7-year-old was sinking his sneakers deeper into the mud beneath him. Happily, the inaugural address stopped after 14 minutes, when the mud had just reached ankle level. These were the kid's basketball sneakers, and they were going to have to be cleaned up in time for today's game. We missed Maya Angelou's poem. We were in a slow-moving line, trying to buy sodas from a vendor.

My wife and I had told the kids that this would be a "historic day." But it often felt like other family outings. Part Cub Scout camp-out -- we carted enough gear to assault the North Pole -- and part museum trip. When a kid starts squirming, or throwing himself on the ground, it doesn't matter whether you are looking at the Capitol dome or George Washington's teeth. You feel less like "a part of history" and more like a plain old parent.

We seem to be suckers for these "guilt trips." Part of the reason is geography.

If we lived far away we couldn't easily transport ourselves to a museum filled with wailing children staring at important, but very dead, dinosaurs. Families in Indianapolis, I bet, don't feel the need to streak over and back to the nation's capital in 24 hours. Even if parents wanted to, it is hard to inflict a one-day cram course in national government on their kids. Too long a trip. Too hard to organize. Too big a deal.

But if you live in the Baltimore area, such one-day dips into history are not too big a deal. Especially if you are near the train station. And on inauguration morning as the 9:30 MARC commuter train pulled out of Penn Station, the 7-year-old had spotted several other kids he knew, whose parents had also pulled them out of school so they could witness "history being made." There was Nick from the soccer team and his big brother Julien, and maybe Josh from piano class, but maybe not. It was hard to see because everybody was in a hurry, and crowds were large, especially once the train unloaded in Washington.

For the kids, the highlight of the swearing-in ceremony appeared to be the 21-gun salute. Again, we couldn't see the guns. But we heard them. And we saw their smoke.

The kids also seemed to enjoy the frantic taxi ride we took, after the swearing in, from the mud of the Mall to a hotel, where by virtue of a last-minute invitation, we found ourselves in a small hotel meeting room with a window overlooking the parade route. It happened to overlook the spot in the parade where President Clinton got out of his car and began waving to the crowd as he walked down the street. The 12-year-old said later he was sure the president looked right at him.

Because the hotel room window was sealed, we couldn't hear the music from the parade bands. Soon we were out on the street, standing on top of newspaper vending boxes and hanging from the cab of an 18-wheeler parked nearby, trying to hear the passing parade. We left shortly after the Indians rode past.

It is difficult to know whether this historic trip had any effect on the kids. On the train ride back home, the 7-year-old checked his watch and announced with regret that this inauguration thing had caused him to miss an episode of "Batman." The 12-year-old, who when first told of the proposed trip to the Mall wanted to know if this "mall" had a record store, was now asking his mother a thousand questions, including what "the cabinet" did.

History has a way of repeating itself. So this spring, when the kids are out of school, we will probably end up traveling down to George Washington's place, Mount Vernon, Va. It is so close. And, of course, it is something the kids really should see.

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