As cold as it's supposed to be for the next few days, you have to figure that the inauguration next Tuesday in Washington — not the Arctic, but closer to it than the Tar Heel State — could take place against a snowy backdrop. I checked the long-range forecast. On Inauguration Day, they're saying it'll be mostly cloudy in D.C. with highs in the 30s. But there's a 30 percent chance of snow on Saturday night. And the ground certainly should be cold enough for any snow to stick. Friday night, the weather folks say, it could go down to 4 above zero. If you're goin', take the long johns!
Washingtonians are well-known to be snow-averse, but if they had just one snow plow in the entire city, they'd surely put it to work on Pennsylvania Avenue to clear the way for Barack Obama and the grand inaugural parade. And these days, with so many people using the Metro to get around, snow-clogged roads would be less of a hindrance than in times gone by. Which brings to mind what for me was the most memorable inauguration — in part because I didn't make it.
In January, 1961, I was 14, living in the boondocks of southern Fairfax County, Va., near Fort Belvoir, about 20 miles from Washington. I was a Scout, and in a unit that was asked to serve as ushers along the inaugural parade route. The main job, as I understood it, was to help people find seats in the stands that had been set up. Would we have a chance to see President Kennedy sworn in and give his inaugural address? Well, I would have tried.
But then it snowed, not on Jan. 20 but a day or two before. It was a serious enough snowstorm that the dirt road leading to our house (six-tenths of a mile, with the maintenance crew consisting of my father and me) was impassable by car. Perhaps someone could have come down from Springfield and picked me up along Shirley Highway, present-day I-95, which I could have reached on foot (it ran near our property). But for one reason or another, I canceled.
Instead, I ended up watching the Kennedy inauguration on TV. The weather that day was the kind that often follows a snowstorm — perfectly clear, bright sun, breezy, very cold. Kennedy's speech was an inspirational classic to young people of my generation. I can't read it even now without getting the goosebumps and the lump in the throat. "Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country" is only one of the great lines. (Find it here.)
Also unforgettable was the recitation by the great poet Robert Frost, who was 87. He was supposed to read a new poem written for the occasion. But as I watched, Frost struggled to read his manuscript amid the blinding glare from sun and snow, his shock of white hair tousled by the wind. Finally he gave up and spoke a more familiar poem from memory. I found it at this site and pasted it below:
~ The Gift Outright ~
The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia.
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak.
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
Frost died in 1963, as did Kennedy — unexpectedly, as you'll recall. When JFK's funeral procession came up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, this time I was there.