Some events are so far-reaching that we remember them as if we were personally present, even if we were thousands of miles away. John Kennedy was shot near the grassy knoll in Dallas, but the stricken face of the assistant principal appearing in the doorway of my fourth-grade classroom in New York, his hand rising to my teacher's shoulder, the sudden heave of her chest, the sobs as he led her into the hallway, the awful silence as we were left alone -- it felt like something had happened, right in front of us, to change the world.
But there is a rarer form of witnessing history: actually being present where and when it is made. In my life, that's a short list. In 1965, I watched from a school bus window as stoplights flashed off and shop windows went dark, only gradually realizing that it was all the result of a calamitous, multistate blackout that would be memorialized in folk memory as the genesis of a mini baby boom. In 1972, I wandered out of my University of Florida dorm to participate in an antiwar protest just in time to see a phalanx of armor-clad police with riot shields and clubs rush the crowd. As I fled, I saw a red brick streak through the air, intersecting with one of the officers, who crumpled to the ground. That evening, as tear gas fogged the sky and armored cars prowled the main drag, I watched it all play out again on television, narrated by Walter Cronkite. In 1997, police dogs sniffed my Miami Beach yard as a SWAT team closed in on serial killer Andrew Cunanan, who was hiding on a houseboat just blocks away.
Brushes with a more hopeful kind of history seem rarer. That same year, I wandered out of my Miami office to see the World Series champion Marlins' victory parade. I thought I was too late -- there were no barricades or cops, and hundreds of people milled aimlessly in the middle of the street. As I turned to leave, a line of open convertibles, giddy heroes atop the back seats, appeared, inching through the pressing crowd as the players slapped high-fives and exchanged gleeful whoops with all. As small a slice of history as that represented, the moment remains forever charged in my mind.
So, I understand why as many as 2 million people are prepared to sit in epic traffic, press into overwhelmed subway trains and abandon all impatience for hours of standing and shuffling in the cold. The inauguration of Barack Obama as our 44th president is no small slice of history. It's a whole pie's worth. Any inauguration is significant, but one proving that we live in a nation where, when the chips were down, a candidate was judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character, is a dream come true.
Tom Shroder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.