It is Jan. 22, and I am sitting aboard Northwest Airlines Flight No. 185 bound for an agriculture group's meeting in San Diego, Calif. My daughter Brooke and I returned from the inauguration yesterday. I put in a full day at the Statehouse today before heading back to the airport. Over the last five days, I have had only brief snippets of time to attempt to take in all that has happened in those five days. I am wondering if it will be possible for me to put into words what the nomination, election and inauguration of President Barack Obama means to me and countless others here and abroad, and why.
Though I purchased airline tickets in November, I began to think about the cold weather, the traffic and the hassle, and I found myself less and less inclined to make the trip as Inauguration Day approached. However, the idea of watching the inauguration at the Iowa Statehouse with my colleagues and friends became more appealing as the reports of the numbers of people planning to attend grew to almost 5 million. My husband, sensing my hesitation, encouraged me to go. He felt it was a great opportunity to celebrate, and witness, a truly historic event. There was no question he would have gone if he was able. Then thinking about my husband led me to think about my father and what he would have done if presented with this opportunity. There is no question that if my father were able, he too would have gone.
My father, who passed in 1999 at the age of 87, had visited Washington, D.C., to participate in the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" on Aug. 28, 1963. It was during that event that Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous ''I Have A Dream'' speech to a crowd of 250,000 people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The speech emphasized Dr. King's belief that the Civil Rights movement would create a society in which character, rather than color, prevailed. I remembered how energized and hopeful my father was when he returned home from his historical trip to Washington, D.C.
As this thought took hold, I realized it was my turn to go and witness the completion of a journey that had been ongoing in the United States for so many years. This was an opportunity to witness the realization of not only Dr. King's vision, but my father's hope. This was an opportunity to stand for my father, and for all of those in my family who could not or would not be able to go for whatever reason. The opportunity to stand for each and every one of them, knowing all would have been honored and thrilled at a chance to witness the inauguration of the first African-American president of the United States of America. I decided this was something I had to do.
So, I began my journey to Washington, D.C., on the Sunday before the inauguration from my home in Fort Dodge. As I drove to Des Moines through the rural landscape, I encountered roads that were icy in many places. I counted more than 70 cars in the ditches, and one car actually spun out right in front of me. It was at this point that I seriously considered returning to Fort Dodge. After briefly considering a return to Fort Dodge, I continued on my journey. After all, this was more than just a physical journey. It was, in some ways, almost spiritual for me.
At the airport in Des Moines, the ticket agent told me how wonderful she thought the election had been, and how she wished she could go to Washington. Moreover, a flight attendant on the plane admired an Obama pin that I was wearing. Then during the layover in Milwaukee, I began to notice many more African-Americans than I usually see in the airport. The word "Obama" was everywhere and on everyone - hats, scarves, T-shirts, sweatshirts, pins, bags, headbands. It was then that I really began to realize the magnitude of what had transpired, and that people of all races, ages, ethnicities, etc. were making their way to Washington to participate in this culminating event. I could feel the urgency, camaraderie and excitement of my fellow travelers. The significance of what had happened began to dawn anew, with more intensity. I knew then that I would see Washington, where I had once resided, and visited many, many times before, as I had never seen it before. I would take part in an inauguration unlike any that had ever gone before it.
Arriving at Reagan National Airport on Sunday afternoon, I rode the Metrorail into Union Station in Washington, D.C. The crowds in the airport and in Washington, D.C., were amazing for a Sunday afternoon. There were so many people. Another realization swept over me as I considered the effort it would take to be able to be a part of this event. I was going to have serious challenges to my physical endurance and my patience. So many who looked like me, and most others who did not, had come to witness what to most still seems like a miracle. We would all be here together, making it ever so difficult for each other to participate.
Yes, I attended the Iowa State Society gathering of Iowans on Sunday evening. I attended the inauguration where I stood in 20-degree, sunny weather for four hours, and spent a total of nine-plus hours outdoors without an opportunity to use a bathroom, eat or drink. Many people noticed my ''It began in Iowa'' button, and stopped me to say ''thank you'' to Iowa for making the inauguration of Barack Obama possible. Brooke and I attended the Midwest Ball (along with the Obamas, the Bidens and Sheryl Crow). Finally, on Wednesday we joined the masses of ''celebrants'' returning to their respective homes. It had been a physically and emotionally challenging journey, but definitely worth the effort.
I use the word ''journey'' because it seems to me that this inauguration was not just about what happened on Nov. 4, 2008, and Jan. 20. It was about the journey through the history of the African-Americans in America with all of its sorrows, frustrations, horrors, triumphs, and prayers that have been experienced by so many for so long. This was an American journey, a people's journey, President Obama's journey and my journey.
Many of the participants spoke about their parents and grandparents, as did I, and how happy, proud and pleased they would have been to see the day's events. Up until now, African-Americans and others have never been able to tell their children that they might grow up to be president of the United States some day and really mean it. We were never told this because no one believed an African-American, or anyone other than a Caucasian male could become president. For those who have gone on, I want to say ''Yes, someone's black child has done just that - become president of the United States.''
It is now viewed as possible for anyone to become president.
To my children, grandchildren and all children, I would like to say ''do your best because things have changed. You too could become president of the United States or anything else you want to be.'' Such goals are no longer unimaginable.
Yes, the trip to Washington was difficult, but amazing. From time to time since the election, I have occasionally paused to process the fact that an African-American has been elected and is now actually serving as president. No, I have not found the fountain of youth, lost 40 pounds, cured cancer or stopped bigotry and racism, but I have seen a black man inaugurated as president of the United States. Standing at the inauguration, moving with the massive crowds of people from all faiths, geographies, ethnicities, races, ages, cultures and genders, I felt so very proud of America.
Even though I attended the inauguration, the most thrilling moment I experienced as a result of the election was not there. It was back home in Iowa when I walked into the Chamber of the Iowa House of Representatives on the Thursday after the inauguration. There hanging on the wall behind the speaker's chair was the portrait of President Barack Obama. Upon seeing it, I thought to myself, ''this was truly America at its very best ... and to think - it all began in Iowa!"
Helen Miller, a Fort Dodge Democrat, represents District 49 in the Iowa House of Representatives.