"He grinned at me!" was my daughter's exclamation that made all the logistical nightmares of our inauguration trip worthwhile.
Arriving in Baltimore late last Saturday morning, we threw on our warmest clothes and headed the five blocks uptown to City Hall, where Barack Obama, Joe Biden and their families were expected in four or five hours. It was about 15 degrees, part of the most bone-rattling cold snap on the East Coast in most of a decade.
The excitement wafted through the air like the aroma of spicy barbecue or summer roses. Baltimore is one of our nation's most African-American cities. Obama's election is an occasion for joy on the scale of Mardi Gras, your first child's marriage and winning the Lotto - all wrapped up like a big lumpy Christmas package. In fact, I feel much the same, and I'm only one percent African. All of us, of every color, want this guy to succeed.
Thanks to U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, my daughter Elizabeth and I were among those with a view of his inauguration. But I figured that if we were to have any chance of really seeing Obama closer than 1,000 feet away, we'd better join our friends and brothers in Baltimore for his last whistle-stop en route to the capital. There were at least 100,000 spectators expected, but that seemed like an intimate party compared to the 2 million or so forecast for Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C.
As it happened, it was just so astoundingly cold that the Baltimore turnout was more like 30,000 to 50,000. Even after standing in a very, very long line that eventually stretched 16 blocks, we managed to wiggle our way fairly close to the podium.
Painfully Arctic as it was, the wait was a fun rite of passage. We all laughed together as Aretha Franklin's "Respect" began to blast through the loudspeakers. We burst into calisthenics and dances, partly out of jubilation and partly just to get some frozen blood moving through our veins.
The chemical hand-warmer pouches we bought (at a hefty price) from one of hundreds of entrepreneurs who circulated through the crowd came in extremely handy, at least in a psychological sense.
Elizabeth joined the crowd in shouting "O-Bam-A" as the time for his appearance drew near. We happy mob would have been pleased to pelt Maryland's governor with rotten Chesapeake Bay crabs as his introduction droned on.
Finally, everybody's enthusiasm ratcheted up, and up and up. After several false alarms, as other tall guys walked out through the doors, at last it really was Obama.
His speech has been widely reported and I won't say much about it here. He joked that an over-heated global climate is a serious problem, "but not today." He sounded a serious call for all of us all to plan on making America fully as great as we all know it can be.
One of the best parts about being in Baltimore is how open and friendly every single person is. One of our many new acquaintances commented that seeing Obama is much less important than hearing him. Just being in the crowd and listening to the cadence and content of his language are enough to make you feel that maybe, just maybe, he will be able to help us get the USA on a better track.
As soon as he appeared, the whole audience literally swelled with pride and enthusiasm, and our sightlines narrowed down. So I lifted my thankfully still-petite girl onto my shoulders where she waved and swayed and shouted and squirmed, a bright pink-jacketed kid rising above the grownups.
Across a rippling pond of humanity, blue eyes and brown ones connected. Obama gave her a warm smile. Or maybe he was just a politician grinning about a cheering throng. Naw, he had to be looking at my girl.
He's got an awfully hard job ahead. We'll see whether he's really up to the task. I don't think there's anyone better qualified to bring us together. If it can be fixed, he's the guy to figure out how.
Matt Winters is editor of the Chinook Observer in Long Beach, Wash.