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Guest Viewpoints

Witness to a Presidential Inauguration

January 31, 2021
By Peter Nicolelis

The presidential election of 1952 pitted democrat, Adlai Stevenson, the sitting governor of Illinois, against Republican, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former supreme commander of the allied armies that defeated Nazi-Germany and liberated Europe.

In early January 1953, the news media reported regularly on the planning and preparations for the  inauguration of the president elect, Dwight D. Eisenhower. There were daily reports of high school marching bands from across the country requesting the opportunity to march in the parade. Many voiced their desire to march down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the tented presidential reviewing stand.

I came to realize the profound significance of the peaceful transfer of power. A major event in our American democracy. I reasoned that this was probably one of the few times in my life that I could make the decision to witness this significant event without anybody’s prior approval. I could take a ‘one-day pass’ from family, school and work obligations.

Having made the decision to witness the inauguration, I had to organize a ‘parea’. I needed to share this experience with some others. But who else?

Who else should I think of recruiting other than one of my best friends? My first call was to Michael Pontisakos. Mike was in a very similar situation: study, home, and work so it was easy to convince him that going to Washington to witness the  inauguration was a good idea.

Mike’s only reservation was that he had no money to finance the trip. I told him not to worry: I had $24 dollars and we’d ask our friend, Artie Turnas to drive us to Washington.

We went to Artie’s walk-up apartment on Grand Avenue and 38th Street in Astoria. Artie came down and we learned that he had gotten a job at Republic Aircraft working on the assembly line of a navy fighter aircraft. In addition to that job, it was his job that week to drive his motor pool of coworkers to the Republic Aircraft factory. However, Artie told us not to worry because a cousin of his from Washington was visiting. She and her ‘proxenion’ – Greek husband by proxy – who she had just picked up at what was later re-named JFK International Airport would be leaving for home as soon as they finished their dinner visit. “I’m sure she will agree to give you both a ride to Washington,” Artie concluded.

“What a break!” I thought. A ride to Washington. We’ll get to Washington early – before the crowds of people that have arrived and be able to get the best seats to view the Inauguration.

How naïve and uninformed were we?!

Artie introduced us to his cousin and to the ‘gambro’, the Greek groom. The cousin asked that I take over the driving because she did not know how to drive through the city to get to the New Jersey Turnpike. How she found Artie’s apartment in Astoria, I still do not know. Perhaps she pretended like she didn’t know how to get through the city in an effort to spend more time with her betrothed in the back seat! Nevertheless, I, of course, agreed, and Mike sat up front with me. The newlyweds piled into the spacious back seat of the Buick Riviera.

I weaved our way through Astoria across the GW Bridge into New Jersey and on to the Turnpike heading south. During that drive I noticed that the car speedometer was not functioning. Mike and I worked out a solution: we would make note of the distances indicated on the road signs indicating the distance to the next exit. Then when we got to that exit, we noted the elapsed time and made the calculation that gave us the speed we had been traveling. The problem was obvious, we had no way of knowing our running speed in real time. But I kept driving at a steady speed with no passing. I had no other alternative. It was not something that could be fixed on the spot.

We cruised along for about an hour on the Turnpike. Then … the inevitable  happened. A flashing red light came up from behind. It was a N.J. State Trooper.  We pulled over and stopped. The trooper came to the driver’s window and he called out, “license and registration.”

Well, the cousin unruffled herself in the back seat and produced the registration … but I had left my house without thinking that I needed my driver’s license and did not bother to take my wallet. This did not fly well with the trooper. “Well, I guess I’m gonna have to take you in,” the trooper proclaimed.  Mike and I got out of the Buick and into the police cruiser. As we walked to the cruiser and in anticipation of what would follow, I gave Mike the $24 dollars I had in my pocket.

The trooper pulled up to a residence which was the home of a Justice of the Peace. We were escorted to a room and appeared before a judge. The trooper rattled off the complaint and the judge proclaimed, “that will cost you $20 dollars.” I explained that I had a valid driver’s license but that I did not plan on driving today so I had not taken it with me. The judge was not moved by my story and repeated, “that will cost you $20 dollars,” to which I responded, “but I have no money.”

The judge was a heartless soul. He responded, “Well, that’s too bad – you are going to spend the night in jail until you can come up with the money.” At that point there was a pregnant pause. Then I asked, “can I please speak to my friend?”

“Mike do you have any money? Please give it to me.”

We paid the fine and the trooper drove us back to the parked Buick. Mike and I got back into the car and the cousin took over the driving since we chose not to risk another speeding/police and driving license situation. The gambro sat in the passenger seat while Mike and I sat in the back.

I repeated the story with the justice of the peace and about the fine but there was no offer to share in the expense. Finally, at daybreak, on January 20th, we arrived in Washington and the cousin dropped us off without offering to take us to her family diner for breakfast. 

We made our way to Pennsylvania Avenue and began walking towards the Capitol “with the dawn’s early light” to guide us. There was no one in sight. Temporary bleachers lined both sides of the broad avenue. There were flags on top of every street light and at regular intervals everywhere you looked.

We walked to the mall and looked for a vantage point where we could see the presidential swearing in process from a distance. Once the swearing in process was completed, we left and made our way back to Pennsylvania Avenue to find a place where we could view the parade. 

By the time we got back to Pennsylvania Avenue, it was teaming with people. The temporary bleachers were now full of families and the sidewalks were impassable. We maneuvered slowly and got to a place where we could view the passing parade. There were marching bands that had come from many states and an endless variety of celebrity and individual organizations in the procession. Many were being driven in open convertibles. Some were very unusual. The most memorable for me was a group of American Indians fully dressed in their native attire, including elaborately feathered headdresses. Another memorable formation was a group of horsemen mounted on beautiful ‘painted ponies’ with the riders dressed in full western gear and holstered firearms.

It seemed that the parade was endless. It went on for hours. It was about 4 PM when the last drum and bugle corps marched past. As the crowd began to dissipate, and Mike and I had a joint wake up call. 

We had no money, we had not eaten all day and the big question: how the hell were we going to get home???

At that point, I remembered my 35th Street friend, Gregory Stavros. Gregory had recently married a girl from Anacostia, a suburban community of Washington, DC. He had moved to Washington and was now involved in his wife’s family’s cafeteria business in Anacostia.

If only we could get to Anacostia, we could get help.

We began walking – not knowing where but we just kept walking.

As we walked, I made note of a young man walking in the opposite direction. He looked familiar … holy mackerel! It was Peter Burg, an engineering classmate of mine from NYU who had gotten a job in Washington. Peter had decided to spend the day in town watching the inaugural parade. I rushed to greet him and embraced Peter. I asked about his plans for the rest of the day and he said that he was on his way to pick up his parked car. I explained our desperate situation and asked if he could drive us to Anacostia to my friends’ cafeteria. God bless Peter. He agreed. But where in Anacostia was the cafeteria? Fortunately, Peter was not fazed by my inability to provide a street location. He drove to Anacostia and cruised slowly through the business district and found a diner. But was it Gregory’s diner? I jumped out of the car and rushed into the diner only to find Gregory taking cash behind the register.

“How lucky can you get?” I said to myself.

I greeted Gregory and explained our situation. He handed Mike, Peter, and me a tray and asked that we select anything we wanted for dinner. Gregory sat with us as we enjoyed our food and brought each other up to date with our lives. When we finished dinner, Gregory took us to his home and we socialized with his wife. A short time later, Gregory drove Mike and me to the Washington bus terminal and gave us enough money to get home. We arrived at the New York bus terminal some hours later and then took the subway to Astoria. We got home in the early morning hours.

That was my presidential inauguration experience. I never attended another but I will always remember Ike’s inauguration of 1953. It was an experience of a lifetime.

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