The Approaching Storm Marching Band made its first trip to a presidential inauguration Jan. 20, along with Smyrna's Citizens' Hose Company and University of Delaware bands.
By now, it may be a bit of a cliché, but it’s still safe to say history was made Jan. 20.
To 115 Delaware State University students, it wasn’t only that Barack Obama was the first black man inaugurated president, it’s that they were taking part in the parade that marked the beginning of Obama’s administration.
In another first, it also was the Approaching Storm Marching Band’s debut at a presidential inaugural. In addition to 92 instrumentalists, the group included a drum major, two banner carriers, 14 members of the Sweet 16 flag team and the six members of the Del-a-gance dance troupe.
The double meaning of the occasion was not lost on DSU band director Randolph Johnson, 54, a Louisiana native who recalls times when a black man had to find a “colored only” drinking fountain to slake his thirst.
“What I saw Jan. 20 and what I felt was people who were willing to work together, to give each other the benefit of the doubt, to get our country going in the right direction,” he said. “If we don’t, it will be the next generation who will suffer.”
‘It was quite a moment for me’
The journey to Washington, D.C. began shortly after Obama’s Nov. 4 election, when the band was nominated as a possible entrant in the parade. Approval came in late December, leaving barely four weeks to prepare, rehearse and submit the seeming reams of paperwork needed for security clearances.
But the time went by — too quickly for some — and it wasn’t long before Jan. 20 arrived. There was an air of excitement, anticipation and some nervousness that morning as the students prepared to board the three buses to Washington.
“I rested, but I couldn’t sleep,” said Talaysha Lingham, a nursing major and clarinetist. The Clayton resident is a 2006 graduate of Smyrna High School.
Dover resident Ashley Shelton got only three hours of shuteye because she lives off campus and had to drive in, while Amber Rainer, a drummer who just graduated from Dover High School in 2008, got none at all.
The buses arrived at their Pentagon staging area around 6 a.m., where they were unloaded and the band instruments searched. The students then boarded the buses again and after about two hours of waiting were taken to a staging area a few blocks north of the Capitol Building.
There, they watched inside a heated tent as Obama took his oath of office.
“A lot of thoughts were going through my mind,” Johnson said. “We were a quarter-mile away and we could hear the cheers from where we were. I just listened to him taking the oath. It was quite a moment for me.”
The students donned their band uniforms — and heavy coats and gloves to ward off the 16-degree wind chill factor cold — and got into formation at 1:30 p.m., 90 minutes before the parade was to start. Part of the second phalanx of musicians, they were joined by the Citizens' Hose Company Band of Smyrna and by the marching band from the University of Delaware.
“It was really, really cold,” Rainer said. “But I was so anxious I didn’t really feel it until after we were done.”
But 3 p.m. came and went, and the band had only moved 50 feet. Then came rumors — later confirmed — that Sen. Edward Kennedy had fallen ill while at an inaugural lunch. The start of the parade was pushed back, and the band members were stuck, standing in the middle of the street, unable to return to the nearby tents to warm up.
“We were wondering if they still were going to have the parade,” Lingham said. “It was really cold, but when we got started, I got excited. It was totally worth it.”
Protected by their winter gear, the students stood their ground, however some from other bands were not as fortunate, and were seen being treated by emergency medical teams. In the meantime, they could hear cheering from the parade route as the new president and his wife were driven up Pennsylvania Avenue, twice leaving their heavily-armored car to walk part of the route.
The delay finally over, the Approaching Storm stepped off at 4:30 p.m., an hour-and-a-half behind schedule. It was not an easy march: the cold had stiffened joints in their hands and fingers and caused some of their instruments to sound off tune.
“I kept thinking I’ve got to keep [my trombone’s] mouthpiece warm,” said James Scarborough, a 2007 Dover High graduate. “The cold, it will kind of peel your lips, and the muscles in my mouth were getting all tensed up.
“I was just worried about making a good sound,” he said, adding it was so cold the condensation built up on the trombone horn and turned to ice.
The moment they had waited for
The Storm had nine numbers in their parade repertoire, including a medley of three songs, “Jordu” by former DSU student Clifford Brown, Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” and “Closer,” by R&B singer-songwriter Ne-Yo, they performed as the went past the reviewing stand in front of the White House. Under normal circumstances, Johnson demands band members keep their eyes focused straight ahead, but this time he made an exception.
“Discipline is one thing, but how often will they have the opportunity to be that close to the president and vice president of the United States?” he said. “It was OK, as long as they stayed in step and in formation.”
Johnson and assistant band director Ricky Edwards marched alongside the Approaching Storm to pick up any stray pieces of equipment lost along the way. Johnson, however, was too caught up in the moment to get a good look at the First Family.
“Emotionally, I don’t know how I would have managed that,” he said. “I didn’t know if they were looking at me; I just hope they were looking at the kids.”
A recording Johnson made at home showed they probably were. The Obamas and Vice President Joe Biden and his family were waving at the students, with Biden putting his arm about Obama’s shoulders as the Approaching Storm passed by.
“I didn’t know if we would see them,” Shelton said. “But I looked and I saw them. They were looking directly at us and waving. I was sweating. I was just so happy to be there.”
At the end of the parade, the band members got back on their buses, but there were more delays, caused by missing students from other schools and an accident on the Washington beltway. Fortunately, Johnson had stayed in touch with the manager at an Annapolis restaurant where they planned to stop, and the eatery stayed open, allowing the students to enjoy a hot meal.
They finally returned to DSU a little before 11 p.m., fatigued from the day’s events, but invigorated by the experience.
In the week since, Johnson has gotten phone calls and emails from former students and other university band directors, praising the Approaching Storm’s routine.
And despite the sometimes grueling experience, Johnson is proud of the band’s performance and of those he calls his “stellar students” who made it possible.
“All of the hard work and sacrifices our students made daily has been rewarded by their part in this event,” Johnson said. “This shows that hard work and discipline will be rewarded. The best thing for us is that our students had an opportunity to be a part of history and our university had the chance to be showcased worldwide.”
Email Jeff Brown at email@example.com.