|On the 18th April 2008, the 138th Edition
of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, "The Greatest
Show On Earth", were performing at the Wachovia Spectrum in
Philadelphia. There was also a lesser performance that day in
Philadelphia by our baseball team, the Phillies, who lost to the Mets
four to six. But for me and my grandson, Mr Beckles, what we will
remember of that day is Barack Obama's rally on the mall of
Independence National Historical Park.
Actually, I don't like rallies. They are physically uncomfortable. I feel trapped inside a dense barrier of people and overwhelmed by the noise. Also, I don't care for the pressure exerted by crowds to adopt an opinion and would prefer to ruminate over a matter in peace. That I support Barack Obama for President must not be doubted. I have listened to him speak in interviews and with speeches. I have read his books Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope. I am in awe of his discerning intelligence, his compassion, his superlative goodness. I am especially touched by the sense of authenticity that I find in the tone of his words. It convinces me that what he writes is what he believes. It is as much as I am trying to do in these essays, to communicate what I feel and believe with sincerity and attempted lyricism.
I honestly believe I am witnessing in Obama a rare greatness that only needs the opportunity to demonstrate itself. By comparison, I am disappointed in Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's Machiavellian approach to winning the Democratic nomination by any means, attacking Obama's character with misinformation and playing to the insidious bigotry inherent in so many. Still, I was not prepared to go to Obama's rally. That was Ms Keogh's idea.
Ms Keogh, my more significant other, also admires and supports Barack Obama. She has joined his campaign. She had stuck Obama signs in our lawn. (A bad move, for I fear our decrepit home and eccentric ways will only reduce Obama's reputation in the eyes of our good neighbors.) Ms Keogh wanted to go to the rally to lend her support to the campaign because she can't vote for him, not being a citizen. Ms Keogh is British. More importantly, Ms Keogh wanted to take our eleven-year-old grandson, Mr Beckles. She wanted him to observe history in the making and she wanted to boost his self-esteem, our grandson being "Black", which is how he regards himself. Ms Keogh does not approve of race labels, believing race is an artificial concept. In any case, Mr Beckles belongs to that classification subject to the unjust perils of the downtrodden.
We drove into Philadelphia and parked in a seven-story lot across the street from Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. This otherwise ordinary parking lot is unusual in that the levels are named in addition to being numbered. When Benjamin Franklin was a young man, he compiled a list of personal "great virtues" to which he planned to dedicate himself. The car climbed through those virtues; Tolerance, An Aversion to Tyranny, Humor, Idealism in Foreign Policy, Compromise, Humility, until we reached the roof, Freedom of the Press, which is where I always park. I like the roof of any parking lot, even those without names, because they are usually the most empty, because it is easier to remember on what level you parked, and because it offers the best views. On this occasion, I thought how Franklin's great virtues could also be mine and also reflect those of Barack Obama.
How perfectly appropriate it was for Barack Obama to choose Independence National Historical Park for a rally. He taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago Law School and he expounds brilliantly on our Constitution's significance.
Independence Hall, a red brick structure built in 1753, began life as the Pennsylvania State House. Having served as the fertile womb that produced both the Declaration of Independence and my nation's all-important Constitution, it can be regarded as the most sacred spot in the United States by any patriotic-minded citizen. When my family moved into the vicinity of Philadelphia in 1960, the building was readily accessible on a typical weekday, no standing in long lines, you could just walk in. Philadelphia was an uncommonly quiet city then, restrained by blue laws and depriving itself of late night entertainments. The famous Liberty Bell was exhibited unprotected in the room where the Declaration of Independence had been signed. You could reverently touch it as you might a religious artifact. This, as a child, I have done with pride and excitement.
A grass mall stretches away from Independence Hall. An empty space in my youth, it has been developed since the Bicentennial with additional centers to educate and entertain visitors. The Liberty Bell now resides in its own building a short walk across Chestnut Street. Further north along the mall is the Independence Visitor Center and at the far end is the National Constitution Center. The old charm is gone. History has been packaged and made easier. Immense crowds now descend on Independence National Historical Park to be herded through exhibits and media displays. It causes me to feel the birth of my nation as more remote and less personal. It is as if the artifact I had once turned over in my hand was now protected behind glass and could only be glimpsed as I am conveyed past. Formerly one came to this site because they knew the history and wanted the experience made manifest. Now one comes to learn from easy entertainments, which is not a bad thing so please forgive my nostalgia.
As early as we were, crowds of people had already begun to gather. Amazingly, we walked into our two friends with whom we'd planned to meet without having to resort to our cell phones. Jon is a translator of Japanese and his wife Marion teaches Advanced Mathematics.
It was a beautiful afternoon, warm and blue, with no clouds but several hovering helicopters. The five of us tried to determine where Obama would appear to speak. Across Market Street the mall was fenced in and guarded. Getting inside the fence required tickets none of us had. I pointed out to Ms Keogh the distant stand crowded with media cameras and suggested they would be arranged to point at Obama. Ms Keogh volunteered to scout a better location.
She found Arch Street relatively deserted. We joined her. It was the entry way for journalists. When we caught up with her, I observed the microphones that Obama would use. Ms Keogh, Jon, and Marion were tired of standing and went across the street to find a place to sit. Mr Beckles and I took a position against the fence, about 200 feet from where we anticipated Obama to stand.
While Mr Beckles and I waited, a man came along on the other side of the fence. He wore a camera and looked like a journalist. He was giving out tickets! He gave out tickets to the African-American family that stood on our right. He looked at us suspiciously, me a pale, elderly Caucasian claiming to be the grandfather of the beautiful child of African descent that stood alongside. He decided to give us tickets too. Mr Beckles wanted an additional ticket, for his grandmother somewhere across the street, but then he decided three more so as to include our friends. The expression on the man changed. He became suspicious and I detected a growing reluctance in his visage. I told him just the two would be enough, not wanting to appear greedy. We were told we would have to hurry and hurry we did.
I used my cell phone to call Ms Keogh and apologize. She was not happy. She, too, thought I should have asked for more tickets. And why should I get to go in instead of her? I would have preferred if it had been her, but I anticipated that the young Mr Beckles would need me to carry him on my shoulders if he was to see.
Mr Beckles and I joined the long, slow moving line that had to move through metal detectors. Everything metal had to be removed from our pockets. Cell phones had to be "on". We inched along towards the detectors making friends with those alongside us. Ms Keogh called. She had been given a ticket, too. She called again. She had passed through a gate and wonder where we were? She called a third time, “what color are your tickets?” We had blue tickets and she had red. We were gaining entry to the inner circle. So it was Mr Beckles and I found ourselves within fifty feet of the dais from which Obama would speak. Ms Keogh did not conceal her jealousy.
This was the worst part of it, standing and waiting. Obama was disappointingly late, infuriatingly late. The sun went down and the gibbous moon rose into a gorgeous night. We stood for nearly three hours beneath an array of six loudspeakers that blasted painfully loud music, like "Shout'', "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now'', and "Still The One'', to name a few, but we got to hear them all repeated several times. Mr Beckles liked it. Only a very small handful of people lost patience and left. It was a measure of the admiration this crowd held for its candidate that so few left. But Ms Keogh was among those who left.
She called me on the cell phone. She didn't want to stand by herself in the red ticket section. She couldn't see well from the red section. She went back to our friends. They decided they were too tired of waiting. Mr Beckles and I were still standing there while she was eating sushi with our friends at Yakitori Boy. I occupied the time studying the people around me, predominantly loud, boisterous, and youthful. They were too rowdy for me. An elderly gentleman wearing a blazer stood to my left, patient and enduring, in contrast to the crowd about him. Mr Beckles continued to draw energy from the crowd that blocked his view on every side. He remained enthused during our long wait. Then Will.i.am, a singer from the hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas, and Ed Kowalczyk, lead singer for the rock band Live, took the stand and entertained us. I didn't know who they were, but Mr Beckles did. I had to lift Mr Beckles to my shoulders. Soon after that, the great man himself came out, igniting the mob into a painful cheer. (He did not apologize for being late.)
"It was over two hundred years ago that a group of patriots gathered in this city to do something that no one in the world believed they could do," Barack Obama told us. "After years of a government that didn't listen to them, or speak for them, or represent their hopes and their dreams, a few humble colonists came to Philadelphia to declare their independence from the tyranny of the British throne. The union they created has endured for two centuries not because we're perfect, but because we've always been perfectible." Did others understand this? Did they realize the success of our Constitution wasn't in its dogma, but in establishing a format for a continuing debate, for constant improvement, even while keeping tyranny at bay? Much of the mob around me were not listening. They were yelling to get Obama to look in their direction so they could snap more pictures. Mr Beckles was also taking pictures, having been hefted again to my shoulders, eighty-five pounds of fidgeting boy, not quite twelve years old.
We had been part of the largest gathering of supporters so far in Senator Barack Obama’s campaign - 35,000. After the speech had concluded, we waited for the crowd to disperse rather than squeeze among them. In fact, we went the other way, towards the dais from which Barack Obama spoke. Will.i.am was there greeting the few folks that had lingered. Mr Beckles was able to get his autograph on an Obama poster. I took the camera and snapped a picture of Mr Beckles with the dais behind him, proof that he had been there, but he assures me he will never forget.
Mr Beckles was There
This essay is the most
a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr
Bentzman. If you've any
comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon,
as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"