The day dawned cold and grey, with yet more rain predicted. I donned hat, black leather car coat, gloves, and packed along a camera, pens, small tablet, and a little expanding umbrella in the coat's many pockets. The local PFLAG president and her husband were unable to join us, as he is undergoing a second cataract surgery on Wednesday (didn't want to chance anything, marching in the cold and rain), but Mother and I picked up the banner and materials I'd already prepped from them.
We arrived at ten minutes to 11 at the Merced Amtrak station - only to find the block around it blocked by police (parade control).
And we we in back of a group of horse riders. So, Mother took a left, a right, went down two blocks to the next barricade, and I got out, toting banner, sections of poles, and bag with placards in neat plasticine envelopes.
I looked around, and there was Tania, watching as the gap between the last group of marchers and grew wider. A friend, Al, was introduced as we threaded the banner onto the poles and quick-marched double-time to catch up to the crowd. The march had started - 10 minutes early.
And we marched - in the rain - keeping up a good pace, bringing up the rear of the groups, while the horse-riders behind us kept a sensible distance.
I'd mapquested the route: 1.1 miles to the Merced County Fairgrounds (900 MLK Jr. Way).
As we marched, I entertained Tanya with my account of marching on Sacramento 30-some years ago. She, Al and I also passed the time by swapping accounts of our Native American roots. Tanya has Aztec bloodlines, Al's Yacqui, and I'm one-eighth Cherokee, which I explained almost everyone seems to be.
Being "Cherokee" is a bit like having the name Smith.
When our soggy little contingent arrived with all the other groups, I spotted Mother's car parked close to the exhibition hall where the speakers and celebration group counters were located.
We took a moment to snap some photos of Al and Tanya, me and Al, and me and Tanya holding the banner - then disassembled and packed it all up.
I don't know why PFLAG didn't have an informational counter inside. I think it was a lack of planning, though I fear that it may have been apathy. I'd like to think that it wasn't fear.
I found Mother inside, chatting with a friend from AARP and her writing group. Tanya and I joined them.
After a nice large coffee with too much cream and sugar (prompting the merry African-American woman at the counter to comment: "Oh, you're just like me. You like a little coffee in with your cream and sugar."), we took our seats and listened as the MC calmly and repeatedly said, "Please take your seats" (about eight times) until the crowd noise muted down. Finally, he began by asking for a moment of silence in memory of Helen Nixon, who died last month. As the hushed crowd (with only a crying baby or two) listened intently, he listed some of her many, many accomplishments over the last half-century and the first deacde of this new one. My Mother, hearing Mrs. Nixon's name, said, "Oh, good. I'm glad somebody remembered" She and Helen had been pals in one of her writing classes.
We stood with the others for the Pledge of Allegiance. A woman in front of me removed her hat for it, and a quick glance around showed me that almost everyone over the age of 10 was standing, hands over hearts, waiting as the Pledge began. I have a voice that can, literally, be heard a block-and-a-quarter away, over traffic (classical voice training is a wonderful thing). I'm afraid I may have alarmed a couple of folks in the row ahead of us by punching the last words: "with liberty and justice for ALL!"
The National Anthem was sung by the grand-daughter of the woman who had been listed as the soloist. Grandma handed the microphone over after introducing Grand-daughter, who did us all proud.
One of the problems with our National Anthem is that most singers start off too high. Unless one is a high tenor or soprano, the top notes have one screeching on "rockets' red glare." Mother sings alto, and I'm a bass. Fortunately, the young woman began nice and low - the perfect register for all to be able to join in - which we did. The second problem I've found with the anthem lies not in its tune, but in its performers, who all too often "Whitney Houston-ize" it - wild riffs and obligattos that show the singer is more interested in his/her own performance than in conveying the message.' Our song leader once again proved to be top-flight. Her voice, strong and sure; her diction impeccable.
For me, the greatest fun came as we remained standing (after an invocation) to sing "Lift Every Voice and Sing", sometimes called "the Black national anthem" (words by James Weldon Johnson). Mother and I had sung it the day before in church, as it was one of that Sunday's hymns at the "traditional" service.
I love the song, and cherish my memory of attending the Black Police Officers and Employees meeting in Long Beach some years ago with my boss: one of the very few white AME (African Methodist Episcopal) ministers. When we stood up for the singing, some of the folks at the tables near us looked somewhat askance at this unlikely pair. And when we belted out the song, full-voice, strongly and vigorously, the quizzical looks turned to delighted smiles.
This MLK Day, I thought the soloist had made a mistake with "Lift Every Voice." Her pace was strong, slow, and deliberate. I wondered how long it would take to get through all three verses and choruses printed on the back of the programs. I discovered that, by taking it slow, singers have a chance to breathe so as to be able to make give every word and note their full value. She sang only the first verse and chorus. It was "sufficient unto the day."