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A narrative of racism and hope

AN AMERICAN MOMENT: ROAD TO THE INAUGURATION

Bob Dunn's stories of poverty, taunts, war and elections weave through 80 years of American history. The climax, for him, was Obama's historic rise. 'It is almost like I am on air.'

January 17, 2009|PETER H. KING

I remember once they were half-drunk, over at the sixth floor of the hotel. And to scare me they grabbed me by the legs and put me out the window. And they were threatening, "Should we throw him out or pull him in?" And they didn't, and don't think they intended to. But they could easily have dropped me because they were drinking and so forth.

But it was the type of thing that they would do at the time. And that was something you had to learn to put up with. When they pulled me back in they gave me a big tip and all that. But you know, you still say, Well, maybe one of these days I'll be beyond this.

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And then he was in Vietnam, dangling from an airplane, this time as a matter of duty -- looking for jungle to defoliate and deprive the enemy of cover. He went on to serve in the Pentagon, vetting regulation reports. He built a second career with the Urban League. He outlived his siblings.

Dunn -- along with his wife, Faye, who sat in another room as he told his stories -- raised four daughters and a son, teaching them to not see skin color and to resist any impulse for hatred. Dunn watched a lot of history together with his daughter Dora. She remembered how he had screamed in anger at the television in 1957 when a black girl trying to attend school was spit upon, and how he shouted in exultation as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech.

But there was no shouting this year as election night coverage reached its historical climax. A quiet fell over the room. Dunn had watched every campaign moment through the primaries, rooting for Obama, and now he felt as he often did after hearing a particular piece of classical music, Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8.

"It is almost as though I am on air," Dunn said, straining to explain the out-of-body reverie. "Mahler affects me that way. And I felt the same when I got the announcement that Obama had won. . . . I don't know what I was thinking, but I felt that I was off the ground.

" 'I am there,' " he remembered telling himself. "I am there. And I have witnessed this."

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peter.king@latimes.com

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latimes.com/americanmoment

Road to the inauguration

Follow Peter H. King and photographer Kirk McKoy in this series as they wend their way to Washington for the Tuesday inauguration of Barack Obama, sending back reports from across the land.

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