WASHINGTON — The wake-up call came at 2 a.m. for 11 Crenshaw High School students -- brutal, yes, but they were headed for something beyond your standard-issue field trip to the La Brea Tar Pits.
And so they rallied, made it to the Bethesda subway station by 3 a.m., and before dawn they were on the National Mall, in position to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama from a distance of about half a mile.
These same standout students, led by magnet coordinator Beverly Silverstein, had described their reaction to Obama's election in the first installment of this American Moment series.
Back then in early December a few had been a bit bewildered by the teary election night joy of their parents and grandparents. Now they were here, prepared to wait several hours in the bitter cold for an event that had once seemed so far off, almost abstract.
Shivering through a blanket she had wrapped around her, teeth knocking together, 15-year-old sophomore Jahbrielle Henning talked about a grandmother and her struggles in Memphis, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s enduring "I have a dream" speech, delivered at this very mall.
"It's really emotional for me," she said, "being on the same ground where he fought for this day to happen."
Ryan Bowen also was at the inauguration, seated with a congressman who had given him a ticket when he rode his bicycle into Washington on Sunday.
We first caught up with the 22-year-old Occidental College graduate in Lordsburg, N.M. He'd spent the night in a tent he pitched in a vacant lot behind the police station. That morning he headed east on the interstate, a solitary figure, dwarfed by the landscape, with a long way to go.
His entry into the capital was something else altogether. He had been driven by Fox News earlier in the morning for a live interview. After that he returned to the outskirts and then headed back in on his bike -- with a television crew shooting background footage for "20-20" and about three dozen other riders providing escort.
I called Bowen later to see how it was going, and he gently put me off for the moment: "I only have five minutes," Bowen explained, "before I go live on CNN."
He's getting the full 15 minutes -- but after more than 3,500 miles on a bike, getting knocked down once by a Jeep, hacking it for days across the broad expanses of Texas, he earned every second.
From Cornville, Ariz., plumber Justin Pettijohn reported by telephone that he had not been able to watch the ceremonies. He was working this day -- and that's a good thing for the 36-year-old.
When we met Justin the Plumber, an Obama supporter in McCain country, he described how the economic downturn had flooded his field with unlicensed plumbers like the one Joe that Sen. John McCain had made momentarily famous.
It was still tough going, he said, with no new housing starts to bring him business.
"Well, hang in there," was the best I could offer.
"I'm trying to," he said. "I'm trying."
Robert Green of New Orleans had hoped to host a second line party on the block in the Lower 9th Ward where he has lived in a trailer since Hurricane Katrina. He also had hoped work would have started by now on his new house.
Instead, the construction has been pushed back a few months, and for the inauguration he attended a big-screen gathering at his church. Still, Green was pleased with what he heard from the new president:
"Now he has got to get down to business. He has a lot of things on his plate, like they say. But it's past the point of having objections of who he is and where he is -- got to get behind him now because he has a hard job ahead of him."
While a few of the people we met made it here for the big event -- volunteers in Obama's L.A. field office held a party Saturday night -- most watched what they could on television. Some caught key moments at work. Others took the day off to absorb it all. More than one said they'd probably fall asleep in front of the TV, taking in reruns.
Bob Dunn, the 80-year-old retired Army officer who sat in his Willingboro, N.J., kitchen and provided an oral history of life for blacks in the not-so-old South, was one of the ones who didn't miss a moment.
"He has not moved more than five feet from the television all day," said his daughter, Dora Dunn.
This wasn't surprising, since he became enraptured with the Obama candidacy -- and its meaning to black men of his generation and history -- at the start, rarely missing a moment of campaign coverage. Election night, he recalled, had made him feel like he was floating.
"And I'm still sort of off the ground," he said Tuesday evening.
Mark Bush, the Wilmington, Ohio, GM dealer battling not only the national auto slump but also the imminent departure of the town's principal employer, had no time for television. The dealership's phone system went dead for much of the day, and he was scrambling to get it fixed.
"That was all I needed," he said.
He did, though, manage to sell two vehicles.
There were some people we couldn't catch up with Tuesday. LeCount Scott, the street vendor from Los Angeles who said he would be selling his handmade Obama badges at the inauguration, wasn't picking up his cellphone. That might just mean Scott was busy, because if the enterprising young man wasn't here, it would make him the only souvenir vendor who missed the Obama gold rush.
And the so-called Parowan Prophet, leader of a small sect of ex-Mormons in southern Utah? Leland Freeborn had warned that the inauguration was going to be precluded by nuclear holocaust. Forget about any trip to Washington, he told us, and head for safe ground far from the fallout zones.
On Tuesday he responded to an e-mail, saying, graciously enough, that "I am glad you are well."
He attached a response that quoted Jeremiah: "O Lord, thou has deceived me, and I was deceived: thou art stronger than I, and has prevailed: I am in derision daily, every one mocketh me."