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Tuskegee Airmen emotional during Obama inauguration

They had long held grand dreams. To prove they could fly as good as any pilot ever born. To raise families they could be proud of. To push back against racial discrimination that had hobbled their parents and threatened to limit their children.

Tuesday, men in their late 80s and 90s sat as a group in frigid temperatures outside the Capitol in Washington to witness one of their biggest dreams come true.

Some 200 members of the Tuskegee Airmen - whose often stellar service in all-black WWII aviation units helped end racial segregation in the military - watched from honorary seats near the inaugural podium as Barack Obama was sworn in as America's first African American president.

Spann Watson, 92, was among some 200 of the Airmen who accepted invitations from Congress to attend the inauguration in recognition of their contribution to civil rights.

"I have a lot of hope for this country now," Watson said, moments after cannon fire signaled the beginning of the Obama administration. "This country will change to its very bottom rung. The bottom rung will rise from where it has been."

Doubts about whether the Airmen would be able to attend were lifted earlier this month when the Presidential Inaugural Committee arranged to escort the elderly veterans - some who rode in wheel chairs or leaned on canes - arranged to have them escorted through security checkpoints and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. In the end, more than a half-dozen Airmen from Long Island and New York City attended.

Watson, whose family moved north from South Carolina in response to a sensational lynching in 1926, said there was never any doubt that he would find a way to see history made.

He had been making preparations to attend all weekend with the checklist care of an airplane pilot. On Saturday, he got his haircut and retrieved his trademark Tuskegee Airmen red blazer from the dry cleaners.

On Sunday night, he packed and repacked his luggage, testing the buttons on his clothing to make sure they held, and taking care to include an extra pair of black formal slacks so that "in case I rip my pants I won't have to walk around Washington with a hole in my pants."

On Monday, he was at Manhattan's Penn Station by shortly after nine a.m., nearly an hour before his train was scheduled to depart for Washington.

Watson, who flew p-51 fighters over North Africa and Europe before becoming a flight instructor, flipped through the pages of his memory as the train bore south.Newark brought memories of having been inducted there into the Army air cadet corps, after first being rejected at a recruiting station on Long Island.

At Philadelphia, he remembered playing trombone for Howard University's marching band during a 1940 football game with Pennsylvania's Lincoln University.As he approached Washington, he remembered trips he took further South before integration, when he and other black passengers would have to move to the train's insulting Jim Crow cars at Union Station.

But as he departed the train Monday, Jim Crow days seemed long behind him. As word spread among people at Union Station that Watson was one of the Tuskegee Airmen, he was mobbed by people, who shook his hand, clicked photographs of him or asked him to pose with their children.

In the hours before the inauguration ceremony yesterday, a joy seemed to permeate the spirit of many of the Airmen.

Lee Archer, of Manhattan, one of the best-known of the Airmen, likened America's longtime preoccupation with skin color to a collective mental illness, and said Obama's greatest contribution to progress may be that he has encouraged a young generation of voters to move beyond that preoccupation.

"Dr. Obama is curing them," Archer said. "And he's doing outstanding job."

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