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For Valley residents, a chance to be part of history

WASHINGTON -- Josh Dunton is 14. The Fresno resident could live to see another presidential inauguration, but the odds appear against it.

So now, Josh and his mother, Christine, are taking in memories meant to last an uncertain lifetime. They've often been surprised over the years, but about Barack Obama's swearing-in Tuesday they have some firm expectations.

"It's going to be very loud," Joshua said Monday afternoon.

Joshua is one of several hundred southern San Joaquin Valley residents who have arrived for Obama's inauguration. Everyone arrives with their own narrative.

Some come already comfortable with the public spotlight, like Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, in town for a mayors' conference, and Fresno-area Democratic Assemblyman Juan Arambula. Throughout Monday, many local officials ended up at several receptions sponsored by the Valley's members of Congress.

Some are getting their first big taste of public ceremony. Michael Underwood, a Clovis Adult School graduate, is marching in the inaugural parade Tuesday as a Coast Guard recruit. It's his 20th birthday, by happy chance.

Some are finding solemnity far from the inaugural hype. Late Monday afternoon, San Joaquin Memorial High School seniors Liam Hall and Alicia Manzo and sophomore Jessica Gosten were laying a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns.

"It's just one of those once-in-a-lifetime things," teacher Kim Hodges said.

The ceremony came off without a hitch. It was cold on the Arlington hilltop, but the clouds were clearing. Birds flew overhead. Audience members chattered away, so much to talk about, and then they definitively hushed.

At precisely 1615, military time, the four San Joaquin Valley Memorial High School representatives followed the directions given by an Army private first class. He told them which foot to start with, where to stop with the wreath and what to do with their hands while a bugler played Taps. Liam said he could feel "the presence of so many historic people who had taken those same steps."

Alicia felt relief when it was over.

"I was afraid I was going to fall down the steps," she confessed.

The high school students were on notice. They were to awaken at 4 a.m., civilian time, Tuesday for the buses into Washington. Josh and Christine Dunton, too, knew they would be getting up early, but Christine was also trying to cram in as much sight-seeing as possible. Time is short, she knows.

Joshua has a serious heart condition, of uncertain provenience. His first heart operation occurred when he was one day old. There have been eight heart operations since, during one of which he suffered a stroke. He has one good lung.

Asked about Joshua's prognosis, Christine said he has none.

"He could get pneumonia today and die tomorrow," Christine said. "I don't sleep well at night, because I'm afraid in the morning he won't wake up."

Christine and her husband, Chris, a supervisor at a Del Monte plant in Hanford, have two other sons as well. Joshua's complicated medical history includes, Christine said, some "terrible medical care" that she holds responsible for his condition. There has been legal action, and sustained embitterment, and many unanswered questions.

On Monday, periodically pushing a wheelchair and then abandoning it to his mother's care, Joshua seemed curious and content inside the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. He was a big Obama supporter during the campaign, and he explained inside the museum that he especially liked Obama's commitment to fuel-efficient cars.

"He doesn't always talk a lot, but he talks about things he likes -- Legos, guitars and Obama," Christine said.

Joshua peered closely at the museum's war exhibits: a 12-pound Civil War cannon shell, a World War I prosthetic arm, a World War II flamethrower. It was all very interesting to him, lethal guy's stuff.

The Duntons, more than most, went through an ordeal just getting to the inauguration. Through Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, they secured inaugural tickets -- but they lacked a place to stay. Christine figured the trip was off. Then, the world became small and generous. Abby Barrantes, an English teacher at Rio Vista Middle School, heard of Joshua's plight. She asked her mother, who lives in suburban Virginia, if she knew a place the Duntons could stay.

"I said, 'They can stay with us,'" Patti Hyder, Barrantes' mother, said Monday while accompanying Josh and Christine at the museum.

On Tuesday, the Duntons were slated for seats in the handicapped section. Like everyone else, they were anticipating long lines -- some already apparent Monday, as visitors waited for up to an hour just to enter the House office buildings where they would pick up their inaugural tickets. It's a price many are willing to pay.

"It's an historic moment," said Georgeanne White, Swearingin's chief of staff, "and we thought we would brave the cold to see it."