While driving to the barbershop 10 days before Christmas, Carlyle Smith, an Amtrak locomotive engineer, heard on the radio that President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden were planning to take a special train from Philadelphia to Washington for their inauguration.
"I thought, that's kind of neat. Then I thought, 'Hey, that's my route,' " said Smith, 39, an Upper Marlboro resident who has been an engineer for the last 11 years, and has logged more than 750,000 trouble-free miles during his railroad career.
"I thought it would be a great honor, and somehow or other, I had to be involved," he said. "Then I called my mother and told her."
Smith fired off an e-mail to Amtrak's vice president of transportation, Richard Phelps.
"I told him I'd like to be involved and asked what was the process in order to be considered. Then I began the waiting game," he said.
While working a trip to New York City and back that day, Smith began polling his fellow engineers.
"I wanted to see what the competition was going to be," he said, and happily discovered that they didn't want to be involved because of the Secret Service and red tape.
When Smith returned home that evening, he turned on his computer and found an encouraging message from Phelps. Then came the Christmas holidays and seemingly endless days of phone tag.
Now, Smith was hoping that he'd get a chance to run, quite possibly, the train of a lifetime.
"It was early January, and I had just about given up when I got a call from Tom Mazekia, assistant superintendent of road operations for Amtrak's Mid-Atlantic Division, who told me there would be three trains," Smith said.
"There would be a route or pilot train, a primary train carrying Obama, and then a spare or chase train," he said. "And then he told me I'd be the engineer on the primary train. I was so excited I fell to my knees and said, 'Hallelujah!' "
On Jan. 16, Smith traveled to Philadelphia, where he met with Amtrak officials, who pledged him to secrecy. Meanwhile, preparations continued for the inaugural events.
There was a dress rehearsal in Washington's Union Station where Smith would stop the train, while Secret Service agents began checking out the 137-mile route from Washington to Philadelphia.
Smith, who had purchased a new suit and fedora which he planned to wear that day, spent a fitful night in Philadelphia's Doubletree Hotel, and awoke early on the morning of Jan. 17.
"I got up and dressed in my new suit, white shirt and tie, like I was the president," he said, laughing.
Then all those involved with the presidential trains gathered for one last coordinating meeting at 30th Street Station.
"We felt like the crew of the space shuttle," Smith recalled. "President [Joseph H.] Boardman of Amtrak gave us a pep talk. He said that the 'spotlight today is on Amtrak.' "
Finally, Smith and other railroaders descended to a subterranean platform where the president-elect's train stood waiting on Track 1.
Other members of Smith's crew included Chantel Pierre, conductor, and assistant conductors Clarence Armstrong, Salvatore Prisco and Noel Powell, who had gotten to know Vice President-elect Biden on his daily commutes between Wilmington and Washington.
Smith hustled up into the cab of the lead Amtrak diesel locomotive - Number 44 - in honor of the impending inauguration of the 44th president, which was followed by a second engine numbered 120 for the inaugural date.
Ten cars back, the president-elect; his wife, Michelle Obama; and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, accompanied by two nannies, boarded the Georgia 300, a classic Packard blue heavyweight observation car that was built by the Pullman Co. shops in 1930.
In the forward passenger cars were family members, invited guests and the press.
Joining Smith in the warm locomotive cab were two Secret Service agents and Leroy Avent, Amtrak road foreman.
"The agents gave all the directions while the road foreman represented management," Smith said. "My orders were that we were not to stop outside of scheduled stops. We were to keep moving, and I had all of the necessary paperwork to accomplish that."
At 11:18 a.m., the route or pilot train, departed from 30th Street, and 11 minutes later, Smith eased back on the throttle and the Obama Express began its journey to Washington. The spare or chase train followed at 11:52 a.m.
What Smith saw in the first glimpse coming out of the shadows of 30th Street Station would be repeated over and over along the route that day.
What greeted him was a sea of cheering and flag-waving trackside humanity who had braved arctic temperatures to see the presidential special.
Smith said they had other company that day, including overhead air support from several F-14 fighters and a helicopter.
"Man, was I having fun," he said.
They arrived at Wilmington at 12:22 p.m. to pick up Vice President-elect Biden, and after ceremonies at the station, resumed their journey at 1:55 p.m.
The Obama Express came to a stop on Track 3 at 3:40 p.m. in Baltimore's Penn Station, which gave Smith a chance to eat his lunch while the presidential party detrained for a speech at the War Memorial.
Once aboard again, departure time for Washington's Union Station was at 5:27 p.m.
En route, Smith heard that Obama and Biden were walking through the cars shaking hands and signing autographs.
"I thought, I'm missing out on all of this good stuff and hoped I'd have an opportunity meet them after arriving in Washington," he said.
At 6:37 p.m., the train arrived on Track 29, below Union Station, where the presidential limousine, called "The Beast," Smith said, was parked in order to make a speedy transition from the train to auto.
Then Smith was told that Obama and Biden wanted to meet the train crew, shake their hands, and take photographs.
"Obama came off the Georgia 300 holding Sasha's hand. Man, he was so cool he looked liked Richard Roundtree in Shaft," Smith said.
As Obama and Biden shook the crew's hands, Smith removed his hat and told the new president that it "was an honor to take the 44th president to Washington for his inauguration."
"You did a great job, and I want to thank you for your service," Obama said to the assembled railroaders.
Just then, Smith's cell phone began ringing. It was his mother calling.
"She was watching CNN and kept saying, 'That's my baby. He drove the president's train,' " said Smith, laughing.