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It didn't sink in right away.

I was at a restaurant that night, watching the returns with some other local Democrats. (Someone who got there before me said she had to persuade the room's previous occupants to turn off the sports channel!) While we watched the numbers come in from each state, our area leader was holed up in a booth with papers spread out and a calculator, and a cellphone glued to his ear, getting the local numbers from each precinct. I happily gave him my totals -- Obama had handily won my precinct and my municipality.

Bone-weary from being at the polls since 6:30 a.m., I resumed watching the screen. And at some point, I became aware that the electoral-vote count was above 270 for Obama. In my sleep-deprived haze, I thought that these numbers are still just projections. Votes are continuing to come in; this could still change.

Then I saw it.

"BREAKING NEWS
NBC NEWS PROJECTS: OBAMA ELECTED PRESIDENT"

The electoral totals, at that moment, were 284 for Obama to 146 for McCain.

The next thing I remember, I was sobbing. I'd pull myself together, then sob again. I don't recall if I let out a whoop of joy. I remember my area leader jumping out of his booth at one moment to scream, "YES!" I remember someone else shouting out, "The end of an error!"

We had won.

I slipped out of the restaurant, feeling an urgent need to celebrate with the folks from my Obama field office. I checked two locations that were locked up tight, but at the pizza place next to the office, I found two of our volunteers and the pizza place's owner; we all hugged, and I was told the volunteers were gathering at the phone-bank office, a couple of doors down.

Running upstairs, I found our field organizer standing in the hall, wearing a suit jacket and leaning against the wall and looking like he hadn't slept in weeks (he probably hadn't!).

I hugged him and said, "You just elected a President!"

He returned, "So did you!"

In the next room, someone had rigged up a computer to project a large TV image on the wall. I looked up and there was the new announcement: "JOHN MC CAIN GIVES CONCESSION SPEECH TO SUPPORTERS IN PHOENIX." A small group of us watched his speech, which was very gracious.

After McCain's concession, the exhausted volunteers closed up the office. I rushed back to the restaurant, in time for the update: "PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA TO SPEAK SHORTLY."

Then there he was in Chicago's Grant Park, making a speech that was truly Presidential -- speaking with authority and purpose:

"Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington -– it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.

"It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth. This is your victory.

"I know you didn’t do this just to win an election and I know you didn’t do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime –- two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they’ll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor’s bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair."

I looked around at the people in that room; their eyes were riveted to the man speaking to us and to the entire world. The country, I felt strongly, is in good hands.

A young African-American woman sat, watching Obama intently. I thought about how much hope his election gives African-Americans all across this country, after all the injustice they have endured.

It's about time.

I watched his family on the stage: Michelle, Sasha and Malia with Barack, all smiles. I noted that the electoral-vote total was up to 338 for Obama, 156 for McCain.

Several of us left after that, headed to another party that turned out to be over by then (it was about 1 a.m.). We stopped at a convenience store to pick up some snacks, and I was aware I had a smile on my face that wouldn't go away.

I still have it.

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