Inaugural scenes: At Pineville's Flocoe diner, some watch, others just want to eat

PINEVILLE — Bell County is about evenly split between registered Republicans and Democrats, but Barack Obama didn't do so well here last November, losing to John McCain by 6,681 votes to 2,782.

Still, as Obama is sworn in, everyone at The Flocoe, a historic restaurant in downtown Pineville, is watching the event on television.

"I'm excited about it. You like to be where history is being made," says Rosemary Combs, who once owned The Flocoe with her late husband, Mason Combs, and who, at a graceful 83, still works at the restaurant, owned now by her daughter, Ann Combs Gaines.

Randy Lundy wants so much to see the momentous event that she comes in from her beauty salon next door, where there's no TV. She asks a customer if she can wait a few minutes for her shampoo and set.

"I don't want to miss this," says Lundy, who voted for Obama. "I think this is one of the most exciting times in our lives. He's given me hope."

Not everyone is so caught up in history. Just after Obama is sworn in, Van Johnson, a disabled former coal-truck driver, comes in out of the blowing snow looking for some food to take to his sister, who is sick.

He isn't interested in watching the inauguration. Johnson says he had supported Hillary Clinton, but after she lost, he didn't vote in the fall.

"I just didn't get down deep in it," he says. "No matter which one gets it, we have to live with it."

The Flocoe — named for a woman named Flo, daughter of the man who built the building, and her friend, Coe — dates to the 1920s and has been a gathering spot for generations. It's the kind of place where the Thursday special, chicken and dumplings with mixed greens, is the biggest seller, followed by soup beans and cornbread on Friday, and where it's not hard to find opinions as strong as black coffee.

The lunchtime crowd Tuesday is sparse, perhaps because of the bitter cold, and not everyone is an Obama supporter.

Dink Helton, who is in her late 70s, attended George W. Bush's second inauguration four years ago. She says if she hadn't been at the restaurant, she wouldn't have watched Obama take the oath of office.

But Helton is among a group of friends who meet at the Flocoe every Tuesday for lunch, so she watches it anyway.

If she ever got to talk to Obama, she says, "I'd tell him he's got a lot to learn."

Her friends, Mildred Winkler, 85, and Shirley Bingham, who is in her early 70s, say they didn't vote for Obama either, but they want to see the inauguration.

"We need to be aware of what's going on," Winkler says. "I was not an Obama fan, but if he's elected, he is my president."

Everyone, Obama voter or not, agrees that they hope he does a good job. Helton notes that doing that will require help from Congress, where there are a number of "dumb bunnies."

"I really hope that he can bring the change" that he has talked about, says Tonya Castle, a pharmaceutical sales representative from neighboring Knox County who came in because she knew the TV at the Flocoe would be tuned to the inauguration.

She didn't vote for Obama, but she has come to think that his win "is probably what we needed."

As the dignitaries assemble for the swearing-in, someone says the outgoing president looks tired, and another wonders whether Gov. Sarah Palin has been invited.

Steam rises from the hot table holding the chili and Roberta Mills Centers, 62, who works at the restaurant, watches intently while Obama takes the oath of office.

"I love him. I think he's going to be another Kennedy," Centers says. "This is history. I just wish Martin Luther King could have seen this."