Marylanders threw a diverse 216th birthday party for their Uncle Sam yesterday. There were bike races at Fort Meade, reggae in Columbia, hamburgers for the homeless in South Baltimore, tiny baton twirlers in Towson and politicians waving from convertibles everyplace.
The celebration seemed to drive off the rain clouds that threatened in a few places in the morning, and the clear night skies were lighted with enough fireworks to imitate a medium-sized war.
Perhaps in the spirit of Independence Day, plans for the holiday had been tinged with controversy and protest in a number of places. Gay veterans were excluded from the Catonsville parade. Volunteer firefighters in Bel Air had protested an attempt to limit the number of firetrucks on show. A number of eager political challengers were miffed by incumbents' monopoly of the occasion for politicking.
But for most folks, the public ceremonies were a chance for some serious flag-waving before moving on to the rituals of urban front steps and suburban backyard barbecues.
Here are some snapshots from the Baltimore area's fourth:
Lawn and beach chairs lined the sidewalks along East Drive. Moms and dads, teen-agers and kids sat curbside waiting for the fire engines to come toot-toot-tooting down the road.
Come they did.
With sirens blaring and horns wailing, trucks from the volunteer fire companies in Arbutus, Violetville and Elkridge crept along the asphalt.
"Wave to him, wave to him," Richard Smith said to his 19-month-old son, Andrew, who clutched a pint-sized American flag. "This is really his first parade he can understand."
Patriotic in a blue-and-white striped sunsuit, the toddler clapped his hands enthusiastically and pursed his lips in an effort to whistle.
The parade was your old-fashioned kind of parade with baton twirlers and tiny foot-stomping majorettes, antique cars and classic convertibles, flag-bearing color guards and the hand-waving politicians. Add a strolling penguin, a candy-carrying rabbit, a hand-shaking mouse and a reigning beauty queen, the Buddy Poppy Queen, 17-year-old Candy Gude, from VFW Post 327 in Lansdowne.
Leo Mitchem could only stand at attention as the parade passed him by.
Until he was honorably discharged last July, Mr. Mitchem was an E-4 senior airmen in the U.S. Air Force and a veteran of Desert Storm.
The 27-year-old Parkville resident can still remember the cheering crowds, the praise he heard from his countrymen for risking his life in the Persian Gulf, and the feeling of approval extended to him and his fellow Desert Storm vets when they returned.
But Mr. Mitchem is also gay. And organizers of the July 4th parade in Catonsville chose to exclude representatives of the Gay and Lesbian Veterans of Maryland from their celebration yesterday.
"It's pretty shoddy how they treated us today," said Mr. Mitchem, who dressed in his Air Force desert fatigues and held a Desert Storm banner as various veterans groups marched past. "It's unbelievable."
Mr. Mitchem was one of two dozen people, about half of whom were dressed in military attire, protesting against the decision to exclude gay veterans from the march down Frederick Road in Catonsville.
Parade organizers claimed that if they had allowed the gay veterans to march, some parade watchers might have become unruly or disruptive. They said the group was a "cause" and not in the spirit of the local celebration.
But some parade-goers booed the ban.
"I'd like to live in a community of inclusion where all the people are welcomed and appreciated for their diversity," said Linda Cymrot, a Catonsville resident, social worker and mother of two. "Catonsville is a wonderful place for my children to grow up. I think there's a widespread belief that it was a mistake to exclude the gay veterans."
The new town's party was in front of Lake Kittamaqundi, as usual. People danced as Natty Skank, a reggae band, played UB40's hit song "Red Red Wine."
Red wine was only one of the picnic-items on blankets placed around the lake. Folks feasted on everything from Thai barbecue to Polish sausage.
Rafi Halabi, a 21-year-old Essex Community College student and Rosedale resident driving a Jack and Jill ice cream truck for his second summer, griped that purchasers were few compared to his shift last year at Oregon Ridge.
"Last year, there'd be 200 or 300 people lined up for ice cream in front of the truck. This year, there's no crowd," he said.
Bill Perry, 38, and his wife, Connie, 40, who arrived with their two children and a friend as late as 4 p.m., still managed to find blanket space right at the edge of the lake -- a prime viewing spot for the fireworks.
Asked where the fireworks would be going off, 7-year-old Scott Perry pointed directly overhead. "Fireworks are at 9:30," he said repeatedly, as if pronouncing a mantra.