After an 11-month warm-weather armistice, a snowball was hurled with hostile intent across Dupont Circle at exactly 7:57 p.m. Wednesday. Within minutes, dozens of combatants, summoned by social media for the first major snowfall of the year, gleefully resumed the snowball battle that last raged during February's "Snowmageddon."
"There aren't as many people out here yet, but the snow is really - ooof!" said Michael Ahlers, 30, just as he became the first casualty of this year's engagement.
Ahlers had arrived early and made more than 100 snowballs, all stacked in neat cannon-shot pyramids along the rim of the fountain. His arsenal stretched from the "l" of "Admiral" to the "r" of "Francis," but that wasn't deterrent enough. He was pegged in the stomach, three minutes before the official start time, by a hooded figure dashing between the bushes.
Ahlers returned fire. And the melee was on.
The flash-mob snowball fight has quickly emerged as winter-weather tradition in socially networked Washington. An early gathering in 2009 made national news when a D.C. police officer allegedly drew his gun after his personal SUV was pelted. The tradition was sealed a few weeks later during the major snow of February that dumped more than two feet of snow on Washington.
That was plenty of ammunition for stir-crazy citizens who, when called together by Facebook and Twitter, chose a little civil combat over another three snowbound hours of, well, Facebook and Twitter.
This year the social networks were primed for the first flake. As the serious stuff started to fall about 5 p.m., a Facebook site dubbed the "Washington DC Snowball Fight Association" issued a call to arms. The fight was on and scheduled to begin, gloves on, at 8 p.m. By 7, almost 500 had pledged to attend.
At game time, the circle at Connecticut and Massachusetts avenues had only a few early warriors, but their number swelled to more than a 100 in the first half-hour.
The timing of this year's joust may have been less ideal than the daytime, day-off-from work circumstances of the last gathering, which attracted more than 1,000 people. Much of the traffic in Dupont on Wednesday night comprised commuters who were surprised to find themselves in the thick of the fight in their business wear.
"I'm going to change and come right back," said Alene Anello, 23.
Gus Silva, 35, stood at the edge of the circle, testing the range and the quality of the slushy snow that was falling in thick, wet flakes. A remarkable shot, he methodically extended his spheres of influence deeper into the park, picking targets at random.
"Is it okay to hit a girl with a cane?" he asked, musing over the rules of engagement. "Is it okay to hit someone with a suitcase?"
Apparently it was; fortunately he missed.
A police car rode around the circle, cruise lights blinking. But there was no major police presence in the park, and no one seemed to be aiming at traffic. Several side skirmishes had broken out, some of them between friends and office mates. A general volley was established between the archers in clusters around the fountain and the hidden snipers out in the bushes.
A cameraman for Channel 5 bravely tried to cover that behind-the-lines action, only to find that his camera light made a perfect target beacon. He was hit "dozens of times," he said with a laugh.
At one point during the fighting, a mighty crack rang out and the combatants froze, a tableau of throwing and ducking figures in the snow-speckled glow from the streetlights. A major tree branch fell with a crash on the P Street side of the park. No one was near it, and the laughter-filled battle raged on.