A dulcet fluttering of fife notes lured spectators from the curbs of northern Kensington, and they fell in to a drum cadence, marching behind the Labor Day parade to the heart of town.

Others found in the drums and fifes a call to duty: antique stores on Howard Avenue unlocked their doors to bargain-starved throngs. Politicians doubled the length of the parade, riding in great finned Cadillacs, Jeeps and even fire trucks -- all waving, smiling and handing out leaflets in a last-ditch effort before primary elections.

The crowd saved its cheers for young bicycle riders and musketeers. In strict accordance with the 1764 Manual of Arms and Marching for His Majesty's Troops, the Maryland Militia stepped along with a fife and a drum, responding to the raspy commands of Capt. Bruce Murray, unquestionably loud enough for all 10 of his troops to hear.

". . . FRONT RANK!" Murray boomed, "FIRE!"

The crowd cheered the guns' thunder and smoke, and as the militia marched on to applause, Murray dared a smile and tipped his three-cornered hat.

Close behind the militia, fire trucks, a band and an Army unit came a swarm of young bicyclists, including Amy Horman. "Are you gonna make it?" her mother Chris Horman asked during a pause in the parade. Amy, assured of a cold soda at the parade's end, started off with renewed vigor, balloons on her handlebars and a teddy bear in her basket.

"Usually it's a shorter parade," Chris Horman noted. "But since this is a political year, it'll be a lot longer."

Sure enough, behind the bicyclists came candidates for Montgomery County school board, the state legislature, county government and even some congressional aspirants, rolling along in their cars or pumping hands on the sidelines, at times to a reception of dead silence.

"Good morning, good morning," one candidate murmered, seemingly dispirited at the eerie sound of her voice alone before the silent and staring bystanders. She shoved a pamphlet out the window of her Buick toward a group of spectators, but it fluttered to the street untouched.

With no one else to talk to, passengers in cars of rival candidates turned to one another.

"He wants busing!?" one campaigner commented aloud.

"Yeah, and a half-way house in Gaithersburg," came the reply from the car behind.

The center of action was at Howard and Fawcett streets, where a fireman stood on the swirling ladder of a hook and ladder truck, 100 feet above the crowds of people who smothered flea market tables and antique shops.

The sun glistened on colored-glass candleholders and brass spittoons. Table after table offered everything from diaperless dolls to stained-glass windows. And, of course, there were bargains. And vicious dachshunds.

"Oh, Minnie, be quiet," commanded Sam Holmes, straining to keep his wee pet from ripping into a nearby Labrador retriever.

As the Brownsville Coronet Band played a medley of American favorites, the shoppers carried away chairs, vases, glass doorknobs and dishes. The drone of hawkers faded: Lions Club members selling hot dogs, Jaycees offering a chance at miniature bowling, and a man moving through the crowd with a stack of pamphlets, sweating in a sport coat and calling, "Democratic voters? Democratic voters?"