Columbia had one Independence Day without the Longfellow Friends of the Traditional Fourth parade. That was in 1970, the year before it occurred to folks in the neighborhood how much bonhomie and unity could be had with a sense of humor and--just as important--almost zero effort.

"It's a silly parade--no registration, no rigamarole," said Bob Russell, the Official In-Charge Person.

Show up at Longfellow Elementary School at 10 a.m., or show up somewhere along the 1.8-mile loop around Hesperus Drive and Eliots Oak Road. Dress up, or not. Decorate your bike, wagon, stroller or dog, or not. Don hula skirts, or not. And, incidentally, win a blue ribbon--no matter what.

"Everybody is assigned a different category," Russell explained, "and we give a prize for every category." As in: "Eight-Year-Old on a Bike That's Green." "Nine-Year-Old on a Bike That's Green." "Official In-Charge Person Who Likes to Make Goofy Jokes."

It's "neighborhoody," as they say here, through and through. The Columbia Pro Cantare sings the national anthem, then a police officer who lives in Longfellow leads the way. The Cub Scouts serve as the color guard, and the Brownies and the swim team march. The winner of the Good Neighbor Award sits pretty on the seat-back of a creeping convertible.

The village board marches carrying a wooden board that says, well, "Village Board."

Uncle Sam sometimes shows up, so does Betsy Ross, and--why not?--Elvis.

Every year, neighbors paint an elaborate, bigger-than-life patriotic scene in the road--Iwo Jima, Mount Rushmore, an unfurling flag. A web of balloons arches between the Merrills' and the Mazalewskis' houses on Hesperus--the ersatz reviewing stand, where the two families jokingly rate the passing paraders with handmade scoring cards. The Starvation Army Band sits in a truck bed in matching red polos and blasts Dixieland. Kazoo bands are not discouraged.

Politicians "are always very much in evidence," said Dottie Binckley, one of the founders of the parade. They're in evidence in two ways:

The local politicians march. "Our parade is usually much longer in election years," Russell said. The candidates shamelessly fling candy to the masses.

The national politicians are skewered. Longfellow residents have poked fun by holding placards spelling "p-o-t-a-t-o-e," or a toilet seat for sale way under Pentagon prices.

Russell drives the grand marshal in his dark green Mustang. Last summer, it was Padraic Kennedy, retiring president of the Columbia Association; this year . . . they hadn't quite figured that out by time of publication.

"It's not the kind of parade where people spend a lot of time preparing," Binckley said.

If the Tournament of Roses floats are World Series champions, and sorority homecoming floats are Class AAA, then the Longfellow floats--basically, pickup trucks loosely draped with streamers--are, um, you know, those guys who come out for the occasional beer-addled rags-for-bases softball game and spend the rest of the summer learning how to walk again.

Which, by the way, is something they know about in Longfellow.

Every year after the parade, the Eliots Oak Nuts (18-10) and the Hesperus Wrecks (10-18)--teams determined by which main street the players live off of--toss aside all that one-nation-indivisible stuff and face off in a ballgame.

The Nuts haven't lost since 1993, a dynasty matched only by the swift and sure-swinging Yankees of the early '50s. Perchance the Wrecks are fated to loss, given that their opponents are named for one the strongest of trees, while their own cognomen comes from the schooner that sank so easily--"like a vessel of glass"--in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem.

Or maybe, Russell suggests, there's something else at play.

He umpires at the annual game (while holding a hand-held microphone to give the play-by-play), but is not completely neutral. Russell is of Hesperus stock, and as such issued this official statement: "We think that the Eliots Oaks Nuts have brought in some ringers."

Tom Forno sits on the Columbia Council but responds with the following statement in his role as a longtime Eliots Oak guy: "We grow our guys right here in Longfellow. I've heard some of his guys don't even live in Longfellow. They've gotten pretty desperate to try to even the score."

Are the Nuts cheating? Are the Wrecks cheating? Who knows. Nobody's started carding the players--yet.

People from outside Longfellow are welcome to join the parade, too, though not the ballgame.

Russell points out that the rain date for the parade is, as always, July 3. (If you don't get it, you probably would be too staid to march in the rain, like they do in Longfellow, anyway.)

CAPTION: Cub Scout Pack 61 of Columbia serves as the color guard and leads the way in the Longfellow neighborhood's offbeat Fourth of July parade in 1998.