Long before the skies over downtown Washington were illuminated with the rocket's red glare, a narrow street in Montgomery Village burst with another kind of pyrotechnics.
"Uh-oh," a few residents sighed when the first crackle of thunder echoed across Montgomery County just a few minutes after 10:30 a.m. yesterday, just as the rear of the village's annual parade approached the finish line.
But even after light sprinkles gave way to a downpour, after umbrella-less men, women and children sprinted for shelter at a carnival, dozens of people in soggy T-shirts and squishy shoes stayed put: Peggy Mark was handing out red, white and blue ribbons to parade award-winners, and nobody wanted to miss that.
"It could be snowing -- we'd still be out here," said Jimmy Haller, 49, who got soaked while watching his son and daughter's Whetstone Whales swim team take home ribbons for its "American Idol"-themed float and marching group.
That's how the Fourth of July was celebrated in communities across the Washington area -- wetly, surely, but defiantly.
Far from the crowds and security precautions on the Mall, many in the capital and its suburbs shunned the promise of a big Independence Day extravaganza downtown for more subdued neighborhood celebrations. From Montgomery Village to Capitol Hill, from Prince William County to suburban corners across the region, people of all ages, races and political persuasions flocked to more than 30 fireworks shows, curbside parades and concerts.
On the Mall, tens of thousands stood in line at 19 security checkpoints. But in surrounding suburbs and D.C. neighborhoods, there was no waiting. The only safety measures necessary were a bottle of sunscreen for the bright moments between showers and an umbrella.
The rain affected turnout at Montgomery Village's post-parade carnival. In previous years, organizers said, a few thousand people would attend, but this year only a few hundred came. A similar event on Capitol Hill had luck on its side. As the rain held off, hundreds turned out to march in a brief but colorful procession along Eighth Street SE, the neighborhood's second annual parade.
The rainy weather that continued sporadically throughout the day gave the holiday an improvisational feel, as some people moved backyard barbecues into kitchens and others headed for cover in movie theaters and malls.
At Bethesda's Westfield Shoppingtown Montgomery mall, every seat was taken for manicures and pedicures inside UA Nails, and at P&G Cinemas, audiences flooded summer movies. One family went to a restaurant and a Harry Potter movie instead of going to a pool party because of the rain. Explained P&G employee Jahmal Harrell: "Everybody should be out of town, downtown or out cooking with friends and family. I know I'd rather not be here. But it rained, so people came here instead."
Instead of going to a picnic, Ellen and Stuart Lessans of Rockville ended up treating their two young children to hamburgers in the mall's food court. "This would not be my first choice," Ellen Lessans said, "but we had to have a place for the kids to go inside because of the rain."
While rain might have thinned crowds elsewhere, residents in western Prince William charged ahead under dry conditions. Cheshire Court, one of several cul-de-sacs in the Saybrooke subdivision, has 20 houses, more than 40 young children, and, since the summer of 2000 when the homes were built, a Fourth of July tradition.
Children decorated their bicycles and wagons with American flags and red, white and blue crepe paper. About 5:30 p.m., the children planned to ride around the neighborhood to the sounds of John Philip Sousa on a resident's tape player. After that, it was swimming, pizza and fireworks. "The kids are so little, so it's too much to drag young children" downtown, said Christine McCloy, 34, a mother of four. "This gives us a break with people that we know and people we enjoy."
Independence Day -- a holiday that has undergone a subtle transformation since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- came at an uneasy time, amid a divisive conflict in Iraq, an upcoming heated presidential election and continuing warnings of another attack in the United States. But many appeared drawn to the low-key, closer-to-home parades and festivals, not so much to celebrate the concept of democracy, but to practice one of its many benefits: the pursuit of happiness.
So there was David Peterson yesterday morning in the Capitol Hill procession, driving an SUV with a trailer outfitted with a mirage in this beachless neighborhood: a small wading pool, an umbrella, beach chairs and about six small children.
"Last year, we had a tepee on top of a station wagon," Peterson said. "This year, we decided to upgrade it a little bit."
And there was Dana Gillespie, adjusting a five-foot paper-and-tape model of the Washington Monument tethered to the roof of her Mazda, one of many homemade floats in the resident-organized parade that included a marching band from the neighboring Marine Corps barracks and a family with a large SpongeBob decoration mounted on top of its SUV.
"This is very, very family-oriented," said Gillespie, who's lived in the area with her family for seven years. "There are no politicians. It's mostly about the kids."
Scenes from the region's more informal Independence Day gatherings illustrated the simple fact that Washington remains a city as well as a symbol, a collection of neighborhoods where people raise families, walk their dogs and line holiday parade routes shorter than most joggers' daily runs.
At Montgomery Village, a planned community of more than 35,000 and the kind of place that posts geese-crossing signs on one avenue, the parade tradition stretches back at least three decades.
The uniformed Cub Scouts Pack 1756 came prepared with 15 pounds of hard candy to throw at the crowd lining Watkins Mill Road. Supporters of Montgomery County Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) handed out fans, although umbrellas might have been a more popular option.
By the time the parade wrapped up in the grassy yard next to Watkins Mill Elementary, it had begun to pour. But the organizer, Montgomery Village Foundation, kept the carnival going, handing out ribbons as the village's Community Band assembled beneath a large tent.
Later, the musicians struck up "God Bless America." Near the end of the piece, band director Gordon Bowie, 60, baton in hand, stepped from the tent onto the grass.
The ground was wet, but the sky was finally clear.
Staff writers Carol Morello and Christina A. Samuels contributed to this report.