SOME REPORTS SAID there were 75,000 of us on the Mall for the fireworks, while others had the tally as high as 100,000. Whatever the number, it was down to near-zero by 11 p.m. - and therein lies a tribute to the people of Metro, who made all the difference by providing special subway service for the holiday. As far too many of us painfully recall. Metro officials thoroughly botched the birthday party of the century in 1976 by hiding most of the bushes for the night and leaving throngs to hoof it home.

But this time, Metro came through with flying red-white-and-blue colors. With good advance notice for all, officials announced not only that the subway system would be open, but also that the ride home would be free. Sure, those who took them up on the offer found the trains fairly jammed on the way to the Mall, but the mood in the well-filled cars was festive and the trip swift.Up the steps at the Smithsonian station and there you were at mid-Mall, with the best seats (or blankets) in the house. As veteran fireworks-watchers now attest, the show was spectacular. Except for a few-lightheaded clowns who tossed their own firecrackers perilously close to picknickers in our group, it was a grand family evening.

When it ended, the crowded at the Smithsonian station entrance was overhelming, but, here again, Metro had warned us all in advance that we'd be wiser to head for another station. As it turned out, the Federal Triangle station, too, was prohibitively packed; never mind the weather was pleasant (at last) and people just strolled on to other nearby stations , enlivening the downtown sidewalks in a way you'd love to see more often.

Within 75 minutes, Alexandrians were back in their homes, whisked there by the subway to the airport and by buses for the last leg. Other reports from the suburbs were similar. The only person who didn't leave the fireworks area quickly enough was the miscreant who stayed on to dump lord knows how many tons of trash around. (We assume it was just one person, since most Americans wouldn't dream of leaving a mess like that). In any event, Metro showed that the subway can be more than just an investment in transportation; it can be the lifetime of a party.