On the Fourth of July 1979 the forces of nature conspired with the insufficiences of man to fashion a day that was gloomy as a gasoline line.
Even as thousands of depressed souls in Washington and its suburbs uttered declarations of frustration over the course of natural and human events -- the rain, the gasoline shortage and the threat of a recession -- an equal number ignored all of this and celebrated America's 203rd birthday with as much jubilation as the circumstances allowed.
To both the cynics and the celebrants, the rain that fell from midmorning to late in the afternoon served as a reminder that this is a summer to stay close to home. The gasoline lines were there as a reminder, too -- near record lines at service stations that were open, some attracting more than 460 cars. The situation was expected to be slightly better today for motorists who get in line early.
The economic and fuel uncertainties that have become such a dominant part of daily existence were even mirrored on this mid-week holiday by the day-long uncertainty about whether the region's most popular July 4 festivity -- the fireworks on the Mall -- would blast off as scheduled at 9 p.m.
Throughout the day, thousands of Washingtonians who had taken their picnics indoors tuned in their radios and flooded the switchboards at the National Park Service, the mayor's command center and the U.S. Park Police to find out whether they could later converge on the Mall for the nighttime fireworks display.
The answer came after 5 p.m., when federal officials announced that the weather was not clearing as they had hoped and the fireworks would be postponed until the same time tonight.
Still, the extravaganza, prepared by fireworks impresario Felix Grucci Jr., had become such a compelling attraction that as dusk approached about 500 cars had positioned themselves along the George Washington Parkway with a fine view of the launching area across the Potomac River.
Spending a few hours in a parked car was a common practice on this rainy holiday. The region's parks, normally overflowing with barbecue grills, volleyball nets, frisbees, dogs and people on the Fourth, were rendered virtually empty by the gray skies and drizzle.
At Rock Creek Park, the annual Howard University Hospital picnic and softball game, which usually attracts more than 300 celebrants, consisted of only three lonely souls by noon yesterday. Out at Great Falls in Montgomery County, dozens of wouldbe picnickers shared a porch at the Great Falls tavern and cursed the skies.
"I'm gonna start a rain dance here pretty soon," said Rick Rankin, who had planned a hike up into the nearby rocks for lunch.
Down the road at Cooley's roadside stand, Barbara Cooley stood beside her assortment of apple cider preserves, ice cream and soda and sadly noted that, in terms of sales at least, this was a miserable holiday. "Awful," she lamented. "If it's not the gas, it's the weather. I'll say it's both."
For the most part, those who found something enjoyable to do yesterday were under a ceiling and surrounded by four walls. The Smithsonian museums on the Mall were heavily populated all day, and the thousands of delights those museums offer kept the visitors in good spirits.
"I'm feeling in a party mood," said Maria Wildes, who ventured over from Alexandria to see the History and Technology Museum. "On the Fourth, I feel like saying to hell with the gas lines, to hell with the recesson, let's party."
Another museum visitor, Nola Conway of Prince George's County, echoed that sentiment. "Neither the gas lines nor the adverse politicial developments worry me on the Fourth," she said. "Tomorrow I will worry, but not today."
Even Uncle Sam himself, or at least John Rusk, a Smithsonian employe who dons the red-white-and-blue Uncle Sam outfit every July 4, did not let the troubles of this summer sour his moods. "I think it's good for people in this country to knuckle down," said Uncle Sam. "It makes people get off their seats."
About 500 holiday celebrants were doing just what Uncle Sam wanted over at the Pension Building on G Street, where the local building trades council was holding a fair. Bricklayers, iron workers, carpenters, electricians, sheet metal workers and steam fitters were demonstrating their skills at various exhibits in the building and allowing the visitors to work along with them.
Many of the Pension Building and Smithsonian visitors had planned to remain in the Mall area for the fireworks display at night. Some were lured downtown, in part, by Meetro's offering of a free bus or subway ride home. Although the fireworks show was canceled, Metro kept it free-ride pledge for those few travelers who were leaving the downtown area in the evening.
There were two outdoor celebrations in downtown Washington yesterday that were not spoiled by the rain. At one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, on the steps of the Capitol, evangelist Billy Graham led an "Honor America Day" program attended by an estimated 12,000 people -- many of them churchgoers. Graham spoke of a "growing moral and spiritual void in the country," and said the nation needed a "declaration of dependence on the past . . . each other . . . and God."
On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, at Lafayette Park across from the White House, the 12th annual Fourth of July marijuana smokein attracted at least 5,000 demonstrators, some of whom attempt successfully to scale the black-iron fences that surround President Carter's home.
Police said they made three arrests, but no injuries occurred during the early-afternoon incident in which potsmoking youths hurled beer bottles and firecrackers at helmeted police who formed a single line of defense in front of the White House fence.
About 110 miles away, in Staunton, Va., the strains of "It's a Grand Old Flag" could be heard as the small Virginia town held its annual Fourth of July parade. Tsao Kueisheng, the charge d'affaires for the Chinese embassy in Washington who was the town's guest for the day, presented the mayor with several gifts, including Oriental watercolor paintings on bamboo scrolls.
Closer to Washington, in Takoma Park, about 10,000 townsfolk came out to watch the community's 90th annual parade. All along the parade route, as bands and costumed marchers strolled by, the curbside talk was as much about the gasoline shortage as about the two-hour celebration.
"We have a lot of affluent people in this country, but a lot of them here can't afford gas," said Hilda Shaw. Her 12-year-old daughter, Ada, added: "The government's being so mean about it -- they're keeping the gas from the people."
Ethel Kravitz, one of Takoma Park's 2,500 senior citizens, watched the parade from her home and was enthralled by a troupe of young gymnasts. "I'm very patriotic," she said. "You feel it in your blood when you're little, and it intensifies when you get older. How do you get rid of it?"
On the other side of Washington, at Hains Point, Sandra Cooks, an 8-year-old second-grader at Birney Elementary, was asked what the Fourth meant to her.
"It's fun," she said. "You get to shoot fireworks."
Barbara Smith, 50, a manager of a Trailways gift shop, was asked the same question. "Black people can't celebrate this day as a real Independence Day," she said."To me, independence means equality. But blacks don't have equality of jobs, living conditions, money or any of the things that whites have."
To Anthony Thomas, who traveled to Hains Point from Silver Spring, the day was "a wipeout, a strikeout." His reasoning: "One, it's raining. Two, there's no gas. And three, it's in the middle of the week."
As the rain started to pound heavily on the green slopes of the park, one middle-aged black woman slipped inside her car and sang: "America, America. Just like Ray Charles says." CAPTION: Picture, Dresses in Revolutionary War garb, this group put on a ceremony yesterday in front of the National Archives. By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post