I knew I had made a mistake when I was standing in the middle of thousands of people at the entrance to the Smithsonian Metrorail station after the fireworks on the Washington Monument grounds and my brother turned to me and said: "I heard on the radio that you should stay away from the Smithsonian subway stop.

"I thought you knew," he continued. He believes that since I am a reporter I am always ahead of the news. But Thursday night I was no different from about 650,000 other folks who had filled the Mall for the annual fireworks, and we were now all trying to return home.

In the end, we did stay away from the Smithsonian station. We didn't have a choice. For 15 minutes we stood, with my daughter, sister and one of their girlfriends, in one spot some yards from what taller people told me was the entrance.

All I know is that after a while, there seemed to be no air, no sky, no movement. There was plenty of sweat, drunken breath on my face, and arms and legs everywhere I looked. I couldn't take it. We left, heading for another stop. It was about 11:15 p.m.

Traffic was at a standstill or creeping. People walked in the streets, dodging motorcycles and bicycles. Young girls in skimpy bathing suits, bare-chested young men with glassy eyes, tired families stretched out on blankets on the lawns of government buildings, waiting for some of the crowd to pass.

"It's been a real fun day. I had a ball," a man said to his buddy. The speaker seemed about 22. "Nice group of people. More fun than I ever had at any antiwar march."

We tried to flag down two almost-empty Metrobuses that were traveling down the middle of the street. At this point we didn't care if the buses were going in our direction or not. The bus drivers just looked at us, shook their heads and would not open the doors. I think they were being rerouted, and if the doors had opened a hundred people would have piled on.

We trudged on. At the L'Enfant Plaza station the crowd was sparser, but we still couldn't get to the escalators leading down to the trains. People were sitting on their coolers or on blankets around the station. A couple of people were shooting fireworks, cones spouting sparks and smoke.

We marched on -- in search of a subway station we could enter. Finally, we got to the Capitol South station. We had walked about two miles. Three of us were barefooted by now. All of us were sweating. We weren't alone. All along the way, other Fourth of July celebrators had marched with us.

There was no sound sweeter than the sound made when my feet touched the first step of that subway escalator. A mass of people waited on the platform, but we managed to get on the first train. Unfortunately, we had to get off at Stadium-Armory because we were on a Blue Line train and we needed to get on an Orange Line train to get home.

Stadium-Armory was as close to an insane asylum as I ever want to see. By now it was after midnight. Hairdos were limp, clothes were dirty, and drunks were sick or silly. Someone shot off some firecrackers, and a couple of frightened babies started to cry. People were cussing about everything: the heat, the screaming babies, the firecrackers, the trains.

One Orange Line train stopped. It was packed. People were sitting three to a seat and on each other's laps. The aisles were jammed. Some riders looked like contortionists. When the doors opened and a few people waiting with us on the platform tried to board, the people on the train yelled, "Noooo! Noooo!"

Another Orange Line train passed. There was the same "Nooo!" A third train. Finally the five of us linked arms, and when the fourth train stopped, we ignored the "Noooo!" and forged ahead, pushing, forgetting all of our home training, manners and concern for little children and old people, thinking of nothing but getting home.

We made it! About 12:45 a.m. we rolled into the Cheverly Metro stop, disembarking with about 75 others. We all cheered.

A trip that usually takes 20 minutes had taken about two hours. As I walked to my car, I heard people planning next year's July 4th celebration. There will be a lot of back yard cookouts and fireworks shot at home.