Tuesday, July 4, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) — Families sat down to picnics, attended parades and crowded parks and rooftops to watch fireworks as the nation celebrated its 230th birthday yesterday.

More than 120,000 bursts of color, light and pyrotechnics filled the darkness as the New York Pops regaled crowds with a soundtrack of patriotic standards and original music charting America’s evolution.

“I never miss it. It’s a tradition,” said Rafael Perez, 21, one of tens of thousands of people who mobbed the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan to watch the show.

The Stars and Stripes were everywhere at Atlanta’s annual Fourth of July Peachtree Road Race, from flags sticking out of baseball caps to giant flags in the hands of runners.

Greg Lohman, 51, and his 20-year-old son, Austin, just back from Air Force boot camp, went all out and painted themselves from head to sneakers as half of the U.S. flag — Austin in the stripes and his father in the stars.

“I just hope it doesn’t run,” Gerard Carson, another human flag, said, glancing at his blue torso and red-and-white legs.

As many as 500,000 people gathered in Boston for a concert and fireworks extravaganza near the Charles River, state police estimated. Some held American flags and others clutched red-white-and-blue pompoms as they sat on blankets on the grass.

Alicia Dumont, 10, of Quincy, Mass., wore a red-and-blue Statue of Liberty-style crown and a red tank top to the festival.

“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “It’s spectacular just to celebrate the Fourth of July and see all the colors.”

Earlier yesterday, the city began its celebration with a reading of the Declaration of Independence from a balcony at the Old State House, where townspeople first heard it more than two centuries ago.

In many regions, the searing heat and near-drought conditions tamped down the celebration. Because of the hot, dry weather in Mandan, N.D., firetrucks were held out of the July Fourth parade.

“We don’t want to get hung up in a parade and can’t get out. It’s just too risky,” Mandan Rural Fire Chief Lynn Gustin said.

There also was quiet reflection during the holiday. In Yakima, Wash., a crowd of more than 200 people prayed quietly at the dedication late Monday of a war memorial honoring six soldiers and Marines with ties to the area who have died in Iraq.

“I hope when people see it, it brings a reality to them,” said Nancy Sides, stepmother of Marine Lance Cpl. Dustin L. Sides, one of the six.

Half a world away, five U.S. Marine lance corporals in one of Iraq’s most dangerous cities celebrated with what they had: a hookah, relaxing exhales of strawberry-scented smoke and thoughts of home.

The Marines from I Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment rested in midnight temperatures that still hovered near 100. Curls of smoke wafted above them as they exchanged jokes, talked about the war and lauded improved living conditions on their base.

But thoughts of wives, girlfriends and families thousands of miles away were difficult to suppress for the Marines, all in their early 20s.

“For me [July Fourth] is just another chance to miss everyone. I have a really close family, and I know … everyone is going to be cooking out,” said Tony Mallett, 21, of Orange, Mass.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, meanwhile, held its annual Independence Day celebration in the ornate marble ballroom of Saddam Hussein’s former Republican Palace, with red, white and blue balloons hanging from a chandelier.

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