In some circles, Dundalk gets a bad rap. When some residents tell others they live in Dundalk, they're sometimes told, "I'm sorry."
But yesterday morning, the blue-collar community - decked out in patriotic colors and awash with out-of-towners who drove in to see one of the largest and longest-running Fourth of July parades in the Baltimore area - had a lot to be proud of.
Most celebrants, like Jimmy Cachola, had ties to the community east of Baltimore.
"My parents are from Dundalk, and I was born and raised in Dundalk," said Cachola, 41, who lives on six acres in Whiteford, just south of the Pennsylvania line in Harford County.
The scene in Dundalk was repeated at countless places yesterday as communities from coast to coast gathered to celebrate the 227th anniversary of the nation's independence.
Security was lighter in many cities compared with last year, when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were fresh in many minds.
Baltimore raised its alert status Thursday to its second- highest level, mostly as a practice run, officials said, while the federal terror alert status remained unchanged at yellow, the middle of the five-color scale.
During the two-hour Dundalk Heritage Parade, which is in its 69th year, the mood was reverent at times, such as when people applauded military honor guards and veterans who marched or rode past. It turned playful at other times, as children tried to get hugs from a man dressed as a giant Care Bear or when a blue sedan, part of a car club, showed off its customized hydraulics by bouncing itself up onto three wheels.
The morning started out pleasantly cool, heating up only near the end of the parade, a vast improvement over last year, when 10 people were treated for heat exhaustion.
Families sat on lawn chairs and blankets along the 1.9-mile, tree-lined route, watching dancers and marching bands and chatting about the barbecues or parties that would follow in the afternoon.
Teen-agers chased one another on front lawns, armed with cans of Silly String or multicolored watergun-equivalents of AK-47s. Baltimore County police estimated attendance at 9,000, though parade organizers said they believed the number was higher.
Cachola stood in the shade of a tree on Belclare Road, pointing out things to his two young daughters and a niece, who wore stars-and-stripes baseball caps and were precariously piled on top of one another in a single black folding chair.
"Look, they don't have their life preservers on, girls," Cachola joked, as a sparkling yacht was tugged along the road, brimming with children waving at the crowd.
Not far away, Carlean James, a cook for 42 years at the Poplar Inn on Wise Avenue, stood by herself, watching the Ravens marching band, one of dozens of professional groups hired by the parade committee.
James, who was born and raised in Dundalk, said she hates to miss the parade, though she's had to three times in her life because of work. "I gave my boss two weeks' notice" about getting the day off this year, she said.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his wife, Kendel, followed the Ravens band on foot. Flanked by bodyguards and tailed by four police vehicles, the couple waved to spectators, eliciting cheers. The governor's schedule yesterday also included parades in Towson, Arbutus, Catonsville and Bel Air.
At the sight of her favorite dancers, Bernadette Hardesty, 25, rose from the blanket she was sharing with her 4-month-old son, Braden. Spectators the length of the parade route cheered enthusiastically for the New Baltimore Rockers, a troupe of African-American marchers in turquoise costumes, who were accompanied only by drums.
Nearby, her husband, Kevin, stomped on a bee that had flown too close to the baby, who fell asleep before seeing much of his first parade.
It certainly wasn't the first parade for 82-year-old Margaret Wiley and her sister-in-law, who sat in lawn chairs on Liberty Parkway, a few blocks further along the route.
"I've been coming here since I was born," Wiley said, adding that the parade has changed over the years. There were fewer politicians and advertisements back then, Wiley said, and more floats decked out in flowers. "Today, they don't go in for all that," she said.
Erik Rodman, who was standing with family and friends on the corner of Belclare and Liberty, was happy to have any parade at all. "It could all end with one terrorist attack," he said. "To be able to have a parade is good stuff."
Rodman said he gained a greater appreciation of events like this after 9/11.
"It puts things in perspective for me, because you see your roots and where you came from," he said, as he watched a succession of war veterans and students from his old high school.
Days like this remind Rodman that people who sneer at Dundalk are missing out.
"I think it's a pretty honest town," he said. "What you see is what you get."