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LUTZ - Lady Liberty rolled into town on the hood of a red '66 Mustang. A float named "Paradise" was a blow-up swimming pool strapped to a flatbed truck. And the National Mall was made of thick green icing spread on a giant, flattened Rice Krispies treat.
The Fourth of July can be like that.
Celebrations such as Wednesday's Lutz Independence Day parade, Channelside fireworks and the Brandon Blast have a way of bringing out the red, white and blue in everyone.
In Lutz, there was the bead-loaded, pig-tailed Brownie wobbling down the parade route, a part in her hair as straight as a highway lane divider. Prize-winning bakers auctioned homemade cakes resembling everything from a chocolate lady's leather purse to the National Mall, complete with a graham cracker-and-Reese's cup Lincoln Monument.
"Okay, so let's talk about numbers here," 31-year-old Melissa Cress said to her mother-in-law as they prepared to bid on one of the dozen-plus confections spread on tables before them. "What's our highest going to be?"
In St. Pete Beach, 12 people were treated for cuts and bruises and two sent to the hospital after fireworks blasted on the ground instead of in the air. A similar malfunction occurred in Treasure Island, but no one was injured.
Despite an overcast day, thousands across Tampa Bay showed their patriotism with face paint, hand-held flags, fireworks and tons of char-grilled meats.
Michele Northrup, 36, used the occasion to raise a record-breaking $16,000 to $17,000 to benefit Lutz-based nonprofit organizations. She was named the town's honorary "guv'na" - a whimsical honor bestowed on the candidate who generates the most dollars for charity in the months leading up to the parade.
All told, Northrup and the other two candidates, Annie Fernandez and Nancy Rehling, raised $27,500, more than in any other year, organizer Shirley Simmons announced.
For the morning at least, the weather offered a sun shield for little girls in sundresses and stroller-bound babies dressed in their patriotic best.
By late afternoon, children were chasing raindrops with their Hula Hoops in Brandon.
"Okay, let's see fireworks," demanded 4-year-old Janelle Joseph. All day, she had been asking her parents how much longer until it would be dark.
A rain-soaked parking lot at the Westfield Brandon mall hardly discouraged the dedicated from showing up for the community's annual fireworks show.
Terry Wallace came prepared, toting a beach umbrella that fit snugly below his raised SUV hatchback. He watched over folding chairs for a party of 10, including a pair of pint-sized chairs for his grandchildren.
"I guess it's a little cliche, but I'm proud to be an American," said Wallace, 62. "We pray for our president. We pray for our troops. Don't know if I necessarily like the war or what it's about, but I thank God for the men and women who are willing to go, so I can come and watch fireworks."
Jessica Dorey and Kristi Bell embraced the holiday as only college students can. They turned a study break into a night out.
"We love our country," said Jessica, 20, dressed for the occasion in a navy and white striped tank top, a wide red belt, blue jean cutoffs and white flip flops.
"Especially in wartime, we just want to come out and show support for America," said Kristi, also 20, wearing blue-and-white polka dots over a red tank top.
They hung red beads around their necks and red ribbons in their hair. The eye shadow was blue; the lipstick red. For dinner, the best friends went out for barbecue and apple pie.
Their enthusiasm reverberated across the crowds staring hopefully at a flint-colored sky.
"Holy cow, Mom! They're shooting fireworks," said 6-year-old Michael Russin, eyes wide inside a minivan in the mall parking lot. He especially liked the Christmas-colored ones.
"Wouldn't it be awesome if they set them all off at once?"
When 9 o'clock rolled around, Michael got his wish. The sky above Brandon turned to glitter, a reflection of the exploding skyline over downtown Tampa.
The fireworks at Channelside transformed a damp night into a fiery canvas of cascading gold. Circles of purple, blue, red and green grew as wide as the mouths of those watching below.