WASHINGTON — The Fourth of July came early on a cool spring night in the nation's capital on Sunday.
There were people entrenched in front of the White House joyously waving the American flag; there were people across the street perched in trees and draped with Old Glory at Lafayette Park in a scene of immense pride.
There was a guy strolling on pink stilts on the sidewalk.
Digital cameras flashed second by second.
Balloons flew overhead. Bells and whistles pierced the late-night air.
There were primal screams.
One guy shouted, "We killed the (blankety-blank)."
That "blankety-blank" was Osama bin Laden.
President Barack Obama announced at approximately 11:35 p.m. EDT that a U.S.-launched military operation killed bin Laden in a firefight. That's when a gaggle of Flash Gordon types blazed its way toward the north-side fence of the White House.
With that, you could hear the sound of honking cars as a screaming mass of people rushed down New York Avenue toward the White House. Washington, D.C., police and Secret Service officers patrolled the White House perimeter on the surrounding streets.
Matthew Dhaiti of Syracuse, N.Y., Michael Maslar of Cleveland and Jason Maney of Orange County, Calif., all were staring at final exams on Monday at nearby George Washington University, but they weren't going to miss this celebratory occasion for the world in the wee hours of the morning.
For them, it was one of those time-capsule moments.
"It's one of those things when you know exactly where you were when it happened," Maslar said. "We have finals tomorrow, but this is something you can't miss."
Added Dhaiti: "We heard about it in our dorms. We were so pumped up, we just had to go to the White House."
There were hundreds, if not thousands, of onlookers and celebrants basking in unbridled joy on this night.
What struck me was the vast number of young people on the streets showing such a visceral response that many Americans have waited 10 years to witness — often times impatiently. Many of us thought bin Laden surely would have been captured or killed way before the 10th anniversary year of the brazen and malicious Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in Manhattan and the Pentagon, just outside Washington. Especially so with a $25 million bounty on bin Laden's head.
Greg (wouldn't give his last name), an undergraduate student from West Chester, Pa., attending Catholic University in Northeast Washington, was only 10 years old on that Sept. 11, but he said age is irrelevant in relation to such a cataclysmic event.
"You still know about it," said Greg, as he sat on a curb at Lafayette Park. "It's a big moment. I'm sure it means a lot to the people directly affected by 9-11."
Chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A" reverberated, then would slowly dissipate. But when someone started pounding on snare drums, the "U-S-A, U-S-A" cries of jubilation revved up again like a race-car engine. Many sang the "Star-Star-Spangled Banner" and "Hey, hey, goodbye", and chanted "One, two, three strikes, you're out." This night was reminiscent of when major universities, such as a North Carolina or a Connecticut, win the euphoria that's called March Madness.
There were people with dogs, people on bicycles, people sitting on top of sculptures in the park and people simply just releasing pent-up emotions.
However, Andrew, who works at a Washington hotel, offered a more measured tone in responding to the news of bin Laden's demise.
"I don't know how I feel about this, to be honest," he said. "I don't know if it's right to celebrate death like this."
Still, the overwhelming sentiment in this human sea was that "it finally happened."
As Sylvia Hall, a retiree from Jackson, Miss., visiting her daughter here, so vividly expressed: "I think it's great. I'm glad people here have such passion for freedom."
A passion that was on display in full force on this first night in May.
(Gregory Clay is sports editor for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.)