The television reporter clearly was dismayed. The giant outdoor rally for the veterans of the gulf war had just ended in Albuquerque, N.M. But not that many people had shown up.
And the reporter did not know what to make of it.
"The baseball game across the street drew just about as many people," she said, a note of amazement in her voice.
The baseball game across the street had featured the Albuquerque Dukes, a minor-league team.
"And only about a third of the chairs set up for the veterans were filled," the reporter said. "But maybe, uh, well maybe they all haven't come back from the gulf yet."
Yeah, maybe that was it.
The next day, May 18, the Albuquerque Journal reported it this way:
"Event organizers had expected 40,000 to attend the rally, but crowd estimates ranged from as high as 15,000 to as low as 4,000. Some blamed other events, including a Dukes baseball game, and the Miss Universe Pageant on television for luring people away."
OK, now I get it. The Miss Universe Pageant. That's why more people didn't go out to salute the troops.
Or maybe, well, just maybe, folks are getting a little tired of it all.
I mean after you've seen the videotape on the 11 o'clock news 25 times or so, you've seen it, right?
The soldiers come off the plane and they are hugged and kissed by their families. Close-up of the hugs and kisses.
Wide shot of the street where the veteran lives featuring trees with yellow ribbons. Close-up of the yellow ribbons.
Two-shot of veteran at home with his dog. Close-up of the dog.
The joy is real. I do not for a second question its sincerity. And such joy will continue as the soldiers continue to come home from the Persian Gulf.
But that is a private joy, a personal joy. That is a family thing and a thing between friends.
Perhaps what the public may finally be getting tired of, however, is all the public hoo-haw grafted onto the private joy.
Perhaps what we are getting tired of is the orgy of self-congratulation that has been going on ever since we won the Persian Gulf war.
It is almost as if we can't believe we really did win. So we have to keep trotting out the bands and fireworks and politicians making speeches just to make sure it was for real.
As many people have already noticed, the celebration of the war is going on much longer than the war did.
According to a Pentagon spokesman, the Department of Defense knows of "between 150 and 200 events" to celebrate the gulf war. "But there may be hundreds of celebrations that we don't know anything about," he said. "This stuff is going to be going on for months."
Kansas City is expecting 500,000 people to show up June 1 for a "Heart of America" rally. New York will hold a huge "Operation Welcome Home -- NYC" rally on June 10 that will cost about $5 million if the private funds can be raised. It is expecting nearly a million people.
(Crowd estimates usually support expectations, Albuquerque being an exception. A gulf war rally in Los Angeles May 19, which featured Bob Hope and Roseanne Barr, drew a crowd "estimated at 500,000 to 1 million" according to the Los Angeles Times. So the crowd was either large or twice as large.)
But Washington hopes to have the biggest bash of them all on June 8 with troops parading and tanks rolling down Constitution Avenue led by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, KCB.
President Bush will review the parade from a $400,000 reviewing stand. Some $80,000 has already been spent on giant TV screens to be set up on the Mall to replay the best feature of the war: that great videotape. There will also be a fireworks display twice the size of the normal Fourth of July display, Harrier jets, Apache, Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters and, of course, a Patriot missile.
This is no Miss Universe Pageant, but it is still pretty good.
Hoped-for spectators in Washington: 1 million. Estimated cost: $6 million to $8 million, some $3 million of which will be paid for by the U.S. taxpayer.
Nor will this extravaganza discourage the District of Columbiafrom holding its own welcome home celebration for its own local troops two weeks later.
It seems no prior celebration or commemoration -- not even the recently celebrated Memorial Day -- reduces the need for further celebration.
One does not wish to be a party pooper, of course. One does not wish to point out that the millions of dollars spent on these events could be spent better elsewhere in America or even for Kurdish relief.
Nor does one wish to make the argument that this all seems a little out of scale. That American veterans who fought for years in Europe, the Pacific, Korea and Vietnam did not get quite the same fever pitch of celebration as those who served for months in the Persian Gulf.
No, one does not wish to say these things. Because, after all, Americahasn't had a military victory of any note for quite some time and so we better make hay of it while we can.
We kicked hell out of Saddam Hussein -- who, strangely, still seems to be in power -- killed anywhere from 25,000 to 50,000 of his soldiers, and proved that a first-rate technological power can make mincemeat out of a fifth-rate one.
And if that's not worth a party, what is?
So I urge everyone in the weeks ahead to get out of the house and attend a gulf war rally -- or two. I am sure there will be one within a few hours of where you live.
I hope we can wrap them all up by the Fourth of July, but that may be optimistic. In any case, I certainly hope they are over by September.
Because I would hate for them to try to compete with the Miss America Pageant.