NO, it wasn't a bevy of Miss America hopefuls parading the Atlantic City boardwalk that sunny holiday afternoon. It was, instead, a band of craggy-faced men marching in maroon jackets with matching caps, some with canes, some with limps, all with beautiful, smiling faces.
They were yesterday's heroes -- men who in the spring of their lives fought this country's battles and were taken captive in the doing. Now, with something special to impart and something special to evoke, they were parading as America's former prisoners of war.
Often forgotten in the busy, hectic course of events, these reunioneers were using this, the occasion of their organization's 50th anniversary, to awaken public interest in the goals for which they had once fought. The parade would be a celebration of the human spirit: victory over tyranny, freedom over subjugation.
Lofty dreams the men dreamed as they envisioned a large motorcade decorated with banners and flags and a brass band playing a medley of patriotic songs. To memorialize the event, they expected the media to record it. But it didn't go as planned.
The media and band failed to show. And of the 2,000 ex-POWs from around the country who had been invited, only 200 turned up. It was disappointing but not discouraging, for the spirit of the 200 who did come was undaunted.
But I wondered: Would their paltry numbers make the men appear foolish? Might they be regarded as fossils of another generation? No matter. The commitment would be honored and the men would march proudly along the boardwalk of Atlantic City.
They had already been tested -- on the beaches of Anzio and Corregidor and on the Solomon Islands and Guam, places many young people today have never heard of. They were tested during the Battle of the Bulge, on forced death marches and on planes riddled with flak. And they were tested once again when they parachuted into the hands of the enemy.
At 2 p.m., flanked by police and soldiers from Fort Dix, the six-car motorcade began its slow trek up to the boardwalk. As crowds gathered to cheer and applaud, sounds of a marching band wafted from a car's radio cassette player. The stage had been set. Men were standing at attention while women threw kisses. Some onlookers bowed. Other signaled "V for victory."
Crowds are sometimes faceless; this was not. It was a distinct mixture of Asian, white and black Americans.
I felt elated as I watched the parade and felt the emotion it evoked. Oh, there were a few who ignored the men and showed some disdain. But nearly everyone waved and cheered. The feeling of unity was palpable.
Lou Crist, a flier in World War II, was displaying his prison camp diary. Col. Jimmy Thompson, a Vietnam green beret held nine years in captivity (and now a stroke victim), gave a short speech about remembering and keeping the country united. Then the mayor of Atlantic City spoke about our great and unified nation -- a land of liberty with justice and freedom.
It was not the America I had been reading about lately, but no one was sneering. A man wearing a red bandanna with a wine bottle in his pocket stood in rapt attention, as did the soldiers from Fort Dix.
The mayor was being taken seriously, and so was America, as witnessed by an elderly lady with numbers on her arm and tears in her eyes.
The reunion had been a success, I thought, for the people had demonstrated love for country and respect for comrades. If they accomplished nothing else, they lent credence to the notion that ours is a country worth fighting for.
Ellie Fier writes from Baltimore.