Several thousand cheering people lined the streets downtown Saturday and turned the 25th annual Patriot's Day Parade into a ribbon- and flag-waving celebration of America's Gulf War victory.
"The timing couldn't have been better," said Laguna Beach resident Sue Jones, 47, as she stood in the crowd. "The parade has always been popular, but this year it's tripled its importance because our troops are on their way home."
Parade organizers said when they chose "world freedom" as the theme in November, they wanted the parade to be a support-the-troops effort, as well as to remember patriots and veterans of past conflicts.
But emotions overflowed when the parade stepped off just as the first Gulf War troops were returning to bases in Southern California.
"We're honored that we play a part in the celebration of the troops coming home," said Jim Smith, president of Patriot's Day Parade Assn.
Most of the crowd gave standing ovations when Vietnam veterans marched by and when a parade unit of children tap-danced and sang patriotic songs as they moved down the street.
"The parade is representative of what this county is all about," said Eric Jensen of Laguna Beach, a retired Navy Reserve captain. "There are families here on the sides of the streets and family members in the parade, and they're here to say, 'I'm an American.' "
The parade was especially meaningful for Jensen, 48, because a close friend is stationed in the Gulf, he said. They have walked side by side in past Patriot's Day parades, so this year Jensen carried a Marine Corps flag in honor of the friend.
"He couldn't be here, so I'm carrying it for him," Jensen said.
Toni Iseman, 47, of Laguna Beach has watched the parade from the same spot--a window ledge outside a restaurant on Glenneyre Street--since 1970, she said.
"It's my favorite day of the year in Laguna," Iseman said, "because it epitomizes the small-town cohesiveness that this community has."