In the taut stillness before all went wild, nobody quite knew what to do as the first Camp Pendleton Marines home from the war suddenly and swiftly marched onto the parade ground Saturday.
Keeping stony faces and a tight formation, the initial 52 Marines--followed later in the day by hundreds more--swung into trim rows facing 150 family members, some of whom stood on tiptoes and did nervous last-second preening in preparation for epic embraces.
There was a long, unnatural silence, finally shattered when a child yelled "yea, Daddy!" and the Marines who liberated Kuwait City fell out, hugging one another and charging into the throng of loved ones who had waited seven months for their return. One group of about 15 servicemen formed a small prayer circle.
Cpl. Mike Cantrall wordlessly held his wife for minutes, one hand clutching a flower and the other cupping a handful of Dawn's hair.
After living in desert fortifications, "I'm thankful to be back where it's green. It's quite a toll on a person, living underground in the sand for seven months," he said.
Dawn said, "It's so good to hold him again."
These Marines of Weapons Company 1st Battalion 5th Marines came home just the way they left for the Persian Gulf last August, quietly and in a hurry. But they departed amid sorrow and returned to a joy that many of them didn't expect.
"I thought when we got off the bus, it would be just like when we left, nobody here," said Pfc. John Gilliano, who, like other long-deprived Marines, talked while indulging in what had been a torturing fantasy until now.
Gilliano madly mashed some homecoming pizza into his mouth, smearing his face with tomato paste and not particularly caring about it as he ate and swiveled his head, looking for his wife.
Some young Marines had nobody waiting for them.
Lance Cpl. Edward Charles Marquez, 20, may have been without his family, which lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., but he stood alongside his buddy, Lance Cpl. Paul Grammont, also 20, from Massachusetts.
They watched as others embraced, smiling for the happiness of their comrades and planning a little action for themselves. "We're going to go party or something," Marquez said.
The men say the war probably changed them, but they don't know how, at least yet. For some, there seemed to be a seriousness, a conviction about themselves that has come from finding a cause that may anchor their beliefs for the rest of their lives.
The war, said Grammont, "it definitely wasn't for gas prices."
He said he learned that from the faces of the people from Kuwait City who greeted him after the Iraqis who had brutalized them had scattered and the city was liberated.
"I felt proud, felt good. There was no need for people to be treated like that," Grammont said, and his face tightened in resolve.
But now, there is peace and the Marines were glad to stack their arms Saturday and resume normal lives.
"We're just going to enjoy the hell out of life now," said Cpl. Robert Gankiewicz, his arm around sweetheart Rourke Hogue.
The Marines had landed at March Air Force Base near Riverside and were bused under escort by the California Highway Patrol, which ushered them along the freeway sometimes at 70 m.p.h. so they could get to Camp Pendleton faster.
On base, the Marines turned in their M-16 rifles, checking off the serial numbers, and discarding other gear that had made this war especially scary for them and their families.
Lance Cpl. Jim Rasanen, 22, of Michigan, said, "It felt good to turn in my rifle." Pausing, he added, "and the gas mask."
This unit was the first of 700 Marines who were scheduled to arrive at Camp Pendleton through the evening, but there were the predictable frustrations. Hundreds of family members who had expected the 1st Force Services Support Group at mid afternoon had a four-hour delay because of lost luggage at March Air Force Base.
However, the wait was even hard for wives who knew that their Marine husbands would definitely come marching in on time.
Sheila Lorenzo from National City was wearing a seductive black dress and held a single rose while waiting for her sergeant husband, Ray.
"I'm a little bit nervous, I don't know what his attitude will be, what he'll want to do," she said. "I have a feeling all of them are going to be changed a little bit."
She brought the couple's three daughters, Shalisa, 9; Leisha, 7; and Shanelle, 5, all wearing T-shirts emblazoned, "My Hero."
When the sergeant finally arrived, the Lorenzos hugged tightly, and Sheila kept dabbing at the tears streaming down her face. They were lost in each other and seemingly oblivious to the dozen reporters and cameramen who tightly encircled them.
Ray Lorenzo was stunned by the reception. "Everyone's been out to support us, it's real surprising," he said.
Asked about the combat, he was matter-of-fact. "It just got down to doing what we practiced to do. In the end, everything went well."
The Marines were frightened at first, but "as we crossed the border into Kuwait, there was next-to-zero fear."
As for now, "I'm going home and lay down on the bed for awhile," Lorenzo said.
While some Marines had nobody to greet them, some people in the crowd came to cheer although they knew none of the servicemen. Still, they had a special stake in the joyous occasion.
Ken Love, an Oceanside fireman, was a Marine sergeant who served in Vietnam 22 years ago. He came home disenchanted with that war and has had little nostalgia for the military.
But this day, he was out with his old service ribbons attached to his cap, accompanied by his mother-in-law and his 9-year-old son who held a heart-shaped sign reading, "Awesome Dudes!"
Of Vietnam, Love recalled: "I didn't know how committed I was to the campaign to begin with. I always thought war was ridiculous, but when this thing (the Gulf War) happened, I thought the cause was right. At first, I felt guilty about it . . . it was a challenge to my liberalism," Love said.
He added, "The fact that I broke out these ribbons after 20 years is something I thought I'd never do."
As this first group of returning Marines--part of the 30,000 Camp Pendleton-based Marines and Reservists who went to the gulf--and their loved ones slowly departed, it was clear the celebration had just begun.
Outside the base, a white stretch limo waited to take somebody home in style. It carried a homemade sign that said, "Welcome Home Corporal Ritzman. I love you."
Times Staff Writer Tom Gorman contributed to this report.