The Laguna Beach Patriots Day Parade is steeped in tradition. For 38 years, flag-waving families have lined the streets of this picturesque coastal town for pageantry and country.
For almost as many years, an informal and varying group of peace activists and their vigils in front of Main Beach have become a fixture during times of war.
On Saturday, the two traditions met for the first time, formally.
"Oh, we've been to the parade before," said Jeanie Bernstein, 80, who began the peace vigils with friends in the late 1960s to protest the war in Vietnam. "But only when we crashed the party."
Bernstein and others have been holding a vigil every Saturday morning since March 2002 to protest the war in Iraq.
She said the group asked to join in the parade during the Vietnam War and the Cold War in the 1980s, but was turned down.
"They said we were too political," Bernstein said with a laugh.
This year, the parade's organizers told them they could join the procession as long as they did not carry overtly political signs.
Charles Quilter, the parade association's president and a former Marine pilot who served in Vietnam, welcomed the group.
"I don't think there is anybody who is more for peace than a combat veteran who has lost friends like I have" in a war, he said. "Like our theme this year says, 'Freedom is not free.' "
Under a bright and almost cloudless sky Saturday, the vigil group gathered in a parking lot in front of Laguna Beach High School and prepared for the march down Park Avenue toward City Hall.
Bernstein, who suffers from arthritis, waited farther down the route to avoid Park Avenue's steep incline.
In the parking lot, vigil members were excited but somewhat apprehensive, not quite sure how they would be received by the crowd.
During their weekly vigils, they received a lot of support from passersby, they said, but there were also many hecklers and shouted obscenities.
"I have people who approach me, who are angry, and they say, 'I have a son in the war,' " said Mary Ann Mills, 64, a vigil participant whose husband was killed in the Vietnam War. "I tell them, 'That's why I am here.' "
Next to Mills, Irene Bland, 83, a peace vigil veteran, was handing out encouragement and pieces of paper that warned members, "if we are heckled, our only response will be a big smile — no other, please."
The note also had verses of "America, the Beautiful" and "America (My Country 'Tis of Thee)," which the group sang during their march.
Bland wore a 1960s necklace bearing a medallion with the inscription "War is not healthy for children and other living things."
The parade's prohibition on overtly political banners didn't dampen their spirits, Bland said. "We are still getting the message out."
A little after noon, Bland and 16 other vigil supporters lined up — just behind the parade entry from the U. S. Postal Service, and ahead of a truck from the Haster Grove home and garden store.
Bland, and friend Eleanor Henry, 80, proudly held the front banner, "Laguna Beach Peace Vigil." Just behind them, another banner read "Blessed are the peacemakers."
Pat Cohee, a 71-year-old Army veteran, held his sign high above his head. "Dissent is Democratic," it said. Closer to the ground, Mills' dog, Chela, plodded along wearing a cape with a peace sign.
The crowd began to applaud and cheer. Some cooed over the "peace dog." There wasn't a single heckler.
Among those applauding were John and Thelma Steward of Aliso Viejo, who came to watch their niece's high school band.
"You can be a patriot and be for peace," Thelma said. Among the many military themes in the parade, the peace group showed "a balanced message," her husband said.
Bernstein met the group about halfway and was greeted with hugs and handshakes. She was wearing a purple hat and a denim dress with several hand-painted messages, including "Peace is the answer."
By then others had joined the march, and the peace delegation was close to 30 people.
"After 38 years," Bernstein said, "this is so gratifying."
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times