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Under a Single Flag

March 20, 2004

Despite its reputation for wackiness, Laguna Beach engages every March in a tradition so Middle American it makes apple pie look exotic. The Patriot's Day parade exudes small-town Americana: local marching bands, antique cars, bystanders waving tiny flags, plus a bunting-draped reviewing stand.

This year, the 38-year-old parade was as patriotic as ever. Maybe more so. For the first time, parade organizers extended their definition of patriotism to allow another local institution, the Laguna Peace Vigil, to march.

To call the vigil an organization might be exaggerating. Over the decades, especially at times of American military action, an evolving crew of characters has gathered by the beach along Pacific Coast Highway in downtown Laguna, holding antiwar and related signs. They were there for the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War, and, for the last two years, a steady little group has appeared each Saturday morning to oppose military intervention in Iraq.

Vigil organizers had asked to join the parade before, but always were turned down as being "too political." This year, they had an unlikely ally: Charles Quilter, parade association president, former Marine pilot and veteran of the wars in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and, yes, most recently, Iraq.

"I don't think there is anybody who is more for peace than a combat veteran who has lost friends like I have," Quilter said.

Marching two weeks ago behind a banner saying, "Peace Is Patriotic," the activists braced for the heckling they regularly endure -- or perhaps worse, cold silence. Instead, they were greeted by cheers in most places along the route. Parade watchers didn't necessarily agree with their politics, but they agreed that patriotism can take many forms. In perhaps its greatest form, it respects and encourages vigorous debate and divergent viewpoints. Now that doesn't sound too wacky.

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