Sunday, July 1, 2001; 10:00 AM

It can happen anytime, anywhere. On a tree-shaded street in a 1960s suburb, or an interstate highway in the '80s South. At a Marine graduation at Parris Island, or the birth of a first son in a Miami maternity ward. It could even be happening at a movie theater near you. Five writers show that quintessentially American moments come in surprising shapes and colors. Thing about them is, you know one when you see one.

Uniform of Honor

By Ana Veciana-Suarez

On a sweltering summer day we head north from the southernmost tip of America in a caravan of cars loaded with all the accoutrements needed for a family outing into the unknown. Somebody has brought a big thermos of cafe con leche, someone else several bakery boxes of guava pastries. In the blue Igloo cooler, cans of Coca-Cola and Materva grow cold. We are aiming for Parris Island, a spit of land in South Carolina where our country's few and proud are trained. My nephew, Juan Andres, is graduating from Marine basic training. Seventeen and just out of a Catholic prep school, he's never been away from home. So for the past 13 weeks, as he has endured the toughest basic training dished out by any of the U.S. armed forces, the family in Miami -- aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents -- have made sure Juan Andres is the star of every barracks mail call. Now a whole platoon of us -- 21 by actual count -- are caravaning up the long spine of Florida, through the red clay of Georgia and into the Carolina marshes. Notoriety precedes us. No other recruit, his drill sergeant claims, has had as many relatives attend the ceremony. We hope Juan Andres is as proud of us as we are of him. Though I have to admit, only to myself, in the back of my mind, that this large, clamoring crowd of tias and tios chattering in Spanish does have a certain potential for embarrassment from the point of view of a teenage recruit.

We've been told to dress casually and to wear red, the color of his platoon. Days before we left, I scrambled to make sure all of us would display a bright proclamation of this hue. Inspired by renewed patriotic fervor, we also bought little American flags.

The morning of the ceremony dawns hot and humid. In the lobby of the motel, we gather for breakfast and discuss the day's strategy. Can we clap during the ceremony? Should we cheer? Shout out his name? Boost the younger children on our shoulders so they can admire their brave cousin as he marches by?

Heaven knows we don't want to do the wrong thing. Already, we have managed to draw attention during our overnight stay in the quaint little town of Beaufort. It was impossible to ignore the hard, popping sound of our Cuban Spanish against the sweet Southern drawl that surrounded it.

In the midst of our discussion, I look across the carpeted lobby and spot my father. He squints into the distance, looking lost. He is wearing -- oh my God! No! -- black nylon socks and strappy sandals with white Bermuda-length shorts and a paisley print jersey shirt buttoned snugly against his ample belly. His legs are whiter than a Canadian tourist's. Tacky, and not even a touch of red.

"Is he in his underwear?" my husband whispers as he follows my stare. I'm speechless. I nudge my sister, who elbows my other sister, a chain reaction through my generation's stronghold.

"He can't go out like that," gasps one of us.

We decide to mount an assault, but the ambush fails to persuade. He cannot understand why we think he needs to change -- and pronto!

"You're wearing dress socks with sandals!" I sputter. "And those shorts look like your boxers."

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