Five weeks ago he had said he wanted to chase women. Drink. Eat home cooking. And in between -- sleep, just sleep.

Former hostage Sgt. John D. McKeel Jr.'s off-the-cuff remarks were an open invitation. Now the women are chasing him. The liquor hasn't stopped flowing. Some of the nation's most famed restaurants have filled his plate from breakfast to dinner. The only item that's been neglected is the sleep.

McKeel's 17-year-old brother, Todd, said the family has seen little of "Johnny" since he returned home from his 444-day ordeal as one of the American hostages in Iran. John McKeel, one of nine children, lives in the small community of Balch Springs, Tex., outside of Dallas.

The five weeks of royal treatment given McKeel since his release took a new turn Sunday with the stoic marine reigning as an official "king." For one day, the 27-year-old staff seargeant was declared ruler of a party kingdom, a day of festivities in the New Orleans Mardi Gras season.

Eight of his ex-hostage marine buddies accompanied McKeel as guests of one of the city's largest Mardi Gras social clubs, the Krewe of Bacchus. Another 14 former captives are participating in the Mardi Gras activities, compliments of a local radio station.

The Bacchus festivities contrasted sharply with other celebrations that have greeted the former hostages. There have been no formal receptions. No stiff press conferences. No probing questions from government officials or reporters.

Just a movable feast of kisses from adoring women, pails of champagne, mounds of shrimp and other southern delicacies -- leading up to the all-day Mardi Gras street party today.

"We're here for eating, drinking, resting and having a good time," said State Department employe Malcolm Kalp of Fairfax, Va. "That's what Mardi Gras is all about, right?"

Kalp also downplayed the celebrity status of the group. And, as if to support his statement, most of the ex-hostages were on the other side of the cameras this weekend. Clicking pictures of gaudy parade floats. Snapping shots of Mom and Dad against the backdrop of ballroom pagentry. Posing in frantic embraces with girlfriends. "

I've never seen anything like it," said one ex-hostage as he watched the parade crowd showered with tin doubloons and colorful Mardi Gras beads.

Sunday night the nine marines led an 83-unit parade of towering floats and flamboyant marching bands through the posh New Orleans uptown district of stately mansions to the edge of the historic French Quarter.

The former hostages eagerly swapped the doubloons for kisses from giggling women along the parade route. Men lining the streets tossed cans of cold beer up to the smiling marines.

McKeel shunned the traditional glittering King Bacchus robe, riding atop the "god's" float in his marine dress uniform. The eight other marines also wore their dress blues for the parade.

The Krewe of Bacchus is one of about 65 social organizations that exist in New Orleans solely for the purpose of staging elaborate parades and balls during the 12-day Carnival season which ends on Mardi Gras Day today. The Bacchus parade is one of the most elaborate. This year's parade festivities cost members of the organization more than $1 million.

The idea of inviting the hostages came up after a New Orleans friend of the McKeel family asked the organization for complimentary tickets to allow McKeel family asked the organization for complimentary tickets to allow McKeel and his mother to attend the Bacchus ball. The group not only responded with tickets for McKeel, but asked him to serve as king and bring his marine pals with him as his court.

The parade, however, was marred by a shooting incident involving a plainclothes New Orleans policeman, who was suspended without pay according to a department spokesman, for "deviating from department policy regarding the use of firearms." A high-school band drum major and a spectator who suffered bullet wounds were reported in stable condition. The incident, which began when the policeman became involved in a scuffle with a man clearing spectators out of the path of a band, occurred away from the floats carrying McKeel and the eight other marines.

The parade was a boisterous prelude to festivities at the Carnival ball that followed. Several of the former hostages quickly began living up to the reputation set by McKeel. But it wasn't the elegant women in flowing evening gowns that caught the eye of two of the marines. Instead, they turned their attention on two waitresses charged with emptying champagne bottles.

Within minutes of introductory remarks, the two had been invited to private parties with the marines and their families after the ball.

"I don't see why we shouldn't go," one happily told a Bacchus official. "I mean, we've done nothing but work all night while everyone else has enjoyed the music and the food. We should have a chance for a little fun, too."

And while the others were enjoying the chase, at least one of the former hostages ended his career of chasing women Saturday.

In an almost fairy-tale setting amid the Mardi Gras revelry, Rodney (Rocky) Sickmann of Kracow, Mo., proposed to his sweetheart, 19-year-old Jill Ditch, a native of Augusta, Mo. The 23-year-old Sickmann presented an engagement ring to the dark-eyed brunette shortly after she greeted him at the New Orleans airport and announced the engagement Saturday night at a dinner hosted by the Bacchus organization.

"We don't want to make a big deal out of it," said Sickmann. "We feel this is very personal and we just want to live normal lives."

This has been one helluva week-end," she added as her husband-to-be stepped off the marine float at the end of Sunday's parade.