The return of the native had been anticipated for months. He didn't exactly come in on a Trailways with his cuff snagged and a straw suitcase in his freckled paw. He arrived to sirens and churchbells. People stood in window wells and people watched with binoculars from the roof of Gatti's Pharmacy. They held up babies and they held up old issues of Life magazine and they took pictures with Kodak Disk 4000s.

Jimmy Stewart was home, back in Indiana, the burg where he learned the true meaning of life and where his father had the hardware on Philadelphia Street and sold bamboo rakes for 75 cents. This time he was home for his 75th birthday, and only the whole county had turned out for the party.

The birthday boy was an old man now with white hair and a hearing aid and a kind of slackness to his walk. Sometimes his sentences seemed to shuffle off into nowhere. But he still had the cockeyed grin, and he was still a string bean, and, best of all, there was about him yet the recoiling modesty and winning stammer that always made you think, watching him on a screen, that he must have come from a place like this, hailed from a town like this, as they used to say in Frank Capra pictures.

"Well," he said, clearing his throat, wagging his noggin, "this is, um, turning out to be, um, an extraordinary birthday, and I must say, I've, um, had my share of them." Then he sat down next to his wife. He had on a plaid coat and a polka-dot tie, which is probably what George Bailey would have worn in these circumstances. That would have been in a movie called "It's a Wonderful Life."

All weekend the fest went on. It was hard to tell whether they were doing this for him or he was doing it for them. They laid bromides and encomiums and keys to the city on him like Kleenex. "Everything has been timed down to the minute," said the vice president of the executive committee, and it was. The veep's name is Ron Thomas and he managed to keep the hard-charging Central Pennsylvania press at bay. "Good time to have those telephoto lenses, fellows," he said. The state senator came, and so did the state rep, and so did the president of the borough council all brought together by committee president Linda J. Moore. "This community is once again on the map of the world," said one orator.

There were parades and air shows. There were harness races at the fair grounds and there were ribbon cuttings at the waterworks. The incomparable Queen Evergreen presented a fledgling Christmas tree. (Indiana, in addition to being Jimmy's home town, is famed as the Christmas Tree Capital of the World.) "This beautiful tree will be shipped to your home next week," she promised.

And of course there was singing. Christina Fucile fluttered pulses with "God Bless America," and, not to be outdone, the celebrant himself sang "Ragtime Cowboy Joe." This was at the ice rink, accompanied by the Sweet Adelines (who had sold cookies downtown during the parade). It was corny and wonderful and American, it was life imitating the kind of art they don't make anymore. Only Jean Arthur and Thomas Mitchell seemed missing.

But the apex came Saturday at noon with the unveiling of a statue on the courthouse lawn, a highly secretive statue that will memorialize in bronze perpetuity all the adoration of a town for its most famous son. They did it with a rope and hook and ladder, yanking the cover off to oohs and aahs. The cover was held in place by clear plastic tape and a piece of clothesline. The russet drape went up into the treetops and there underneath was a nine-foot likeness of just plain Jim in an old fedora, hand stuck in his pants pocket. A minute earlier Air Force jets had screamed overhead, drowning out the president of the United States, who had phoned in with his voice wired to a loudspeaker. "Ron, I mean Mr. President," Stewart said.

"Can you hear me, Jimmy?" the president crackled.

"That was some of your defense, sir," said Stewart. "And they looked awfully good."

Actually the nine-foot statue turned out not to be the real one--it was only the artist's studio model. They weren't able to get the permanent one done on time; this one was made of an inferior bronze not suitable for outdoors.

"Look," confided the sculptor, a likable fellow named Malcolm Alexander who had flown in from California, "if you're going to have a ceremony like this, you have to have something under there." He invited a visitor to rap it. "Go ahead, it's solid as hell. If you had it inside, it would last forever." The real McCoy would be in place in four months, he promised. In fact, he said, by tonight this one would be on its way to the foundry in upstate New York. And he was right: if you drove by a few hours later, there was no statue to be seen.

But what did it matter, any more than the on-again off-again inclement weather? It was intention that counted here. "Mr. Stewart, we love you very much, but we especially love you because you loved us first," summed up one Indianian. That seemed to say it perfectly, though no more perfectly perhaps than the actor's own hesitant eloquence. "This is where I sort of made up my mind about things, about hard work and the value of it, about family, about community and the place of the church in a fellow's life," he drawled, saying it with his gray eyes blinking and his pink skin growing pinker. He didn't tug on his ear, though he might have. Then he told them about his favorite movie, "It's a Wonderful Life." It didn't come from a book, it didn't come from a play, he said. "It came from one small statement: Nobody is born to be a failure."

Perhaps what we find so appealing about him is his seeming utter naturalness, his plainness, even when he played uncommon men like Lindbergh and Glenn Miller. It has never seemed like he was acting. And so, too, his home town. Indiana is like a Grover's Corners of the mind, a Hopkins Falls of the imagination, so immediately reassuring on first entry that you'd almost swear you once lived here yourself. Even the ride over from Pittsburgh seems full of de'ja vu: you climb through alfalfa and a village called Homer City, then come in by the fairgrounds and the roller rink, made entirely of wood, wheezing now against time, outfitted for something else.

Surely, somebody made up these names: Troutman's department store; Stan Honacki's insurance agency; Delaney, Vuckovich & Delaney, counselors at law. The newspaper is called the Evening Gazette and it's on Water Street. Over on Church, fine old Victorian clapboards with canvas awnings and spreading porches sit back from yards scented with dogwood. Downtown, on Philadelphia, which is the main drag, a buzzer goes off at intervals and then shoppers cross the street in every direction--but not until. There are 41 churches in this town of 16,000 people. People believe here. At night the clean smell of farmers' meadows comes right up to the door of your hotel.

But when you look again, you see empty storefronts with FOR LEASE signs in them; decaying bars; stories in the paper about crime and unemployment; the garish strip out on Rte. 119; an old man leading a mule through town with peach baskets on either side of its withers--perhaps a kind of Indiana equivalent of a bag lady. Pittsburgh is about 65 miles west, but it gets closer every year. Main Street is still here in Indiana, Pa., but it's a little more complicated.

Practically every merchant in town has a "WELCOME HOME JIMMY" message pasted in the window or lettered out front on a rollaway sign. At Burger King though, the message says: "Coming: 'Return of the Jedi' glasses."

"My husband, he's a framer, he framed the letter from the president," says Sandy Anderson, who has lived in town 20 years. "Black wood with silver on it." Don't forget to come to the air show Sunday, she says. "My son's in charge."

People seem so friendly, so ready to talk, just give them an opening.

"No, we didn't go to the festivities today," said a man at the mall Saturday night. "Stayed home and watched it on TV. We live about 12 miles out of town. Yes, like to come here to shop. This is the biggest mall around. Oh, you can go to Greensburg and they have one there, what we call Green Gate. That's on Route 30. Otherwise you have to drive to Pittsburgh. Wouldn't want to do that.

"I'm retired. Used to be a school man. Elementary, by the way. Been retired 10 years. My wife said, 'You'll be crawling up the walls by the time winter comes.' I got through fine. This is the first year we didn't go to Florida. Have a little trailer and just drive it all around the state. Don't like your neighbors, you just pick up and go someplace else. Pretty nice. We like it over by Cypress Gardens. Oh, we just like to do so many things together. Seems like there's always someplace to go. That's the secret, you know: keep busy and get along with the missus."

On the belfry of the old courthouse, now a bank headquarters, there's a giant white V lit with bulbs, a replica of the V that Alex Stewart put up when his son Jim came home from the war. Jim had flown 25 missions in a B-24 Liberator and had made colonel. Life magazine followed him home and put him on the cover in his uniform that September, 1945. He looked smashing, too. He was still a bachelor and Hedda Hopper, for one, kept asking when he'd take a bride. He took one, Gloria Hatrick McLean. He can't remember when he first met her, though he thinks they sat next to each other at a party at Gary Cooper's. Jimmy didn't say much. He married her on Aug. 9, 1949, and promptly brought her home to Indiana.

The Stewart family, if truth be told, was never really the common folk of Indiana, at least not in Jimmy's time. They lived above the town, literally. The family homestead was at 104 N. Seventh. And it's still there at the crest of Vinegar Hill, demanding 53 puffs to get to the top of what everybody calls "The Stewart Steps," but when you get there you have a fine view of town. From photographs, old man Stewart looks a little like the despised Potter of "It's a Wonderful Life," played to perfection by Lionel Barrymore. Alex Stewart had enough dough to breed fine trotters and send his son to Mercersburg Academy and, later, Princeton. Jimmy was never destined to attend the local normal college. He was destined to get into the Triangle Club and make friends with Leonard Firestone.

Sadly, the J.M. Stewart hardware purveyors of horse brushes and railroad chalk and lye soap, doesn't exist anymore. The Savings & Trust is on the spot now. Jimmy's grandfather, for whom the actor is named, started the store in 1853. Jimmy's dad had it until he was 88. He stayed in it so long, he always said, because he figured his son would one day come home from that dream factory place and find himself in need of a real job. The hardware store was sold in 1968 for $60,000. Alex sleeps now in Greenwood Cemetery. "My dad didn't understand acting. He didn't understand Hollywood," Jimmy Stewart said once. "He and my mother were out several times, with my sisters and all, but I don't believe he was ever comfortable. But he accepted it. I loved my dad. My mother, bless her heart, loved the movies and tried to set him straight, as she would wont to do." One night in 1940, Alex Stewart put in a coast-to-coast call to his son. It was 4 a.m. California time. Jimmy Stewart had just won the Academy Award for "The Philadelphia Story." "I hear you won some kind of award. What was it, a plaque or something?" said his father. "Well, anyway, you better bring it back here and we'll put it in the window of the store."

It was there 25 years.

Kids. Heather Richman and Carolyn Runco, sixth graders, are having a cherry Coke and a Sprite in a downtown restaurant called the Classroom. They sit at a table acting very grown up. Heather, a redhead, thinks she'll be an architect someday. Her father has Blatt's True Value Hardware down the street. Carolyn, a brunette, figures she'll be an actress, a jazz singer on the radio, "or maybe a hair stylist." She has a terry cloth sweatband around her forehead like Cher might wear. The two are students at Horace Mann Elementary, out now for the week. Yes, Jimmy is okay. They like Michael Jackson better. "You do know who he is," says Carolyn.

"Indiana's pretty boring," says Heather. "It's not like Los Angeles." Her grandparents live there; she has glimpsed the high life.

"If I wasn't staying over at Heather's tonight, I'd probably ask my mom if I could go to a mall and buy something," says Carolyn. Her face bulbs with a new thought: "Say, do they have friendship pins in Washington, D.C.?"

Not sure, it is admitted. What are they?

"You get colored beads at a craft store and put them on safety pins and then wear them on your sneakers," explains Heather. "I think they're wearing out now."

"Yes," says Carolyn, "they were big a month ago."

"Miniskirts are very big now," says Heather. She giggles. She is wearing fancy coveralls.

Yet another thought has bulbed in Carolyn: "Is Indiana big where you live?"

Not awfully, it is admitted, though would that something could be done about it.

"I think Jimmy's over there inside that rabbit," says Heather, pointing to a giant upright creation near the door. The rabbit is wearing tennis shoes and a tie and is supposed to be Harvey, Elwood P. Dowd's famous friend (in "Harvey," Stewart played a lovable loony who talks to an invisible rabbit. It is probably his most famous role.)

"I think it's new wave art," says Carolyn.

Friday night at 6 o'clock the honoree went out to the Indiana Mall to cut a ribbon and open a film festival. They delivered him in a van trailed by a Lincoln that still had the sticker price in the window: $19,921. Security rode in the Lincoln; Stewart rode in the van. He was going on to a dinner-dance at the civic center, and so he had on a blue suit with a white corsage. Curled around his right ear was an ivory knob, his hearing device.

A shopping mall seemed depressingly wrong. Wrong with its four spiffy identical theaters lined side by side, like big closets, each with their premolded seats and orange acoustic walls. One doesn't want a Jimmy Stewart film festival to open at a Cinema IV. One wants to watch "Rear Window" and "Bend of the River" in a rococo palace with an organ rising out of the floor and girls hawking Lucky Strike between features.

Never mind. He cut the ribbon, told laconic stories, tried to slip out a back door into the mall. Down he went, past Peanut Shack and Super Check Restaurant and Shackleford's and Maxwell's Flowers, gathering his townsmen with every step. Obligingly, he stopped to pose with the mogul who had developed the mall.

Inside, "The Spirit of St. Louis" was just starting. It cost $1. That movie is the story of a laconic string bean who strapped himself into a little piece of wood and steel and canvas, and against all odds lifted it out of Long Island dark and mud, bound for Paris.

Just as Stewart was bringing his craft down the Seine, having fought sleep all the way across the Atlantic, the film broke. They started it up and it snapped again. After a while they got it going for good.

Next door Cheech and Chong and "Spacehunter in 3-D" were playing.

At the fairgrounds on Saturday afternoon a man stood behind a mike in front of scores of scouts.

"Who's our favorite movie star?" he cried.

"Jimmy," they cried. (This was rehearsal for the real thing, to come shortly.)

"And who's our favorite general?"

"Jimmy."

"And who's our favorite scout from Indiana, Pennsylvania?"

"Jimmy."

"All together now," the scoutmaster cried. Everybody went "HOW!!!"

A few feet away, a troop mother was selling pictures of Jimmy in his scouting uniform. He made Eagle, of course, a visitor ventured.

"Actually, only second class," the woman said. "But he did get the Silver Beaver."

The mystery is how did he get from here to there, from a town in the hills of western Pennyslvania to film immortality? That is the mystery of any kind of leap, though in Stewart's case he seems to have done it by just being himself and, of course, getting very lucky. The myth about small towns in American life is that they they contain the secret flame that fuels greatness, and that a small-town boy who goes to the city will someday, someway, get back. Lately, Jimmy Stewart has been saying he might like to get back for good. He says it wistfully, searchingly, and the temptation, almost, is to believe him. "I've been thinking about it," he says. "I wouldn't be surprised if I did." If Gerald Ford said this about Grand Rapids, one might be tempted to hoot. But then Jimmy Carter went home.

"I guess it's the character," Stewart said this weekend. "It's the sample you take with you wherever you go." So in that sense, he's never been away.