They came from Bethesda and Baltimore, Washington and West Virginia to march in the kind of parade that has gone out of style in much of modern-day America.

They stepped and strutted from one end of Potomac Street to the other -- a dazzling display of baton twirlers, honor guards, marching bands, fire companies, drummers and buglers and assorted theme floats -- 82 units in all. Brunswick's pageant of patriotism is, they say here without fear of contradiction, the largest Veterans Day parade in the state of Maryland if not the entire East Coast.

Over the years, the parade has grown from a strictly local affair to a regional event drawing participants from far beyond the town boundaries. As the number of such celebrations elsewhere has dwindled, veterans, families, friends and supporters have come from across the state and beyond to march and compete for cash prizes that this year totaled $2,200.

The significance of the celebration was underscored today not only by the array of units participating from near and far but also by the presence of politicians. There were Maryland Comptroller Louis Goldstein, U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) and even Robert A. Pascal, the Anne Arundel County executive, a Republican who is considering running for governor next year.

"It's a good place to be if you're looking for people to say hi to," said Pascal. "These are my kind of people -- hard-working, love the out-of-doors."

Today's parade was the 49th veterans parade in Brunswick. The first was held here in 1932, shortly after the founding of Steadman-Keenan American Legion Post 96, which sponsors the event. The town missed one year during the gas-rationing days of World War II, they say.

In those decades this town 55 miles up the Potomac from Washington has had its ups and downs, as the railroad employment rolls that keep it alive have risen and fallen. After remaining around the 3,000 mark for years, the town's population rose in the 1970s by 50 percent, the result of an influx of Washington commuters occupying 470 new houses built on the slopes above the old downtown.

These "outlanders" from the suburbs, as they are known, have yet to make their presence felt in any great numbers in local organizations and politics. On the parade route, however, the Washington suburbs were well represented. From Suitland's American Legion Post to the Poolesville High School band to T. E. Harrison and his 1937 Chevy coupe from Falls Church, the Beltway culture found its way here.

In a sense, Brunswick is everyone's main street, a Norman Rockwell painting of brick storefronts and frame houses where the Legion hall is a center of social activity and community spirit.

So before and after the parade, they all came to the Legion building by the train tracks, movers and shakers and just plain folks.

"It's a plain German town, being proud of what they are," said Williard W. Barger, the mayor pro tem. "All in all, it's a town where people stick together," said his companion, Mayor Jess Orndorff, who boasted that Brunswick has just seen its first million-dollar municipal budget.

Most of the active veterans here fought in World War II, a fact that worries people like Ruth Rose Hamilton, 65, a Woman's Army Corps master sergeant in World II and Korea and a past commander of the Brunswick Legion post.

"We have quite a few Vietnam veterans, but they're mostly, pardon my expression, bar members," she said. "We need them to learn how to come in and take over our club. We can't seem to get them interested."

In defense of his generation, 34-year-old Douglas Henley, Maryland state Legion commander and a Vietnam Navy veteran from Mount Airy, said, "The fellows are just getting situated now, raising families, coming out of the ground, so to speak. They are just getting to the point where they can contribute."

In remarks he delivered to assembled dignitaries before the parade, Henley declared that "a new pride is emerging across the nation. America's veterans are both the source and subject of much of this pride.

"When the popular view was to disparage the nation and its causes, the veterans held true," he said. "When the nation's mood grew pessimistic and turned inwards, the veterans resisted the trend. And now that the country once again feels renewed pride in itself and is unifying against affronts to both its citizenry and its sovereignty and independence, the nation's veterans are in the forefront."

The majority of today's marchers, however, were not veterans but young people. They included "tiny tots" as young as 4 from the Loudoun County Marionettes, struggling to hold batons almost as large as they were, and the Brunswick Future Farmers of America, high school students, who won a prize for their float showing a cornucopia with the message, "America -- the Land of Plenty. It Was Worth the Fight."

Other winners included a group of square dancers promenading to "God Bless America" and a Myersville, Md., church float in the shape of a water mill with the words, "Let God's Love Flow."

For many the annual parade has become not just a celebration but a homecoming -- an occasion for Brunswick's native sons and daughters to return for family visits.

On hand for today's homecoming were 20 descendants of Leonard Smith, an 18th century surveyor who had laid out the town and acquired 280 acres parts of which he subdivided and sold. They came from as far away as New York state and as close as Frederick. Among them was Helen Muse, Smith's great-great-great-great-granddaughter, who lives in Baltimore. It was her first Brunswick parade and she loved it.

Sipping a beer in front of the Metropolitan Tavern along the parade route was Jeanette Cataldi, who left here in 1945 for Harrisburg, Pa., where she married and raised a family. Still, she said, "every year that I can, I come back for the parade. It's reliving my childhood. I marched in this parade in 1940."

"I never miss it," said David Moss, 37, who had come home from Hagerstown, where he manages a paint store. "This is bigger even than the homecoming at the high school. You'll never find a smaller town with a bigger heart."

With Moss was his sister, Mary Bohrer, 23, with her two young daughters, visiting from Kearneysville, W.Va. She was the parade queen twice in the early '70s and has made it a point to come back every year since.

"This parade has been a landmark for us," said Moss. As he spoke, a Confederate contingent on the line of march fired off its blank cannon.

"Thank God we don't have to go through that in this country," Moss said. "Only in celebrations, right?"

Back at the Legion hall, they danced to Sonny Prudham and the Good Ole Boys. In a room nearby, the professional judges imported from Pennsylvania completed their work.

"I don't know how you do it," Bob Brady, a judge from Pittsburgh, said to Jim Roby, parade coordinator. "The big thing is you have the cooperation of the people. Nobody gives you a bad time. You don't have any of those smart- . . . city people."