It was unusual for Harley "Bud" Burden to kiss his wife in public, but he did Monday night as he hustled off into the pre-Thanksgiving hubbub of Baltimore-Washington International Airport to get the rental car.

It was a kiss Ferda Burden really needed, after a tough travel day (a canceled flight, a luggage mix-up, long delays), but their journey from Indiana had a happy purpose: a Thanksgiving meal and their son's big wedding in Washington on Saturday.

And even though her 79-year-old husband had been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, Ferda Burden didn't think anything of letting him handle the chore: "He seemed just fine," she said, "quite jovial."

And that was the last the family saw of him for two days. He didn't come back. Instead of preparing turkey and a wedding, she and her family were hovering by the phone, clinging to the hope he was still alive.

"I was crying and crying because I thought I'd lost him, and now I'm crying because they found him," son Ken Burden, of Silver Spring, explained to a concerned caller on the phone yesterday afternoon, moments after he got word that his father had turned up in a Fairfax County park.

The caller pressed him for details, but Burden, giddy with relief, apologized and said that "after I heard them say he'd been found, I was in a haze; I tuned everything out."

Bud Burden was found about 1:30 p.m. at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, in Centreville, just off Interstate 66. He seemed calm but confused, said park officials, who found him at the Walney Visitors Center.

"He couldn't describe clearly where he wanted to go, but he talked about BWI and Leisure World," said Leon Nawojchik, a park manager who tried to help him. "He seemed well-dressed and articulate. Just confused."

Eventually, he said, some park visitors recognized him from missing persons broadcasts on television news. Nawojchik said that Burden gave him his son's home number in Silver Spring and his work number but that he got answering machines in both places.

Fairfax County police brought Burden to the Fair Oaks substation, where they eventually figured out he was the missing man from BWI, Nawojchik said.

Just what the elder Burden did for two days, and how exactly he wound up at a Northern Virginia park may never be exactly pieced together. But the family's scare and Burden's illness are challenges facing a growing number of Americans.

An estimated 4 million Americans, including 70,000 to 80,000 residents of the Washington area, are affected by the degenerative brain disease that results in memory loss and behavioral and changes.

An estimated 60 percent to 70 percent of people with Alzheimer's will wander and after 24 hours, the odds of being found alive go down to 50 percent, said a spokeswoman with the Greater Washington chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.

Harley Burden's Alzheimer's symptoms turned up a year and a half ago, according to Ken Burden, an insurance administrator in Baltimore.

His father, who retired 20 years ago from a job as an accountant at a large corporation, began to get confused. He'd go to the store and have to call home and ask for directions, or ask his wife which way to turn, Burden said. Alzheimer's was formally diagnosed six months ago.

"But I had no idea his Alzheimer's was this bad," Burden said.

Ken Burden had not planned on his parents being alone at BWI. They were to arrive at 4:48 p.m. on a flight from Detroit, and Ken was going to meet them, help them pick up a rental car and then let them drive home behind him. But their flight was canceled and they wound up taking a later flight, which arrived at Dulles. Meanwhile, their bags had been put on a flight to BWI, so the airline sent them there in a taxi.

Ken Burden discovered the flight cancellation and went home to await a call. He returned to the airport at 8:45 to pick up his son and daughter flying in from the West Coast and got a page to come find his mother.

"She said, 'Your father went to rent the car and he's been gone a long time,' " Ken Burden recalled.

Ken Burden reported his father missing to the car rental desk and to Maryland Transportation Authority police at the airport. The rental company said that the elder Burden had called about 10 p.m. to say he was lost and to ask them to apologize to his wife. But he never turned up.

Ken Burden says he spent a sleepless night hovering by the phone. And the next two days were torture. There were points when he thought his father must have died or been killed by a carjacker.

"Then, I thought: 'The car hasn't been found abandoned or wrecked, he hasn't showed up in the hospital or the morgue. He has to be out there confused--dazed and lost,' " Burns said early yesterday afternoon. "My God, I hope I'm right."

He was, and now the wedding--a 200-person bash planned for a party cruise boat--will be especially joyous. And there will be no question what to give thanks for over today's turkey.

Staff writer Tom Jackman contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Harley "Bud" Burden, 79, of Indiana, disappeared after going to rent a car at BWI.