Every year in May, a handful of true believers makes a pilgrimage to the cemetery here where Sen. Joe McCarthy is buried. The mourners join in prayers, applaud speeches, salute the stars and stripes. Then they repair for food and drink at a nearby motel restaurant, lost on a road where the buildings are all cinderblock and plywood.

This year's memorial rite was a special one. Last Sunday was the 25th anniversary of McCarthy's death. It was a cool day, but the sun was out and the trees were in bud. Someone had put a bright yellow nosegay on McCarthy's gray headstone, which stands off to one edge of the graveyard where the land falls away to the Fox River.

It was an absurdly tranquil, pastoral setting in which to find a Marine Corps color guard; a red-eyed, cigar-chomping retired Air Force chaplain, and 80-odd faithful souls staring at a sign planted in the grass: "Who killed McCarthy? . . . What murderous gang committed this murder?"

There were no veterans on hand from his great days in Washington. There were no Roy Cohns, no G. David Schines. No present elected office-holder was there, either, although Tom Bergen, a Milwaukee lawyer who had debated with McCarthy in college, read an embarrassment of letters from politicians explaining why they couldn't make it.

Only plain folks still turn out for old Joe: people who, for the most part, dress up in polyester suits, rinse their hair with blue tint and maybe carry a copy of The Spotlight tucked under their arms. People who have managed, somehow, to keep a flame alive for 25 years, and who are willing to drive hundreds of miles on a day in May to fan it once again. People who dread the menace of communism and, I sensed, need it desperately.

There was Harold Novakofski, a 69-year- old local sport who pedaled a beat-up orange one-speed to the cemetery. He wore a felt baseball cap trimmed with an Army patch he'd worn on his shoulder in 1941. Novakofski is fond of such emblems and signs; he likes to gather them up and lay them out in patterns.

On the back of a check, he sketched for me a cabalistic configuration that drew, among other reference points, on the two poles, the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, the Wisconsin-Minnesota border and the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston. It foretold, he said, the fate of the planet: "You want to hear how World War III is going to get started? You're standing right on the spot of it."

Novakoski has a strong sense of past grandeur, and Joe McCarthy is a part of that. "I'm here because I was born across the river," he said. "This area is significant in my life. In 1632 or thereabouts, Marquette and Joliet walked along this very bluff where McCarthy is buried. . . . Men made history by walking this bluff."

Sixteen-year-old Martina Horn of Grays Lake, Ill., was more matter-of-fact about her beliefs. She came decked out in schoolgirl clothes -- a red-white-and-blue sailor dress -- but said she wasn't happy about learning in the public system. She is upset about a single English teacher at her school who was allowed to teach throughout a pregnancy, about football players "into the drug culture," about "how they've slanted the history books."

"It's kind of hard to see the disgusting things that are going on and not know what's behind it," she said soberly. "Most of my friends don't really know much about McCarthy, or if they do, all they know is the so-called witchhunts, through the history classes. I think it's good that the people here are trying to keep him alive in a good name. They're smearing him in the presses. They won't let him die."

If Martina Horn acquired her hard-core anti-communism from her parents, another of McCarthy's mourners, Albertine Roze, picked it up first-hand from the Soviets. This 73-year-old Latvian immigrant who now lives in Battle Creek, Mich., fled her homeland in 1949, she said, after her husband was shipped off to a labor camp.

"I started in Mississippi cotton fields," she recalled. "I picked cotton all day, sweat pouring and sack behind me, and I earned $5. My mother was deathly sick, and when I took her to the hospital, the penicillin shot cost $5.

"Because I had lived one year under communist occupation in Russia, I wanted to find what Americans knew about communism. In Mississippi, I looked in the papers and all I found was McCarthy. He was the one man for whom I have --how to say? -- respect.

"Later, I was amazed by how that man McCarthy was mistreated. Who is without mistakes? Maybe he has some mistakes, but it is my prediction that one day a monument will be made to him."

There were those, like the woman across from me at dinner, who fussed that the guest speaker looked suspiciously as if he might be Jewish. (He turned out to be a second-generation Italian American, a Roman Catholic.)

There were charming old ladies wearing fake pearl chokers who had heard disturbing rumors about LSD hidden in the glue on the back of stamps. There were John Birchers primed on the perils of sex education. Yes, people even talked about fluoride in the water.

Everything McCarthy's devotees did and said here last Sunday suggested they belonged in an earlier, simplier time, when being American meant being part of something great and shining. America prospered then, America won its wars, and these people -- or their husbands, or their fathers -- came home from their war in glory, expecting to inherit the world. But all they got were mortgages, workaday jobs and basements that leak whenever it rains.

It's tough to be an American these days. We don't win wars any more, and we can't be too cheerful about the economy. It may be scary to chalk these things up to communism or Jews or fluoridation, but it's easier than admitting that we ought to take a good, hard look at the way we live.

Joe McCarthy destroyed a lot of lives, but he gave life to these people. And what difference does it make if they still gather by the river in a blaze of paranoia every year? They hold no power, set no policy, devise no programs. They just hand out gibberish tracts that few will ever read and fewer still believe.

There was a time to despise McCarthy and his dupes, but that was long ago. Now is the time for pity.