WEST POINT

You got a lump in your throat when the motorcade of the freed hostages crept along Main Street in this small, Hudson River village just outside the West Point gate. You couldn't help it. The cheers of the crowd were thunderous, the tears genuine. Even the drunks rushed out of a bar singing "God Bless America."

Everyone sensed that something momentous had happened, something different and badly needed: it was a fine moment for America.

I was in Saigon six years ago just before it fell, and choppering out of that frantic, smoking city gave you a lump in your throat, too, but it was a bitter lump that stayed bitter over the years.

They have been years during which America never fully recovered from the wrecking of its honor and moral purpose in the rice fields of Asia. So many died and were maimed there, for what? And when we left in panic, it was a shabby disgrace because we left behind tens of thousands who had staked their lives on our cause.

After that there was the Mayaguez and our soldiers died. There was an oil crisis in the Middle East that cuts into everybody's paycheck and that we couldn't control. Soviet tanks rumbled into Afghanistan and we couldn't stop them. Finally, for 444 terrible days, we couldn't do anything but watch as our countrymen were held captive during a long period of national disgrace.

Now, it has ended well and with honor, and today in the streets and shops of this village, you can feel the love of country as a palpable thing. It is not hostile or warlike, but simply joyous.

The homecoming of the freed hostages has become the occasion for an unprecedented patriotic celebration in this tiny village, as across America.

"I got so excited I had goose bumps," said Winnie Gee as she was serving breakfast yesterday morning at Bev & Lynn's eatery. She was talking to Normal Drew, the town clerk. "It was better than the Fourth of July parade, Norm, even though you're in charge and it's a dandy parade."

"The young people were out there, too, and that's what got me," put in Lee Dapra, who was having a cup of coffee with Drew.

Ernie Conlie, 41, has lived here all his life. He owns a men's clothing store, Shorter's, on Main Street, and he says Highland Falls has never seen anything like this before. "The last excitement I can remember like this was when I was a child and Eisenhower returned to West Point after World War II," he said, adding, "but there wasn't nearly the turnout then." w

When you talk to people here, you feel like you're walking through the streets of Thornton's play "Our Town," which captures the simple and good side of American life. Here today you sense a yearning for that kind of goodness, a revulsion at the violence and insanity of world events.

Here is Richard P. Limato, the young principal of the elementary school at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church on Main Street: "It means a return of national pride, something we've been missing for a long time, and people are really beginning to feel good about their country . . . yesterday while I was watching the hostages return to West Point, we were surrounded by strangers, yet everyone was so comfortable with everyone and there was a stong feeling and strong spirit among the people. I said to myself, 'It feels great to say you are an American!'"

Stylish Mary Lou Bullotta runs ML Hair Designers on Main Street and she was serving free champagne out front as the freed hostages came through town Sunday. Yesterday she was asked for the meaning of the event. "The war is over," she said, without hesitation. "It's like a strength that came out of the people, a companionship. It is incredible, a good feeling with everyone sharing something."

There were apparently some who feel bitter rather than joyous, and that was evident in at least one sign along the parade route Sunday: "May God Damn that Man In Iran." Another somewhat bellicose sign said: "No More Mr. Nice Guy."

But those were exceptions. Far more numerous were the signs welcoming the hostages home and celebrating the freedom enjoyed by Americans. "Freedom -- How Sweet It Is," proclaimed a big red banner still flying over one town shop yesterday. The white clapboard house at 116 Main St. had a yellow sign on the front door reading quaintly but clearly, "Free To Be You and Me! Praise Be!"

The return of the freed hostages has penetrated deep into family life. "I was there with my daughter and husband, I want my daughter to remember this day forever," said Linda Freson, a secretary in the village mayor's office. "That night she said,"Mommie, I wonder what the hostages are dreaming about?' I said, 'They're dreaming they're still in prison.'"

Freson is a naturalized citizen, a former Cuban who has lived in the United States eight years. "I had a taste of what it's like to live in a revolutionary country, so I value America," she said. "For me, it [the hostages' release] means something very special -- the freedom you have here that you don't have anywhere else."

She thought for a moment and then added: "The only sad thing is the Vietnam veterans and POW's didn't really get a reception like this -- they suffered for no cause at all becasue it was a waste."

Tony Servedio was tending bar inside the Hotel Thayer on Sunday night and recalled that the former hostages who chated with him "couldn't believe it, they couldn't believe there were wall-to-wall people all the way from Stewart field. One told me he got about halfway here and he started crying. He was just overwhelmed with emotion."

The mayor of this village has a beard and bears a slight resemblance to Abe Lincoln. His name is Ben Eazzetta, and when he's not being mayor, he's foreman of a brick laying crew over at West Point. He was asked if he could see any meaning beyond today's emotion and hoopla and he said:

"I think it's gonna last. I think oher countries are going to realize that our little communities all over the U.S. are tightly knit. If the whole U.S. can think this much of 52 people, then other countries should be aware of the fact that this is a hell of a great country that's going to stick together."