They broke out the first box of Kleenex about a mile out of Andrews Air Force Base.

There were about 45 people on the Metrobus yesterday, driver Gary Bartley recalled, including Vice President and Mrs. George Bush and former embassy charge d'affaires L. Bruce Laingen and his wife, Penne. They all were special passengers on a special trip from Andrews Air Force Base to the White House.

"I was kind of worried because there weren't too many people along the route up to that point," Bartley recalled last night in a conversation with a reporter. "Then we saw her. She was all alone in the middle of the road, about 75 or so, real old, you know, in a thin raincoat. She didn't have a flag or a yellow ribbon or anything. She was just standing there with her right hand over her heart."

Vice President Bush shed the first tear, Bartley recalled.

"But he wasn't the only one," he said. "You could hear sniffling all over the place after that. Women, Marines, old guys, everybody. . . Brought a tear to my own eyes, too."

Although he had to keep his eyes on the road, Bartley's ears were turned to the back of the bus.From there, he said he heard his passengers express awe at the numbers of their fellow citizens who lined the streets in the middle of the day to welcome them back to freedom.

"There were one or two who said months went by when they didn't hear from anyone and they thought they'd been forgotten," Bartley said. "They were really moved by the way folks have reacted to them since they got out of Iran."

It was, as the 20-year veteran bus driver recalls, "a really exuberant, joyful, patriotic trip. We were all just happy, you know? They were happy because there was just this outpouring of love and togetherness from other Americans, and I was happy because I was doing what I considered to be my patriotic duty -- it wouldn't matter to me if I never got paid for Tuesday.

"The vice president was really like a tour guide -- pointing out all the really interesting signs or cute kids. He kept telling the Secret Service agents to get away from the windows so the folks could see the sights."

The sights included high school bands, which inspired the passengers to burst into a rousing version of "God Bless America," and high school cheerleaders who inspired some of the young Marines to open the windows and pay a compliment or two.

They kept the windows open throughout the trip, waving to everyone along the way, and talking to the blur of faces of the people who lined the highway in clouds of yellow streamers and clusters of Old Glory.

The Secret Service agents winced at the breach of security, but everyone else took it in stride, Bartley said.

"I figured, hell, it's their day, and as far as I'm concerned, it's their bus. Far as I could tell, the vice president felt the same way, and that settled the matter."

Bartley said the former hostages and their families seemed to be enjoying the enormous welcome, and he had no indication that any of them wanted to reenter the mainstream of American life unnoticed. Everyone shouted and waved and sang, the Marines kept looking for pretty girls, and Laingen was fascinated by the children, Bartley said.

"Every so often you'd see one of those little kids that just makes your heart stop, and he [Laingen] would tap his wife on the arm, and then somebody'd hand him another Kleenex. I was afraid I was gonna run out."

Bartley, a 42-year-old Army veteran who lives with his wife and four children in Oxon Hill, said the trip epitomized the finest hour of his working life.After reaching the White House, he and the other drivers were permitted to stay for the official ceremonies.

"I've never been a part of anything like that before," he said, "and I want you to know I'll never forget it. They treated us real fine at the White House, none of this 'dont go here, don't touch that.' I felt like a first-class American.

"I think that's what today really meant . . . for once, all of America had something in common. I kept hearing the former hostages say that, and I felt that way myself. If this whole mess did anything for us, then I guess that was it."

Today, Bartley will resume his normal duties -- driving the Wilson Boulevard bus in Arlington -- and he's sure his next turn at charter driving duty won't have nearly the mystique of yesterday. But it doesn't matter.

"I made it my business to introduce myself to all of my Marines, and when it was time to go, [James M.] Lopez gave me a real warm hug and said he'd never forget the ride.

"I'll never forget it either."