Michael J. Metrinko, a modest and soft-spoken Foreign Service officer, came home today to a tumultuous and joyful outpouring of patriotism and thanks that he seemed to have trouble comprehending.

"If I'd known, I would have left [Iran] a couple of months ago," the freed hostage joked as the crowds waved, wept and cheered his motorcade from the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Airport to this small borough of 5,000 in the mountains of northeast Pennsylvania.

"I still don't understand this," he said. "I keep looking around to see if it's being done by mistake."

Riding in a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow with Metrinko were his parents, Harry and Alice Metrinko, more accustomed by now than their son to being in the public eye.

"This is why I normally come here without telling anybody why I'm coming," Metrinko joked, adding, "I guess this means I can't be anonymous here any more." Then Metrinko, the 34-year-old political officer who underwent nine months of solitary confinement during his 444 days of captivity, said, "I'm joking because I don't want to cry."

He didn't cry, for the most part, though his voice choked while singing "God Bless America" at his hometown church. Exhausted but elated, he seemed to savor every minute, telling parade watchers, "Sorry for the traffic jam," and accepting kisses and handshakes all along the route.

To youngsters who asked how it was, he said simply, "It wasn't bad. It's all finished with. It's good to be home."

"Michael, you should put your window down," his mother said at one point as well-wishers sought to greet him.

"It's cold, you're wearing a coat, I don't own one," replied her son, dressed in a grey pin-striped suit with a yellow carnation in its lapel.

"It's incredible," he said, over and over again. "One of my guards told me three or four weeks ago, 'You are going to be well known now, and we won't have anything at all.' I didn't feel sorry for him, but I had no idea what he meant."

"All these people prayed for the 52, from the day it started," his mother said, trying to explain.

Along the route, they greeted him with homemade signs that said, "Baseball, Apple Pie, Hot Dogs and Michael" and "You Were Never Forgotten." One cardboard placard held aloft by young Bobby Quinlan said, "Welcome home. Thanks to you we have no school [today] at Riverside."

There was a police escort that Scranton Public Safety Director Jim McDonald likened to that accorded a presidential visit, and there was even a red carpet at the airport, along with a "Patton"-sized American flag draped from the terminal building.

The three-hour parade -- complete with high school band and majorettes, military color guard, a host of dignitaries and even a press bus -- capped a hectic week of preparation here for the Metrinko homecoming.

Small town bickering over who would do what gave way to a unity of purpose as Olyphant residents prepared to welcome home perhaps the most famous native son since "Gazook" Gazella of the 1927 New York Yankees.

At the necessary stops that had been charted for him by others, he spoke briefly, letting the preachers and politicians fill the air with their tearful tributes and homilies.

As the caravan reached the country courthouse in Scranton -- the self-styled "Friendly City" -- his mother observed tongue-in-cheek, "This is just for the news media."

Vendors sold leftover Super Bowl and inauguration souvenirs as well as "Welcome Home to Freedom" buttons and balloons that said "Love" and bore the American flag.An estimated 5,000 persons crowded around a portable stage, craning for a view of their hero.

"Why?" said Michael Metrinko back inside the car heading towards Olyphant, "I don't understand, because we aren't heroes. We were just doing our jobs. The guys from Vietnam deserve this. They didn't get it."

And then Metrinko reflected on his own isolation during captivity. Ignorance wasn't bliss but it afforded a certain "psychological security," he said. "You just sit there, not knowing."

So he read, 500 books in all, including a heavy dose of science fiction sent him by a Scranton bookstore, the Bible twice and "The Gulag Archipelago," Alexander Solzhenitsyn's portrait of prison life in the Soviet Union.

After living in Iran for seven years and being fluent in Farsi, the Iranian language, he was regarded with suspicion by his captors.

For 2 1/2 months, he was confined to a six-by-eight-and-a-half-foot closet in the embassy chancery with a single light bulb and a mattress. He was also beaten severely twice and told once he had been tried, convicted and sentenced to die.

He lost weight but not too much, grew a beard and somehow managed to emerge from captivity without apparent anger or bitterness.

"I just wish I could see the parade," he said, a cooperative captive of his own homecoming. "That's the problem with being in a parade. You can't see it."

There would be more to come -- including a stop at Scranton Prep, his alma mater and a symbolic snuffing of church candles kept lit during his captivity -- and the final five-book ride to the modest Metrinko home on Delaware Avenue.

There will be still more celebrating in New York Friday with a traditional tickertape parade down Wall Street. Some former hostages are scheduled to attend, but Michael Metrinko said he plans to pass it up.

"New York," he explained, "is not my home."