'TC NORFOLK, Va. -- Mike Bryner of Beaver, Pa., waited patiently yesterday in the sunny bay-side breeze, a black cowboy hat on his head and a bunch of red, pink and yellow carnations in his hand.
After six months at sea, his girlfriend, Ronda Walker, was coming home, along with the rest of the crew of the Navy super carrier USS Eisenhower.
Finally, amid thousands of other reunions, the two found each other and hugged.
"All these years women have been waiting for us," said Mr. Bryner, 26, and also a sailor. "It's our turn to wait for them."
Ms. Walker and the Eisenhower's 400 female crew members made history yesterday as they ended the first deployment of a U.S. combat vessel with women as crew members.
But to the carrier's 5,000 crew members, the achievement was just a novel sidelight to an age-old ritual as thousands of people crowded a Norfolk wharf to greet sailors home from the sea.
Timothy A. Thompson couldn't fight back tears as he talked about his 35-year-old son, Dean, an Eisenhower crewman -- and about his oldest son, who died several years ago.
"He's my only son now," Mr. Thompson said, staring out at the water. "We always write. It seems like the letters are getting longer and longer."
Dean Thompson's wife, Debbie, reflected on the reunion as she waited in a lawn chair, her freckle-faced 6-year-old daughter, Adina, next to her in a flowered dress.
"I'm nervous right now. The last two times he came home I was crying. This time, I'm a little afraid. I don't know why," Mrs. Thompson said. "I've been handling everything since he's been gone. He'll want to jump right in when he gets back and take over everything."
After months at sea, more than 12,000 sailors and Marines on nine ships were arriving in a six-day stretch that began Thursday.
Merchants were grateful because the area has been particularly quiet the past three weeks. Another carrier battle group with a similar complement of sailors went to sea March 22.
"There was nobody there. The naval base seemed like a ghost town," said Barbara Anderson, manager of the World of Pancakes and Steak, which sits less than a mile from the base.
Yesterday, though, the restaurant was jammed with families hurrying to eat breakfast before the ships began arriving.
On the base, there were long lines to get money from automated bank machines, and the Navy Exchange flower shop and liquor store did brisk business all morning.
(A local police officer also went out to the Eisenhower earlier in the week to remind the young sailors not to drink and drive while celebrating their homecoming.)
Out on the pier, the Navy turned the homecomings into an event. A gaggle of costumed characters wandered through the crowd, entertaining children. A plane flew overhead with a sign greeting the Ike that read: "Ikecited. Delighted. Reunited." A second plane trailed a banner advertising used cars for "$39 down."
Families brought balloons and dogs. Some had homemade signs. "I love K. D. Jones," read one. "Welcome home, Mom," read another.
One waved a Texas flag. The family of John Kennedy, a sailor from Suffolk, Va., had yellow T-shirts printed that read, "Welcome Home John." They made one more for Mr. Kennedy that read, "I'm John."
Chris Ford, 20, paced as he waited for his wife, Evon. The two fell in love during military training in Mississippi, became engaged last March and were married in September, just weeks before she left for the six-month deployment.
"I didn't like it, her being on that ship with all the men," said Mr. Ford, a Marine lance corporal. "But I just had to deal with it. I trust her."
About 3 p.m., the crowd cheered as the nuclear-powered Ike slowly sailed into view in Hampton Roads. With its 75 planes and helicopters having already flown to nearby air stations, crew members lined the edge of the ship's vast deck.
"Tara. Will you marry me? Greg," read a banner hanging from the Eisenhower's starboard side.
Finally, the crew started leaving, led by those who had won an on-board drawing that entitled them to a "first kiss."
Rick Cloud, a Texan who now lives in Chesapeake, Va., was among a group of men allowed to leave the ship quickly -- new dads. Mr. Cloud, 26, rushed to find his wife, Carolyn, and someone he had never seen before -- his daughter Bailey, born Dec. 30.
He picked up the tiny child and gazed quietly.
"How do you describe a moment like this? You have to go through what I went through the last six months to know what I'm feeling right now," he said. "It's wonderful."