Edgewood High students Jennifer and Frank think their neighbors may have been confused last week by the sight of their family's Christmas tree, complete with blinking lights, in the window of their home.
"We're celebrating Christmas early, at Thanksgiving, because my father's leaving (for Operation Desert Shield)," said Frank, a 16-year-old junior.
He was among several Harford students who spoke with a reporter last week about how they and their families are trying to cope with the family separations caused by the deployment of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia.
"People probably think we're weird if they see it through the window with the lights flashing and everything, but we wanted to do something nice for him before he left," Frank said.
Today's parting was especially difficult because their father, a master sergeant in the Army, had just returned home Oct. 20 after a year's assignment in South Korea. He had missed last Christmas with the family, who live on the Edgewood area base of Aberdeen Proving Ground.
"There's not really anything to be thankful for this year -- just that we could spend at least one holiday together," said Jennifer, 17, wiping tears from her eyes. "You know, a lot of people don't understand how serious this is because their parents aren't over there. I wish people knew the real story."
School administrators, especially in the Edgewood and Aberdeen areas near Aberdeen Proving Ground, say it's not hard to find students who have parents serving in Operation Desert Shield.
Fourteen-year-old Clarence is another Harford student coping with his father's absence due to the massive military buildup.
He's disappointed that his father, an Army sergeant, had to leave for a six-month assignment in the Persian Gulf Aug. 25, just a few weeks before Clarence started his freshman year at Edgewood High.
"I miss the way he encouraged me to do my best in school, and how he'd tell me never to give up," said Clarence, who earned four A's and three B's on his first report card. "I'm really upset that he had to go when I had to enter high school. I wanted to show him I could do all this stuff, and he's not here."
The two are close, and Clarence said he misses going fishing and watching horror movies with his father.
Clarence said he has been worried about his mother, his younger brother, Correy, and his 4-year-old sister, Alishia. The family spent Thanksgiving with Clarence's grandmother, who lives with them, and his aunts and cousins.
"When Dad went to Korea for a year, Alishia was too young to understand," Clarence said, with a troubled look on his face. "But this time she thinks that Dad won't be coming back. I tell her he'll be back in February, but she doesn't know when that is. And I pray every day, hoping he's doing OK."
Clarence said he was concerned about his father last week because the family hadn't received a letter in about a week. Their dad did call home for Thanksgiving, he said.
"I want to tell people out there that war's just not that great," Clarence said. "I want to let them know how I feel about what it's like to have someone you love in a very dangerous area."
Changes at home have also been hard for Juan, a 17-year-old student at Aberdeen High School. His father is a civilian employee with the Army stationed in the gulf. "The news is always on at our house," he said. "And the house is kind of empty; my mom and my sister are at work, and my other sister's away at college. So there's just me and my dog, Nick."
For the most part, all of the students rely on letters to communicate with parents stationed in the Saudi Arabia. Juan's and Clarence's fathers have been able to call home occasionally.
Juan's family keeps a note pad by the phone to jot down items they want to be sure to mention should he call. At the top of Juan's list last week: his improved grades.
Juan said he was touched when some of his friends at school decided to write to his father. The school mailed 750 letters to service members stationed in the Persian Gulf two weeks ago, including letters to Juan's father.
"My house is always open, and my father was always there to greet my friends and cook food for me and my friends," Juan said. "He was always laughing, and he'd make his specialties, fried rice or Puerto Rican food.
And he used to always cook Sunday morning breakfast -- big thick pancakes and omelets."
Juan said he's uncertain what the holidays will be like at his house this year.
"I don't know what the holidays will be like now," he said. "For the most part, we just try to act like he's just at work; we try not to act like he's somewhere far away."