Four days before Christmas, nine county families have gathered in the library at North Carroll High School, where the orchestral sounds of "Winter Wonderland" drift in from a distant room.
Almost instantly, conversation between mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, begins. It is not the yuletide that has brought these families, mostly from Hampstead and Manchester, together.
The bond is their sons -- sons who may never have passed one another in the halls of their alma mater and who never may meet on the sands of an unfamiliar desert thousands of miles away.
These sons, though, share similar circumstances. They serve in the U.S.
Armed Forces on assignment in the Persian Gulf. Their families -- wives, parents, siblings and children -- are here, awaiting their return.
North Carroll conducted an assembly last week to pay tribute to its military sons and daughters serving in Operation Desert Shield. Their families were invited to share in the patriotism.
A Christmas tree, adorned with American flags, stood on the stage in the auditorium. It was a tree without gifts beneath its pine branches.
Perhaps that's because the gift most sought by these and other Carroll County families is the return of their children -- safe and sound, whole and unmaimed.
* Tuesday marks David Freeland's first Christmas away from home.
The 20-year-old North Carroll graduate joined the U.S. Army two years ago and was among the first sent to Saudi Arabia.
"We hear from him regularly," says his mother, Martha "Marty" Freeland, a Carroll school bus driver. "He's very optimistic. Because he's in the military intelligence, he can't tell us a lot. He assures me he's fine and doing well."
Martha and her husband, Paul, who works for Coca-Cola in Baltimore, receive letters regularly from their "outgoing and fun-loving" son.
Occasionally, David sends home poems like this one, which his family shared during a Sunday service at Millers United Methodist Church: "Two thousand miles away But each and every Sunday with you I pray That in the end it will all be OK Because it will be His way So don't be sad and don't be blue Because He is here with me and there with you And with us whatever we do."
Adding to her worries is the anticipation that David's older brother, Steve, 23, a sergeant stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, will be tapped for Operation Desert Shield. Steve graduated from North Carroll in 1985.
"He's been scheduled three times to go and hasn't," she explains. "He has a baby due. I don't know what will happen after the first of the year.
It's been hairy with the thought of him going, too."
Her sons' absence this Christmas doesn't change the family's plans. It does change their expectations, though.
"It's an adjustment for all of us," Freeland says. "Last year, everyone was home -- my oldest son and his wife. David came home from West Germany.
We try to keep our spirits up, but it's depressing.
Looming on her mind is the Jan. 15 deadline President George Bush has set for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to withdraw his troops from Kuwait.
"The closer it gets, the worse I get," she says. "I hope and pray that some miracle will fall before then."
* Twenty-six-year-old James "Jamie" Barbe, a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant, won't be sitting down with his family Christmas morning for their traditional holiday breakfast of biscuits and gravy.
"It isn't very Christmassy without him," says his mother, Phyllis Barbe.
Nonetheless, Christmas breakfast still will be served for some 20 guests in the Manchester home of Phyllis and her husband, Richard, a retired cement mason. Sitting at the table will be their four other children, their spouses and 11 grandchildren.
Nieces and nephews will be eager to hear news of Jamie, a 1982 graduate of North Carroll High School who joined the military eight years ago. He has been stationed in places like Anchorage, Alaska, Dover, Del., and Las Vegas, Nev.
His younger brother, Keith, 24, also is in the Air Force, stationed in Colorado. This Christmas marks Keith's second away from home.
Letters from Jamie arrive home regularly.
"He wants to do what has to be done and then come home," Phyllis says.
"I don't think he feels Bush should back down or make compromises. He doesn't think we should give up an inch."
Jamie's wife, Brenda, a 1983 North Carroll graduate, remains in Nevada with their son Jeremy, 3.
"It's going to be especially bad for Jamie being away from his son," Phyllis says. "It is probably harder on his wife than it is with us. All her relatives are in Hampstead and Thurmont. She's alone, but we have other family."
* Anthony Shane Kram, a 23-year-old Army warrant officer, comes from a large Italian family -- one that has a series of big dinners over the Christmas holiday to accommodate maternal and paternal relatives.
This holiday, though, Kram, a South Carroll High graduate, will spend his first Christmas away from home.