WHEN I WAS a sophomore in college in the early 1970s I knew a blonde 21-year-old woman whose manner was so gentle and whose approach to everyone so friendly that her friends called her ''Lovely,'' from ''Lovely Girl,'' the favorite old song of the sorority of which she was president.
I was a member of that sorority, and because my grades were good I was allowed to move out of my dormitory and into the sorority house the year that Lovely, to the consternation of nearly everyone who knew her, suddenly got married.
She had been dating her high school sweetheart, who was also a student at our university, but during Christmas break that school year they had had a fight. Throughout the spring Lovely refused his phone calls, and stayed stubbornly in her room when he appeared in the sorority house entry hall asking to see her.
In May, three days before he graduated, he came to see her again. He had gone through college on an ROTC scholarship and was about to be commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army. He had just gotten orders to Vietnam. He was leaving in two weeks and he wanted to marry her. She agreed.
That summer was a hot one, and when we returned to college in the fall I remember how the tall doors and long windows of the old house stood open in the heat that lay so oppressively on us in that Southern city. Late into the night the voices of the other young women would drift toward my room, carrying the gossip of how Lovely was now married, and her husband was gone, and she had moved back into the sorority house because she couldn't bear to be alone in her little apartment.
At dawn one Sunday, restless from a night of tossing and turning in the heat, I woke and made my way down the back stairs to the kitchen to get a glass of orange juice. Then I wandered absently through the house, listening to faint murmur of birds from the open windows, and began to go up the stairway that lead from the entry hall to an open lounge upstairs.
I will never forget what I saw as I rounded the bend in the stairs. There in the faint light, wrapped in an old bathrobe, Lovely was pacing back and forth, alone, across the lounge, her hands covering her small face. Her shoulders shook and she was
I am grateful that even at that insensitive age I had the presence of mind to realize what had happened and to back down the stairs quietly, leaving her in privacy with her grief. I never said anything about the incident to Lovely or anyone else. She went home the next day to live with her mother and await the return of her husband's body from Vietnam.
In the intervening years I had almost forgotten that small incident, buried as it was in the pain and recrimination of war. But last August, eight days after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, my young brother-in-law, a Navy lieutenant, was ordered to duty in the Persian Gulf. Since then I have been fighting off a sickening sense of deja vu.
I feel almost traitorous to admit this. I am myself a military wife now, married to a Marine staff sergeant posted with the Pentagon. I am well aware of the credo of the military spouse: Whatever happens, you must not show fear. You must not send your loved one away to war with doubts that could be fatally distracting at the wrong moment.
But January 15 is approaching, and peace talks between the United States and Iraq seem to have broken down. Thousands more American troops are leaving for the Gulf. My sister, a small blonde 25-year-old with a gentle manner, seems to teeter constantly on the edge of tears.
When she cries it's hard to push away the image of another young blonde woman, weeping on that morning almost 20 years ago. And when that image arises in my mind -- as it does more and more these days -- I plead silently, over and over, please God, not again, not again.