THERE WAS A LONG-DISTANCE pause as the voice on the other end of the telephone line faltered slightly. "Yes, Dan's in Saudi Arabia and Christmas wasn't the same without him," said the father about his son, a 22-year-old Marine Corps officer.
Then I heard my friend's voice start to choke. "The whole family really missed him but, you know, we're just so very proud of our son."
It's an emotion that is being experienced by families all across the country as the line drawn in the sand by President Bush last August begins to take on the shape of a calendar countdown. Today will be designated D-8 in the briefing room of the Army Support Command in Saudi; tomorrow the signs will be changed to D-7.
Unless something happens to stop it, the countdown will continue until D-Day: Jan. 15, the deadline set by the United Nations for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait.
And as the days dwindle down to a precious few, the national attitude toward the Persian Gulf crisis and a possible war seems to be "business as usual." We listen as pundits, politicians and military men pontificate on the pros and cons of this or that approach to war and then we turn off the TV or put down the newspaper and go to bed.
Given what's at stake if war should "break" out, this attitude seems strange and unreal. Surreal, actually.
Everything about this buildup and countdown seems strange to me. I'm having a difficult time getting used to seeing our television icons -- Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw -- do stand-ups from Baghdad, often posed in front of the "enemy" preparing to go to war against us.
And I can't get used to waking up to the sight of young men and women in the U.S. military, waving and smiling -- as though they were away at summer camp -- to the folks back home.
Nor can I get used to the idea that some newspapers are running daily countdowns to the U.N. deadline -- "10 days to K-Day" -- in much the same way the minutes are ticked off on New Year's Eve.
And if the implications weren't so tragic, one would be tempted to laugh at the news that the three television networks are preparing for war coverage by building studios -- complete with backdrops that feature palm trees -- at the Dhahran International Hotel in Saudi Arabia.
It seems as though most of us -- the media included -- have not yet made the connection between war and death.
It reminds me of the public uproar in November 1943 when the Pentagon released -- almost two full years into World War II -- photographs of American dead for the first time. The pictures, taken after the savage battle for Tarawa, were published in newspapers and magazines and shocked Americans. Washington was flooded with mail and newspaper editorials demanded a congressional investigation.
The sight of dead American Marines, lying face down on the beaches of Tarawa, forced the American people to make the connection between war and death.
So far we have not yet had to acknowledge that awful connection in the Persian Gulf. But if and when we do, the photographs will include dead women as well as men. Children will lose mothers as well as fathers; parents will lose daughters as well as sons.
"No price is too heavy to pay," President Bush told a television interviewer last week in a discussion about the "successful resolution" of the Gulf crisis.
But is it ever possible to understand, in the abstract, just how heavy a price war -- any war -- can demand from some of its participants?
For most of us, the "bill" for a war in the Gulf won't be payable until the body bags containing American soldiers begin to arrive back home. Inside those bags will be American men and women with names like Lefty and Dan and Sally and Melissa -- men and women who believed they would live and marry and have children and grandchildren.
And if that happens, we will experience the same kind of national shock, I think, that occurred when the Tarawa photographs appeared.
And if there now exists, as I believe there does, a widespread "denial" of the realities of war, the sight of those body bags will drive home the differences between war as an abstract and war as a reality.
The reality is that war is fought by individuals, not huge, impersonal armies.
The reality is war brings to an end the lives of fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives.
The reality is that war is hell and the reasons for entering into a Gulf war better be damn good ones.