The voice on the other end of the telephone line yesterday morning was familiar to Ivan Wingfield and his wife, Ja'Nae, but it sounded so distant. It belonged to Ivan's brother, Jerrold, stationed in Saudi Arabia since last November.
The 21-year-old Army private called to say that his unit was pulling out, moving closer to the Saudi border with Iraq and Kuwait. He said communication would be cut off today.
"Jerrold was very somber," said his sister-in-law, Ja'Nae, her own voice choking with emotion. "You could hear the quivering in his voice. You could hear the fear in his voice. It left you with nothing to say. He said he was constantly reading the Bible, reading the 93rd Psalm. He said he was praying. I said, 'Just keep looking up, Jerrold.'
"He said, 'I'm just ready for it to be over. I'm ready to come home.'"
Private Wingfield then asked his family to pray for him and pray for a peaceful settlement in the Persian Gulf, even as two great armies squared off in the desert and prepared for war.
"He knows he has a job to do," said his brother, Ivan. "He's worried that if there's war, will he come back in one piece? He said he hopes we don't go to war."
After the phone call, Ivan and Ja'Nae left their Baltimore home with their two young sons and attended services yesterday at St. Katherine's of Alexandria church in West Baltimore, where they prayed along with the small Episcopal congregation for peace. Nine members of the congregation are stationed in Saudi Arabia.
As the threat of war loomed larger over the church than at any time since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the start of Operation Desert Shield, the Rev. Peter D. W. Bramble invoked the name of God to "touch the hearts of Saddam Hussein and President Bush" and avert war.
"Somehow we should do before war what we do after war," Father Bramble told about 80 congregants, urging negotiations. "We pray that God will deliver us from war. God answers prayers. . . . God is going to hear us, just watch and see."
Among those saying special prayers was Nixon Camper Sr., whose son Nixon Jr. is serving on the front lines with the Army. Mr. Camper said he had talked with his son only days ago before his unit moved out and was confident that, even if war occurs, his son will return to Baltimore.
"He's going to come back," said Mr. Camper, a World War II veteran. "Those who want to come back will find a way to come back."
Olivia Thomas, whose son Lewis is aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, works as a telephone operator and said she draws strength talking to families receiving and placing calls from overseas.
"I talked to him New Year's Eve and he was afraid of war," Mrs. Thomas said. "They have all kinds of weapons on that ship that are so powerful they will scare you. I pray the whole day, yes, I do."
Until history unfolds, there's nothing else for the St. Katherine's families left to do -- except wait and pray some more, to read Psalm 93 as Private Wingfield does in the desert: "The Lord reigneth, he is clothed with majesty; the Lord is clothed with strength. . . . "
"I am fearful, very fearful," said Private Wingfield's mother, Rowena. "I've lost two kids and stand a chance of losing a third child. All I can do is pray."
Mrs. Wingfield and her husband, John, said that they are still coping with the death of their oldest daughter, Ardith, of a heart attack four years ago. Another son, John Jr., died suddenly last November. Jerrold received a pass from the Army to return from Saudi Arabia for the funeral.
The threat of war, for them and other families, is a heartbeat away. Mrs. Wingfield fought to keep her emotions in check as she fingered a greeting card sent by her son a few weeks ago from Saudi Arabia. In the corner of the card, "Keep this always" is handwritten in the corner.
Still, there is guarded optimism that the horror of war will compel both sides to seek an 11th-hour diplomatic solution.
"I know what war is like," said Private Wingfield's father, who served with the Navy during World War II in the South Pacific. "I know what killing is like. I know what bodies look like after they've been shot up. I really don't think they'll fight."