My 4-year-old boy keeps asking me, ''Is war coming to Baltimore?''
''No,'' I say, ''the Persian Gulf is far away. We're safe here.''
''Really far away? like the grocery store?''
''Farther,'' I say. ''It's on the other side of the world. You would have to ride on an airplane for a whole day, at least.''
My son nods, his face serious and grown-up. But he isn't convinced. In his mind, the war is close by, and he's frightened.
In the past five months, since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, my boy has gone through the great awakening that happens to every child at 4. He's discovered the world outside himself, moving with breathtaking dispatch from Old MacDonald Had a Farm to questions about bombs blowing Baltimore to bits.
He's been following the news out of the Persian Gulf since the first photographs and colorful situation maps appeared on the front page of my morning paper. At the time, I was teaching him about maps. He was a quick learner. He could find the U.S. on a globe, and Spain, where I had just finished a business trip.
L ''But Dad, what are all these arrows and words on the map?''
''Those are telling about the war.''
''What's a war, daddy?''
I took a long drink of coffee. ''Let's see. What's a war. Do you know when you get mad at someone?''
''Or somebody takes something from you at day care?''
''Well, war is when countries get mad at each other, when one of them tries to take something from the other one.''
''Daddy,'' he asked, looking at a color photograph of one of the first U.S. soldiers to arrive in Saudi Arabia. He was jumping out of a C-130 transport plane, a big grin on his face. ''Why is that man smiling? He doesn't look mad.''
Since then, the lessons have come faster than I can manage, lessons about guns, good guys, bad guys, soldiers, chopping people to pieces, and gas warfare, mixed in with the more traditional questions of awakening, about fire engines, Mutant Ninja Turtles, the scary octopus in Little Mermaid, why the sun goes down, and why Mommy and Daddy have to work so many days.
If not for my boy's questions, I might have shut out the Gulf crisis, treated it like another item in the news, something we adults are good at. But his keen interest has awakened something in me, too, something visceral: the fear, the fascination of war, of sanctioned violence, of trying to define good and evil.
Americans are feeling apocryphal right now, as if we are standing on the edge of a dark place. It's a minute before Vietnam, World War II, the Civil War, the War of the Roses. We are anxious about why's and how's. We feel patriotic and lost all at once. We wonder if we have done something wrong, if our leaders have done everything they can if people really are going to die, people we know, people we love.
I believe in trying to explain everything to my boy, but I've found myself growing silent during barrages of questions about shooting guns and killing bad guys. He asks me if I'm sad, and I try to explain to him the feeling, the anguish, of going to sleep one night in Baltimore, and waking up to find that the boys in the pictures are no longer smiling, they're dead.
Mr. Duncan is the author of ''From Cape to Cairo: an African Odyssey.''