On the lower Shore, people are holding their breaths Crisfield anxious about National Guard unit. PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN

February 28, 1991|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

CRISFIELD -- People in this Somerset County town don't wear their hearts on their sleeves and they don't necessarily wear yellow ribbons on their lapels.

Yet there is no doubt that the thoughts and prayers of this town, as well as others along the lower Eastern Shore, are constantly in the Persian Gulf -- specifically, with the 1229th, a National Guard unit that is as much a part of Crisfield as the fishing industry and Chesapeake Bay.

Called up in late November, the transportation unit of 181 men and women has fewer than 20 Crisfield residents, yet the townspeople take a proprietary interest in the 1229th.

Yesterday, with victory all but declared, people in Crisfield hesitantly admitted to a dream, the reverse of a fear they have carried with them since the 1229th was deployed in mid-January.

Maybe, just maybe, people confided in low voices, everyone might come home.

"It has been very strong on my mind," said Capt. William Revelle, 71, a World War II veteran who heads the state guard in Crisfield. The state guard is an emergency volunteer group not connected with the National Guard. "I was in three battles and two beachheads. I know what death looks like.

"I was in the Philippines and Okinawa. When I came home, I went to many military funerals. I wouldn't want to do it again."

Waiting is the hard part. The 1229th was activated for up to a year. Units activated earlier will have priority in returning, the Pentagon has told families. And a transportation unit like the 1229th would be vital during the cleanup of Kuwait.

"I hated to burst bubbles, but I had to tell the women not to expect anyone home soon, even if victory is declared," said Carol Purnell, whose husband, Capt. Robert J. Purnell Jr., is the commander of the 1229th.

And Melissa Green, who has a husband and brother-in-law serving with the 1229th, said she was determined to keep her hopes from soaring. "I'm not going to count on anything until he's sitting in this living room. I'm not looking for him before November. If they come home before that -- great."

For Green, who moved to the area after marrying Steve Green four years ago, the call-up of the 1229th has proved to her she now belongs in this clannish county where people from the Western Shore are sometimes referred to as "foreigners."

Her parents have asked her to come home to Maxwell, N.M., but Green wants to stay in Westover, a small town north of Crisfield, helping her mother-in-law with the chickens.

"You go to the grocery store and people ask you what you know," she said. "I guess that's why I can call it home now."

At the grocery store, the video store, the local gas stations -- everyone seems to have some tie to the 1229th and the red brick building that houses it.

They have served, or had relatives and friends who served. Older residents may have gone to the dances and skating parties which once filled the armory every weekend.

"This area has provided, per capita, more soldiers in this campaign than any other area in the state," said retired Brig. Gen. Maurice D. Tawes, who was part of the 1229th during the invasion of Normandy in World War II. The armory now bears his name.

"It used to be the 1229th was hometown boys. Now it's area boys. It's still a community thing."

Mirroring the community camaraderie is the special relationship among those in the 1229th, said Staff Sgt. Charles Laird, who was sent home with an injury before the war officially started. (A truck rolled over two fingers on his left hand, crushing them and leaving him at a risk for infection. He had to come home primarily because he couldn't put on his gas mask or chemical suit without assistance.)

"Not only do we train together, we live together, we see each other every day," said Laird, 42. "When I was sent to Vietnam, I was sent alone, to join a unit that was already formed. It wasn't like the 1229th at all."

When the members of the 1229th went to Fort Eustice, Va., for processing last December, Crisfield sent them off with the best parade a town of 2,924 can muster. They plan to outdo themselves, however, when the 1229th returns, said Tawes.

But don't ask for details. In Crisfield, where they force themselves to live one day at a time, they don't want to jinx themselves. And they don't want to take anything for granted.

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