Half a world away from the Persian Gulf, a burgeoning Baltimore support group for pparents of soldiers and sailors at the front turned talk away from chemical warfare and geopolitics briefly yesterday to a little dark humor -- something they could do to help.
How about putting a price on the head of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, suggested Rowena Wingfield, whose 21-year-old son, Jerrold, is an Army specialist in Saudi Arabia.
The thought came up as Mrs. Wingfield sat in a group of about a dozen parents in an upstairs bedroom of a Guilford mansion, and brought smiles or nervous laughter.
"There's nothing more powerful in this world than a mother or parents," said Carol Carpenter, who has a son stationed in Saudi Arabia, informally seconding the suggestion.
But talk quickly went back to the serious issues facing those parents -- and dozens more scattered in small groups through other rooms -- about watching too much television news, worrying about their lack of mail from their children, or even the guilt some felt about having a good time.
Three months ago, Ed and Barbara Brody, the parents of two servicemen, started the support group -- and have seen it grow from a dozen families meeting at their home on Stratford Road to 109 families in 54 zip codes around the Baltimore area.
It has grown so large that Mr. Brody has had to close membership, while lending his efforts to help others establish a half-dozen other parent support groups.
At yesterday's gathering, the parents were comforted not only by mutual support but by something they all hungered for -- information.
They crammed into a downstairs library to hear a briefing by Army Col. Jack Le Cuyer on Operation Desert Storm and bombarded him with questions on military terminology, capabilities of the Iraqi army and -- most of all -- the daily routines of their sons and daughters.
Parents wanted to know about the conditions their children faced, where they were stationed, and why some of them hadn't written lately.
"I can understand their uncertainty," said Colonel Le Cuyer, who served 30 months in Vietnam. "It's quite difficult not knowing how things are put together. Parents are always worrying about their children. They worry about them when they go to the park or if they go to downtown D.C. They want to protect them. But now their children are in a war situation."
He couldn't answer some questions, like whether a ground war was inevitable or when it would begin. But the answers he did provide filled the void for some parents who had not heard from their children in weeks.
Parents who have received letters or telephone calls retold tales about their children growing bored of long convoys, constant movement along the front lines and waiting for something to happen.
Overwhelmingly, they concentrated on positives, as if to reassure themselves that the war would end soon and their children would return home safe. Many compared notes on sending letters or packages of food containing anything from crab-flavored potato chips to canned shrimp.
But they consistently returned to the stark reality that their children were at war in a distant land.
"These soldiers are the best protected in the history of the United States," said one father.