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Gulf War Knocks Lives Off Balance in Orange County : Home front: Routines are upset and nerves are tested as people try to come to terms with distant conflict.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Everyone thought it was a great idea when pupils at Moulton Elementary School in Laguna Niguel began sending letters to the Persian Gulf, adopting Marines as pen pals. Computer instructor Carolyn Grubb now wonders how the children will react if pen pals become war casualties.

John Kelso, a World War II bomber pilot and father of a Navy doctor on the front line in Saudi Arabia, wants back in the cockpit so bad he can taste it.

“I wish I was there flying,” the 73-year-old Orange resident said. “I’d love to be there.”

John Fain, a 21-year-old Newport Beach fisherman, spends the predawn hours these days aboard his boat trolling for mackerel, rock cod and kingfish, but he worries about how a reinstatement of the draft could radically change the simple livelihood he loves.

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Less than a week after U.S.-led forces launched the first air strikes against Baghdad on a moonless night, with worry about missile attacks continuing to numb Tel Aviv, the sights and sounds of war have also settled over Orange County.

Local military installations are tightly guarded, and anti-war demonstrators are commonplace on city streets, while the increased apprehension is testing the psyches of families whose loved ones have been thrust into Persian Gulf danger zones.

The times are also testing the nerves of Jewish and Arab-American residents whose places of business and worship are now watched by police as possible terrorist targets. Local authorities have recently received reports of bomb threats at an Arab tailor shop and restaurant, while many fear that anti-Arab sentiment will worsen as the conflict escalates.

“These are very dangerous times for Arab-Americans,” said one Huntington Beach man from Lebanon who asked not to be identified. “We must be very careful.”

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Meanwhile, as the war’s first bursts of adrenaline begin to subside, local residents--their emotions governed by the ever-changing course of sorties and missile attacks--are coming to terms with fighting thousands of miles away that has upset the balance of their lives.

Melanie Silver, 8, talks about Marine Brian Garvin as if she has known him all her life.

Since she and her friends at Moulton Elementary began a letter-writing campaign to a unit dug in on the Saudi Arabian desert this fall, Garvin has received a school T-shirt and comic book. Melanie has delighted in receiving six responses and waits for more.

But the freckle-faced youngster becomes quiet when asked what she thinks about news reports describing the repeated bombing attacks.

“I hope that Hussein will get out,” she said, her head bowed. “I also think he (Garvin) might have to fight. He might get killed.”

Melanie’s concern is shared doubly by teacher Grubb, who began the letter campaign as a school project in a bid to boost the spirits of her husband’s Marine unit. In letters from soldiers, the children have received descriptions of the region’s barren landscape, hot climate and ornery camels. Some Marines have even included souvenirs of Saudi Arabian currency.

Sensing their growing attachment, Grubb said school officials are trying to determine how they will approach the young letter-writers in the event that their new friends are wounded or killed in battle.

The tall, sandy-haired Grubb, who wears a Marine Corps insignia fastened to a gold necklace, said she posed the question at her son’s recent junior high school PTA meeting.

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“It’s something they haven’t thought about,” Grubb said. “I’m really not sure how they will do it.”

With her husband deployed, Grubb said, her life at home with two teen-age sons is settling into a new kind of routine.

She said 15-year-old Eric has taken command of the chores formerly performed by his father, and Alex, 13, pitches in and helps buoy her spirits daily.

“They have shown a grown-up concern that you don’t normally see in children that age,” Grubb said. “I worry about how this will affect my kids emotionally.

“At their age, it’s been a blessing and a curse at the same time. They are old enough to know why he’s there. They know what he does. But they also know what danger he’s in.”

Since the bombs began dropping and the bullets flying, Grubb said, she has also noticed a collective change in the community: “People stop me in the stores, calls have been coming to my home. The outpouring of love and concern I just never expected. They say it’s not like ‘60s. (The people) want to be there when the men come home.”

“Grant peace to our world, goodness and blessing, mercy and compassion, life and love. Inspire us to banish forever hatred, war and bloodshed. . . . Oh, God of peace, bless us with peace.”

Minutes after leading his congregation in prayer, Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark of Buena Park picked up the phone in his office, only to learn that another round of missiles had battered Tel Aviv on Friday night.

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“It’s so reprehensible!” Goldmark said of the attacks. “It seemed like only months ago that the Berlin Wall had come down and all of this was behind us.”

Goldmark decided Friday night to ditch his original plans for Sabbath services and open a discussion of the events playing out in the Mideast with his Temple Beth Ohr congregation in La Mirada.

“There is one man (from the congregation) who told me: ‘I feel so powerless. I want to help. I want to help rebuild what has been torn down. I want to go over there on the first plane.’ ”

Another man, Goldmark said, was fearful that the congregation’s Hebrew school would be bombed and wanted to pull his son out.

“I don’t know who would bomb a little temple in La Mirada,” Goldmark said, “but that’s the kind of human reaction I’m seeing. They realize they aren’t players on the stage. They have to sit there and watch.”

Goldmark, who also worries about the fate of his son, an Air Force security officer stationed on a U.S. military installation, said the concern runs deep in his community, and it must be expressed.

He said he has noticed a collective “clutching of the gut” among his friends.

During the Friday Sabbath service, Goldmark also asked his members to voice their prayer intentions for family and friends caught up in the conflict overseas.

Most answered with calls of concern for aunts, uncles and close friends living in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv.

“I’m just praying that Israel can wait as long as they possibly can,” the rabbi said about retaliation, “and then wait a little longer.”

News reports of dramatic air raids throughout the week have stirred John Kelso’s memories of piloting a B-17 Flying Fortress through thunderous hostile fire in World War II.

Part of the Army Air Corps, Kelso flew about 50 bombing missions from bases in England, then went on to fly in North Africa.

Kelso’s reflections--voiced in a rich Alabama accent--coupled with the success of U.S.-led bombing missions this week, have barely helped ease his concern for a son, Navy Lt. Cmdr. John Kelso, a physician who commands 30 corpsmen for a Marine ground unit in the Saudi desert.

Like most people, the elder Kelso’s daily routine includes plenty of time for monitoring news accounts that remind him of fighting in another war. He figures that it will be at least a week before the call comes for ground forces and the possible mobilization of his son.

“I was of the opinion we should have done this back in September,” the likeable retired lieutenant colonel, his hair now silver and combed back, said about attacking Iraqi forces. “I was all for going in, but I’m shook up that my son is over there.”

The day hostilities broke out, Kelso said he went to play bridge, “but I didn’t do so good.”

He rewound his thoughts to 1942 and what he remembers as a smoke-shrouded mission over Tunis. It seemed to provide some relief from the present-day conflict involving his son.

“That place was the worst,” he said of the mission nearly 50 years ago. “It was like flying through a thunderstorm.”

His thoughts quickly jumped back to the present and images of anti-war demonstrations. “I guess that’s what I fought for, that’s what our country’s all about,” he said. “But sometimes I feel like they (demonstrators) aren’t thinking very clearly.”

Friday, Tom Umberg really missed his wife.

When the newly elected assemblyman arrived back at his Garden Grove home from his Sacramento legislative office, his 7-year-old daughter, Erin, wanted to join another Brownie troop; 2-year-old Tommy was up on the kitchen counter bouncing a ball, and 5-year-old Brett was bound to come up with more questions about when mommy will be coming home.

The scene has become an almost weekly ritual since Umberg’s wife, Robin, was called to active duty in the Army Reserve.

In their house, war means that Maj. Robin Umberg could be called even farther away than her duty station at Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colo.

But these days, with the kids crying, meals to prepare and arguments to mediate, its hard to distinguish the distance between Colorado and the Persian Gulf.

“It’s hard to assess,” said Umberg, 35, of his new life. “There was a division of labor in the house. Now there is a lot more responsibility on me. I come in the house, and they are hungry for attention from both parents. It requires a lot more time and patience.”

But time is at a minimum.

Since his election in November, Umberg usually spends most of the week, Monday through Thursday, in Sacramento. In his absence, the children are left in the care of a live-in sitter; local relatives also help.

Arriving home, he tries to reconnect with the children, taking time to read, play or just talk with them individually.

“It’s important that I spend time with each child,” he said, pausing to find that Erin had just changed the date on a free pizza coupon. “Last weekend, we went to the mountains. It’s important that we do things as a family.”

Because his wife has limited access to telephones, calls are infrequent, but still Umberg considers his situation relatively manageable compared with families who have lost both parents to the mobilization of reservists.

Umberg also is a major in the Army Reserve and served a short stint in December processing troops bound for the desert.

Since the outbreak of war Wednesday, there is more apprehension around the Umberg household. Brett, who seems to be most confused about the circumstances of his mother’s departure, has more questions.

“My greatest fears are that it will be a protracted war, and we’ll suffer a lot of casualties,” Umberg said. “On a more personal level, I’m afraid that my wife will be called to serve there"--in the Mideast.


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