It concentrates the mind wonderfully, wrote Samuel Johnson, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight.
Or, he might have added, when a country collides with war.
For when a nation bleeds it is changed forever. Usual thoughts of more ordinary days seem vacant, even silly before news that is fresh, grim and awful. The images of war persist, then become indelible:
Of . . . sad, dazed faces of soldiers beaten into meaningless confession. Also, one young proud, grinning, handsome, vital face to start a new roster of American dead for military histories and hometown monuments. And hometowns that have barely healed from the last war.
Of . . . an ephemeral hope, because it was only months ago when a wall fell and there was glasnost and perestroika and the world said peace had broken out and this would indeed be the best of times.
But now, again, fear at home. "I have to take pills so I can sleep. I'm afraid something very bad is going to happen to him . . . . "
Soberness. "It is not the bright new world as quickly as we thought . . . . "
Confusion. "Mr. Romero, they said one died . . . . "
Anger. "If they saw one face of the women and children they're bombing they would have to stop this madness . . . . "
Sadness. "The Jewish people have been hurt too many times . . . . "
Resolve: "Appeasement does not bring peace . . . . "
For many Americans at home, the emotional shifting of living in a country at war has come in seemingly small but telling ways.
As elsewhere, sales of American flags and Mideast maps have boomed in Orange County, while business, especially earlier last week, dropped sharply at many movie theaters and restaurants. Even at places like bowling alleys and recreation centers, where attendance stayed about normal, people huddled around the TV monitors, glued to the war news.
Like Steve Fisher, 40, of Huntington Beach, who continued to work out at the Los Caballeros Sports Village in Fountain Valley, where he could ride a stationary bike but keep watching the latest Pentagon press conference on an overhead TV monitor.
"You can't leave the TV very long, not at this time. We have stayed up late each night since that Wednesday (Jan. 16). The rest of the time, it's the radio turned on," said Fisher, an associate professor in accounting at Cal State Long Beach.
Others, like the Brogno family of Mission Viejo, have displayed the American flag outside their home, a standard 3-by-5-foot banner above their garage.
Why? "To show our support of the troops over there, of course," said Mike Brogno, 32, who is openly disdainful ofthe anti-war groups, saying such protests "make me sick." "My wife and I tell our (three) kids this isn't just a war over oil, it's a defense of our freedom and the freedoms of others from that madman, Saddam," Brogno said.
But the great common denominator among all Americans, regardless of their war stance, said Pete Major of Santa Ana, is "our great concern over the loss of lives over there." "Americans may differ where they draw the line in the sand, but all of us want our people back home, safe, as soon as we can," added Major, 43, an urban planner who has opposed America's entry into war.
Yet in the daily lives of many Americans, the war has already made profound modifications--such as how to explain the war to the children.
For instance, Major and his wife, Connie, and their three children (ages 8, 10, 12), have watched a lot of TV news. "We wanted to prepare them. But we have always talked things out, and we feel our kids are pretty level-headed," Major said.
Still, like many other families, the Majors have made sure that they maintain their normal schedule, including a Boy Scout hike last weekend in Rancho Jurupa Park in Riverside County. "You keep up with the news," he said. "But life must go on. You can't let it (war) obsess you, or disrupt your life too much."
And the war has produced an epiphany for one social volunteer who recently turned formal political activist.
Prior to 3:35 p.m., Pacific Standard Time, Jan. 16, Mona LaVine of Santa Monica was concerned primarily with the war on hunger. Her hot meals program serves 300 homeless each night. There are always more homeless than meals.
"So it is interesting that in a very short time our government could house a half-million soldiers in a desert without electricity or plumbing, but they will not house the homeless in our own country," commented LaVine. "So I am joining the peace demonstrations. I have committed myself to march once a week at the Federal Building in Westwood."
Such personal involvement, counsels Hyla Cass, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at UCLA, is ideal therapy for weathering Desert Storm. Especially for those with friends and relatives serving the military.