An 82-year-old woman is on her knees, praying. High on a hill in South Baltimore, above Bingo World and the American Legion post, in the ramshackle house her late husband built in '39, Inez Felton is praying about "wars and rumors of war," that "the Lord will guide and protect those who are called."

In particular, she is praying for Frank J. Hines Jr. There is nothing extraordinary, perhaps, about Hines -- a 34-year-old postman who delivered Inez Felton's mail until his Army reserve unit was called up Aug. 29 and he suddenly disappeared from the daily landscape -- except that, somehow, through a series of small kindnesses, he had gained a place in her heart.

"I don't hope to meet anyone any better than he is," she says emphatically. "He's a Christian person. He's a person that you can depend on. ... He visited me when I was in the hospital with a damaged heart, he prayed with me. I mean to say he's different, he has a different attitude. He has sympathy and feelings for you, he takes time to talk with you, and that's more than most people will do. I feel like a good person is gone."

Gone -- at the very least -- until the great machinery of the state grinds to its uncertain result.

Frank Hines has become a shadow, a figure ripped from the tapestry of his own life -- this sturdy man of middle height, with a nice smile, a mustache, the chevrons of a staff sergeant on his combat fatigues, last glimpsed on local television the night before his outfit, the 1176th Transportation Terminal Unit, pulled out for Fort Bragg, N.C. Yet a person may be defined by the gap he leaves.

At the Brooklyn-Curtis Bay post office, just off the worn-out suburban snarl where Ritchie Highway enters South Baltimore, the cubicle where Hines sorted an average of 2,925 pieces of mail a day was, a week after he left, stacked high with undelivered envelopes, and both supervisors and customers were bemoaning his absence.

Fifteen miles to the southwest, where the little white spire of the Community Baptist Church rises against the lush greens of late summer along a semi-rural stretch of Route 1 in Jessup, the entire congregation came forward for an "altar call" the Sunday after he left to pray for Brother Hines -- not to them the warrior in camouflage, but rather an active churchman, superintendent of their Sunday school, the busy co-director of the church's Board of Christian Education.

And in the spiffy yellow tract home that she and Frank bought two years ago for $101,000 in suburban Glen Burnie, Sherileen Hines, 35, sits at her dinner table a week after his departure, a picture of Jesus on the wall, a Sensodyne commercial flickering off her eyeglasses from the silent TV, saying she feels "blessed" by her marriage but that 6-year-old Ebonie cried for her daddy over Labor Day and that -- and what wife wouldn't feel this -- "if it weren't for the love that I have for him, then I could be very angry, because he left me, and I'm lonely. I know he didn't want to go."

The gap he left may be no more painful than those left by any of the 46,000 reservists across America called to active duty because of the Middle East crisis -- no more remarkable, no less. Yet each case is unique, and uniquely traumatic.

There are no spoken negatives now, of course, when you talk to people about Frank Hines, no mention of the man's downside -- if there is one -- of the little moods and tantrums that visit most people from time to time. Sherileen calls him "loving and caring and understanding and helpful" and, when absolutely pressed, ventures that he's "ambitious." Yes, those Army checks for the monthly weekend duty -- at a couple hundred bucks a whack -- sure looked good at the time. Now, she realizes, they might better have done without them.

His mother says flat out he never had a downside, if you want to believe it. "He's just a good son, never gave me any trouble," Bertha Hines says by phone from her Jacksonville, Fla., home, where she's just returned from visiting another son in the Army in West Germany, a trip that he and Frank arranged and paid for.

It appears that what we have is, simply, a good man, an upwardly mobile American who worked all the overtime he could at the post office, who liked to tinker around and fix things in his spare time at home, who over the past few years began putting a lot of time into his church work and -- to the pastor's delight -- tithing the full 10 percent. He has a sense of humor more of the cheerful than the malicious variety, and was found by his friend Nehemiah Spence, on a Caribbean cruise the two families recently took together, to be an excellent chess player.

If Hines is, as a church friend says, "very serious about the business of the Lord," it certainly hasn't made his life any dull affair. Sherileen says that they met in 1982 at King's Dominion when he simply walked up to her, delivered with considerable charm the standard line about knowing her from somewhere, and acquired her phone number.

"Bold," she says, grinning.

"We had lunch," she recalls, "lunch led to a movie, then out to dinner, and wedding plans." He was in the Army then, at Fort Meade, where she was -- as she still is -- a computer programmer for the Department of Defense. They were married in the chapel there on April 2, 1983, and lived at first in a one-bedroom apartment, moving up to a two-bedroom when Ebonie was born. Frank, a military policeman, got out of the Army then, as quickly as he could, and landed the highly competitive Postal Service job in 1985 after spending a semester at Anne Arundel Community College.

Through it all, from the day of their marriage, they prayed every night together before bed, on their knees, hand in hand.

It seems to be, often, the little things that define our lives most sharply, that will be remembered longest by those who love and hate us. On his postal route in the semi-industrial Patapsco River valley in South Baltimore, Frank Hines delivered a 13-foot-high stack of mail daily to businesses, an overgrown trailer park and a number of "drive aways" -- modest houses with mailboxes, like Inez Felton's. He's missed.

D.C. Gregg, a retired tree surgeon, emerges from behind his garage and the protective yawping of two chained guard dogs to declare Hines "a hell of a guy. I'm 60 years old and he's the best mailman I ever saw in my life."

Gregg pauses, and a couple of those little things come to mind. "I'm diabetic," he confides, adjusting his dark glasses, "and last year I lost one eye and I got 20/50 in the other. If I come out and I want to understand about the mail, because I can't see it, well, he'll take the time to tell me what I need to know.

"And he always has a pleasant face on him -- it just makes you feel good to see him, it makes your day. When my disability check comes he says, 'Oh, this is your day!' And if not, if it's just bills, he'll still be real pleasant and say, 'Aw, just got bills for you today!' "

As Gregg talks, his friend Elsie Grimes drives up and gets her groceries out of the car, listens a minute and concurs. "I think it's just awful," she adds, thinking of the situation in the Middle East. "It's pulling up and breaking up people's homes. A lot of people just got married and got to go. We've got to do a whole lot of praying that it'll be all right."

As they talk, the little blue and white mail truck drives up, piloted by Hines's temporary replacement (the Postal Service is required to hold his job for him, and his route, for the six months that he will probably be gone). "I never heard a mean word about him," says the replacement, popping mail into a box. "Yeah, I hear he's got a family and everything."

Down the hill a ways, past the trailer park and a couple of truck yards, Gloria Clugston, the traffic coordinator in the air-conditioned office of Superior Transfer, adjusts herself behind her desk and just grins -- she can't seem to wipe the smile off her face at the thought of Frank Hines. Again, little things:

"He's always talking about his family," she says. "He takes them on vacations, everything. He always talks about his family and his little girl, and when he went to the Bahamas he sent us a card that said 'To the Ladies at Superior Transfer.' And he's a very accommodating person, he does favors for you. One time he forgot a package, and he went back to the post office and got it."

Up at the post office, the thing that always struck supervisor Donald Colbert about Hines was that you could show him someone's name and he could instantly tell you the address, right off the top of his head. "That's very unusual," says Colbert. "He's a very energetic person, fun to work with. His customers, they all love him down there, they give him fruit and vegetables. Since he left I've had calls. They miss the efficiency. You can see" -- he points at Hines's cubicle with its stack of undelivered mail -- "that we miss him already."

Hines would arrive at work at 7 a.m. (he had Thursdays and Sundays off), sort the mail for 2 1/2 hours, then deliver it for 5 1/2 to the 563 customers on his route, one of 34 that the station's 52 employees service. "He knows his route," says Gus Papa, another supervisor. "The only time he ever misses work is when he goes to reserve duty."

Frank Hines thought all along, the men say, that he'd be called, because his transportation unit would be essential in moving troops and equipment.

"He took it in good spirits," says Papa.

"He wasn't surprised," says Colbert. "He kept telling me he wasn't sure of the timing. Then one day he called me and said, 'Hey, they got me.' "

Night, and the strong thrum of crickets outside Community Baptist.

The church's exterior is completely dark, but inside, in the basement, a small gathering sings praises to the Lord amid gentle cries of "Amen!" and "Hallelujah!" People stand and speak with simple eloquence. "I've been thinking about this war," says an old man. "You've got people on their knees now who've never been there before, and I believe God is trying to show the world something, trying to tell us, 'Turn around and follow me.' "

Ordinarily Frank Hines would be here, since he and Nehemiah Spence teach the adult Bible class. But tonight Spence is alone, and when his turn comes he falls to his knees on the hard concrete floor. "Oh Lord, we lift Brother Hines to you, his wife and family," he prays. "We just ask that you would anoint him and be with him."

"Yes!" "Bless you!"

With Hines gone, it had been a sad Labor Day weekend for the Spences. The couple and their two small children invited Sherileen and Ebonie and their pastor, the Rev. Robert T. Hurte, for a sit-down dinner in their Columbia home, followed by a party attended by other friends as well.

"This is the second person, for me, because my brother is in the Army at Fort Eustis {in Virginia} and is on alert," says Spence, sitting in his modern living room a week after Hines left. "He'll have to go over to the Mideast. Frank, hopefully, won't have to."

"We miss his presence," says his wife, Gerral. "I feel this is really burdensome, because it's as close as it's ever been to us." The couple, in their early thirties, are too young to have experienced "the other war," as Gerral calls Vietnam.

"The whole country is suffering," says Spence, a lean, bright-eyed man who talks rapid-fire the way you'd expect from a corporate computer whiz, which he is. "Jobs are left open and people are missed." He remembers his friend as "a very genuine-type guy who says what he means and follows up on it," and misses him because "we talk a lot and share a lot -- about ideas, the Word, our families. We share our dreams and goals for the church. The pastor refers people to us for counseling."

Hurte, reached by telephone in Los Angeles, where he was attending a Baptist convention, agrees. "I've known Brother Hines 12 years," he says. "He's really a people person. He's concerned about the spiritual and intellectual fiber of the church and has reached out into the community, visiting the sick, those in prison, and addressing the plight of our young people."

He pauses after these pastorly remarks. Adds: "Yet in the midst of his labor, he is not the type of person who seeks to be praised. It is satisfying to him to know that someone has been helped."

Pauses again. Adds: "Even as we speak -- and he is not physically present -- I sense his spirit, his presence. In a way, I feel that he is part of this conversation."

James Tucker Jr., 14, who is in Hines's Sunday school, says in a phone call that Hines "communicates well with the young children, and really gets his message across: To live the right way. Don't go wrong. Don't let anyone influence you negatively. And stay in school."

On his last Sunday before departing, Hines let him help run the Sunday school.

"When he left," Tucker recalls, "he said, ' 'Bye, and may God watch over you,' and I just told him 'bye, I wished he'd get back pretty soon."

At home, the uncertainty is tough. Not whether he'll live or die -- nobody's thinking that way, at least not yet, not with Frank Hines still assigned stateside -- but uncertainty about how long he'll be gone. "I'm somewhat disturbed," Sherileen had sturdily told a TV reporter that last night before he left, "because I don't know how long. ... To be without a husband, without a companion, is going to be lonely."

An Army spokeswoman, a lieutenant colonel, said at the time that the 1176th was going to Fort Bragg for training, then to the port at Wilmington, N.C. The unit has since moved to Savannah, Ga. There were no immediate plans to send it to the Middle East. "I cannot speculate," the lieutenant colonel said. "It's more or less a day-to-day thing," says Sherileen. "It all depends on what happens -- if there's a war. No one can reassure me that he wouldn't go over."

Meanwhile, he calls her every couple of days or so.

"He called last night," she says a week after he left. "He's doing fine. He misses everyone. When I told him about Labor Day at the Spences', he felt down. He's really concerned about how I am. He kept saying, 'Are you okay?' and I kept reassuring him. He spoke to Ebonie, and that went real well because she had a tooth loose and it came out when we visited the Spences. So she had that news for him."

But the calls aren't always so great, certainly no substitute. "He called last night again," she says a couple of days later. "He's doing pretty good. His spirits are up as much as they can be, I suppose. He didn't have a whole lot to say. I wish I could call him every night, but I can't afford to." She adds wistfully, "He'll be back soon."

Though Hines was doing quite well for the son of a Jacksonville truck driver, the mobilization imposes a burden -- a net cut that Sherileen estimates at about $300 a month. That may not seem like much when you consider that together they made about $63,000 last year.

The scary part is the possibility of a furlough of federal workers that could cut Sherileen's DOD pay and put the couple under. They have savings, but "I don't want to dip too hard into that until I find out about the furlough," she says. "I mean, six months is a long time. That puts us into the spring. I watched the president on TV today, and he said that even if a war didn't happen, he wanted to keep our troops in place for a while."

If things get bad, she says, "I'm not worried. The church will help. It does bother me that he didn't volunteer for this, and I feel that the Postal Service could make up the difference. But it could be worse. The privates -- some of them are on welfare because the wives don't work, they have to get food stamps."

The night before her husband left, Sherileen and Ebonie accompanied him to his reserve center for a briefing of all the families. That's where the TV reporters interviewed them. Afterward they returned home, where several members of their church choir, including the Spences, had gathered. They brought some snacks, and everyone held hands around the table while devotions were said.

Everyone reassured Hines that they would look after his wife and daughter.

That last night, when the couple knelt in prayer together at bedtime, he asked God to protect his family while he was gone, to let him return home soon, and to bring an end to the crisis.

The next morning at dawn he drove off in the family Camaro, headed south.

We still don't know Frank Hines, though perhaps there's no need. Inez Felton, after all -- the old woman for whom a wobbly trip to the mailbox with the aid of her walking stick is an event -- knows few facts about him, yet enough to proclaim him a prince of humanity.

"We pray he comes back home," she says, "because we need him, and we need all of them. 'You've got to go because I send you!' they say, and that's bad. That's grown people being children. Many tears are shed, and sometimes you wonder where so many tears come from.

"We've got to pray for them, whether we know them or not."