The electronic flow of telegrams to elected officials here last week was nearly 10 times the average, according to Western Union. In five days, Wednesday through Sunday, 70,000 messages were sent to Capitol Hill and the White House.

A telegram to the White House. A prayer? Hope? A note in a bottle?

"There's something to that," says Don Dutcher, news bureau coordinator for Western Union. "There is a sense of futility. You're glued to the tube. You're reading the newspapers. You hear people talk. What happens one minute past midnight? Does that mean shots will be fired? Bombs will go off?

"The fear of what may happen is overwhelming. Particularly for those of us with sons and daughters in the military. You feel like there's nothing to be said, but you want to say something."

The majority of telegrams before Saturday's congressional vote backing the president went to the Hill. After the vote, the avalanche of mail shifted to the White House.

"It's the heaviest it's been in the two years I've been here," says Shirley Green, the director of the White House correspondence office. Between telegrams, mailgrams, letters and faxes, the White House normally receives 40,000 to 50,000 pieces of mail a week, according to Green, who has a full-time staff of 138, and 450 part-time volunteers. "Now, I'd say that it's three times as much -- at least.

"We are still opening and trying to answer mail from three to four weeks ago. We're that behind. We were here all day Saturday sorting. Seventy or 80 of us."

All fall and winter, Green says, the volume has been "extra heavy." First, the mail was mostly about the budget, then the Persian Gulf, then Christmas cards, then the Persian Gulf again. It's sorted by subject -- to describe the process simply -- and then by opinion. But Green and her staff have experienced some difficulty deciding how to sort the recent outpouring.

"Early on, it was incredibly supportive," she says of the Persian Gulf mail. "Now it's neither strongly pro or con. I was just telling Marlin Fitzwater about it. We are having to categorize it more as 'comments.' ... People mostly write that they believe Saddam Hussein needs to be run out of Kuwait. Or they say that their prayers are with the president.

"Then there's a big but ..."

Who'd want to send a pro-war telegram?

"That's partly it," says Green. "But we do get some very strong ones: Go right in there. Do what you have to do. Words to that effect. But very generally, I'd have to describe the mail as 'supportive with great anxiety and concern.' "

Most of the White House mail is first delivered to the Navy Yard where it's sniffed for explosives by dogs. Telegrams, on the other hand, arrive electronically.

For $9.95, Western Union will send what it calls the Personal Opinion Telegram, a 20-word message sent only to an elected official. The company charges an additional $3.50 for each 20 words thereafter. And for $5.95, it will send you a copy of your telegram the next day, with a confirmation of the actual time it was received at the White House telegram office -- usually within an hour of your call.

In the office of Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), 4,300 phone calls and 3,000 letters and telegrams came in between last Monday and Saturday. "About 30 percent were in support of the president," says Warner's spokesman. "And 70 percent were for the other side -- a mixture of no-war messages from pacifists to people wanting to give the sanctions more time. It was pretty heartfelt on both sides."

On this Monday alone -- Jan. 14 -- Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) received 1,172 letters and telegrams. Of these, 211 were in favor of using force immediately. The remainder agreed with Harkin's desire to give the sanctions more time.

The 70,000 telegrams sent to Washington last week is a "very heavy" flow, according to Dutcher, but "not extraordinary." In the five days following Richard Nixon's firing of Attorney General Archibald Cox on Oct. 20, 1973, 500,000 telegrams were sent. It's also less than the 100,000 telegrams sent to Lt. Col. Oliver North during his first three days of Iran-contra testimony.

"I remember North was waving telegrams around on television," says Dutcher, "and saying, See, America is behind me. And of course that only generated more."

But is America behind the Persian Gulf policy, telegram-wise?

"As you know," says Dutcher, "we do not take a position, and cannot take a position on an issue. We are only the transmitting agent. We just take the message and deliver it."

Random calls were made to Western Union's two central offices, in Reno, Nev., and Bridgeton, Mo. "In a crisis like this," said one operator, "opinion telegrams are most of our business, besides wiring money. ... Oh, all of them have been against a war. Or, say, 90 percent of them are against. Con. At least the ones I've gotten. In the past week I've taken about 80."

"I couldn't even begin to tell you what the overall opinion was," said another operator. "I'd get one pro and one con. But I was amazed that so many people knew so much about what was going on. Maybe the day of apathy is over."