NORFOLK -- While a few guys with crew cuts played blackjack with rented chips and others sipped beer as they waited to watch the miniskirt contest, Marine Sgt. Jim Bonynge sat in the corner of Knickerbocker's bar one evening this week trying to hear Tom Brokaw on NBC.

Once again, part of the world has flared up and the United States hangs on the precipice of war. And once again, the action halfway around the globe has reverberated loudest in this proud Navy town in southeast Virginia.

Bonynge, 28, who is part of a Marine Corps helicopter crew and was stationed in Beirut during the ill-fated 1983 peacekeeping mission, didn't know whether he would be shipping out soon to Saudi Arabia. He figured he would know by Sunday. He's ready.

"I don't want to give a patent Marine Corps answer," he said, "but the fact is this is what we're trained for . . . . "

When America calls, the Hampton Roads area is one of the first to fight.

Home of the Atlantic Fleet at Norfolk Naval Base (the largest naval station in the world), Langley Air Force Base, Oceana Naval Air Station, Camp Pendleton, Little Creek Amphibious Base, the U.S. Naval Shipyard and other defense installations, Norfolk and the rest of the Tidewater region live and die with the flash points in world conflicts.

When the Persian Gulf heats up, Beirut needs a peacekeeping force or the United States sends troops to Grenada or Panama, the men and women from Norfolk and Hampton and Portsmouth answer the call, manning the ships and flying the planes.

"Every time there's a need, the Marines go from here or the Navy goes from here," said Kirk Hammacker, president of the nonprofit Navy League support group. "If you live here, you know someone heading to the Mediterranean."

As President Bush sent American forces to defend Saudi Arabia against a possible Iraqi attack this week, a host of warships and jet fighters left from Hampton Roads.

Four dozen F-15 Eagle fighters took off from Langley, home of Tactical Air Command headquarters, on Tuesday night and four ships carrying 15,000 sailors and Marines left Norfolk for the Mediterranean.

The just-departed USS Wisconsin battle group is supposed to be on routine duty, relieving the Norfolk-based carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower battle group, which has traveled through the Suez Canal to take a position near Saudi Arabia. But most think the Wisconsin group will be in the action if the Middle Eastern situation heats up further.

Left behind are thousands of wives, parents, children and friends, who have little to do but watch the news, wait, worry and wonder.

The area's extended military family is handling the pressure well, officials and relatives said.

"You build up a tolerance or a defense mechanism," said Cathy Stokoe, deputy director of the Norfolk Navy Family Services Center, which provides counseling and information for relatives. "You don't sit around and think about these things all the time."

For a 33-year-old wife of a senior officer aboard the USS Scott, a guided missile destroyer sailing with the Eisenhower, it was the first time her husband has been on the front line.

"I'm not worried for his safety at all," said the woman, who did not want her name used. "The guys are well trained and the ship's in great shape . . . . They can handle any situation that arises."

Others were not so calm.

"My neighbor, her husband's on the Wisconsin and she's pretty upset," said Cindy Myers, whose husband is on duty in South Korea. "They're newlyweds and she's taking it hard. She'll probably lock herself in her house for a few weeks."

Few areas of the country are so intertwined with the military as Hampton Roads.

The military pumps more than $5.4 billion into the local economy, according to the area Chamber of Commerce. More than a quarter of the 1.3 million people in the region have direct links to the military: 140,000 active military personnel, 50,000 civilian Defense Department employees and an estimated 150,000 dependents, retirees and reserves. Many others work in related industries and virtually everyone seems to know someone with military ties.

"The Navy is very much a part of us," said Norfolk Mayor Joseph A. Leafe. "We don't consider it separate. These are our friends and neighbors and family. Anytime something takes place in the Navy family, it obviously affects everyone in the family."

"There's a special kinship that's felt between the . . . community at large and those who are in the military here," said Ira M. Agricola, vice president of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.

Stokoe, a Navy wife for 26 years who cut her teeth at the services center during the aftermath of the USS Iowa explosion, said the area's attitude toward the military is comforting in times of trouble.

"The days of 'sailors and dogs keep off the lawn' are over," she said. "If there is something going on, you couldn't ask for a better place to be."

At the Gateway Apartments just outside the main gate of Langley Air Force Base near Hampton, neighbors wandered along the sidewalks asking each other, "Did they get the call?"

Many had, and others were waiting to find out.

"People get quiet," said Steve Webber, 31, a staff sergeant and communications technician. "A lot of times, they joke and talk about stuff like that. But when it actually happens, they get real quiet."

Times of tension bind the Gateway community together, neighbors said.

"Right now I kind of feel like everybody at Langley is my family," said Dorene Deeter, 27, who was grateful her husband has not been sent.

At Knickerbocker's, a popular military hangout on Little Creek Road not far from the Navy base, the crowds had thinned out this week.

A few customers quietly gulped their beer as the music pounded and dance-floor lights flashed. At one table not far from the blackjack table, two Navy reservists talked about how much they wished they were on the way to the Middle East.

"Damn right. I love my country. It makes me excited. I'm not scared one bit," said John Isaacs, 23, an electrician whose reserve assignment is aboard the USS Boulder.

"Everybody I know is ready to go," said Toby McClain, 30, who operates a forklift at a warehouse when not on reserve duty.

They talked about how a show of strength would be good for American morale. They compared Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler, Moammar Gadhafi and the Ayatollah Khomeini. They sometimes mixed up Iraq and Kuwait or Libya and Liberia, freely admitting that they had never heard of Kuwait until a week ago.

"I mean, what the hell is Kuwait?" Isaacs asked.

On the other side of the bar was Bonynge, the Marine sergeant, watching tapes of Bush addressing the nation and the Eisenhower passing through the Suez.

"This is the lull before the tide," he said. "We're sitting here watching the news real carefully because all it takes is a snap of the finger . . . and you don't know where you're going."

He feels confident in his training, but is "spooked" by the chemical weapons Iraq could use.

"We really don't have a clue what's going to happen," he said. "We'd like to think it'll be the American dream -- you know, John Wayne leads the way and we win . . . . But this one is so unpredictable, you just don't know."