NORFOLK, AUG. 19 -- Naturally, there were tears and fears as crying relatives watched U.S. warships steam away to the Middle East. But hand-in-hand with the nervousness came a renewed sense of purpose.

Suddenly, military towns such as Norfolk have meaning again.

Just weeks ago, they seemed in danger of eclipse. The end of the Cold War appeared certain to render them useless. But the brewing crisis in the Middle East and the massive American military mobilization accompanying it have refocused the eyes of the nation on places such as Norfolk, Savannah, Ga., Fayetteville, N.C., Jacksonville, Fla., and Clarksville, Tenn.

"It's not a rebirth of patriotism," said Capt. Kendell Pease, of the Atlantic Fleet headquarters in Norfolk. "It's just a shot of adrenaline of patriotism. People are very proud of these kids making the sacrifice."

Norfolk is a company town and the company is the Navy.

This is the kind of place where local hotels mount signs welcoming home the latest ship arriving in port. Where a man dressed as Uncle Sam hawks new cars for a dealership near the Navy base. Where a shop at the trendy Waterside Mall sells only Navy baseball caps bearing the names of various destroyers, carriers and missile cruisers. Where trucks passing through from nearby Langley Air Force Base bear bumper stickers boasting, "If you were driving an F-16 you'd be home by now."

This is the kind of place where many folks on the street can tell the difference between a Navy sailor and a Marine by the way they roll up the sleeves of their camouflage shirts. (The Marine is allowed to roll them up normally so the inside fabric shows; the sailors are required to roll them so only the outside material is showing.)

"They're part of the family, always have been," said David Rhodes, who runs the Armie-Navie Store in Portsmouth, Va., which sells work and hunting clothes. "I think we all have a mental support for the guys."

"Everybody's right behind them," agreed Sonny Joe Stevens, a disc jockey on WAFC-FM, a classic rock station, who like so many civilians in this area is ex-military himself. "The feeling is pretty strong: 'Go get them.' "

While everyone expresses concern for the safety of the hometown men and women, nearly all of the people interviewed here in the Hampton Roads area last week supported President Bush's decision to send in the troops and ships.

Even the crying relatives waving goodbye from the piers of Norfolk Naval Station said over and over that this was the type of situation the sailors had long trained for and that they were proud of them.

Likewise, other towns have greeted the departure of tens of thousands of American soldiers and sailors on the largest military mobilization since the Vietnam War with flags and songs and red, white and blue pins.

"I took great pride in watching the community turn out on the streets, flags waving," said John Paul Rousakis, now in his fifth term as mayor of Savannah, near Fort Stewart, home of the Army's 24th Infantry Division. "It's been a general outpouring of community support. It's been a thrill literally to see the support of the community."

"It puts more of a spotlight on us again," said J.L. Dawkins, 54, a lifelong resident of Fayetteville and now mayor of the city of 75,000 residents near Fort Bragg, where the Army's 82nd Airborne Division is based. The spirits, he added, can be seen everywhere, from banks to churches, and "it's even building more and more so."

Home of the Atlantic Fleet and a variety of other defense installations, the Hampton Roads area has dispatched about 28 ships, two jet fighter squadrons and tens of thousands of men and women in the past two weeks for possible Middle East duty.

Among those was the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier and its battle group, which left port last week and were ordered over the weekend to the eastern Mediterranean to take up a support position. The Norfolk-based USS Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier group already was in the region when the action began.

Although locals are proud of the military's role, there is an unavoidable price.

With so many thousands of military men and women out of town all at once, there are fewer customers to roam the malls, buy new clothes or order takeout Chinese food. Dependents left at home are less likely to make major purchases such as new cars or homes. And at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, there could be a shortage of work because several ships scheduled for routine repairs are tied up in the Persian Gulf.

"You don't lose these numbers {of people} without some kind of economic impact," said Rousakis, of Savannah.

For some, pocketbook concerns beat out patriotism any day. "This really stinks," a tip-starved waitress said the other night at Knickerbocker's, a half-empty military hangout in Norfolk. "We're losing money."

And yet, for the long term, some see a possible economic silver lining to the dark clouds.

With the thaw in the Cold War and much talk in Washington about deep defense cuts, peace seemed to bear bad tidings for towns such as Norfolk. The military pumps about $5.4 billion into the regional Hampton Roads economy each year, and the Defense Department employs about 140,000 active-duty military personnel and 50,000 civilians locally.

The demise of the goal of a 600-ship Navy plus the threat of personnel cutbacks and fewer shipyard contracts sent shudders through the local economy, a situation dubbed "The Price of Peace" in a recent local newspaper series.

But some see the current Middle East tempest as a warning that places such as Norfolk still serve an important role and should be spared from deep cuts.

"You hope that it has that reminder," said Norfolk Mayor Joseph A. Leafe. "I think we're all very happy in this community with the lessening of hostility with the Soviet Union and have high hopes for the future. But at the same time, you recognize -- and this incident very vividly points out -- that there are others in the world who don't have peaceful intentions and you have to deal with them swiftly."

"Three or four years ago, people were asking, 'Where did the trillion dollars of defense go?' " said Pease, of the Atlantic Fleet, one day last week as several ships steamed off for the Middle East. "I saw it today."