Every night when he came home to Gaithersburg from work at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Dennis Vidmar told his 10-year-old son, Michael, about the Supreme Court justice or congressman or admiral admitted that day.
Then on Aug. 13, Michael's father, a Navy dermatologist, was gone, off on a 7,000-mile journey to the Middle East.
Now it's the little things Michael misses: celebrity news from the hospital, Sunday morning walks with his dad to the supermarket for the newspaper and chocolate-covered donuts with sprinkles. Michael has to do his math homework alone, and he can't tell his father that he's playing trombone in the Lakewood Elementary School band.
"Basically, it gets lonely, especially in the evening," said Michael, a fifth-grader. He keeps a clock on the kitchen counter set to Saudi Arabia time. "I like to know when my dad is getting up and going to sleep," Michael said.
Many Washington-area children of American military men and women sent to the Middle East were told last week to prepare for the upcoming holidays without their mothers or fathers, and some local schools are offering counseling and staging pep rallies to lift students' spirits.
"I think people are very sensitive to the pressure on the kids," said Susan Knecht, a coordinator for student services for Fairfax County. "As you would expect because of all the military living in this area, many students' lives have changed."
Whether they were teenagers or younger, all 15 area children interviewed recently said the separation from their parents has been hard. Many have difficulty sleeping. Most worry that shooting will break out. Dinners are lonely; homework seems somehow harder.
Many have a big appetite for Middle East news. Several said they have turned to library books to find out about the emirs of Kuwait and the history of Mesopotamia.
Melanie Morrow, 14, a Hayfield High School student, said that because there have been no American soldiers killed in battle in the Persian Gulf, some of her friends don't think the situation is important.
"In geography class we were discussing what is going on over there and one kid said, 'What's the big deal? Who cares?' I told him I care because my dad is over there, and that he would care, too, if he had family over there."
Melanie's father, Sgt. Donald Morrow, a heavy equipment mechanic stationed at Fort Belvoir, shipped out Aug. 22.
When Sgt. Williard Graham went off to the Middle East from Fort Belvoir, he left behind five sons, including Jeffrey, 9.
"My dad isn't around to wrestle with me," said Jeffrey. He also missed Jeffrey's birthday.
"My husband is the one who makes birthdays and holidays exciting," said Barbara Graham. "He gets the balloons, teases the kids. For Christmas he loves to get the gifts. It's not the same without him."
While Sgt. Jerome Harrington is working as a tank commander in Saudi Arabia, son Jerome, 2, is waking up most mornings about 4:30 a.m. and crying, "Where's Daddy?"
"He doesn't know how to say it but he misses his dad," said his mother, Jeannell Harrington, a secretary at DeWitt Hospital at Fort Belvoir.
Teachers at Spring Woods Elementary School in Prince William County, where almost half of the students have parents in the military, held a rally last Friday to show support for the children left behind as much as for the troops abroad.
"The teachers told us it has been very traumatic for the kids," said Army Capt. William Benner, a Fort Belvoir spokesman who was asked to talk to students at the event. "It was very moving. They had banners saying they supported the soldiers. Some were crying."
Many families already have begun getting Christmas and Hanukah gifts ready for the mail. The Bethesda hospital is planning a Christmas party in October so families can decorate trees and unwrap gifts for a videotape to be played Dec. 25 aboard the hospital ship USS Comfort. Many of its crew members came from Bethesda.
Gail Fredericks, whose husband, Michael, is a dialysis specialist aboard the hospital ship, said she and her 6-year-old son, Joshua, are planning to fly to San Diego to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends.
"Turkey for two isn't a lot of fun," she said. "I want Joshua to have something to look forward to."
Joshua kissed a postcard that arrived from his father, Navy Cmdr. Michael Fredericks. "He's so far away, I can't kiss him," Joshua said.
Brandon Gantt, 8, has turned out to be the counselor in his Kensington home. When his sister Emily, 4, starts to cry because their father, Navy anesthesiologist Robert M. Gantt, has been gone so long, Brandon said he tells her, "Emily, think about it this way: Every minute that passes, we're a minute closer to Daddy coming home."