Thanksgiving was different this year for Vernon Williams and his family. He stayed home while his wife and three children went to her aunt's house in Silver Spring. Williams was in no mood to talk to people.

The week before, he had become an unhappy statistic, among the first 10 of 190 Prince George's County employees to be laid off, victims of an ailing economy.

"This is definitely a rocky period," he said. "You hear about 1,500 {layoffs} at MCI, 6,000 recommended in the D.C. government, and you say, 'Gosh, it might be a really bad period.' But if you keep that mind-set, it's going to be negative. Learning to find things to be grateful for will probably make this a period in my life that will strengthen my foundation."

Five months ago, Williams took a 36 percent pay cut to go to work as an electrical inspector for the county because he would be able to spend more time with his family. "I figured it had security," he said. "Boy, was I wrong."

Williams was four months through his nine-month probation when he got the word. As he puts it: "Oh, happy Thanksgiving and merry Christmas."

With a $49.9 million tax revenue shortfall, resulting largely from the downturn in construction and real estate sales, the county government is cutting back. Among the first to go were probationary employees regulating the building industry. In January, 180 other workers will be let go. It is a scenario likely to recur throughout the region as local governments struggle to make ends meet.

Williams, 34, is the son of a nurse and a maintenance worker at the Statue of Liberty and the father of three children. Like many in the middle class, he is mortgaged to the hilt, with a $1,260-a-month house note and a $300 monthly car payment. His wife, Denise, 36, brings in a modest salary and is looking for a second job while he hunts for a first.

"She's a very good woman; I'm being grateful for that," Williams said in the three-bedroom rambler where the artificial flower arrangement he gave her for their 13th wedding anniversary sits on a living room table. "Here I'm the man of the family and my wife is looking for additional employment, and I'm unemployed."

Said Denise Williams, "I alternate between being scared to death, nervous, tense, and moments when I have a pretty hopeful, upbeat attitude." Added her husband, "As long as we are staying together as a family, things are going to be okay."

They bought their house a few miles from Upper Marlboro a year ago for $128,500. It was an improvement over the smaller rambler they had owned in Hyattsville. In April, they bought a 1990 Calais, the newest car they have ever owned.

Williams has explained to his children -- Vernon Jr., 13, Tracey, 10, and Adam, 8 -- that Christmas will be different this year. "We are going to have a happy Christmas, but not a normal Christmas," he said. "The kids are resigned to the fact that they are getting one present each this year. These are kids who've fortunately always had good Christmases. It's probably going to be good for them, to understand it can't be like that all the time."

Denise Williams worries that her husband's unemployment "means nothing to them. We've explained to them their father is not working right now. They'll come right back at you and say, 'Can we have this or that, can we go to this place?' Last week, we went to the Smithsonian, to the Mall area. We try to do a lot of free things. We've even cut down on rentals of {video}tapes."

For now, the children are happy to have their father at home. "It's fun," said Tracey, who is on the safety patrol and in the math-science magnet program at Samuel Ogle Middle School in Bowie. "We get to go places {with him} sometimes," she said. And with her father home doing housework, "I don't have to clean up my room."

Since he got the news, her father has gone through stages, like a mourner. First, he grieved. Then he got angry. Now, he's trying to move on, sending out re'sume's, setting up interviews. So far, he has mailed about 35 re'sume's, in three versions tailored to the types of jobs, and he continues to scan the shrunken help-wanted ad section.

Last weekend's listings were discouraging. "I don't think I've seen it that small in my 16 years in Washington," he said.

Said Denise, who works for a youth counseling agency: "His abilities are not the problem. The question is whether there's a job out there for him. It can be quite devastating."

Williams recently went to the unemployment office in Greenbelt, where he stood in line to fill out forms. "It was a real humbling experience going down to unemployment, but the people were very helpful," he said. "It was crowded. A scary thing, seeing so many down there."

For the time being, he will get $205 a week in unemployment benefits. With that and his wife's $900 monthly take-home pay, he says hopefully, "we can come real close" to what they earned before. But money will be short.

"For real, I worry about being able to carry the mortgage," he said. "My wife likes this house. This is all we need. But I guess we could get by with less."

For a family of five, he figures, he needs at least $400 a month for food. For Thanksgiving, "we made the decision we weren't going to cook dinner because it was an expense we didn't want to incur."

As a child, Williams lived in a public housing project in Brooklyn, and he later attended the Naval Academy for two years. Then it was on to the University of Maryland, where he majored in Chinese but did not graduate.

He joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a trouble-shooting high-voltage electrician. After 11 years, he went to private industry, as a world-traveling senior electrical specialist for a Columbia company.

He loved the job, and the pay was $42,000 a year, but he was an absentee father and husband. The Prince George's job was close to home and less stressful, but it paid $26,844. He took it anyway. The week before the layoff notice, "I was sitting there going, 'Gosh, how are we going to make ends meet on this salary?' "

Now he tries to maintain a positive attitude, but his moods fluctuate. He worries about his wife, who in turn worries about him. For her, he says, it's a "lot of stress, a lot of nerves, worry, but still she keeps her chin up because she wants me to keep my chin up."

Williams is thankful too for good neighbors. In his suburban cul-de-sac -- where his job situation is not common knowledge -- a neighbor he had not told saw him outside and asked, "Are you off today?"

Recalled Williams: "I took a kind of healthy risk and said, 'Yeah, I'm one of those who was riffed out of the county government.' He took me in his garage, took off his hat, held my hand and said a prayer to me that brought tears to my eyes. It was just, 'Lord, help him and his family.' "