In the stark Ben Moreell Navy housing compound here, the confrontation with Libya's Muammar Qaddafi is no game in some distant sea.

"I started shaking, I started crying. I called my friends," said Kathy Woods, a mother of two children who has been married 14 years to a helicopter crewman now on alert aboard the carrier USS Coral Sea in the Gulf of Sidra.

Woods was among several wives of Navy enlisted men who gathered in the warm sun this morning on a weathered picnic bench in front of their neat, wooden town houses to talk about how they and their children heard the news of the latest fighting with Libya and how they cope with fear.

Norfolk, which prides itself as the home town of the Navy, is home port to about 15,000 of the sailors and airmen -- and two of the three aircraft carriers -- now facing off near Qaddafi's "line of death."

There is sense of duty, first, but some raw nerves, too, over the role the women and their husbands play in international disputes. War, even the hint of it, like this Easter week clash, brings home the sacrifice they make.

"You start getting ready for homecoming," said Woods, chain-smoking cigarettes as she recalled the peaceful Sunday just days ago when children held a traditional "kids day" at the local Red Cross office to prepare "welcome home" banners for the Coral Sea, due home next month after half a year at sea.

"They'll probably extend it now," Woods sighed. "They say they're going to cut the cruises down from seven months to six months. Big deal."

For Lynda Pridgen, married for 10 months to a gunners mate on board one of the aircraft carriers, her first taste of fighting is all too real.

Patting the knee of a friend sitting next to her, a veteran of the sea wife's life, Pridgen said, "I wouldn't be able to make it without her." Pridgen still considers herself a newlywed; she has seen her husband for about three months of their marriage.

The Navy brass denied the news media access to the bases here. "Everything is coming out of Washington," a spokesman said. Two Navy chaplains said they could not even discuss what support was being given to the families.

The interview with the Navy wives outside the main base was cut short when the wives announced that a Navy officer had just called to warn them about talking too freely.

The women "were so upset and crying" over Libya, said Sandra Frazier, a longtime Navy wife who had called the group together. "I know for the young girls it's got to be harder."

Across Norfolk and around Hampton Roads to Virginia Beach, the military community eagerly awaited news that the flare-up was over, knowing that it could quickly escalate to something worse.

"It's scary," said a clerk at the Door Store in Virginia Beach's massive Lynnhaven Mall. "He's crazy," the clerk said of Qaddafi. "I don't think we ought to go around taunting the man."

The mall is virtually in the flight path of the Oceana Naval Air Station, home to the A14 Tomcats that tangled before with Libyan warplanes.

At the Lazy Shirts emporium, T-shirts with screaming jets left over from a 1981 clash are still selling well. "Anytime, Khadafy Baby. Libya 0. US 2" read the shirts, a reference to two Libyan jets shot down in 1981. Clerks say a new count will be added when the current confusion is over.

Norman C. Bolin, a retired Navy man with 30 years' service, rested today in the mall's sunlit atrium.

"We've got to stop that terrorist group over there," he said. "If we have to blow Libya off the map, we've got to do it."

Bolin said it is wrong for terrorists to prey on the world, admitting as he sat at a table here that "there's a feeling in the back of your mind that some terrorist is going to set off a bomb in this shopping mall."

At the Victory Grill and Bar in Norfolk, just down the street from the Navy base, a steady hum and bleep from pinball machines welcomed a noontime crowd of military employes.

It was a favorite spot Monday night and again today for television crews searching for reaction.

Chuck, the night manager, said he knew that the reports from Libya were serious. During the academy awards telecast, people shouted to cut it off and turn to local news.

"A lot of my friends are over there right now," he said.

The prospect of death and casualties is strong here. But there is one bright side, said Chuck. All the ships, all the tired, frustrated Navy men will be home some time, he said, and "this damn town will be rockin' when those ships get back."