CANDO, N.D. -- Nancy Rader, eight months pregnant and with two children at her side, rumbled into the Farmer's Elevator weigh station in a two-ton truck loaded with grain from the family farm, a 900-acre homestead she has had to work since her husband, Gary, went to Saudi Arabia more than two months ago with the National Guard.

Standing over the load in an olive green jumpsuit stretched to its limit by her temporary condition, Rader cut an unusual shape among the hearty men who work most farms here.

But these are unusual times in many small towns across the country.

More than 78,000 Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine and National Guard reservists have been called to active duty for Operation Desert Shield in the Persian Gulf. While many come from cities where their absence is felt most intensely by family and friends, in small communities the void is magnified and felt by all.

"When you have a tiny little town like this, we're kind of one-of-a-kind, each one of us," said Bob Denison, president of the town's business association and editor of its weekly newspaper.

Cando (pop. 1,500) and nearby smaller towns, whose residents make up the 120-member 132nd Quartermaster Company that left Sept. 15, have lost farmers, electricians, a couple of firefighters, a school board member, one of seven jail guards, one school's only custodian and another's prized vocational-agricultural teacher, who is also its football coach.

"It takes quite a chunk out of a small town," said Ralph Schaffer, a recently retired guardsman whose Cando Army National Guard unit was last activated in 1951.

What is happening in Cando is happening elsewhere.

Lineville, Ala., lost half its fire department and the entire rescue squad when the Guard unit was activated. Macon, Ga., is about to lose the head of its health department, who is also a city council member and a favored mayoral candidate in the 1992 election.

In Flandreau, S.D., the high school principal left for Saudi Arabia yesterday, as did three employees of the popular Royal River Casino. "The worst thing is the emotional thing; a lot of good friends will be leaving," Flandreau Mayor Lowell Johnson said. "The slot machine technician is really going to be missed," he said.

It is not hard to see why a town like Cando (pronounced as in the town's motto, "you can do better in Cando," and whose welcoming billboards offer tourists "free noodles" from the local pasta factory) emptied out when President Bush called up reserves.

The National Guard has a long and strong tradition here, said residents, as it does throughout the Midwest and the South. Veterans and civilians join because they say it's their civic duty and many teenagers sign up to help pay for college. Their hands-on mechanical experience with farm equipment and construction makes them especially useful to the military, their families said.

The class distinctions that divide people in urban areas are muted here. Civic and business leaders are an important part of the Guard.

The members of the 132nd are water purification specialists, and townspeople point with pride to their indispensable role in supplying troops in the desert.

But they are worried too that with all their members concentrated in what would be a vital part of any military operation, a fatal calamity could spell disaster for the town.

The worries have been largely masked by enthusiasm. When the Guard was called up Aug. 24, the yellow ribbons went up, family support networks formed and the National Guard Armory, a yellowish brick building with green linoleum floors, became a hub of activity.

When Guard members left Sept. 15, nearly the entire community turned out; the high school band played patriotic music and children and adults lined the streets and waved placards and flags as a convoy of trucks headed out of town.

But recently questions have begun to surface that some residents are surprised to find themselves posing out loud.

"I always thought of the Guard when things are desperate. When you need to guard our borders and towns, they would put down their plows and pick up their guns," Denison told a Guard official as he chatted about the call-up. "But now they're being used as a regular force in a dangerous situation. Is that the kind of policy the American public wants?"

Nancy Rader's mother-in-law, Dorothy, wanted to add her thoughts to the record of doubts. "Most people don't know what we're doing over there," she said in her kitchen. "Fifteen children from here, their fathers are gone. People are supportive of the {soldiers} over there, but deep down. . . ."

But residents know their concerns will not bring a soul home sooner. So more than two months after the call-up, and with the original three-month tour extended by Bush to six months, people like Nancy Rader are trying their best to get by in a way they thought they would not have to.

Since her husband's departure, she has scaled down her work as a medical technician to devote more time to the family's grain farm and 35 breeding sheep. In the past few weeks, Rader had to learn to wean, weigh, tattoo and vaccinate the lambs.

While the harvest was over by the time he left, she is the one who has to make arrangements to sell what is stocked in the farm silo and to decide what to plant next year.

"Getting the fields ready, deciding what to plant, I hadn't done that," said Rader, who is due to have a baby Dec. 11, the day her husband's original tour was to end. "As a married couple, we were a partnership and talked over things, but you can't very well write letters" about such decisions.

With grain prices falling and a new baby to care for, Rader said she is considering renting part of the land to potato farmers. "It just feels like you have the total responsibility," she said, standing in the evening cold among her flock. "It's like being thrown into a job you're not prepared for."

It is not only Nancy Brager who misses her husband, Frank, since he was called up. As a volunteer firefighter, baseball coach, president of the booster club and one of five members on the school board, he was counted on by many people for direction. As a school board member, his absences "could matter in a close vote," said Brager, who helped organize a relatives' support group.

Guard member Daniel Stave helped his vocational agriculture students at Leeds Public School (250 students, 20 teachers) to win entrance to the national competition in dairy products before he left for Saudi Arabia. He also was the school's football coach and one of the teachers' bargaining negotiators.

"When Mr. Stave had to leave in September, everything was in disarray. We didn't know who was going to take over," said James Isaak, the school superintendent. "He touched the lives of the young people here."

Stave's class went without a teacher for four days before the state could find a substitute.

But if the effect of the Guard call-up is exaggerated by a town's small size, the silver lining is that so is the good will of its people toward Guard families.

"People keep an eye on you," said Brager. "In big cities, you lock yourself in your apartment and your neighbors aren't looking out for you. Around here, everyone pitches in."

The attention can get trying, Brager acknowledges. "I get 10 questions a day about 'How's your husband?' " she said. "You can never get away from the fact he's gone."

Sheila Laturnus was one of three women who were near the end of their pregnancies when their husbands were called to duty. The close-knit unit, which was sent first to Fort McCoy, Wis., for training, collected donations and sent Jerry Laturnus home for the birth.

Laturnus, who lives with her three children on a 5,000-acre farm outside Cando, says the community support "keeps me going."