John Carroll usually gets home from his job, throws on running clothes for a quick five-mile run and starts dinner before his wife takes the babysitter home.

Yesterday he came home, scooped up his two young children and rushed up the stairs of their three-bedroom home on Capitol Hill. He switched on the television to find out what was going on in the Persian Gulf.

Within minutes, he heard Peter Jennings of ABC News confirm his worst fear: America, it seemed, was at war. Within 10 minutes John's wife, Pam, 29, a free-lance writer, walked through the front door. She had gotten the news from National Public Radio as she drove across town.

"This is terrifying," said John, 34, an associate publisher of a travel magazine. The couple, with their 18-month-old son, Matthew, and their daughter, Megan, 6, all sat on the carpeted floor, about three feet from the television in the master bedroom.

They watched for minutes in silence and John began musing about what was really happening with the war. "I just wonder what the troops are doing right now. Are people getting shot?"

John said he has been reading every newspaper article about the crisis that he could find during the last few months.

At 7:41 p.m. EST and 3:41 a.m Baghdad time, little Megan asked a question: "Mamma, what's wrong?" Her parents murmured reassuringly.

John's 26-year-old sister, Coleen, now in Fayetteville, N.C., is married to a captain in the Air Force, a transport plane pilot. John's brother-in-law, Roger Witt, has been in the Middle East since August. John tried to call his sister, but kept getting a busy signal.

"It has been really frightening for her. Not only is she scared for him and alone, but all the other soldiers there have left. There's been a whole lot of break-ins . . . and I know she's got to be pretty upset now."

As additional dispatches from reporters came across the screen, Pam left the bedroom to cook an unusually late dinner of pasta and tomatoes.

"I can't believe this is happening," she said. "War to me is so unreal. I was a kid when Vietnam was going on. I've never pictured myself living during a war. Even now what seems more real to me is a terrorist attack on Washington, not the fighting in Baghdad . . . . It frightens me and I'm still not sure why we're there."

John and the children stayed upstairs. The phone rang every 10 minutes or so. It was friends, who wanted to talk about the war. "Yeah, work seems idiotic right now, doesn't it?" John said to one.

The children went downstairs to eat. As Pam stirred tomatoes in a pan, she talked about the worry that kept her husband upstairs and in front of the television.

"Aside from the fact that he's scared for the soldiers and his family, he's also worried about the economy. He thinks people could close their doors tomorrow over this," she said.

By 8:30, the children had been fed and were back upstairs with their father.

Pam walked in with a birthday cake. The children sang happy birthday to their father. He laughed and hugged them both. With little effort he blew out the candles on the cake. On television, someone was talking about Scud missiles.

After they ate some cake, John again tried to call people in his family. This time he got through to Dallas.

"Mom, isn't this horrible?" Then he was quiet. His mother was crying on the other end of the line.

"It's going to be all right," he said, "But it's scary." The call-waiting signal clicked. It was his brother, Tim, in Connecticut.

"I guess all along I thought there would be a diplomatic solution to this thing . . . . Now that we're in there, I want victory," John said.

Off the phone, John turned to his wife. "Tim is really upset. He said he doesn't know why he's so emotional."

The children played with a beach ball painted with the world's oceans and continents while their parents talked. At 9 p.m., President Bush's voice filled the bedroom.

"Countries with forces in the gulf area have exhausted all reasonable efforts for a peaceful solution," the president said.

John pulled his son from the bed to the floor and held him. They kissed. John looked again at the president, who was talking about atrocities and the attacks on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's weaponry.

"Out of the horror of combat will come the recognition that no nation can stand against the world united," Bush said.

The president ended by asking for God's blessing. John and Pam sat silently. "I'm a little skeptical when anybody paints war in such noble and poetic terms," Pam said.

John and Pam Carroll listened carefully to all the men in suits and uniforms who came on television to explain the faraway battle. No one told them, however, how to deal with one problem they, like many parents, have to work out in this war. How do you explain it to a 6-year-old?

"Megan is pretty sophisticated," Pam said, "but she has no ideas of what is going on. It's hard to reduce it . . . . It's not just about freedom, it's about economics and technology and a lot of modern-day stuff.

"When I told her tonight about the war, she asked me, 'So, do they have their swords?' "