SAN ANTONIO -- When life gets tough, people turn to their telephones. They call friends and relatives. They call radio talk shows, and now they call war hot lines.
Since Jan. 16, just before bombs started dropping on Baghdad, one of the nation's busiest and most revealing telephone operations has been located in a cramped, windowless room at Kelly Air Force Base on the southern rim of San Antonio. This is headquarters for the worldwide U.S. Air Force hot line.
Calls have come round-the-clock since war began, sometimes 300 an hour -- 27,363 during the first 10 days of conflict.
They are handled by public affairs officers, retired airmen and volunteer wives and husbands from the close-knit military community here. They work 10 telephones at a time on eight-hour shifts, not only handling queries from Air Force families seeking information on loved ones in the Middle East but also dealing with the full flavor of life in these tense and confusing times.
Some callers seek financial advice; others want to sign up for the war. Some are in need of psychological counseling; others have some bit of military strategy they want to pass along.
"We've never operated something of this magnitude before," said Col. Tom Shumaker, who oversees the hot line as part of the Air Force News Center here. "We've probably handled every sort of call you could imagine."
In normal times, the news center publishes an in-house Air Force magazine and distributes news of military promotions to hometown papers.
On the afternoon of Jan. 13, three days before the war started, Shumaker and colleagues received a call from the Pentagon directing them to set up a 24-hour hot line. It took three days to hook up the computers and telephone system, just in time for the war. Somehow, the first call arrived two hours before the 800 number was unveiled in news reports.
It was from a young man whose parents were stationed at an air base in Turkey. He wanted to know about the procedure for evacuating dependents from the war zone. Calls have been incessant since, the numbers seeming to fluctuate not only with the time of day but with the latest reports on Cable News Network.
"When CNN reports a plane down, the switchboard lights up," said Staff Sgt. Michelle Guerin, one of the operators. "People call and ask, 'Is that my son? Is that my son?' "
Although the hot-line operators have a computerized list of names of airmen listed as killed or missing in action, they are not the primary source of information on casualties. They can only pass along a name cleared by the military personnel notification center at Randolph Air Force Base on the north side of San Antonio, which is responsible for the nationwide process of notifying next of kin.
Once the family has been notified, Randolph contacts the Pentagon, which releases the name to the hot line and media.
For the first few days of the war, Guerin said, calls were mostly emotional. Now, she said, they often are angry.
"It was mothers and fathers in tears at first," she said. "Now it's people angry that we can't give them more information. They think that somehow we can tell them exactly where their relative is stationed in Saudi Arabia and how much danger he or she is in. Obviously, we can't say."
But not all callers are angry. A 70-year-old woman from New Jersey called Guerin and said she had been a nurse in World War II and wanted to reenlist. Her voice was shaking, but her message was firm. Another old gentleman from California said he had served in Korea and wanted another chance.
Dozens of calls come to Guerin from Vietnam veterans offering services to the war effort.
Then there was the fellow who said he had a foolproof plan for how to use infrared devices to color-code and eliminate Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's bunkers. And the elderly woman who said she had no one in the world except her son, who was in Saudi Arabia, and she had just been released from a mental hospital and felt alone and scared by what she saw on television.
Guerin told her to turn off the television.
"I get a lot of calls from people saying the TV is upsetting them," Guerin said. "I always say, 'Turn it off.' We also have CNN's number here, and if people complain about their coverage, we give it to them."
Another hot-line operator, Ed Sartain, 58, said his favorite call was from a woman who said she had a quick way to end the war. Dress up a life-size rag doll as a pilot, she said, and fly it over Baghdad in a helicopter and drop it near a missile site.
When the crew comes out to look at the dummy, have another plane fly overhead and "bomb the heck out of them."
"I thanked her for her suggestion," Sartain deadpanned.
Listening to hot-line callers hours on end can be exhausting, physically and psychologically. Guerin said she takes the calls home with her.
"I dream that I'm answering the hot line," she said. "I can't get away from it. Last night, I dreamed that I got a call from my mother in Iowa. She was a nurse, and in my dream she had just been called to active duty and was heading for the war. Bizarre. But that's the way things are these days."