Fear took a seat at the nation's Thanksgiving tables Thursday, ushered in by rumblings of imminent war in a distant desert.

The fragile veneer of hope for a peaceful settlement in the Persian Gulf has all but shattered as the conflict drags into the holiday season, with 230,000 U.S. servicemen and women in the region and hundreds of Americans held hostage in Iraq and occupied Kuwait.At home, Americans cope with frayed nerves, growing uncertainty and the pain of separation through protest, prayer and patriotism, but patience is wearing thin.

"If Saddam Hussein will move back out of there like everybody's been telling him to, we can maybe get back to a normal life. We've said a prayer for that to happen," said Frank Atchison, a Missouri National Guard mess sergeant whose Poplar Bluff detachment has yet to be activated. His son, 1st Lt. Frank Darrell Atchison, leads the 1221st Transportation Company, which was called up this week along with 15,091 other reservists from 35 states.

"I don't want any father's sons to be in war," the elder Atchison said, keeping a firm grip on the infant car seat holding his granddaughter, Morgan, 1 month old on Thanksgiving. "I'll give thanks if we don't have a war."

Fear that the United States is moving too quickly toward war has chipped away at support for President Bush's policy.

Protesters have marched in places like Fargo, N.D., held peace vigils in New Haven, Conn., and Richmond, Ind., and poured oil and simulated blood over a mound of sand in front of San Francisco's Presidio.

"I think as long as the president is beating the war drums and not wanting to have a full discussion of this in Congress, people are getting angrier and angrier," said Frances Crow, a 71-year-old Quaker among those gathered at the gates of Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts.

Anger mingled with sadness and a feeling of helplessness have overshadowed the usual joy of the season for some hostage families.

"I haven't even thought about Thanksgiving," said Kim Edwards of Carson City, Nev., whose husband, Tony, is trapped in Baghdad. "I should be out shopping and doing stuff, but what can you do? I just don't have any enthusiasm for celebrating."

Sally Martindale's older brother, Thomas Gordon, had been planning to stay in Kuwait during this year's holidays, teaching English to members of that country's Air Force. In August, he became a hostage.

"All along I've been thinking he'd be home for Halloween. Now it's Thanksgiving, and a week from now, I'll probably be thinking Christmas," said Martindale, of Curtis, Mich. "It will definitely put a damper on our holidays, but we always have that hope."