HALFWAY through the movie ``Home Alone,'' the mother of eight-year-old Kevin McCallister stands at an airport counter, frantically trying to book a flight home to the son she and her husband unwittingly left behind on a family vacation. But all planes are full, and an airline agent is less than sympathetic to Kevin's plight. ``They get over it,'' the man says airily, dismissing the mother's concerns for her son. ``Kids are resilient.''
The scene in the darkened theater is obviously fictional. But in new and troubling ways, the film seems to echo the real-life situation of thousands of young children whose parents have abruptly left home, not for brief vacations but for long-term military duty in the Persian Gulf. Some children have watched as both parents have been deployed. Others have said goodbye to a mother who may be their only parent. Whatever the situation, the effect is the same: bewildered children left in the care of loving but equally bewildered relatives or guardians.
Fathers have always been dispatched to war zones, of course. So have women, although never to the extent that they are represented in the Gulf, where 28,000 women are now stationed. The great difference today is the presence of servicewomen with families. Among the 82,000 women in the Army, for instance, 16 percent - or more than 13,000 - are single mothers. Another 53,000 soldiers - 7 percent of enlisted troops - have spouses who are also in the Army.
Already these new military demographics are creating family hardships. One of the earliest cases involved a soldier at Ft. Campbell, Ky., a father who has custody of three children, aged 13, 12, and 9. When the man's unit was deployed for Operation Desert Shield, his estranged wife could not afford to fly from her home in Hawaii to care for the children. So he left them home alone, although not before tacking a note to the wall, telling them which bills to pay and explaining how to use an automatic teller machine.
In other cases, fathers have been left to care for newborn babies when their wives were sent to the Gulf, and grandparents have had to retrain as fairly permanent baby sitters.
In an all-volunteer military force, situations like these pose dilemmas. Critics argue, rightly, that no one has forced these fathers and mothers to enlist, and that they must now accept the consequences, however harsh. Yet have American institutions become so casual about parenthood and family stability that the demands of war supersede all other needs of the nation's tiniest citizens?
It is probably no coincidence that ``Home Alone'' has been a blockbuster hit at the box office. Beyond the film's obvious appeal as comic family entertainment, it cleverly reinforces the myth of the superfluous parent - someone who is nice to have around, but expendable in a pinch if summoned for other duties or activities. From the suburban day-care center to the Saudi desert, working parents share a desperate desire to believe their children can be self-sufficient. And at a time when ``children in self-care'' has become the brave new euphemism for latchkey children, Kevin, the movie's winsome hero, played by Macaulay Culkin, is the ultimate latchkey kid - resourceful, inventive, independent.
In ``Home Alone,'' the McCallister family's brief separation ends with a joyous, misty-eyed reunion. No one can yet guarantee a similarly happy ending for all the young families separated by war in the Gulf. But as a minimal protection to them, the Pentagon needs new policies - and fast.
Pennsylvania Sen. John Heinz has proposed what is being called the ``Gulf orphan bill,'' which would prohibit more than one parent ``from serving in an imminent danger area.'' The legislation is an important first step, but it does not go far enough. It fails to protect single parents, and it does not prevent both parents from being sent overseas.
Women's roles have changed, and so have family structures. But children have not. Ultimately there is no satisfactory way to hire a surrogate to do what only a parent can do. Children may be resilient, as the airline agent so cavalierly told Kevin's mother, but their need for a secure home and at least one loving parent close at hand remains as urgent as ever.