A drought is kinda of funny thing. You have a fire or a flood and it's here, then gone. But a drought sneaks up on you, and all of a sudden, one year it's here and you don't know when it's going to quit. -- Norris Sabe, cloudseeder in Bowman, N.D.

It began as an undistinguished wedge of warm air wandering north from the Mexican desert. But quickly, quickly, it has been parlayed into one of the worst catastrophes to befall the Midwest since the Dust Bowl.

The twin furies of drought and heat -- were mortality and meterology converge -- threaten to turn the nation's breadbasket into the Great American Desert. The disaster has been compared in magnitude with the explosion of Mount S. Helens, with the dimensions of a plague.

Normally, heat kills about 173 Americans a year; already this summer, at least 1,229 have died from it. Normally, local droughts cause $700 million in damage annually; preliminary estimates indicate the 1980 drought has cost $10.5 billion in 18 states.

Some government analysts believe the dry weather could add a full percentage point to the nation's inflation rate. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration authorities warned this week that without a change in the weather the drought bill soon will top $12 billion.

Everywhere things are dying. Egrets in Texas, corn in Nebraska, chickens in Arkansas, wheat in North Dakota, old men in Missouri. Most people get by, though, panting in dark, quiet places and listening to thunder.

Familiar summer vignettes -- old couples lounging on the porch, golfers whacking across the fairway -- evaporated with the heat for much of the summer. Life is stunted, withdrawn. Lassitude endures.

A dip in temperatures recently offered a half-time respite, a ceasefire to collect the dead and embrace the living. But the mercury quickly climbed back to 111 degrees in Missouri, accompanied by stiff winds and runaway fires. Over most of the Great Plains, drought has taken no intermission and no prisoners. Crops continue to wither, water supply problems mount, and millions of acres await a stiff wind to emulate the black blizzards of the Dust Bowl.

Despite record wheat harvests, most farmers have been clubbed by "the double whammy of inflation and drought," as North Dakota banker Cy Fulton put it.

In Texas, where damages approach $2 billion, ranchers have been blow-torching the needles of prickly pear cactus so cattle could eat that for moisture.

Everywhere in the Midwest people face some of the toughest decisions of their lives. Sell the cattle or buy expensive hay? Ship them to greener pastures or hope that it rains? Plow under the crops or try to salvage what's there?

"Trying to figure out what to do in a drought is like putting a gun to your head and playing Russian roulette," mutters Roger Moul, county agriculture agent in Buffalo, S.D. "Everything's been going downhill," concludes Robert Carver, of the U.S. Agriculture Department in Bismarck, N.D. "Of course, that's the way a drought is, and exactly where you are on that decline is awfully hard to pinpoint."

Almost every day more bodies are found, usually old, poor and wilted like zinnias. Resistance breaks down; the weak succumb.

Despite the dramatic impact of the heat, it is the specter of drought that will make the summer of 1980 most memorable. Portions of the Dakotas and Montana have had less rain than during the arid '30s, while two-inch cracks rend the ground in Texas.

"We've been losing farmers steadily for the last few years, but this latest drought will spell the end for many, many of our state's farmers," predicts Rick Henderson, an agriculture official in Texas.

Some experts think modern farming techniques have "defanged drought." Lessons learned by fathers in 1935 have profited the sons in 1980, they say. Better crop hybrids, fertilization, improved weed and pest control, federal crop insurance, irrigation, contour plowing and sophisticated conservation have rendered a repeat of the Dust Bowl improbable, if not impossible, these experts contend.

Damage estimates also are questioned by some authorities who suspect the states of exaggerating their plight. Yet there is no question that by any yardstick the prolonged dry spell has been catastrophic. For example:

Oklahoma authorities extimate losses have topped $1 billion. Ranchers have been selling off so many cattle that auctions have run until 3 a.m.

"The farmers and ranchers tell us that when they walk through the grass, it doesn't bend, it just breaks," says James Plaxico, executive director of the state's Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service.

In North Dakota, damage also is estimated at $1 billion, and the state expects 9,000 disaster applications this summer. In early July, only one percent of the state's wheat crop was rated in good condition. Things are much the same in neighboring Montana, where drought has entered its fourth year and damages are put at $1 billion. "Godawful is a good description of this area," said George Paul, administrative assistant to Montana's agriculture director.

Arkansas authorities last week estimated drought losses at $602 million and climbing at a rate of $15 million to $20 million a day. Chicken deaths have surpassed $6 million, soybean crops are down 35 percent, hay down 50 percent, rice down 15 percent, corn 45 percent -- the dirge goes on and on.

In Texas, drought has besieged the entire state with portions simply out of water. Without rain, both the cotton and cattle industries will be ravaged. "We're sitting on a time bomb," says Agriculture Commissioner Reagan Brown.

In Nebraska, where state authorities put damages at $1.5 billion, "We haven't had any rain for so long, we'd take a hailstorm," said rancher Dan Morgan.

In Missouri, perhaps a fourth of the state's half-billion-dollar corn crop already is ruined, and the billion-dollar soybean crop is jeopardized.

South Dakota officials estimate losses at $447 million already. Minnesota damages have passed $850 million, much of that in the Red River Valley where sunflowers, sugar beets and durham wheat are devastated.

The Deep South also has been singed, particularly in Georgia where authorities estimate damage at $459 million.

Wildlife and specialty crops also suffer. Hickory nuts and walnuts in Missouri have fried, meats shriveling in the shell like mummies in tiny sarcophagi.

In Texas, the pecan crop will be less than half of the normal 80 million pounds. Because flowers are wilted, bees have trouble finding pollen to make honey. Milk production is down: peaches, watermelons and tomatoes are parched. Rookeries in Texas report thousands of dying egrets, their bodies dotting the forest floors and hanging like grotesque white flags in brambles beneath the nesting trees.

One characteristic of drought is its ability to hide long-term effects for months, or even years. Consequently, ranchers who keep their cash flow moving by selling off part of their herds will not feel the pinch until trying to replenish in a year or two.

Parched grass and poor nutrients mean that many cows will be barren next year after failing to conceive this summer. Hogs wallow in the same predicament because sperm counts plunge as the mercury rises.

A more critical long-term problem is the prospect of soil erosion. In North Dakota, for example, state conservationist Jim Kramer estimates that 850,000 acres of grazing land was converted to marginal crop land from 1967 to 1979. With the protective layer of grass gone and no crops to anchor the soil, Kramer fears that the winds of winter will turn these lands to desert.

Farther south, desert is now. In Sweetwater, Tex., the three lakes supplying the city's 13,000 residents are drying up with shorelines receding 200 to 300 feet. In the tiny towns of Ratcliff and Caulksville, Ark., residents have hauled in water since July 4 because wells have run dry. In Yukon, Okla., authorities complain that people are stealing thousands of gallons from city mains and hydrants, including one suspected poacher who filled a tank trunk with 24,000 gallons.

The summer of 1980 affirms Ben Franklin's adage that "When the well's dry, we know the worth of water." Aquifer shortages in the Southwest underscore that region's vulnerability, sparking speculation that the Sunbelt's spectacular growth may shrivel for lack of moisture.

Before summer quits, drought could become an election issue. Throughout the Midwest, farmers, ranchers and city folks are watching to see how their politicians act and react.