Willie Cleaton was polite but insistent. "What is it about Tappahannock that's so 'tacky'? Did somebody here give you a hard time?"

"Well, ah, no, Sir," I said into the telephone. "People are very friendly when I stop for gas or lunch or something. But when you've been driving through all that beautiful Tidewater Virginia countryside and then hit the stretch of U.S. 17 through Tappahannock, it sure is, ah, ugly."

"Well, yes, I guess those of us who live here are so used to it we don't see it," he said. "That stretch of 17 is pretty bad in spots. But have you seen the rest of our town? We're mighty proud of it, and it was a shock to read in The Washington Post that Tappahannock is 'one of Virginia's tackiest towns.'

"I run the Rappahannock Times here, so people are sort of looking to me to defend our honor. They're pretty hot. Some of them want to hang you, but others say no, we ought to tar and feather you first. I'm sitting here writing an editorial about long-haired hippie Yankee cub reporters, and I thought I'd call and find out what it is about us that you don't like."

"To tell you the truth, Sir, I said, "I am a native Virginian of mature years and few hairs. And I have never seen anything of Tappahannock but the highway going through. I didn't even know there was any more there than you can see from the road."

"That's what I thought," said Cleaton, too much the gentleman to make any comment about superficial reporting. "We'd like to invite you to come on down and spend a few days with us and let us show you the town. We think it might change your mind."

Gentle Reader, I did, and they did, and I have. If there is a nicer place within a two-hour drive of Washington to spend a weekend or a week or a summer or a lifetime, I have not been there.

I have toured Tappahannock Town by land and sea, and could have seen it by air except that Willie Cleaton would have been the pilot and I have seen him drive.

I have seen stately homes and graceful public buildings older than Williamsburg, preserved not as tourist attractions but because the living have held the land in trust for their children and their children, for a dozen generations.

It is a town where when they speak of "the War" they usually mean the War Between the States (to which the town and Essex County sent virtually every able-bodied white man and from which pitifully few came home), but whose black town councilman leads all other candidates at the pools, as did his father before him, although only one resident in five is black.

I have seen, under the guidance of the Town Manager and the Chief of Police (who are James Moore), all of Tappahannock, population 1,500, including some tumbledown shacks and the sewage lagoon (immediately downstream from which they fish for great, walloping, tasty bass). I have seen it two or three or four or five times, in fact.

It is a town in which people complain about a real-estate tax rate of 35 cents per $100 assessed valuation, based on a 30 per cent assessment, which is enough to make a resident of Arlington cry. You could retire a Tappahannock mortgage for what an Arlingtonian pays in taxes, and have enough left over to buy gas for the boat tied to your dock along the broad and beautiful Rappahannock River, whose waters abound with rockfish, sea trout and succulent blue crabs.

The streets are wide and shady, the homes and yards as neat as Army bunks. Strangers are noted, not suspiciously but because they are strangers, and might need help; and when you stand in the middle of Prince Street to take a picture of the courthouse the oncoming driver stops and invites you to "take all the time you need; I'm not in any hurry." Ask for a historical pamphlet at the library (housed in the older debtors prison) and the librarian will call the treasurer and a nice lady will climb up into the dusty attic to fetch you one.

When a limb falls off one of your trees, you call the Town Hall and they come and carry it away that afternoon from wherever it landed: in Arlington you have to cut branches into four-foot lengths and gift-wrap them and haul them to the curb and maybe the truck will pick them up Tuesday.

Among the other services those beleaguered Tappahannock taxpayers get for their 35 cents are: a 100-bed (regional) hospital; drinking water that comes pure and unchlorinated from two never-failing 500-foot wells drawing on an aquifer that runs all the way from the Blue Ridge; volunteer fire and rescue squads as well-equipped and-trained as any; schools where they teach Johnny to read and behave; and police protection so thorough that locking your home or your car seems silly if not eccentric.

Willie Cleaton says that kids sometimes rob the three crab pots he anchors out near his dock, but he knows which kids they are, and they know he knows, so somehow it doesn't make a very good crime statistic. There is crime in Tappahannock, insists James Moore, wearing his Police Chief hat. He can recall four or five burglaries over the past 20 years, one of them unsolved, even. But he hemmed and hawed when questioned about rape and robbery and so forth. "Well, you city people have got to make some allowances for us," he said defensively. "This is just a little old town; we can't have everything. "

It all seems a little too good to be true, and your correspondent may have been taken in. It is difficult to retain one's critical faculties when dozens of people drop everything to put themselves at your service. I knew as soon as I turned off U.S. 17 into the historic district that I had done Tappahannock wrong. Seeing my embarrassment, the townspeople vied with one another to excuse and even defend my tacky remark while pretending not to notice my tacky clothes.

"Probably the best thing that ever happened to the town," a Jaycee said. "It's made us look at that awful stretch of road, and realize that's all that most people ever see of Tappahannock."

"It is seedy, no question about it," said a lady.

"No, it's ugly, " said a white-haired gentleman.

"Disgraceful, that's what it is," put in another.

Hey, folks, it ain't that bad. I could show you a dozen tackier stretches in Arlington.

But it must be said that Tappahannock is not Utopia. There is desuetude: Grass grows on the airport runway. There is moral decay: Not everyone goes to church every Sunday. And there is vice: Gentlemen for-gather at the home of a leading citizen to play a game they call poker, using a deck so worn and stained that everyone but me could read the cards backward or forward, wherefore I spent the evening pushing money into the pot and they spent the evening raking it out, sometimes as much as a quarter at a time.

Next day, all that bourbon and branch water notwithstanding, the card sharks were up and around, prosecuting the enterprises that make Tappahannock the trading center for a dozen counties between Richmond and Fredericksburg, with an annual volume of over $60 million, according to James Moore, wearing his Town Manager hat.

The Jaycees were making a list, and checking it twice, to make sure they had enough flags on hand to put one in front of every store in town on the Fourth of July. And seeing to it that everyone had gotten the word that the fireworks display had been switched to the high-school grounds because ospreys had been discovered nesting on the light standards at the Little League field.

That's the kind of town it is.

Rappahannock Times please copy. WHERE IT'S AT

Take I-95 south to the U.S. 17 South bypass south of Fredericksburg. Arriving in Tappahannock, turn off on the first side street so as to see some of the nicer parts first.