It is always so much easier to deal with numbers. They don't die and rot so you have to wear gauze over your face and peel skin off fingers to get the prints to tell who they are.

It is comfortable to think about people as numbers when you don't really want to think about them. In World War I they spoke of "wastage." During World War II, for 6 million Jews, it was the Final Solution.

You can say "6 million" and not feel a thing. You can say "911" and study the photographs of the bodies piled up at Jonestown, and it is a horror, all right, but an abstract horror.

How do you find a human scale for the Jonestown tragedy?

The story of these varied and scattered lives and how they ended in that steamy compound at Jonestown compels many of us to seek out parallels, references, some anchor that will make it seem more real to us. Some people speak of the bridge of San Luis Rey. Some start talking about an appointment in Samarra. It doesn't help. We are still left with all those converging fates, those lives so neatly wound up at the same time and place. The impossible mystery of why things happen anyway.

The other doctors at San Francisco General Hospital, especially the experienced ones, liked Laurence E. Schacht. He was quiet, intent, slightly more dedicated and anxious to please than the other interns who joined the staff in the summer of 1977.

Schacht, a soft-spoken man of medium build with thinning light-brown hair, wore a tie and didn't espouse the nontraditional forms of medicine, like a natural food diet and acupuncture, that some of his young co-workers did. "He was plain, not very vocal. It was your effort to get to know him," remembered Brent Blue, the chief resident of family practice at the hospital. Schacht was assigned to the pediatrics out-patient clinic.

Schacht, who grew up in Houston and left no legacy there except a restless annoyance with those who criticized his family's anti-Vietnam war views, arrived at the hospital with the highest recommendations. He had left Houston after finishing high school in 1967, joined the antiwar effort in California and then went to Guadalajara University. At some point he joined the Peoples Temple and they paid for his tuition. He finished medical school at the University of California at Irvine, 16th in his class.

Back home in Houston, Schacht is remembered as a quiet youngster. His father, Ezra, is a self-employed electrical worker and his brother Danny, 33, works with the family firm."Right now all I can remember is that he was interested in art. He liked to draw. Ambitious? I can't recall. He was a typical teen-ager," said his father. Recalled Duke Lane, one of his high school teachers, "Evidently he was just an ordinary student. I really can't recall him." In the Lamar High School Annual for 1966, Schacht's junior year, he is pictured with a group of fellow students who judged the bulletin board contest. In his graduating year, 1967, he is listed with the students who didn't have their pictures taken.

Wherever he worked, Schacht is remembered for his unobtrusive, steady presence. One former member of the Peoples Temple recalled, "He hardly ever said anything. I never saw him smile or crack a joke."

At the hospital one child-health worker spoke of his reliability and reticence. "He was very conscientious and particularly interested in nutrition, asking how to prepare diet and mix formulas," said Doris Wong, 24.

A few weeks into his internship, Schacht took a vacation, unexplained and hurried. Then, one of his professors received a call from a woman claiming to be Shacht's sister. "His father," she explained, was in South America suffering from meningitis. "He wanted you to know that only something of that magnitude would take him away," the woman told the professor.

In the Guyana complex Schacht trained paramedics, had his own medical cabin and delivered twins by ham radio. The last person who saw Schacht, a Jonestown teacher who escaped, reported that he was brewing cyanide and Kool-Aid and spooning the liquid into the mouths of babies.

-- J.T.