For 28 hard but rewarding years Gerald and Betty Ford lived in this capital and then the former president returned to the plough as a private citizen.

Lately (as I gathered at a Washington Press Club lunch yesterday) he thinks he may have heard a summons back to the duty of public life. Still isn't sure.

He's not as sun-tanned as he ought to be, but maybe the summer has been as lousy in California as it was here. Few got suntans in this city, not even those of us who work the fields behind the mule.

Anyway, he said, he isn't here as a candidate. Just dropped by to see how the capital has changed, now that the government has been streamlined and now that inflation has been stopped and all that.

Relative to the Russians, he pointed out six or seven times, American military strength is lagging. For a minute there he sounded almost like a candidate.

Competition for the nomination is a very good thing for all candidates, he said, "including Ronald Reagan," but Ford himself has no plans to run. Once he spends a day seeing that government spending has withered away and inflation is only an amusing memory of the past, no doubt he will return to the plough and the vineyards of sunny slopes, pleased that he served his time here, but happy to see ship of state, which he left, is not only not sinking, but is sailing well above sea level.

I have always admired heroes (to move right along) and sometimes I see they have great sparkle, sometimes not. Heroes are not a breed, it is increasingly clear, but variable stars, like the ones in the sky that are dim, then suddenly burst with a hundred times their usual energy and light.

When Chaban-Delmas, the former prime minister of France, was in town to receive the Donovan Award (for heroes, mostly) he was in a receiving line at a reception when Jacques Snyder, former OSS man, introduced himself and the "my wife," Marie Therese.

"Who is French," she added to the French guest of honor.

"Who is French," he repeated. "And it shows."

A handsome woman indeed, but she could just as well have been American, German, Polish, Hungarian -- one sees beautiful women from all those countries and more. But gallantry, I sometimes think, is all. In peace as in war.

Spent an afternoon recently with George Gay, one of the heroes of Midway who was here for a seminar at the Air and Space Museum on the Battle of Midway with Adm. John S. Thach, who led the fighters from the carrier Yorktown, and Rear Adm. Max Leslie who led the Yorktown dive bombers.

Before all the formal rehash began, however, I had Capt. George Gay, sole survivor of the 15 torpedo bombers that flew from the carrier Hornet, all to myself, and found out he is still glad to be alive.

Before his plane was shot down, he had an inkling he was in trouble. He noticed the other 14 planes in the group had all been shot down, and some of the instruments seemed to be dangling wires here and there and he felt this ruffling sensation in his left arm.

Behold, there was a bump like a boil and he squeezed it and out popped a bullet. He hadn't felt it go in.

"Christ," he thought, "a souvenior." He had only been with the bomber squadron 6 months and this was his first great battle.As far as that goes, Midway was almost everybody's first great battle, with 100,000 Japanese sailors on hand and a third that number of Americans.

"I assume you were scared," I said, "but how scared? Did you have time to be sick with fear, or were you so busy working the instruments you had to put it off a while? Did you feel any regrets, any sadness?"

"I was damn scared," he said, "but the second by second decisions kept me going."

He looked back and saw his gunner was dead.

At what he judged was the right moment, he pulled the control to release the plane's torpedo. His left hand didn't work right (it was shot) so he reached across with his right hand. There were things dangling out of the control panel.

He thinks the torpedo got dropped. Later, the citation for his Navy Cross ("for extraordinary heroism") stated that Gay among other things "delivered an effective torpedo attack against violent assaults of enemy aircraft."

Well, maybe. Maybe not. Gay did his damnedest.

"It was a World War I torpedo," he said. Sometimes they just plopped down in the ocean like a wallet in a poker game on the deck. Sometimes they went end over end a few times and then sank.Sometimes they actually reached the target and went bump before sinking. Sometimes (Gay believes) they hit the target and exploded.

His plane started going down. He ran to the back to make certain the gunner was dead, not just badly wounded, and sure enough he was. When the plane began to sink (and Gay used all the skill he had to bring it down almost horizontal) he noticed the hatch over his head was jammed. When water reached his armpits, he went semi-nuts and somehow smashed through it.

In the water he gasped for breath and dropped his souvenir bullet. At the time this loss hurt him deeply.

"But it was a funny thing. Everything went wrong, except that if life depended on one thing, that one thing worked."

The plane's mechanisms were damaged beyond any use except that the one thing he desperately needed, the elevators, for some miraculous reason still worked;

There he was in the middle of the Japanese Navy, bobbing about, and it was a more cosmopolitan fix than seemed right to a good country boy from Waco, Tex.

There had been a rubber raft on the plane, but Gay had no time to fool with it. Incredibly, it bobbed up from the sunken plane. It had been tied down, but evidently enemy fire had nicely cut its ropes. There was a hatch over the raft, but it had opened by itself, and up floated the limp savior.

Another treasure was a black pad (like a kneeling pad that goes with chairs in a cathedral) and he put it over his head so the enemy would not notice his hazel-eyed shining Texas face.

He didn't dare inflate the rubber lifeboat.

Everywhere he looked he saw enemy ships, carriers, cruisers, you name it. Virtually the whole Japanese fleet, Once or twice he thought they were going to sail right into him.

Night came at last. The enemy resolved to sink one of their greatest ships, mortally damaged, so it would not fall into American hands. Not that Americans had leisure at that point to poke about abandoned enemy carriers.

They kept firing at it, but the range was too close and they couldn't hit it at the water line. The ship caught fire, her hull glowed red. Vibrations from shells hitting the ship hurt Gay's stomach as he floated in the sea nearby.

Finally it was safe to inflate the boat (the canister of gas was intact) and the enemy sailed on.

He was alone on the sea for 30 hours. An American patrol plane spotted him. Japanese planes were still in the skies, as far as they knew, and it was suicide to be caught landing on the water. But the crew of the patrol plane took a vote. To a man they voted to land on the water and pick Gay.

It all worked out fine. In the hospital, Gay had a visit from Adm. Chester Nimitz. He knew none of the details of the Battle of Midway, and whatever else you say about Gay's luck, at least he had an unrivaled view of the battle.

Well, His injuries healed, he returned to fight, and after the war he flew for Trans World Airlines for 30 years and now lives in happy retirement in Naples, Fla. He sells his book, "Sole Survivor" (which costs $14) from P.O. Box 8088, Naples, Fla. 33941. That is a disgusting free plug for a dandy book, I confess.

Gay is a conservative, worried about welfare abuses, Russian military buildups, inflation.

"I'm more scared now than I was in World War II. I never thought I'd ever again have that cold gut feeling that you get before combat. In the past, our enemies never had more than 60 submarines in the North Atlantic, I think the actual number was 59, but now the Russians command 700 in their fleet, and I don't think it's because they're afraid we are going to invade Outer Mongolia.

"Today I don't think people understand total commitment, as we did in the war. We have this psychology in America of buying the votes and never mind what happens to the nation. It's frightening. It's got to come unglued."

We went to a room in the museum that illustrated the Battle of Midway. There was a picture, lighted from behind like stained glass.

It showed 15 guys in flight suits, goggles perched up on their hair, all looking as gung-ho as possible for the photographer on the deck of the Hornet.

Gay looked at the picture a few seconds (he's front row in the center). I started to say God, you're the only one left, but said nothing, Neither did he.