What happened to all the little old ladies in tennis shoes? I am happy to report that they are alive and well and most of them are on package tours in Europe.

Because traveling abroad has become so expensive, you do not see many Americans on the Continent any more.

Occasionally, a bearded kid with an American flag on the seat of his pants may walk by your cafe table, but it isn't like the old days when there wasn't a corner of Europe that didn't have a "U.S. Go Home" sign.

If it weren't for the little old ladies in tennis shoes, no one would be aware that the United States still exists, and it makes any red-blooded American's chest swell with pride when he sees a battalion of them marching down the Champs Elysees, Piccadilly or the Via Veneto to the tune of "Colonel Bogie's March."

Make no mistake about it, the little old ladies in tennis shoes still strike terror in the hearts of every tour director in Europe.

Most of the ladies are veterans of previous overseas tours, experienced in hand-to-hand combat at flea markets, versed in the skills of fierce haggling in souvenir shops, trained to assault churches and museums and prepared for sneak attacks on any American Express branch in the country.

The cemeteries of Great Britain, France, Italy, the Benelux and Scandinavian countries are dotted with graves of tour guides who expired trying to keep up the pace set by these indomitable souls. At airports all over Europe you see fresh young guides barely out of college, wearing their tour uniforms, waitng nervously for their group to jump off the plane and encircle the city. Screaming "We take no prisoners," the little old ladies, carrying their duty-free shopping bags from the previous airport, climb aboard their buses determined not to miss one single thing included in the price of the tour.

No mountain's too high for them to climb, no fjord is too wide for them to cross. Heaven help the guide who forgets to stop for tea in Zermatt (included in the package) or leaves out a church in Montmartre. Let a waiter skip a salad course in Salzburg or a cheese plate in Brussels, and he'll get a karate chop he'll remember for the rest of his life.

In the last 30 years, Europeans have seen their countries invaded by American, Japanese and now Arab tourists. But none of them has ever shown the strength, the moral fiber or the staying power of the little old ladies in tennis shoes.

Why do they do it? When most Europeans have lost interest in tourists, when waiters and concierges and shopkeepers have become more surly, when most things are cheaper in the States, why do the ladies keep traveling abroad?

The answer came from a little old lady sitting next to me at Fouguet's. "Someone has to carry on," she said simply.

"The young people can't do it because they don't have the money; the middle-age people can't do it because they don't have the stamina. If it weren't for us little old ladies in tennis shoes, no one would remember what an American looks like. We've all taken a vow that as long as we can climb the steps of the Piazza di Espangna in Rome, or wade on the beaches of Monte Carlo, we will see that the sun never sets on an American tourist. Besides, I promised my grandson a sword from Toledo."

I almost broke into tears. Twenty years ago, the American traveler ruled Europe from Gibraltar to Helsinki. Our traveler's checks were coveted from Dublin to Istanbul. There wasn't an arcade in Venice or a bazaar in Athens that didn't have a sign, "English Spoken Here." Those were the golden days for Americans, and we may never see them again.

So, let's hear it for the little old ladies in tennis shoes. God bless them for showing the flag in the Old World. As long as they have the money and the time and the grandchildren, the spirit of American tourism will never die.