I wonder why a little hair on the face in the shape of a beard irritates some people and pleases others, but it does and usually causes them to comment on one's appearance.

While laid up from an accident several months ago, I decided to let my beard grow. Just moving was uncomfortable, so why shave?

"I see you're growing a beard," just about everyone I came in contact with told me.

It wasn't my first beard or hair on my face. I had tried mustaches and beards before during my Navy days.

In high school, when our football team won its first two games, we vowed not to shave until we lost. The score the following Saturday afternoon took care of that and we all showed up at church on Sunday morning cleanshaven.

For a while during my recent beard, I found myself defending my freedom to grow hair on my face by saying such things as, "I'm trying out for the part of Judas in the Passion play."

Some people I worked with and other friends seemed hostile, saying, "Why don't you shave that thing off, you look terrible."

Others said, "I'll pay for your trip to the barber," or, "Need some money for blades?"

During the early stages when it had a really scruffy look, a dentist friend commented on my down-and-out appearance and offered me money until I could get back on my feet.

Mel Krupin, the restaurateur, greeted me with, "You look terrible, shave it off."

I was taking it on the chin. But it wasn't all negative. My wife said she liked it. The kids, home for Christmas, weren't sure, but restrained their comments.

The men I know who have beards liked my beard, and the woman at the cigarette counter at the drugstore said, "Beards turn me on."

A woman at a luncheon said, "I love beards. It seems so natural for a man to have hair on his face." I noticed her husband was cleanshaven.

After a while I began to stroke my beard while pondering the answer to a simple question such as "How do you want your eggs?"

There were a few mornings at the beginning when just before opening my eyes I would touch my face and, forgetting about the beard, wonder how long I had slept.

Word about growing a beard travels fast. I got phone calls from New York and Boston from friends who said, "I hear you're growing a beard."

I became self-conscious about my growth.

I would peer around the office at my bearded co-workers, feeling somehow I was being singled out for attention. On the street, bearded men would nod a greeting to me, as if letting me know I was part of a fraternity.

During some lunches with friends, my beard became both pro and con in debates.

You'd have thought beards were something new.

Beards have been reproduced by sculptors on busts of Assyrian noblemen dating back to 800 B.C.

They appeared on portraits of kings, emperors and scholars, and were often associated with authority.

Among the Greeks, the bearded man was regarded as a philosopher, while Alexander the Great lost a friend in battle because an enemy soldier held his beard in one hand and lopped off his head with the other. Alexander put a notice on the board that everyone be cleanshaven so they could not be grabbed by the whiskers in combat.

Early Romans went unshaven until about 300 B.C., when barbers opened shop.

Roman general Scipio Africanus (237-183 B.C.) shaved every day. The Roman Catholic hierarchy cracked down on beards, but the Eastern clerics continued to wear them as part of their defect during the Great Schism.

By the 19th and 20th centuries, bears were associated with revolutionaries and Bohemian ways of life, and bearded men were regarded as social radicals.

Whiskers became the symbol of pioneers, prospectors, writers, scholars, and medical men.

Beards went out. Beards came back. After World War II, beards were much in favor among artists and writers. In the '60s, beards often meant that the wearer had some sort of nonconforming life style.

Unlke the Greek warrior under Alexander the Great, I had no fear my beard would be held as I was about to lose my head. I shaved because of a very irritation skin rash.

Late in the afternoon a co-worker said, "I see you got a haircut." No, she decided, it was my beard that was missing.

Soon the removal of the beard attracted as much fanfare as had its appearance.

"I see you're growing a beard" became "I see you shaved your beard."

A waitress offered an unsolicited opinion when she said, "You look better with all that hair off your face."

One friend, upon seeing me cleanshaven, immediately ran to a pay phone to call a mutual friend, getting him out of a conference to tell him the news.

"Thank God, you shaved," said another, not realizing for the moment that the Almighty Himself has always been depicted by artists wearing a lovely, long-flowing beard.