Gene Nelson winced when the jets wailed over Fort Hunt Park.

"Couldn't you find someplace else for a picnic," he yelled to Drew Tracey. "I'm gonna call the FAA and complain about all the damn noise."

Nelson and Tracey are two of about 200 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization who were gathered at the park yesterday to celebrate Labor Day as part of America's most visible labor union. One might have expected an atmosphere of gloom; instead, there was an incredible sense of camaraderie, clowning and spirit. A hearty cheer went up as two controllers guided a hunk of metal known as a beer keg through some ground traffic known as thirsty picnickers.

This is not to imply that everything is hunky-dory. There was a discernible feeling among the men and women gathered that they had been done in.

Some of them drove to the park on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, a route that goes right past National Airport. Not necessarily a pleasant trip, especially if you happen to be Doug Hannan, and your 2-year-old son Todd, who loves airplanes, keeps asking, "When are we going to go back to the airport, Daddy?"

"It was obvious that it had to be done," Hannan said of the strike, "but it was hard. We did a lot of talking at home. We left the kid with some friends and stayed up a couple of nights just talking about it.Fortunately, may wife works. A lot of people are handling this in different ways. Personally, I'm more relaxed. I used to come home and blow up for no reason. Now I'm more like a normal person."

Not everyone is as calm as Doug Hannan. There are lots of stories to be heard, and most of them are about dwindling savings accounts and canceled vacation plans and college tuition bills that are due.

"I've got two kids in college," said Mike Rice, who had 3 1/2 years to go for retirement. "I put my life's blood in this work, and I'd do it all over because I had the best boss in the world, Harry Hubbard, the tower chief at Washington National. He's still in there busting his butt, and God bless him."

Rice echoed other common sentiments: pride in a job well done, and a wonderful sense of joy at being a professional.

"When the pope came to Washington," he said, "I told my supervisor, 'Hey, I'm gonna work this plane 'cause I'm the only Catholic in here.' I had the pope in the palm of my hand, and I wanted to bring him up the river so he'd get a nice view of Washington. It was TWA flight 4041, but I wouldn't call it that. I called it Shepherd 1. The supervisor wanted me to bring him in over Silver Spring, and I told him he was crazy.I say, 'Shepherd 1, what side is he on,' and they say the left. The view is on the right. So I say to my supervisor, 'Do you want to call them up and have the pope switch seats?' They did it my way."

With this, Mike Rice walks to his VW Rabbit and pops a cassette marked "Sept. 9, 1980, 5-6 p.m." into the player in the dash. His South Bronx lingo staccatos out from the speakers, a recording of Rice at work, so fast it would be unintelligible to anyone uninitiated in the patter of modern aviation.

"This is an ego trip for me," he said. "A hundred takeoffs and landings in one hour. You hear the spaces. I can do a lot more."

A beat.

"And I can still do it."