NOW YOU AND I, when we go to Europe or Cincinnati, try to do it with one suitcase and a carry-on, and even that is too much when we are sprinting down the endless Kafka corridors of Heathrow or Da Vinci.

Joel King has 96 pieces of luggage ("or is it 97?" he muses faintly). Most of them are so big he can hardly move them, let alone run with them. He will be visiting 16 cities in eight countries during the next three weeks.

Good luck.

King is the stage manager for the National Symphony, and he seems not at all daunted by the orchestra's forthcoming European tour. "We have a really good front office and an experienced crew and an agent to get us through customs," he says. "We'll have an interpreter to help us work with the crews in all those cities."

It sounds so easy. He carries a rumpled sheet of paper in his back pocket, a bunch of keys the size of your head and an air of competence.

Of course, there are those times. You're overseeing the loading of the cases onto pallets, and you know just the way they should go, and the local crew can't seem to get it right. How do you say "spoon-fashion" in Japanese?

The new cases are made of aluminum, with inch-thick bracing and foam-rubber insides. One case takes four violins, another takes two violas or two cellos. Each case is numbered. There are also the wardrobe cases with gowns and dinner jackets, each shared by four musicians. And down the hall stand the big single cases for the bull fiddles and the tympani and other large instruments.

Next to the new cases are some old steamer trunks that look like something your mother took to Italy in 1920: scratches and scrapes on every square inch. They are barely 2 years old. King points to Mstislav Rostropovich's trunk, glamorously battered. It is on its way to the maestro's dressing room.

No one handles the tympani but King. "It has to go in a certain way. Everyone tries to put the pedal side in first, but you sort of angle it."

Even King isn't allowed to pack the harps. Only Ernest (Bull) MacNeil, a 32-year veteran stagehand, can be trusted with anything so huge and heavy and delicate and perversely shaped.

What happens after a concert is that the musicians put their instruments in the cases, King and his crew pack them, lock them, get them loaded onto trucks for the next city or for the next airport, where they will be fitted onto pallets. Sometime before he leaves, King roams around the stage looking for odds and ends. More than once he has found someone's violin, left behind in the rush.

"Some musicians prefer to carry their own, of course, get 'em through customs and all. They fuss a lot." He speaks with the calm tolerance of a kindergarten teacher.

So far the only casualty has been a contrabassoon that was left too close to the heater in a truck and cracked when the cold air hit it. The crew repaired it on the spot.

On the 1979 trip to Mexico, King's first as stage manager (he had been with the orchestra since 1954 off and on, but that year his brother Charles, stage manager for 20 years, died, leaving him in charge), the cargo plane with King aboard had to detour to Texas for repairs, and he spent 16 hours in the air. On the South American tour there was a nine-hour wait at Dulles, a hijack scare in Miami and no crew in Montevideo. King's people helped out. He smashed his ring finger and was rushed around to several Montevideo hospitals before a well-meaning intern took off the ring with a hacksaw and pliers and doused the finger in iodine.

A stage manager's job never gets done. During the concert he has to be ready with a glass of water or a handkerchief for the soloist, he opens doors for the conductor, he times each new conductor on each new piece so that concert schedules can be figured precisely. One conductor might take 50 minutes with the same symphony that another romps through in 43 minutes.

For the Europe trip, King will have a crew of four so that some can be sent ahead at each stage. They'll fly in the cargo plane.

"We're divided into Red and Blue teams. I told 'em, when we get to Berlin just make sure I'm not on the Red team."