Did you ever try to buy a used car in Virginia and register it in Maryland? Sounds simple, but it's not. If the financial pinch doesn't get you, the mental strain may. It nearly got me.

My frustrating chain of events began when I decided to give up on a 113,000-mile, seven-year-old stalwart and take a chance on a 1978 model. As luck would have it, the only example in mint condition and in my price range was being offered in Richmond by a private owner.

Since, like other normal mortals, I work during the week, I planned to take the bus to Richmond on Saturday and drive the car back to Bethesda. Recognizing some possible problems with the law, I called the Virginia Motor Vehicle Division to find out how I could obtain temporary tags for the trip up I-95.

This is how I remember the conversation after I explained my mission. "I'm sorry, but you'll have to wait until Monday. We don't sell temporary tags on Saturday," whined a rather disinterested voice over the phone.

"But I can't take off during the week. I work Monday through Friday," was my response.

"I'm sorry, but you'll have to come in at your convenience Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday 8:30 to 4:30, or on Thursday from 10 to 6.

"No, you mean I'll have to come in at your convenience."

"No sir, you come in anytime Monday through Friday at your convenience."

"You mean you're forcing me to break the law and use the plates off my old car to bring my new car up from Richmond on Saturday?"

"I wouldn't advise you to do that, sir. You just come in at your convenience Monday through Friday."

I think I said thank you or something stronger before deciding to head for Richmond with my illegal plates.

On Monday, after my double-nickel crawl up from Richmond, I ventured out to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration office in College Park.

Not only did I need to register my new car, but I also needed to replace my driver's license. One of the District's finest had lost my original, but that's another story.

I arrived at the College Park station at about 1 p.m. By 3 o'clock I still had not received my new license. Politely collaring an officer, I asked how long I might have to wait.

"Oh, three or four hours on Monday."

Three or four hours for a replacement license? "Did you ever think of having Saturday hours so working people could come in on their day off?" I asked, restraining myself.

"Our busiest days are Mondays and Fridays. If we were open on Saturdays, we'd be swamped and wouldn't have much to do the rest of the week," he answered.

Aha! In my quest for a simple license I had found what separates the mind of a civil servant from that of a bureaucrat.

Despite the officer's prediction, the license was ready shortly after our conversation, so I marched downstairs to see how easy it would be to transfer an auto title from Virginia to Maryland. You guessed it.

I needed a bill of sale. If you buy a car in Maryland, the Maryland title is your bill of sale. If you purchase a car outside the Free State you must have a bill of sale accompanying the out-of-state title. I still can't figure out why a Maryland title is a bill of sale and a Virginia title is not.

And then there's the safety inspection. Less than a month earlier the car had passed a Virginia inspection with flying checkmarks. But, of course, a Virginia inspection isn't good enough for Maryland. What I really needed was not a $4 Virginia inspection but a good ol' $21 Maryland inspection. This $21 inspection was $3 more than I had spent the week before to get my old car inspected, but I'm sure that can be attributed to inflation. And, of course, the plates from my old car would not be legal on the new car until I got it inspected, so I was told I could invest a ten-spot in temporary tags until I got my car inspected, or I could take my chances.

The following Wednesday (I did learn to return in the middle of the week), after cajoling my local service-station owner to squeeze me in for a super-duper $21 inspection, I took off for College Park.

My reception seemed to good to be true. The kindly information lady was smiling as she checked my Virginia title, my proof of insurance, my old registration, my inspection paper, my bill of sale and handed me a card with Jack Benny's favorite number.

As I heard 16 being called, I also heard her say, "Oh, it shouldn't be too long. You picked a good day."

Over an hour later, after the Prince George's County Police had been called to arrest a "disorderly person" (not me) and it had been announced that the license computer had been broken for three days, my number was called.

I approached the counter with more than a little trepidation. The woman was pleasant enough, but she knew her duty too well. Lo and behold! My trusted service-station attendant had presented me with almost 20,000 extra miles in the official mileage box. It read 20,304 instead of 2,304. Fortunately, she understood the error, corrected it and sent me to the cashier.

After being relieved of $330 and hearing the story of the last disorderly person, I was a free man with a new car and legal license plates. But I'll never forget what I heard a middle-aged gentleman proclaim just before I left.

"You know," he said with a sincere smile, "this doesn't take near as long as it used to."