I used to think I knew all about going to Wolf Trap. But that was before I went with Frank, who really knows about going to Wolf Trap. I'd bought and used The Wolf Trap Picnic Cookbook, with its map and pictures of groups that might include some people I knew, and its seven (count 'em!) sets of ethnic menus not counting French, All-Amer ican or calorie-counters. But the various p.at.es, particularly the one that you're supposed to store for a week or so "to blend and mature the flavors," took more out of me than they put into the party, and I knew better than to even try to compete with the silver-and-crystal-and-china people.

On an unseasonably nasty night, I'd learned that the scruffiest of lawn-sitters, soaked and sad in sneakers and shower curtain, can move up into the dress circle for the third (sometimes even second) act of the opera as the elect head off to their next party.

I'd even become a grandfather at Wolf Trap. I didn't know about it until the next day, but it happened while I was pouring the intermission champagne to celebrate the birthday of a friend -- quite a feat, I thought, considering the miles and time- zones involved.

But until I went with Frank, I really didn't know from Wolf Trapping.

In the first place, Frank taught me that the food and its presentation are definitely of second-echelon importance, as is the evening's program. Opera, bluegrass, jazz -- that'll be there when you get there, and it will be fine, as will hot dogs and sodas and beer, also fine. The mission is to get there early and get well deployed.

Not everybody's willing to leave work an hour early and go straight there, of course; that's one of the differences between the winners and the losers. Losers go past the house first to pick up spouse, spice and supplies, while the winners are getting set for the gates to open. A straggler or two won't spoil the party, but you'll want a large- enough contingent at the gate to seize and hold your position and to distribute the load carefully.

The fastest people -- ponies -- get the blankets, with perhaps one camel (able to lope with a loaded basket in each hand) right behind them. Their job is to race to the designated area -- like the brow of the hill just over on the left there, not too far from the refreshment stands or too close to the restrooms -- and spread out the blankets about half a blanket apart. Baskets and coolers go in these gaps, for the time being. When the reinforcements arrive, with programs and the remaining supplies, baskets and coolers are moved to the perimeter and children too small to squirm away are dotted in the gaps to hold the space.

The base established, foragers can move out for food and drink, making sure that one parent remains behind for each child and that siblings know that one can't leave until another is back. That way the reserves aren't depleted.

The show, naturally, will be good -- or at least, it always has been in my experience -- although the last half or so is sometimes marred by the mutterings of neighbors as you pack up and prepare to head for the parking lot. Sometimes Frank will let you hang back just outside the gates until the encores start, if he's sure you won't get lost or twist your ankle in the dark, detour to the bathroom or otherwise hold up the getaway.

Of course, the night I became a grandfather I was with some other friends. Frank wasn't there, and it's just as well -- that's just the kind of thing that can mess up a schedule.