I arrived at Chicago for my Peace Corps training, and I had on black shoes and black skirt and gold jewelry, and people were saying, "Who is this kid? What is she expecting?"

When I put on the headset for the first time to study the Sesotho language, I thought the machine was broken. The country is Lesotho, the language is Sesotho and the people are Basotho. It took me two weeks just to get that much straight.

One-room schoolhouse? Oh no, most of them taught under a tree, and they'd hang a piece of a blackboard from the branches, and the kids would pull up a stone and sit on it.

When I got to my village I rented a hut for $5 a month. Mud and stone with a thatched roof, and every few months the owner would smear it with dung. Boy, did it stink. No electricity or running water. And I pamper myself! I love bubble baths, things that smell good, mirrors and all that. I heated water in a pot and had a bath every night. Lots of candles and kerosene lamps, a little heater -- I had the coziest hut in the place . . .

And when I came back after two years I had long hair in braids and didn't shave my legs, and I sat around on the floor and didn't pay attention to my table manners. We went to the Chevy Chase Country Club, and it was like, "Who is this kid? Where did she come from?"

The Peace Corps is 24 years old now, and the bureaucrats have been gnawing at it, and we are five presidents down the road from John F. Kennedy, whose idea it was, but it still may be the only government agency that sings of the people we Americans would like to think we are: boundlessly energetic, alight for new horizons, eager to change the world for the good.

The world has indeed changed in 24 years. So has the Corps.

The average age of volunteers has risen steadily, from 23 to 28, and more senior people with professional skills are joining for the two-year stint, often staying on for 10 or 12 years, like 82-year-old Odin Long, a retired telephone executive now building houses in Haiti.

People in their fifties and up, though they may have more trouble roughing it in the bush, are especially welcomed for their patience and stability and knowledge of life in general -- and the respect they command in most other cultures. At the moment there are more than 300 volunteers of 55 and over.

Couples and occasionally whole families are encouraged to serve where feasible, and women are joining in droves, at all levels. Some handicapped people serve, too: A cerebral palsy victim has become a highly valued teacher on a Caribbean island.

In fact, the Peace Corps' founding fathers would hardly know it for the subtle but basic differences that make it a true child of the 1980s, pragmatic and low-key and maybe a little grim at times in its determination to succeed.

No matter. It still sings . . .

Oct. 14, 1960: It is 2 in the morning, and presidential candidate John Kennedy has just arrived at the University of Michigan campus to say a few words. He is so late he expects only a few people to be waiting still in the raw cold night. But there at the Student Union, milling and cheering and chanting his name, are 10,000 students and faculty.

A little hoarse, hatless and coatless, exhausted from his just-finished third debate with Richard Nixon, he speaks off the top of his head. He throws out some questions.

"How many of you are willing to spend 10 years in Africa or Latin America or Asia working for the U.S. and working for freedom? How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana . . . ?"

Each question brings a roar. Riding the wave, his voice fading, he concludes: "On your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country will depend the answer whether we as a free society can compete."

The press barely noticed this small incident. The New York Times reported "nothing that was new." But that night the Peace Corps was born.

The idea took fire like nothing else in Kennedy's Thousand Days. It was indeed not new. Hubert Humphrey had called for a Peace Corps three years earlier. The concept of harnessing youthful energy to peaceful causes goes back to William James and the Universal Peace Conference of 1904. Even before that, President McKinley had sent 1,400 teachers to teach democracy in the Philippines, and Protestant missionaries rushed over to convert the "heathen," not realizing in their ignorance that Filipinos had been worshiping in Catholic cathedrals when America was still a forest.

Kennedy committed himself to a Peace Corps as the 1960 campaign ended, and as soon as he was elected he named Sargent Shriver to study the possibilities. Shriver's task force recommended immediate action on a large scale, and on March 1, 1961, Kennedy created the Corps by executive order.

It went up like a rocket. Some timid souls in the State Department felt the word "peace" had been co-opted by the communists and the word "corps" was too military. There was talk of the "kiddy korps," and Nixon saw it as a "haven for draft dodgers." But within 10 months it had 750 volunteers in nine countries, and two years after that it had 7,000 volunteers in 44 countries, and by September 1966, when the Peace Corps entered its 50th country, Korea, there were 15,556 volunteers and trainees, the all-time peak. And the budget had passed $114 million.

Then the rocket started to come down.

I was a volunteer in Brazil, and a truck brought me to my village and they dumped me in the road with my suitcases and told me this was the hospital where I was to work and to introduce myself and tell them I was the new instructor of nurses.

The Peace Corps has come a long, long way since then. My training was in Manhattan because that was the only place I could study Portuguese. I'd have lunch at Schrafft's, which wasn't exactly to the point.

Sure, we had more money than the people we worked with, but there was nothing to buy so it didn't make that much difference. Yet we did have cameras and stuff, objects of wealth, so we were always separate. After about five months you get homesick, the excitement's over and you realize how isolated you are. No electricity or running water. You can't go out at night, you have to shop at certain hours, the food is strange, the language is always frustrating, and you begin to wonder if you're doing any good.

But the Corps people learned to watch for that. I'm a trained nurse and I was doing just fine, but once I was washing my hair and the water turned off, and I had this staff meeting. So I went anyway with my hair all wet and stringy and half-washed. I heard the doctor behind me on the steps whispering, "She's depressed, she's not taking care of herself." He brought me a case of peanut butter to cheer me up.

"I see the same stars in the eyes that Sargent Shriver saw in the '60s," says Loret Miller Ruppe, the current director. "You talk about the yuppies, well, we had over 100,000 requests for information last year. They're a little bit more career-oriented -- they ask, 'What's in it for me?' there's more of that -- but we have something for them now."

In the family atmosphere at the rather beat-up Peace Corps building on Connecticut Avenue, everyone calls her Loret. She even signs her memos Loret. Her office is wildly cluttered with stuff from all over the world. Here, she says, is a jar of homemade honey sent by a retired Air Force general working in Guatemala. Bright-eyed, she is so eager to talk about what the Corps is doing these days that she can hardly wait for the questions.

"People notice it when Americans learn their language," she says. "They consider us all millionaires. They can't believe we'll go to remote areas where their own educated people won't go. At the same time there's a growing realization that they need to reach their rural people. Despite the rush to the cities all over the world. They want engineers, doctors, dentists, agronomists. We're in 60 countries now, and we're simply not going to find 500 engineers for the Peace Corps overnight. We try to target the ones we do get into the areas of greatest need.

"We work on more of a team concept. We know we can put incredibly motivated generalists into a village and get a project moving. They work with a visiting engineer who gives technical advice, a sort of roving superintendent. We've learned a lot in 20 years -- sharpened our skills, set up better programs and training. We have an information exchange so we can borrow from other agencies."

There is much more consultation with host countries, too. In the old days the Corps tended to throw volunteers at a problem -- 800 of them were rushed to Micronesia, whose entire population was only 80,000. That would be, one official notes, comparable to sending 11 million volunteers to India. Host countries now are asked to help pay costs and encouraged to bring in volunteers of their own: the Counterparts program.

"We're not Americanizing them. We stress that we're guests in these countries. We stick to the villages. Other agencies work in the cities."

One of Ruppe's bywords is "small enterprise development" (originally it was called "competitive enterprise development," but that rubbed some people the wrong way), which means a push for mom-and-pop businesses in the villages: shoemakers, beekeepers, crafts workers, fishermen and so on. The fact is that some Third World countries have turned back from their initial rush to industrialize, to take on the glamor and bustle of the great urbanized powers.

Tanzania, for example, invited the Peace Corps in 1961, sent it away in 1970 because it wanted to solve its own problems. But in 1979 "President Nyerere realized the great social experiment had failed," as one official put it, "and began to talk of private enterprise and a return to the villages. People had been starving in the cities, so the idea was to get them back to the country."

A lot depends on how developed a particular country is, of course. "It's much simpler in Africa," Ruppe says, "where there's very little infrastructure. In Latin America they have a revolving loan fund. Someone gets $300 for wood to make tables, or $200 for a refrigerator for a little grocery. The loans get paid back because they're made locally and the risks are known."

Small enterprise projects may be a long way from the America of "Dallas" that the rest of the world sees on its TV screens, but the rising demand for such modest schemes would seem to indicate a new realism of expectations on both sides.

"In Thailand we're engaged in reintroducing the water buffalo," Ruppe chuckles. "When you can't get oil or spare parts or a machinist in your village, what good is a tractor?"

The new sensitivity of the Corps today shows in the instructions to trainees. There are three things that will get a volunteer whisked out of a country within 48 hours: being political, smoking pot and not wearing a motorcycle helmet. (There have been 200 deaths in 24 years: mostly car accidents, 10 murders, a handful of suicides. Twice, volunteers were taken briefly as political hostages. The Corps pulls its teams out at the first sign of hostilities.)

The political story goes back to the original Peace Corps legislation, under whose Regulation 8C a 20-hour course in the nature of communism was included in the training. In those days volunteers were trained stateside. Now, after eight weeks of language and basics in this country, several more months of training follow in the host country.

The political instruction, called "indoctrination" by some, was abolished in 1969 but restored by Ruppe. "We want the volunteers to understand our values, our system of government," she says. "Maybe they hadn't thought about it that much. We developed a model course that explains American values and talks of other systems, how they're set up, and gives our people the opportunity to respond if they're questioned about democracy. The issue got blown out of proportion."

Raised a Catholic in Milwaukee, Ruppe, 49, attended Marymount College and Marquette University. She campaigned for her husband Philip, who served six terms in the House, and she traveled about the world on international concerns. Two of her sisters taught in Tanzania in the '60s. Now she travels abroad three times a year, leaving her Potomac home and five daughters for weeks at a stretch. But she hates to talk about herself. Somehow she always gets back to the Corps.

"When you watch the news it's tough for an American -- you see clenched fists and burning flags. I go into a village and see 1,500 people lined up chanting 'Long live America! Long live Molly!' and the children standing in front of the school that this 27-year-old blond California woman helped build. I see kids lined up waving and cheering at a new medical center. I go into a village in Central America where, because a Peace Corps volunteer was there, the people no longer have to walk eight hours round trip to get water. I mean, you talk about impact!"

I went to the Philippines as an education volunteer when I was 22. Well, I'd done some pottery, and it was a pottery village, making clay cookstoves and little pans for gold smelting. But they wanted to make bricks and they weren't getting government money, and the Peace Corps wasn't that interested.

So I got involved in it, and the Corps wasn't very happy about it but I went ahead. I tracked down this Japanese engineer in Lingayen and brought him to my village, and we taught them to make bricks. The key to it all was getting the barrio leader to trust me. They didn't even know about glazing, so I showed them some natural glazes made of wood ash and rice straw. Then I went to the governor, this 22-year-old American girl, and got a 3,000-peso grant.

In our first firing, all the stuff turned out black, but some GIs came along and they wanted to know if it was ancient pottery, and we said yes, so they bought it all. The people thought this was great.

Pretty soon they figured out how to build underground kilns, and they started producing huge well liners, to keep well-water pure, as well as bricks. We taught them how to make plaster molds and produce more pots. We also showed them how to decorate the pots.

I'm a Peace Corps education specialist now, and I went back to my village on business last year. It was 13 years later. They have four big underground kilns now, all built with their own money. The village is now the biggest distributor of stoves in the area. If it had been done with U.S. money they'd have felt helpless.

What happened to that early excitement over the Peace Corps?

There were a lot of things. Vietnam was changing the mood of the country, especially of the young. Americans were turning skeptical about foreign aid and other forms of overseas involvement, and Third World nations wanted to use their own people rather than rely on a bunch of mostly white upper-middle-class American kids with few technical skills and only the sketchiest knowledge of the local language.

In 1967 the wire services ran a photo of a Peace Corps trainee boarding a plane for Micronesia with a guitar, record album, briefcase, straw hat -- and beard. A storm of derisive editorials broke. No matter that the guy had scored highest in Foreign Service tests, that he was fluent in Kusaian and a top student of economic development.

The same year a volunteer was spotted in a picket line in Central America protesting local policies. The country's president told Corps director Jack Vaughn that he admired her courage, but the incident, along with a handful of anti-Vietnam war demonstrations involving volunteers, enraged some congressmen and key people. Even the blameless majority of volunteers, perfectly nice young people taken on as "generalists," meaning they weren't picked for specific skills, were believed by some critics to be ineffective.

"In the early days," recalls one veteran Corps official, "a country would ask for 50 volunteers and we'd fly 'em in, parachute 'em in as we say, no jobs, leave 'em sitting by the runway with their suitcases."

In 1971 President Nixon lumped the Corps with VISTA, the Foster Grandparents and Senior Companion programs and two more volunteer outfits into an agency called ACTION, headed by Joseph Blatchford. That was like taking the berets away from the Green Berets. In the years that followed, six Peace Corps directors came and went. One of them, Carolyn R. Payton, the first woman and first black director, resigned under protest in 1978 over policy differences with the head of ACTION.

Claims were made that the Corps was being used as a cover for the CIA, though they were never proved. (Even so, when Ruppe arrived on the scene she criticized Reagan's choice of Thomas Pauken, a former intelligence officer, to head ACTION. Both her nomination and Pauken's were delayed by the ensuing debate on the Hill. Ruppe's driving concern for the Peace Corps' image not only led her, a Michigan codirector for Reagan's 1980 campaign, to challenge the president on this issue, but also to open the Corps' first public relations department.)

At that, the program was reaching 63 countries by 1979, the year that President Carter (whose mother had been a volunteer in India) awarded the Peace Corps special status within ACTION, not surprising since the Corps was still far better known to the public than its adoptive parent. The loss of Payton may also have shown him the impracticability of the Nixon arrangement.

Three years later Congress restored the Corps to its original independence and gave it an $11 million raise in a period when many federal programs were being slashed.

The word that Peace Corps publications like to use now is "lean." Under President Reagan's self-help doctrines, it is emphasizing technical know-how, language fluency and the stated needs of countries asking for volunteers.

In the nearly four years since Ruppe was named director, the number of volunteers has climbed from a low of 4,600 to 5,600. She is gunning for 8,000 by the end of 1988.

People are the most wasted natural resource we have. The American people are willing to serve, and we should get at them, get them out there, to help other peoples help themselves. What we need is a stable plan, year after year. Not throw volunteers at countries, but match recruits with requests, get a program established.

The Peace Corps has sent 100,000 volunteers to 93 countries. It has helped to educate 5 million Third World students, virtually eliminate malaria in Thailand, smallpox in Ethiopia, TB in Bolivia and Malawi.

"It's not something you can measure," says Jack Burgess, associate director of international operations. "Congress always wants us to quantify it: How many trees did we plant? How many wells dug? We could do that, but we tend to look at the intangibles. Everywhere in the world you find people who were taught by volunteers. Nyerere threw us out and invited us back in '79 -- well, the minister of education had been taught by a volunteer as a kid."

Intangibles. Look at the forestry program. Around the world, deforestation is becoming a tragedy of such magnitude that it could threaten life on the planet. Nepal is one-third deforested. In some places in Africa, people have to travel 350 miles to get firewood. Tree roots are dug up to burn, even manure is used for fuel, all of which leads to loss of soil nutrients on a vast scale. Forested places are turning into deserts. Even in the Amazon basin, trees are being harvested at such a rate as to threaten to change the oxygen supply of the globe. Everywhere, Third World people are cutting down forests so they can raise cattle for the insatiable American appetite for beef -- "the hamburger connection."

The Peace Corps has been frantically training foresters and enlisting professionals to spread the word on agriforestry, which combines trees, food crops and animals on the same land. They show farmers the benefits of trees as windbreaks, fence posts, cash crops. They bring seeds and seedlings to remote villages, preferably for fast-growing, hardy trees that provide fuel, fodder, root systems and shade with little attention.

Terri Bergman, 27, who wanted to get involved in the world when she finished graduate school and spent two years planting trees in the Philippines, knows about the education problem firsthand. "Life's a daily struggle for these farmers. They're not anxious to be told to do something different. What may happen 20 years down the road isn't real to them. I get the same living allowance whatever happens, but they don't have that. They have no safety net. If their crops fail, they starve. They don't want to take the risk because you read something in some book."

As a forestry volunteer in the Philippines, Bergman not only had to plant seedlings herself but pay the farmers to water them -- and argue with them when they demanded higher payments. She doesn't know whether her successor, a professional forester, has managed to keep the trees alive.

The changes come so slowly you can't see them sometimes, but they come. There are now 47 countries in the Counterparts program, with volunteers of their own. Even in countries where the Peace Corps is not invited, Americans work as U.N. volunteers. At the moment, seven Americans are assigned to the United Nations in China.

"We've learned a lot," says Burgess. "When you remind people what it was like in the Kennedy years -- so physical, the calisthenics, the short haircuts and gym uniforms, running a mile so fast, swimming so many miles, rappelling down cliffs -- it blows their minds. It was very ideological, trying to counteract those Red Chinese advisers in Africa. Shriver's book was called 'The Point of the Lance,' after all. It was almost paramilitary. Now we're not so patronizing and know-it-all. We offer technical assistance, and we have cross-cultural goals, too."

The changes work both ways. Time and again, ex-volunteers speak of the good their training has done for them. Some of them are almost apologetic about it.

"Sad to say, the greatest benefit is to the volunteer," says Bergman. "Most of us really wanted to do something, and we did our best, though we saw little happening. We gained so much, learned so much of the reality of the Third World, got to see it and live it, learned patience and acceptance. But we don't have the fear that they do."

Peace Corps veterans have a way of popping up as members of Congress: Chris Dodd of Connecticut, ex-senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, James Courter of New Jersey, Tony Hall of Ohio, Paul Henry of Michigan and so on. A Citibank vice president told Loret Ruppe the bank was full of ex-volunteers, that "we look for them on the applications. Other banks do, too." Children of volunteers are beginning to apply now, and even one grandchild of an early trainee.

More than 100 schools give scholarships to returned volunteers, and some universities give credit for Corps experience. Other benefits are a year's noncompetitive eligibility for federal jobs, $175 for each month in service, and the Corps network, a vast extended family that can mean anything from a place to stay in a strange city, to a job, to a sympathetic ear.

"Re-entry can be really hard," says Gigi Castleman, 29, a graduate of Madeira School and American University who went to Lesotho eight years ago. "I came back for three months trying to fit in, and finally I went to Sweden to live. I just couldn't handle the heedlessness in the U.S. I was so full of the world, what I'd seen and felt, the suffering. And here, we have no time to care, we don't want to hear about some of the negative things in this world. I have friends who've never been out of the country. We have so much to learn from other cultures. We rush so."

Castleman now works for a Georgetown real estate firm, where "rents are a long way from the $5 a month I paid in Lesotho. I feel a little guilt -- this wonderful experience, what am I doing about it? Why aren't I more involved? Why aren't I out there protesting and speaking out? Well, I will be."

When news came of the famine in Ethiopia, ex-Corps people swamped the phones with offers of help.

Let Roger Palm, a fishery specialist who was a volunteer in Zaire, say something to that:

"Because our culture is so high-tech, we have learned to eliminate inputs -- in fact, we only survive by tuning out much of the stuff around us. But when you're in your village you only succeed by gaining back those abilities to pick up on things. It sensitizes you. It's like in frontier America. Maybe that's what we need more of."