Just in front of a freshman dorm at Harvard Yard, a father and son stand beside a newly emptied station wagon with Illinois plates. On the lawn are stacked cardboard cartons, suit bags, a crate of books, shopping bags bristling with coat hangers and Frisbees, a stereo, a footlocker, a fan, a tiny refrigerator, a guitar and a "Doonesbury" book.

The burly father wears gray pants, short-sleeved shirt with a plastic pen protector in the breast pocket. He is talking, waving his arm authoritatively. The son, reedy in designer jeans and white Izod shirt, faces him.

"No, Dad. You go park the car. I'm gonna get the room key."

Dad hesitates, stares, then humbly slides into the driver's seat. Suddenly he is an extra in somebody else's movie.

The class of 1989 arrived at Harvard last week, 1,601 of them from all over the world. They moved in on Saturday, were formally greeted on Sunday and registered on Monday. For nine more days, before the rest of the 6,500 undergraduates arrived, they would have the place more or less to themselves.

They would need it. Arrival at college is one of those rare visible breaks in our seamless passage through life. You can come back after and visit your old room and buy a book at the Coop and stand wistfully on the broad staircase of Widener Library where you learned to run down steps two at a time, but it's not the same, of course. You're only a freshman once.

The cars file in through the west gate, lights on, bumper to bumper. Yard cops direct them around the quad lined by freshman dorms. Vans, station wagons, pickups and the occasional taxi creep along almost imperceptibly. Everyone is polite. No one honks. It would be like honking in church. Every car is piled to the roof with stuff. Some sport a new Harvard sticker in the back window, along with the ones for Arizona State, Hotchkiss, U.S. Naval Academy. You are where you went, Paul Fussell says.

Beside the narrow macadam path, parents, students and kid sisters stand guard over waist-high piles of things. Two youths march across the lawn carrying a rolled-up rug. Someone is selling large "1989" banners over by the statue of John Harvard, and across the way stands the striped tent where the Crimson Key Society dispenses information, coffee and reassurance.

Forty years ago to the week, I drove into Cambridge with my mother and sister, who was entering Radcliffe. When I saw the spires in the distance I took a deep breath and aged two years on the spot.

In 1945, with the Navy still occupying the Yard, we freshmen never lived there but went straight into the houses with the upperclassmen. All through that fall, returning veterans arrived until the class numbered 1,383. My Chaucer class had 30 people in the fall term, 300 in the spring term.

Linda Suhs, 17, of Springfield, Mass., waits by her pile of things. She came here because she liked the swim coach, she says. She swims competitively.

Lawrence Chang, also 17, is from Irvine, Calif., wants to study anthropology and history. He is a National Merit Scholar, his father announces confidently, unaware that Harvard eats National Merit Scholars for breakfast. (Oh, the blood-draining shock of seeing your first "D" after a lifetime of effortless "A"s.)

In front of Holworthy a white-haired mother says quietly to her tall blond son, "Okay, dear, you're all set." She shuts the cargo door of the station wagon, which now contains only her own suitcase.

"Okay, well," he says. They meet in an awkward gesture that is part kiss, part handshake, part wave. She turns back to the car. He watches her go, then stalks into the dorm. The slow procession of cars continues around the quad.

At Matthews Hall, luggage is piled up in the hallways. A proctor has taped notes to all the doors, welcoming his charges (two to a room) and calling a meeting Sunday night.

"I have 28 proctees and 20 advisees," says Barbara Behringer, a graduate student from Wisconsin. What are the arrangements, she is asked, for boys and girls in the same dorm? "The, uh, men and women live on alternate floors," she replies, glancing sharply at the questioner.

The class has 650 women, by the way, 176 Asians, 116 blacks, 34 Chicanos, 5 Native Americans and 272 alumni children. Ratio of men to women is about 3 to 2.

About Radcliffe: Since 1977 it has ceded to Harvard all responsibility for undergraduate women. They are admitted to Radcliffe but get degrees from Harvard signed by presidents of both colleges. Radcliffe takes part in policy decisions and supports a host of programs for women.

"We got it moving pretty smooth now," says a Yard cop, waving a car along. "We been doing it long enough."

Next year Harvard will be 350 years old. Harvard had already been around for two years when Galileo wrote his treatise.

As I moved my stuff into Winthrop House a tall, elegant kid smoking from a holder was counting suitcases on the sidewalk as his taxi pulled away. He was almost bald and had the poached eyes of a European exotic who went to Swiss schools and spoke six languages. "Hello there," he drawled. "Hi," I said in a worldly way, growing older by the minute.

I never saw him again.

At first, Harvard Square looks about the same. Then you notice that the Hayes-Bickford cafeteria is gone, replaced by something called the Mug 'n Muffin. Nearby is a sidewalk cafe, Au Bon Pain, complete with resident chess player ($1 refund if you beat him) and shifting crowds of newspaper readers.

Around the corner, the Tasty Sandwich Shop, a raffish little closet with a six-seater counter and a grease-filmed window, virtually opaque, where in the old days rows of hot dogs sizzled on a rack by the hour, has become The Tasty. The sign is in gold leaf. Chic magazine references are stuck in the window with the neon notice, "Estd. 1916."

And down Brattle Street and Mount Auburn Street little shops have sprung up, with their Finnish Contemporary styling and pastel colors. Even the Hasty Pudding Club now has a restaurant attached, Upstairs at the Pudding.

Some of the old places are still there: J. Press clothiers, Bailey's ice cream parlor, Briggs & Briggs music store, the wonderfully chaotic secondhand bookstores, Leavitt & Peirce tobacconist, its 103-year-old sign defiantly faded. And at the subway entrance (new station, new cars, but the same sweet smell of soot, wet newspapers and dead popcorn) the usual toughs hang around, mostly skinheads and Rastafarians and punk leather boys now. Just a few blocks east of the college the city takes over again: grim industrial vistas, paintless two-family houses, the sour pinched faces of the working poor. But by and large, Harvard Square has been yuppified.

The nearest thing to a sidewalk cafe we had was the Hayes-Bick, which was open all night. People were always getting arrested there at 3 a.m. One year some guys from Adams House kidnaped a table and four chairs as an intellectual exercise. The problem was to get everything through the revolving door without being stopped.

They are serving free coffee and doughnuts at the Student Union. A sign says, "Shoes must be worn in the dining hall." That's new. So are the ubiquitous T-shirts. Forty years ago everybody wore ties and tweed jackets.

James L. Sullivan, former city manager of Cambridge and president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, is waiting for his son Chris.

"Oh yes, he was accepted at several places. He was state high jump champion and captain of basketball at St. John's Prep. He was a Senate page in Washington last year. His older brother's at Mass U. No, I went to Boston College myself. The money wasn't there, then."

Harvard tuition costs $10,590 a year, living costs another $5,700 or so, making it a hair less than Yale ($16,650) or Princeton ($16,790). That's still close to the top (Bennington, $17,210).

What you are getting, say these colleges, is quality. All weekend, one is made aware of the Olympian self-assurance of Harvard. Not for nothing did the Brahmins call Boston the hub of the universe. The university community does seem irritatingly impressed with itself, but that only lasts, as one recalls, through the opening flurry, after which it settles down to work. It gets another attack in June.

Sunday morning at Memorial Church the Rev. Peter J. Gomes offers the freshmen congratulations on surviving thus far. "We know far more about you than you know about us," he says. "That is why we choose you."

He gets a laugh with "Old graduates never die, they just turn into dormitories."

"Do not be overcome by your own history, spectators at your own past. This is a moment of opportunity . . ."

Afterward, Lisa Goodall, 18, says the sermon made her feel better. She had been nervous with so many things happening at once.

Having lunch at the Yenching on Mass Ave: two boys, obviously new roomies, and their respective parents. The parents aren't too comfortable but the boys are doing just fine.

At the opening ceremonies on a sunny afternoon in the Yard, the old phrases and Yale jokes are trotted out: "Do not hesitate to call on any one of us." "We'll have to run very fast to keep up with your demanding curiosity." "Freshmen bring so much; seniors take away so little."

"Have an absolutely terrific four years," says President Derek Bok.

Then they sing "Fair Harvard" without passion (that comes later, much later) and the crowd, which covers the entire lawn and washes clear up the steps of Widener, moves off to the picnic.

The oaks and elms rustle, the locusts sing their wiry song. Two girls pass by, one on a bike, the other keeping up with her on a skateboard, talking hard. One of those very old men, a Cambridge trademark, fragile but tough as catgut, lean and distinguished, with good New England WASP bones and fine skin, walks briskly down a path. A mother and little brother linger by a door at Wigglesworth, looking out of place. At an upper window in Weld someone practises a cadenza from Beethoven's Violin Concerto: showing off -- but how deliciously.

That old dragon Sever Hall, its shades closed except for slits at the bottom, sleeps like Fafnir, waiting.

Sever used to have ancient narrow planks, carved by generations, for communal desks. Straight out of "Tom Brown's School Days." We would forge names and dates in the soft wood, aging them with graphite and spit: "Hank Thoreau '37." The planks are long gone.

There weren't that many famous names in my class: poet John Ashbery, former Congressman John Brademas, Kennedy aide Kenny O'Donnell, Joe McCarthy's junior deputy G. David Schine, film maker Michael Roemer, columnist Art Hoppe. Plus an Amory, a Cabot, a Parkman, a Saltonstall. Almost no blacks.

Again and again, an old grad is impressed with the care and attention given the new freshmen. They get pamphlets telling them what to expect, from course critiques to the length of the beds (6-feet-5). There are freshman seminars, an extension of the tutorial system, and to broaden their interests a core curriculum descended from James Bryant Conant's General Education courses, launched in 1946.

Everyone must learn to swim, to write a computer program, to master graphs and statistics, to write clear expository prose. Those who qualify for advanced placement as sophomores can find guidance in a special meeting. This year the session overflows two lecture halls.

"It's an important decision but not a perilous one," advises Katherine Auspitz, who runs advanced placement. She brings on upperclassmen who tell of their experiences. These are bright kids: a Latin American studies major who wants to switch to Soviet studies; a neurobiology major moving to social studies; a sophomore already working on her master's. At 18 you know a lot.

Auspitz seems somewhat nervous and laughs a lot, and one can feel the group relaxing before her old-shoe informality.

Freshman Dean Henry Moses says the attempt to cushion a freshman's entry dates back 10 or 15 years, "but some people still say it's pretty much sink or swim." They should have been here in '45. Admissions Director Laura Gordon Fisher gives some insights into the competition at Harvard, which has intensified manyfold in this credential-crazed age.

"Only 16 percent of those who apply are admitted," she says. "This year 13,627 applied and we admitted 2,175. That's about 75 less than last year, when we had a few too many acceptances."

She is proud of the 73 percent yield -- those who accept admission -- which is the highest in the country. There are many reasons why a student admitted to Harvard might decline: distance, money, a better offer elsewhere and so on. Most who make it have SAT scores in the high 600s, though there are spectacular exceptions.

Forty-one percent of the entering class have scholastic assistance; up to 70 percent have some form of aid, whether in grants, jobs or private funding from outside.

"There are no quotas here," she says firmly. She had been waiting for the question. "Our admission policy is need-blind. Our concern is for a diverse body, and we look for a variety of individual abilities. There are no regional, ethnic or racial requirements. It just works out."

From the official register: "We are keenly interested in attracting and admitting candidates who not only give ample proof of academic prowess, but also show evidence of such personal qualities as honesty, fairness, compassion, altruism, leadership and initiative in their high school years . . ."

The only special attention I can remember was a jovial speech by Winthrop House master Ronald M. Ferry, who noted that we were forever to be distinguished as the class of '49b because '49a, the first batch, had already started in July.

We did have an English A exemption exam, a forerunner of today's elaborate placement system. Only 12 freshmen passed, and when I casually let slip to my dining mates that I was one of them a guy named Norman S. Poser muttered that, yeah, he was too. Just my luck to sit at that table. A year later I made an advanced writing course for seniors, and Poser got into that, too. We were warily friendly. He's a lawyer now.

Harvard was changing even then. My class was the last one required to have Latin in order to get honors in English.

Monday. Registration.

The parents are gone. Gone. At six rows of tables the whole length of Memorial Hall, freshmen (freshpersons, insists Jill Rosenfeld of Brookline, Mass., who at first wished she'd chosen Brown but is beginning to like it here) fill out forms under the marble busts of Emerson, Christopher Gore, Samuel Appleton, John Pierce, some Union generals and the tattered flags of the 20th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers.

Last name, first name, initial. Registration card, grade release, fiscal services form. It takes 20 minutes. Then, laden with course books, everyone files out to the lobby where the real barrage begins.

It is a mob scene. Free Crimsons are handed out. There is a line for athletic coupons. A psychological experiment sign-up. The Confidential Guide for $3. (A Crimson article says the rival, university-funded course guide was censored this year because it called certain professors "arrogant" and "condescending.") Friends of the Harvard Art Museums. United Ministry.

Outside in a tent are more tables, more waving arms, more huckstering. The Japanese Cultural Society. Hillel. Institute of Politics. Bach Society. Harvard-Radcliffe Catholic Student Association (with tickets for free spa hetti). Spartacus Youth League. Debate Council. Amnesty International. Women in Science. Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra (178th season). Phillips Brooks House. The university band, with its six-foot bass drum.

And on the lawn beyond, still more: Harvard Rugby, Harvard Sailing, Harvard Cycling. The students trickle out and drift off to the Yard, to the Square and its shops, to the Science Center, to University Hall for more sign-ups, to the first meeting with their advisers. Three new friends argue about whether to go into Boston. After a weekend of being impressed, the class of 1989 appears to be regaining its rather awesome equilibrium.

A girl wears a black T-shirt with a picture of a spiral nebula on it in white. An arrow points to a speck in the middle. "You Are Here," it says.