The dream of every good executive is to have a golden parachute, so that if his company is ever sold or merged, he can bail out for a soft landing.

The finest golden parachute company is located in Wilmington, Del. A visit there gave me an insight into the American business safety net system.

Norman Bradford, the manager of the plant, took me on a tour.

"There was a time when most upper-level executives were satisfied to work just for their salaries and pensions. But ever since the hot trading of the '80s, everyone wants a golden parachute to protect Number One. We're backed up on orders."

I walked through the brightly lighted, immaculate room where people in white smocks were bent over sewing machines.

Norman stopped at one and showed me a sample.

"This is a parachute for the CEO of a book publishing house. He heard that he was being raided by a razor blade company, so he ordered the parachute before the raider made a bid."

"Is he worried?"

"He couldn't care less because no matter who buys his publishing house, this parachute will guarantee him $30 million."

"What about the shareholders? Do they know he has a golden parachute?"

"I doubt it. There was a time when CEOs worried about the shareholders, but they got no thanks for it. So they decided that they had to look out for themselves. That's why they come here."

"How much does a golden parachute cost?"

"They can run anywhere from a million dollars for one year to $100 million for a lifetime. When a raider is after another company, he will pay for a top-of-the-line parachute so that the executive won't fight the buyout. Over here we have a golden parachute of the president of an investment banking company. The company lost $800 million last year, but when the firm goes bankrupt the president won't even wind up with a sprained wrist."

"It's remarkable what silk and strings will do for someone who has run his company into the ground."

Norman said, "I wish you had put it some other way. With our golden parachutes we are making it possible for the average executive to have a little security in an age where sharks are eating dolphins, and Wall Street yuppies are tearing the heads off chickens. Without parachutes, the American landscape would be littered with the bodies of executives who lost their life's savings in junk bonds."

"I'm not saying that you don't provide a service," I told Norman. "But it seems to me that many executives are more interested in getting fitted for a golden parachute than they are in running their companies."

"Perhaps, but that isn't our worry. We don't ask what the condition of their business is. We might assume that anyone ordering a golden parachute is not as secure about his business as he would like to be. At the same time, we believe that such a parachute is as important to the financial health of this country as a sushi bar is to Rockefeller Center."

"There's a glass-enclosed booth over there with a gorgeous parachute inside. Who is that for?"

Norman whispered, "That's for our chairman of the board."

"He's having one made for himself?"

"Of course. The RJR-Nabisco people have been sniffing around for the past week, and our chairman isn't taking any chances."