VALLE CRUCIS, N.C., JULY 27 -- Everything's ready. The two acres of lawn are closely cropped for the occasion. The badminton court is freshly limed, tiki torches are flickering under the grape arbor and the bar on the veranda is crammed with bottles. A plastic dinghy is drifting around the pond.

Bill Wilson, the host, is mixing vodka and tonics two at a time and delivering them on a salver. Guests are streaming in now, from all over the South and as far away as New York and Seattle. Forget Yorba Linda, Calif. Forget the official Richard Nixon Library. For the 85 people expected tonight, this is the Richard M. Nixon event of the season, the 16th annual Nixon Tea.

It's nice enough outside, in the cool mountain air, but eventually everyone will make a trip upstairs to the farthest corner of this enormous old farmhouse. They'll go two or three at a time to Wilson's treasure trove, the Richard M. Nixon Memorial Library.

They'll wipe their feet on the Nixon doormat, stub their cigarettes in the Nixon ashtray and throw their crumpled cocktail napkins into the young-Nixon decoupage trash basket.

But they won't laugh at this stuff, nor at any of the thousands of other pieces of Nixon-era memorabilia crowded into this 14-foot-by-16-foot room. The Dick and Pat Nixon salt and pepper shakers, the still unopened Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford sugar packets, the mock Nixon inflationary penny ("and getting smaller"), the Tricia Nixon paper doll cutout book, the Watergate coloring book.

"I get incensed when I hear the word trivia. That's a real put-down," Wilson says.

He's the curator of this Nixon Memorial Library, and the invited guests are not only old college chums but also friends who collected and donated most of the contents.

Memorial? Yeah, yeah, he knows the guy's still alive. Wilson has already explained the whole thing to Marianne Kopko, former editor of Checkers, a publication of Nixon Political Item Collectors, in an acerbic exchange of letters in 1982. It's all here of course.

She called his submissions to Checkers "misleading" and a "misrepresentation to the public." His use of the word "memorial" was absolutely inappropriate, Kopko wrote. "I hope, for your sake {Nixon} remains unaware." And with that she not so politely told him to leave them, the real Nixon collectors, alone. "There should be no need for further correspondence."

He replied, of course. "You are, I am sure, familiar with the Latin roots of memorial; namely, 'memorialis,' which pertains to memory and 'memoria' -- memory. ... Suffice it to say that memory is not something that can be consigned solely to the dead, but is one of the fundamental frameworks on which the present and future are continually structured and restructured."

Wilson's Nixon library got started in the summer of 1973. But his intellectual involvement with the 37th president goes back another 20 years, to his childhood in Lancaster, Pa.

"I grew up in a family that was comfortable with Nixon. He was always there. When Nixon came to Lancaster in the mid-'50s I went out and cheered. We all went out and cheered. Everyone in Lancaster went out and cheered."

In high school, Wilson, now 43, was active in the Young Republicans, and in 1964 he worked hard for presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. After high school, he went south to attend St. Andrews, a small Presbyterian college in Laurinburg, N.C. There, for the first time, he met people who hadn't grown up with Nixon. With his involvement in civil rights and anti-Vietnam War activities, his view of Nixon swerved to the left. Nixon, the dependable politician, became Nixon the war criminal.

"Everything exploded," he says. "All of a sudden my own history started to kick in -- that I grew up with Nixon and I was beginning to see Nixon in a different light. At that point I thought Nixon was the devil incarnate. Twenty years later he's not the devil incarnate. He's not the great statesman. He is in fact an accurate reflection of all the fears and insecurities of the American postwar dream."

After graduating in 1969, Wilson headed straight to divinity school in Rochester, N.Y., to avoid the draft. Two months later he took a break to travel around the country. The next summer he married Carolyn Ashburn and returned to divinity school. "It was the best education I ever had. I began to see Nixon in a theological context. To understand Nixon is to understand myth creation, which is the essence of theology."

Wilson didn't graduate from divinity school. A favorable lottery number removed the threat of the draft. In 1971 he and Carolyn moved to the mountains of North Carolina and began an organic vegetable farm, which Wilson still runs. In 1973, the televised congressional hearings kept Wilson glued to the television all summer. "When {John} Ehrlichman came on, with his arching eyebrows, that was it. The beginning of the fall guys. I knew it was more significant than what was being presented on the television. My reaction was, let's start saving everything."

He put the word out to friends all over the world, and they sent him bits and pieces of Nixon history that had piled up in attics and garages and used-book stores. One friend, whose grandmother had played golf with Nixon in 1960, sent Wilson the scorecard. Someone living in Italy sent a resignation-day newspaper with a "Fini di Nixon" banner headline.

Anything that Nixon touched, metaphorically, during his long career goes into the library: magazines, photos, posters, congressional testimony, books, bumper stickers, postcards, campaign literature, record albums, White House publicity material. The rare specimens are the anti-communist tracts from the '40s and '50s like the $1 pamphlet "This Man Nixon -- How Nixon Beat New Dealers Voorhis and Douglas, How Nixon Tramped Alger Hiss, text of Expense Fund speech." The annual teas began in 1975 on the first anniversary of Nixon's resignation, and they became warm get-togethers for friends, friends of friends and anyone else who contributed to the library.

The collectors have mellowed with age. Even Wilson, who hates what Nixon did, doesn't hate the man.

"Nixon's psyche is complex, as the psyche of American political life is complex. He's a reflection, a mirror, of who we are. To loathe him is to loathe ourselves -- and that I will not do."