AS CHARLIE BROWN likes to say, "There are three things in life that people like to stare at: a flowing stream, a crackling fire and a Zamboni clearing the ice."

Zamboni? You know -- that clumsy machine that looks like a tank, sounds like an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner and travels at a whopping 10 miles per hour. But, oh, how it can transform an ice skating rink from a battlefield of shattered ice to a glassy surface fit for Peggy Fleming.

Anyone who has ever been to a rink is familiar with the Zamboni. There you are with your skates laced so tightly they hurt, jacket zipped up to your chin. You take that first tentative step from the rubber mat onto the rink. Arms out to the side for balance, you take one stroke and, if you're still standing, you attempt a crossover or two. Just as you muster up enough courage to try a bunny hop or shoot the duck, a voice comes over the loudspeaker: "Please clear the rink so the Zamboni can resurface the ice."

And what would a hockey game be without its between-periods entertainment? Washington Capitals fans hang on every turn as the icing tank makes the rounds at Capital Centre. After all, what else is there to do?

"It's almost Zen-like," says Dean Trackman of Falls Church. "As you sit there in a trance, you can't help but wonder, how does the damn thing work?"

Barry Capps, who operates the Zamboni at the Herbert Wells Ice Rink in College Park, says, "There's a little more to it than going out on the ice and driving around in circles."

As any Zam driver will tell you, the machine scrapes the top of the ice surface, then lays down a thin film of water which freezes, providing a nice shiny surface on which to skate. The whole process for a standard rink takes about 15 minutes or 10 trips around the ice.

Frank J. Zamboni, the Henry Ford of the ice-surfacing industry, invented the machine some 40 years ago. A former ice salesman, he was forced to change careers when the refrigerator put him out of business. He opened a skating rink in Southern California, started tinkering and, voila: the Zamboni. Sonja Henie was his first customer, purchasing an early model in the late 1940s for her traveling ice show. Today the family business, still headquartered in California, is run by second- and third-generation Zambonis.

The machine has an almost cult-like following, with fan clubs from San Diego to Concord, N.C. Along with Bobby Orr and Rocket Richard, the Zamboni has earned a place in the NHL Hall of Fame. And the company's spokesperson is quick to point out that the U.S. Olympic hockey team has never won a gold medal on anything but Zamboni ice. (Of course, they've only won one gold medal.)

What other kind is there? In North America, Olympia also produces an ice-surfacing machine. But to the public, they're all Zambonis.

At Capital Centre, John Millsback, 50, drives an Olympia model that's made from a converted Chevy Silverado truck to clean the ice for every hockey game and figure skating event. Dressed in his trademark Stetson, red, white and blue Caps windbreaker and cowboy boots, Millsback is probably as familiar to local hockey fans as Rod Langway.

The first time he drove the machine at Cap Centre, some 15 years ago, Millsback says he felt "like a bull going into the ring to meet his death." Over the years, he's put up with harrassment from hockey fans, but he's also schmoozed with Dorothy Hamill and collected Wayne Gretzky's autograph.

Millsback, who does his best to provide quality ice for hockey players and figure skaters alike, recalls the time Olympic Gold medalist Jane Torvill lost a contact lens on the ice.

"She was afraid I'd gobble it up with the machine," he laughs. "She eventually found it on the ice."

Nancy Kapinos is one of an increasing number of women behind the wheel of the Zamboni. A mother of three whose only previous driving experience was behind the wheel of a station wagon, Kapinos left a high-pressure career as a real estate appraiser to become the "Zam driver" at Mount Vernon Recreation Center in Alexandria.

Are Zamboni operators ever tempted to take their machines for a little joy ride? Well, there is the story of the guy in Buffalo who drove the Zamboni home from the rink for lunch. That is until he was stopped by the police for causing a traffic jam and given a citation for obstructing traffic. ICE ICE BABY

If you'd like to see a Zamboni or other ice-surfacing machine in action, or just want to try your hand (and feet) at skating, check out these area rinks: BETHESDA METRO CENTER ICE CENTER -- Day and evening sessions, daily through early March. Adults $3.50, children under 12 and senior citizens $2.75. Skate rental $1.50. Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda. 301/656-0588 or 301/656-0589. BOWIE ICE RINK -- Day and evening sessions, daily through March 31. Bowie residents: adults $2.75, children under 13 $2.25. Nonresidents: adults $3, children $2.50. Skate rental $1. 3330 Northview Dr., Bowie. 301/249-2088 or 301/249-2244. CABIN JOHN REGIONAL PARK ICE RINK -- Day and evening sessions, daily year-round. Adults $3.25 to $5, children under 11 $2.25 to $3, senior citizens $2. Skate rental $2. 10610 Westlake Dr., Rockville. 301/365-0585 or 301/365-2246. COLUMBIA ICE RINK -- Day and evening sessions, daily through March 28. General admission $5. Skate rental $1.75. 5876 Thunderhill Rd., Columbia. 301/730-0321 or 301/730-0322. MONTGOMERY COUNTY GOVERNMENT CENTER ICE RINK -- Day and evening sessions, daily through the winter. Adults $2.50 to $3, children under 13 $1.75 to $2.65. Skate rental $2. 101 Monroe St., Rockville. 301/309-0784. FAIRFAX ICE ARENA -- Day and evening sessions, daily year-round. Adults $4.50 to $5.25, children under 13 $2.50 to $4.75. Skate rental $2 and $3.25. 3779 Pickett Rd., Fairfax. 703/323-1131 or 703/323-1132. FORT DUPONT ICE ARENA -- Day sessions, daily through April 30. Adults $3.75, children and senior citizens $2.50. Skate rental $1.75. 3779 Ely Pl. SE. 202/584-3040 or 202/581-0199. FOUNTAIN SQUARE ICE RINK -- Day and evening sessions, daily through mid-March. Adults $4 to $5, children $3 to $4, senior citizens $3. Skate rental $2. Reston Town Center, 1830 Discovery St., Reston. 703/318-0905. HERBERT WELLS ICE RINK -- Day and evening sessions, daily through March 30. Adults $3.75, children and senior citizens $2.75. Skate rental $2.50. 5211 Calvert Rd., College Park. 301/277-0654 or 301/277-3717. MOUNT VERNON RECREATION CENTER -- Day and evening sessions, daily year-round. Adults $3 to $4.50, children $2.50 to $4. Skate rental $1.50. 2017 Belleview Blvd., Alexandria. 703/768-3224. NATIONAL SCULPTURE GARDEN ICE RINK -- Day and evening sessions, price and opening date undetermined, through mid-March (weather permitting). Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202/371-5340. PERSHING PARK ICE RINK -- Day and evening sessions, daily through mid-March (weather permitting). Adults $3.75 to $4, children under 12 $2.95 to $3.25. Skate rental $2. 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. 202/737-6938. TUCKER ROAD ICE RINK --

Day and evening sessions, daily through March 30. Adults $3.75, children under 18 and senior citizens $2.75. Skate rental $2.50. 1771 Tucker Rd., Oxon Hill. 301/248-2508 or 301/248-3124. WHEATON REGIONAL PARK ICE RINK -- Day and evening sessions, daily through March 30. Adults $3.25 to $4, children $2.25 to $3, senior citizens $2. Skate rental $2. Arcola and Orebaugh avenues, Wheaton. 301/649-2703 or 301/649-2250.

Janice Kaplan's favorite Zamboni is at the Cleveland Skating Club in Ohio, where she first learned to skate.