Shoes in hand, the general tiptoed down the stairs. The sun was just rising over the rooftops of Frankfurt, Brig. Gen. Jerry Curry remembers, and grainy light filtered through a kitchen window. Reaching to tie his laces, he noticed a few new pounds around his middle, a margin of success, he mused, a measure of his promotion to Army 5th Corps chief of staff. Lifting his coat from a chair, he reached for the doorknob, then caught himself and went for the cabinet under the sink.

A light flicked on, a woman in a nightgown. The general straightened. At his side he held a paper bag.

"I guess that answers my question," said the woman, a guest of the family. "I always wondered who took out a general's garbage."

Seven years later, Curry is a major general, the commander of the military district of Washington. He lives in a colonnaded mansion on General's Row at Fort McNair in Southwest Washington. He has a driver, an aide and pays no rent. But he still carries out his own trash.

A general's life after hours is like a movie set, a combination of high-gloss facade and plywood reality. There are nights of caviar at embassies, charity balls at the Kennedy Center, White House dinners. Betty Carroll, wife of Navy Vice Admiral Kent J. Carroll, has eaten water buffalo in Cairo and has shared drinks on a hotel terrace beneath Mount Kilimanjaro with her husband and William Holden. Carol Cooper, wife of Marine Lt. Gen. Charles Cooper, particularly liked talking about her children with Betty Ford, and has an autographed picture with a personal note.

But there are also nights when dinner with the secretary of defense interferes with a aughter's birthday party, when the third embassy party of the week is also mandatory, and the schedule is so crowded with official functionss that the weekly bridge game has to be permanently canceled. When the leg falls off the sofa you realize you've lost count of the number of places you've lived, and when you send out your Christmas cards, you realize that while you may have met people all over the world, you have had the chance to know only a few.

Such are the contradictions of life with stars on your shoulders. Generals are entitled to gun salutes and renditions of "Ruffles and Flourishes" like a president. But out in the vast civilian sea, they still face the everyman annoyance, as Air Force Lt. General Andrew Iosue recently did, of being shouldered out of line while he waited to buy a part for his car.

Some generals live in mansions, some generals rent houses in Annandale on $636- a-month housing allowancess. Some generals have aides who attend to their uniforms, others drop their dirty clothes at the corner laundry on the way to work. Some generals have cooks, most do not. All of their salaries are capped at about $64,000.

Iosue lives in a mansion at Bolling Air Force Base but drives a '78 Chevy to work at the Pentagon, where he parks for free. Carroll, who lives in a mansion at the Navy Yard, also drives himself to work, but he has to pay $40 a month for parking. Generals usually fly commercial coach and have to pay extra to take their wives.

It's not like the old days. In the early 1960s, the Army alone had more than 20,000 enlisted aides serving generals in a personal capacity. Until 1973, many of these attended an eight-week enlisted aide course at Fort Lee, Va. Known as "charm school." It offered, for example, 16 hours on making Danish puffs and other pastries, 16 hours on floral arrangements and ice carvings, 10 hours on brunch and seven hours on hors d'oeuvres. Today, less than 300 men and women in all four services serve generals and admirals as enlisted aides.

Most generals once had personal cars and drivers. If the staff car was a jeep, drivers were instructed, on hot days, to tilt the general's seat forward when he was out of the car so he wouldn't scorch himself upon return. And during World War II, generals in the China Theatre were allowed luxury cars from Detroit. The sedans were cut in half around the middle, packed into C54 transport planes for the trip overseas, then welded back together upon arrival.

Generals were also known to have jets or helicopters-in- waiting. In 1973, Sen. William Proxmire alleged that an Air Force general had spent $430,000 to turn a C135 transport plane into a "flying Playboy penthouse at the taxpayers' expense." The Air Force quickly denied the charges, and Proxmire dropped the issue.

Today, Washington generals attend parties and official functions almost as part of their job description. As the top "field commander" in Washington, Curry is invited to more than 100 embassy parties a year.

Iosue says that "parties get old fast. You try to mix, but you're a little reluctant to start off a conversation because you don't know what level of English they speak.

Like the president of a big corporation, the general's personal circle of friends is often limited by his status. A general is the boss, and a feeling of uneasiness often follows him into a room.

"When I was a colonel in Frankfurt, I was one of the boys," says Curry. Then he was promoted to general. "The next day I walked into the mess hall and the conversation stopped and everybody stood up. Before that I couldn't even get a seat.

"When you're the commander of a post . . . It's like living in a glass house," says Maj. Gen. John Ralph, USAF Ret. "You are the example. If your wife drives around the base at 40 miles an hour, then you got trouble."

But in the end, Curry says, no house nor star nor chauffeur-driven car best defines the general's life. Not long ago, Curry was out in his yard at No. 2 General's Row. He was wearing an old pair of coveralls and a floppy hat, digging in the garden on a hot summer day, when a delivery man stopped his truck and walked over.

The man watched the gardener for awhile, then asked: "How are these people to work for, anyway?"

Telling the story, Curry laughs. "That's the sermon on being a general," he says. "Sometimes you're somebody, sometimes you're anybody. But mostly you're just yourself, just a man."