IN A LARGE, UNMARKED ROOM off the Capitol Rotunda, the military honor guards were going about their business of death. They had practiced for this and they were going to practice again Saturday, but it had turned out to be the real thing. So now they were preening before the mirror and talking about their work as if it was just another job, part of the routine and all, until one of them said this one was different. "Hubert Humphrey was my hero," he said.

He was 20 years of age, Air Force for the last three years, and his name was David Welhouse - Airman David Welhouse of Appleton, Wis.He was in the room with the others, waiting for their turn to stand guard by the coffin for a half-hour. He had been one of those who had drifted out into the hallway for some water - not to drink, but to wet down their white dress gloves so the rifles would not slip from their hands.

"I've been here three years and this is the biggest," one of them said. "This might be the biggest since Johnson or Truman died." Welhouse, standing nearby, said nothing. One of them, a Navy man, talked about the Army and how it always got the best of the ceremonial occasions because it was the senior service. The Army even got umbrella duty at the White House, he said. This was the chance for the Navy and other services to show its stuff. Heads nodded all around.

Inside the room, a man was wrapping himself in tape, taking in his waist like a woman in a corset. He took the stuff around his waist a couple of times, the wide, white tape making loud ripping sounds as it parted from the roll. Cots had been set up in the room and the men who were lying on them rose on an elbow to watch the man tape himself up. Soon he would look like a toy soldier. Some of his colleagues laughed.

Out in the hallways a little group had gathered. "We all knew he was going to die," one of them said. "We practiced for this. We practice a lot.

All of the honor guards get together periodically and we practice this. We knew Humphrey was going to die.

This was the talk of men who have to do a job. They went on in this vein until I asked about Humphrey himself and then Wellhouse spoke up. Humphrey was not just another job to him, he said Humphrey was special. The others nodded and and suddenly the cynicism was gone and they all said that they were honored to serve in Hubert Humphrey's honor guard.

It is always this way with Humphrey, always a reluctance to admit that the man has gotten to you. It is this way with me, standing out in the Rotunda asking others what they think of Hubert Humphrey, when a moment before I was near tears. He can do that to you and I can tell you only of a right with him, a campaign evening at a synagogue in Baltimore.There he was up there on the dais, White yarmultke and out in the audience was a sea of white yarmulkes and we, the press, were against the back wall, laughing at it all.

Humphrey was talking about Israel and as usual he went too long and as usual he was verbose and bombastic and unashamedly emotional. He was funny and I was laughing because you cannot touch me with Israel. I have scar tissue called Israel - years spent listening to appeals and going door-to-door as a kid with a canister, collecting money for Israel, and me, myself, saving money to plant trees in Israel. There is nothing - nothing - Hubert Humphrey could tell me about Israel. But all of a sudden I was not laughing and he was touching me, grabbing me where I thought I was dead. You can resent Hubert Humphrey for turning you into an emotional slob.

It happened all the time. It happened in black churches and it happened on stump speeches and it happened at formal affairs. He could turn you around and make you cry and he could do all that even though you knew that he was doing it - that he was not perfect and that he had crumbled to Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam. But he was a man who was not afraid to dream and he dreamed dreams that gave other men headaches.

So now on a cold, snowy afternoon, Hubert Humphrey is lying dead and a 20-year-old Air Force man, his hair so short its almost nonexistent, is telling me about Humphrey. "Some guys like football," he said, "and some guys like basketabll. But with me, it's politics. Hubert Humphrey was my idol. I've idolized Humphrey since I was a kid."

By now the unit of six men was nearly formed and by now the officer was at its head and Welhouse fell in. They moved off at a slow pace, their rifles at their sides, their heels hitting the stone of the Capitol floor with a measured cadence. They moved past a statue of John Hanson and a bust of George Washington and a statue of Dennis Chavez and then they paused before the entrance of the Rotunda itself. You could see the lights and you could see the coffin and you could see the flag over it.

At 2:29 p.m. the officer in the lead clicked his heels and the unit moved into the rotunda. It moved slowly, each man dropping off at an assigned position. Welhouse stood to the right of the casket as you faced the front and he stood stiff as could be, looking straight ahead but seeing nothing with his eyes.

You look at heroes with your heart.