Gather round, kiddies, and believe it if you can: Once upon a time, there was no Coca-Cola. Nor Pepsi, nor Uncola, nor a misunderstood Dr. Pepper. Not even a tad of Tab.

In time, as the national thirst grew, a forward-looking man named Lindsey P. Rawley decided to brew up a vat of ginger ale in Southwest Washington.

He called it Rock Creek Ginger Ale, but that was a little poetic license. The water really came from the Potomac River.

Perhaps Rawley knew way back in 1920 that the Potomac would one day earn a reputation as the Mid - Atlantic's longest sewer. He denies it. But failing to call his brainstorm Potomac Ginger Ale was the first in nearly six decades of winning business decisions by Rawley.

Today, Rock Creek Ginger Ale is made from Blue Ridge Mountains spring water. And Rock Creek Ginger Ale Co. Inc. is the only independent soft drink bottler on the East Coast.

It has outlived 29 Washington area competitors and has kept a certain "Canadian" giant off its heels. Rock Creek grossed $7.5 million in 1977, and expects to push that total close to $10 million this year.

Meanwhile, who remains at the helm as the company approaches its 58th anniversary next week? None other than the guy who was there at the first - and who will celebrate his own 90th anniversary in July.

Lindsey Rawley reassumed Rock Creeks's presidency last April after the death of his brother, William. He had spent the previous 15 years in Arizona, but don't you dare call it retirement. "It was a leave of absence," said his wife, Alice, pointedly. "When you retire, you're out. AndLindsey was never out."

Neither are his memory cells. Rock Creek was started as a family business by Lindsey Rawley and his two younger brothers, Glenn and William, and Rawley has never forgotten that key to success.

"Doing it any other way would have been too much work," he said. "We were getting along all right. I did all the mixing at first, and my two brothers drove the trucks and did the selling. Why change it?"

The idea of a bottling company first began to take shape in Lindsey Rawley's mind well before 1920, when he had just returned from World War I and was selling newspaper subscriptions in a Greensboro, N.C., bottling plant.

"Seeing the bottles run down the line made me think that if I ever do anything, I'll go into the bottling business," Rawley recalls.

He first tried to do so in North Carolina and had saved $4,800 in a couple of years. "I thought I was one of the wealthiest men in the state," he says. But an established bottler took him aside one day and said $4,800 "wouldn't even start me."

But in Washington, armed with his money, a little credit and a Godsend contract for 3,000 cases a month from Safeway, it was enough.

Rawley and his brothers bought an old bowling alley at 215 7th St. SW. They mixed cement for the floors, painted the place and ordered bottles and labels. But their pride and joy was their first piece of equipment: a bottling machine operated by a foot pedal.

Ginger ale, grape, orange and strawberry sodas were the first items on the menu. "My God, we worked like Trojans, did it all ourselves, worked all weekend a lot of the time," Rawley remembers.

They didn't have much choice. The foot-powered bottler could turn out only 40 cases an hour. Today, Rock Creek's two-acre assembly line easily churns out 400 bottles a minute.

"The first six or seven years were very lean," Rawley said. "Sometimes I thought we might not make it. But we were living with our mother.That's the reason we got along all right."

During the Depression, the Brothers Rawley faced the problem of thirsties who would come to the plant and ask for a freebie. Lindsey Rawley handled them deftly. "They would ask for a grape, and I'd tell them, 'Yeah, I got some nice grapes here, only please don't spit the pits on the floor.' That got 'em every time.

"We always made good beverages. That was the key," said Rawley, as he sat at his desk and sipped an ice-cold Trim diet cola. "We didn't skimp on our sugar or our extract. We knew exactly how much to put in the bottle."

Rock Creek moved to a new plant at 500 Penn St. NE. in 1957. The company produces 30 soft drink flavors and, counting all the bottle sizes, 56 separate products. Its beverage are marketed under the Rock Creek and Blair House labels. The company is also the Washington-area franchise holder for Cherry Smash soda and Hires Root Beer.

But it still is a family business all the way. Alice Rawley is executive vice president and secretary, and John Mayns, the son-in-law of Glenn Rawley, who died in 1963, is vice president and treasurer.

Lindsey Rawley comes to work a little less often than he did 58 years ago. He says it would be difficult to start a business the size of Rock Creek today, and he doubts he would have the energy to try.

But one thing he can still do is belt down ginger ale. Guess which variety. "It's still my favorite flavor," Rawley said.