Absolutely false, said Lawrence Davis, when someone brought up that old story about how sleeping car porters used to have "a family on each end of the line."

"It was rough out there," said the 72-year-old Davis, who went to work for the Pullman Co. in 1925 and retired in 1973. "Don't you believe that everything was peaches."

But Ernest Ford, former secretary-treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and still an active porter for Amtrak, seemed to disagree. "You were put in circumstances where you had no alternative," he said. "You wouldn't have much money in your pocket. When you got to the end of the line you had to find a place to stay."

And for rent, Ford added with a cryptic smile, "you did a little light housework."

Ford Davis and three of their brethren traded stories yesterday about a half century of railroading and a long, hard struggle to unionize, while elsewhere along the Mall and its environs oil drillers drilled, woodcarvers carved, saddle-makers made saddles, and the public stopped, looked and listened. The 12th annaul Festival of American Folklife was getting under way.

The Folklife Festival will continue through Monday, with exhibits and events scheduled on the Mall, at the Museums of Natural History and Technology and at the Renwick Gallery.

A sleeping car porter earned $12 a month when Leroy C. Richie, 71, began his 48 years of service in 1926. Other railroad employes had unions, said Richie, but the sleeping care porters, all black, were not allowed to unionize. Anyone caught with a union card would be fired.

"We lost a lot of good men through participating in the union," lamented Clarence J. Talley, 75.

A porter's duties began in the early afternoon before the train departed. "I'd go down to the station at 2 or 3 in the afternoon and start making the car down and getting it ready for the passengers," said Ford. When a passenger arrived, he said, "you'd receive him at the door, take him in and show him his berth, and he would go to bed - maybe."

Some passengers, of course, would go to the club car, and some would get drunk. "The best way to handle a drunk was to make him drunker," said Richie. "All he wants is attention. That's all any drunk wants is attention . . . The porter was his lawyer, his doctor, his judge, his everything."

And "you'd have incidents, of course, with some of the ladies and men getting together," said Ford. "We experienced all of that."

William D. Miller, a former union president who now trains porters for Amtrak, recalled a trip from Los Angeles to Washington with actress Vivien Leigh aboard. "She said she didn't want anyone to know she was on the train," said Miller. "And she didn't want anyone to know she was getting off in Chicago. She was afraid there would be a lot of photographers waiting for her."

When they reached Chicago, "She was all prepared to have those pictures taken that she didn't want taken," Miller continued. "But when we got to the platform, there wasn't no photographers there. She was mad all the way from Chicago to Washington."

We served the cream of America, the top people," said Richie. "Rich people, mostly. Because to ride the sleeper, it cost you double. A Pullman porter was very well screened before he could get the job, so you're looking at a group of good men here."

A porter generally slept on the coach in the men's room lounge, but he was allowed only four hours of rest time each night by the company. Often he would spend much of the night shining shoes and performing other services for the passengers, aimed at earning tips.

When a porter received a good tip, he would say the passenger had "rubbed" him. A "nose bag" was the porter's private supply of food for a long trip. A full-time porter was called a "man regular in time" while part-timers were called "extra boys." And the "red book" held outside the train window as another train passed was a signal to that train's crew that an inspector would be wanting at the next station.

One of the most profitable assignments was squiring a rich family's daughter to and from school. "They appreciated the fact that they could put their daughter on the train whether she was 13 years old or 18 years old and know that you'd protect her," explained Miller. "And of course your gratuity would go up as the family got to know you."

Miller came to know the Pierre duPont family by escorting their daughter back and forth to college. That was how he first heard about Mount Holyoke and dreamed his own daughter might go there someday. She did. His son went to Yale.

Today's porters earn about $1,300 a month. "You can look at us and tell we're prosperous," said Ford.

"All I've known on the railroad was miles and miles," said Davis.