Jimmy was sick, then Johnny was sick, and Mary never quit crying. His wife was sure the babies needed milk more than he needed beer. And finding work was iffier and iffier. So one day in 1949, John Bjornvick, a painter, left his home in Arlington "and I just kept on going."

He never said goodbye - and he never came back. Some men are born to wander, and the one they call Whitey did a lot more than his share.He didn't forget his children, "and I started upd to see them about a hundred times. But something in me made me keep on going. I just figured I was a bad apple."

James, the youngest son, now 30, was an infant when his father disappeared. He never searched for his father because he didn't know where to begin. He never got any help from his paternal relatives because he didn't know who they were. But he wondered, and he fantasized, and he hoped. "Somehow I just knew that it would happen one day," said Bjornvick.

This past August, it did.

Just a few weeks after James Bjornvick had moved here from Florida to take a job in the Washington office of the Veterans' Administration, providence appeared in the form of his supervisor. She was carrying the file folder of a VA pensioner, and she set it gently on James Bjornvick's desk.

"She had noticed the unusual last name, of course, and she said the file might be of interest to me," Bjornvick recalled. "I looked. I knew who it was instantly.

"All I could think was, "Here it is. Here It is at last."

The record said John Burns Bjornvick lived in Havre de Grace, Md. Before the afternoon was out, James Bjornvick and his sister, Mary Quattro, of Rockville, had driven there and found a certain 73-year-old man living in a basement apartment. In no time, they were calling him Dad.

The father calls the chance reconnection with his family "unexpected . . . I'm just slaphappy about it." The son calls it "amazing. It's just been an amazing experience."

And more amazement is right around the corner. The Bjornvicks have just finished locating 94-year-old John Bjornvick Sr. Whitey Bjornvick hasn't seen his father "since I left to go off to World War II." James has never seen his grandfather. But they and other descendants are flying to Minnesota in mid-November for a reunion that may redefine the word.

For now, however, the task before a long-estranged father and son is to reestablish a relationship.

That will be difficult, for James' mother is very much alive. James says she is not exactly full of good things to say about her former husband. In addition, Bjornvick and son have lived lives that could hardly been more different.

James, a management analyst for the VA, is a three-piece-suited, blowndry, devoutly religious, penetratingly handsome man. His father faovrs floppy shirts and pants, and never had much use for religion. The father can't count the number of fleabag hotels he has slept in, but his deeply lined face does the counting for him.

To judge from a recent evening in James Bjornvick's Northwest Washington apartment, however, opposites are attracting. "I cut right through at him, and he cuts right back," is how James Bjornvick explains things. But then the two men smile at each other, so the cuts clearly are not wounds.

Still, James Bjornvick feels "very sorry for him. He just drifted through time. He's been down and out as much as he's been up and at 'em. He missed a lot of life."

His father agrees. "Yep, that's the way the ball rolls. But it was kind of fun knowing I could hit any town in the country and find work. And when I was drinking, I always had friends."

Whitey Bjornvick's work was painting - in awkward, dangerous and high places. He painted every television tower in Washington in the course of several stays here, and he twice hung suspended of a whole day as he undercoated the 14th Street Bridge.

Bjornvick attributes much of his inability to return to his family to his work. "Once you do danger work," he said, "you've got to blot everything out." But now, at 73, "I think it might be time to stop that."

Pitfalls remain, however. James' brother John, 32, a Navy officer stationed in southern Maryland, has not jumped at the chance to see his father. "He might not do it," says his father. "You know how stubborn Norwegians are."

Meanwhile, up in Davis, W. Va., there is James mother Rose, who remarried after John Bjornvick left her and is now a widow.

"The first thing he said the day my sister and I got up to Harve de Grace was, "Tell your mother I love her, but stay away from me," recalled James. Asked if he plans to see his former wife, Whitey Bjornvick simply and wordlessly looked at the floor.

But wordlessness is not a state James Bjornvick will long tolerate in his father. In a replay of "Roots," James is beginning to grill his father about his past and his family. He plans to do the same in Minnesota when he sees his grandfather, who came to the U.S. in 1903.

"This is my genealogy," James explained. "I figured they're 94 and 73, I better start asking now."

If they were named Smith, the Bjornvicks well know that they would not be getting a second chance. But they are determined to catch up for 29 years.

"I've felt like a jackass for so long," said Whitey. And then he clapped his son on the shoulder the way fathers can.