IT WAS ABOUT this time of the year when they would start to disappear. You would go down to the high school cafeteria and ask for someone and they would be gone. There was always a reason-sickness or a Florida vacation or something-but after a while you learned that it was nothing but an excuse. The truth of the matter is that they had gone for their nose jobs.

There were many of them. It started modestly in sophomore year, but by senior year, with college coming and the promise of "marrying well" on the horizon, it became an epidemic. There were lots of jokes about it, about how some of them had gone to Dr. Silver, the one who gave you a nose with upturn at the tip. Dr. Silver must have done these on a conveyer belt-the kids going through with their checks clutched in their hands-and it was said that in an attempt to reach perfection he had done his own wife 13 times. No one knew the truth of that.

No matter. What matters was that there was always a tinge of scandal to the nose job. People never said they were leaving school for one, but rather they were always going on vacation or something. My old friend, Sam, one of the closest I ever had, had his done under the cover of a deviated septum although we had all known for years that his nose job was as inevitable as sex. It was only a question of which one would come first. His father had had one-maybe one of the first in recorded history-and his sister and then, of course, Sam himself. We went to see him in the hospital and when we got there Sam looked so awful-his lip extended and his eyes were black and his face puffy-that my friend Mike sat down and fainted dead away. That, I want to tell you, did very little for Sam's spirits.

I thought of this recently because of the flap over Betty Ford and his face job. She had the bags under her cyces surgically removed and had some of the creases ironed out of her neck (no starch, please) and then, characteristically, announced to the world in a pirouette of publicity.

With Betty Ford it's been a rough road-God, don't we know it. She has owned up to booze and pills and mental depression and suspicion that her children might have smoked pot and had affairs. She is a walking soap opera, still addicted to, of all things, candor and what makes it even better is that her husband, the oblivious Jerry, has been our president and wants to be again.At the moment, he is off lecturing and the best you can say for him is that electing him is one way of reuniting that family.

Back to Betty Ford and her face job. Lots of people didn't like it. Editorials were written denouncing it and you can understand why. It smacks of something silly, a kind of "Oh, there's Betty at it again" tone to the whole thing-everything from a refusal to own up to old age to a denunciation of surgeons who allegedly squander their talents on the vanity of mankind.

All this, however, is too easy. What virtue is there in accepting old age, and rolling over and jetting it transform you-accepting it with a shrug? Mankind has never been of that bent of mind. It has colored its hair and shaped and dyed its hair and made up its face and dressed fashionably and exercised and worn girdles and high heels and falsies and God knows what else just to give the world, as it were, a false impression. It is something we all do, me included, and I don't mind telling you that I resent with a passion each gray hair that has ruined what was once a breathtaking field of reddish brown.

But there is a limit.What distinguishes facelifts from the other efforts of mankind to improve his appearance is the time and expense involved. It means taking three weeks or so of your life and going into isolation. It means putting up with plain and discomfort, not to mention anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000. It means you have to care very much about the way you look.

Now back to the kids in my old high school. They had their nose jobs for a lot of different reasons, but some of them had it not to please themselves but others-parents, relatives. Even before they had their own idea of beauty, they had to conform to someone else's and go around before the operation knowing they somehow were not measuring up. Betty Ford says none of this applies to her, that she did it for herself and not to please others. It doesn't matter. What matters is that it mattered so much, that in having her operation she made a statement about how women like her are made to think of themselves and, more importantly, how they think those closest to them regard them. Wish her the best. She looks terrific now.

It's the rest of us who are looking bad.