Anyone who has ever suffered a cracked pot or a broken tricycle at the hands of movers can take small comfort (about $39.30 worth) from the partial victory of the U.S. government over a moving and storage company. And it only took the might of the United States six years to win the split decision.

The trouble started back in 1972. An officer at the Air Force Academy in Colorado had some household goods stored in a warehouse for a short time before their shipment to his California home.

When the stuff arrived-at government expense-the officer discovered a number of items broken or damaged. The reaction of the moving company was we-didn't-do-it-and-why-don't-you-buy-some-glue?

The items included the glass top of a percolator coffee pot ($1.50), a flower pot holder ($1.20) and other things such as $18 worth of damage each to some flower pots and a clock.

Irked, the officer said the government shouldn't pay the full tab for the moving and/or storage. He asked that the value of the damaged items, estimated at less than $60, be deducted from the finalpayment.

The moving company said the storage people did the dirty deed. The storage firm said either the gear was packed badly, or the mover broke it in transit. The point is nobody would take responsibility for the breakage, and the final payment of the bill was held up. And held up. And held up.

In cases like this, the federal establishment has a lot on its side. Including time. The months dragged into years. World crises came and went. Presidents came and went.

Eventually, the matter wound up at the highest fiscal levels of the Pentagon and thence to the General Accounting Office. The flower pot holder was assigned case number 44. The broken glass on the coffee pot was called item 282, and so forth. Lawyers dug in for a fight.

After much checking, reports on package inspection and the like, it was determined by the General Accounting Office that there was "sufficient evidence" that some items-i.e., the flower pot holder and flower pots were packaged improperly. The government argued, with itself, that this meant that the mover was clean, as far as the pots were concerned. But that left the rest of the items in dispute still in dispute.

Finally, one month shy of six years since the crockery first hit the van, the government decided to settle with the moving company. It said it would pay only $19.20 of the disputed $58.50 bill.

That closes the case as far as the government is concerned. If the mover wants to fight it, he will have to start the process all over again and perhaps wait another four or five years for a final judgment.

Meantime, of course, nobody knows how much money or manpower went into saving the government the difference between $19.20 and $58.50. But anyone who has ever had trouble with movers, and those who thought Uncle Sam was a pushover, now know that messing with government has its price tag.