When Jackson Graham, homeowner, wrote the mayor of Palm Springs to complain about plans to build a highway near Graham's back yard, the language was cutting:

". . . The proposed design is a travesty on the spirit and letter of environmental legislation and demonstrates anew the sterility of environmental impact reports contracted by 'proposing agencies,'" Graham wrote.

Graham should know. As the head of Metro for nine years he was the man who reduced downtown Washington's street to block after block of planks, who tunneled under the Potomac River, and who insisted unsuccessfully that the construction of the Washington subway should proceed without a time-consuming environmental impact statement.

Graham lost that shirmish, but he won others and became Washington's master builder by pushing the construction of the subway beyond the point of no return. He bruised a few egos along the way, rarely bothered to conceal his contempt for the wishy-washiness of some local politicians (whom he referred to once as "little people"), demanded loyalty from his staff and returned it in kind. Without his energy and commitment, it often has been observed, Metro never would have happened.

Graham, 65, hardly has been retiring since leaving Metro in January, 1976. He was relaxed and jovial during a recent interview at his home here, talked freely about everything from politics to the Farecard system, and complained only a little about the press, of which he historically has been suspicious.

He gleefully related his fight with the California highway builders as an example of what he has done since leaving Washington -- and his actions in that struggle qualify him for full membership in the Montgomery County environmental club.

As chairman of his homeowners' association, Graham raised a legal defense fund of more than $20,000, hired consultants, prepared multicolor briefing charts to dazzle the city council and the court (just as he used to dazzle the Metro board), convinced the court the highway as designed was a bummer, and won. The delay added $1.5 million to the cost of building it.

He smiled at the obvious questions: What makes him different from the homeowners on Yuma Street in Northwest Washington who successfully sued Metro for failing to prepare an environmental impact statement, delayed construction on the Red Line for months, and thus added millions of dollars to the cost of completing the subway?

"I felt they were unreasonable," Graham said of the Yuma Street crowd. "We were never unreasonable. I was proposing something that wouldn't cost any more. A purist would say, 'Well, yes, there's some conflict here. Graham has changed his position from that of a builder to that of a property owner.'"

Although Metro is "now on the back burner" for him, Graham remains better informed about current Metro issues than some members of its board of directors.

He believes the board is too involved in day-to-day operations at Metro, and because of that involvement says he would not enjoy the general manager's job today.

However, he conceded, "I don't think there's an alternative" to extensive local interest, given the fact that Washington area governments pay more than $110 million annually to subsidize bus and subway operations.

When Graham departed, trains were making practice runs between Rhode Island Avenue and Farragut North on the Red Line and the eventual opening of at least 40 miles of the system could be confidently predicted. The formal opening came in March of 1976, without Graham.

He is anxious to see Metro's 101-mile system completed and he renewed his unqualified support for a proposed extension to Tysons Corner and Dulles International Airport, calling such a line "the highest priority."

Graham did not see his creation in operation until December 1978, and then he sneaked in. One evening, accompanied by some former neighbors from Arlington County, Graham and his wife Mabel Lee boarded a train at National Airport and rode it to New Carrollton.

"We stopped at every station," Graham said. "I was very happy. I talked to people; they like it. I didn't ask about the fare collection equipment. . . . We thoroughly enjoyed the evening. We rode the last train back from New Carrllton."

He spent the next afternoon visiting construction sites along Connecticut Avenue. What changes would he make?

"I just wish Farragut West and Farragut North were a single station," Graham said."We were worried about the construction schedule, and there is no question it would have been a helluva fight."

The National Park Service opposed Metro's plans for a huge two-level station under Admiral Farragut's statue. That station would have had many entrances, all providing access to the Red, Blue and Orange Lines. Instead, Metro wound up with Farragut North on the Red Line, a station with three entrances, and Farragut West on the Blue Line, a station with two.

Farragut West, Metro's most heavily used station, is inadequate in size, in the number of escaltors and in the space available for entrance and exit gates and almost nothing can be done to improve the situation.

When Graham last was interviewed here two years ago, before he had visited the operating subway, he complained about the Metro board's decision to put horizontal signs on the walls of the Metro stations to tell riders where they are. Graham's plan had been for riders to somehow determine their whereabouts in stations with subdued lighting by reading letters set sideways on pylons installed at 45-degree angles to the tracks. Advertising was out of the question.

Now that he has seen the offending signs, what does he think?

"I think I accept that," he said. "It was well done. I don't think it hurt the aesthetics."

He also decided that the advertising was "aesthetically not disturbing."

In other words, Graham, who brooked little argument from his staff or from board members on design questions during his tour as general manager, has mellowed.

Graham continues to be an unabashed supporter of subway systems in general, and of Metro specifically. But, he said, he is not optimistic about the future of subway systems, partly because of the enormous cost of such projects. In most cities, he said, using improved buses on exclusive freeway lanes "would solve 90 percent of the problems."

Those who believe that Graham is largely responsible for the continuing ineptitude of the Metrobus system, both in providing service and controlling costs, will find this an interesting view, to say the least. After Metro took over the four privately owned bus companies in the Washington area in 1974, Graham was accused of ignoring bus operations in favor of the subway construction program.

There is justice in the world, however.

"About 12 old Metrobuses are running around Palm Springs," Graham said. "I get a twinge every time I see them."

Seven Lakes, where Graham lives, is an expensive retirement community with golf course, swimming pools, security fences, a clubhouse with a firstrate dining room and that fabulous California desert sunshine, still unfiltered by the Los Angeles smog. Graham and his neighbors, all of whom had to make a little money to afford Seven Lakes, have something to protect.

It is in that context that we find Graham -- retired Army general, dynamic personality, leader -- fighting highways as the chairman of the homeowners' association and seeking growth controls as the executive vice president of a group known as Desert Peoples United, whose letterhead reads: "Keeping our desert the way you like it."

"I'm extremely happy in retirement," Graham said, "but I want to work my way out of this and concentrate on golf. I'm going to work myself out of all of those jobs."

A tough question remains: He will have to decide soon whether surgeons should replace an artificial aortic valve in his heart, a valve that served him throughout his years at Metro. He will consult doctors in the next few months.

"I'm quite willing to go through with this, if that's their advice," he said.

Graham has continued to resist efforts by Metro board members and current General Manager Richard S. Page to hold a kind of Jack Graham day.

"To go back there and visit the office is too much," he explained. "It would be wrenching to me and a time waste to the people there. Things are never the same once you're gone."