It is among the most dramatic datelines of our time, a pastiche of presidential comings and goings, of heroes' homecomings, of triumphant and tragic arrivals and departures.

Vivid, unforgettable images come quickly to mind: The hostages, decending from Freedom One, jubiliant; a disgraced Richard Nixon and a defeated Jimmy Carter leaving official Washington behind, their families in tears; the POWs; back from Vietnam; the pope and his ecclesiastical entourage, greeted by a cheering, throbbing throng of well-wishers; the victorious return of the U.S. hockey team; the sad arrival of caskets holding the U.S. Olympic boxers.

In this high-visibility setting, the mechanics for Air Force One wear special light blue uniforms instead of regular fatigues and even routine jobs like refueling the president's plane are "elite" details.

With "buck" sergeant almost the lowest form of life, there is one officer for every three enlisted here. The Air Force Systems Command, the weapons procurement and testing agency headquartered here, has so much brass, in fact, that one newly-arrived major said he has no subordinates on his job and never gets "a chance to even see enlisted people."

Altogether, 10,000 people work here, half civilian, half military, with a combined annual payroll of $195 million. Some 4,820 dependants, including 1,567 elementary school-age children, live on this military reservation, in 2,300 units that range from the tree-shaded luxury of Command Lane to the trailer park imperanence across the base.

This backdrop for historical happenings, the ceremonial base for the nation's capital, began as a dusty fighter command station during World War II, a temporary base for P47s that, they said, would be converted to civilian use after victory.

"It was just a country area," recalls Robert B. Starkey, the civilian deputy chief of civil engineering who has been at the base since 1942, "mostly forest, Maryland jackpine, with chicken houses and grape arbors." Smack in the middle was Meadows, a crossroads community of a dozen or so homes, a general store, garage and church where the old paths of Pennsylvania Avenue and Allentown Road converged.

Completed in June, 1943, it was known, then, as the Camp Springs-Meadows, Md. Fighter Command Station. It became Andrews Field in 1945, after a World War II general who died in a plane crash over Iceland, and Andrews Air Force Base in 1950. To provide access to the base as the war drew to a close, the Army Corps of Engineers built Suitland Parkway, alternately known for years as the Military Highway.

The action, and the main gate, in those early days was on the east side. It all changed in the late 50s and early 60s, when the presidential plane, which had used Andrews only on occasions, permanently moved here from Washington National Airport and new buildings sprouted to support the growing Air Force mission on the western half of the base.

Apart form the presidential fleet, the two Boeing 707s alternately known as Air Force One when one flies the chief executive, there are several smaller passenger planes to carry government movers and shakers, ranked Codes 2 to 6, in descending order of importance.

For the dignitaries, foreign and domestic, a special "VIP lounge" awaits with cushy couches and chairs, a console color TV, Air Force art adorning the walls and soft drinks and coffee served but not in Styrofoam.

The dignitaries come and go only when the Federal Aviation Controllers in the futuristic control tower designed by I. M. Pei say they can. The 45 air controllers monitored 143,000 arrivals and departures last year, nearly as many as their counterparts at Dulles Airport.

Near the 156-foot tall tower, a mysterious Boeing 747 plane sits parked, bathed at night in a sea of light. The jumbo jet, a designated National Emergency Command Post, is one of four strategically deployed planes from which a nuclear counterattack could be directed from the air.

Its crew members wear beepers and move to the front of the food line at the Freedom Dining Hall, where they eat together at reserved tables, near the door. At the sound of an alarm that sounds ike a basketball buzzer, they dash to their "alert vehicles" and return to their craft. They live in what Navy Lt. Cmdr. Andrew S. Riddile, the emergency actions officer, calls "Stalag whatever it is," an unmarked compound surrounded by barbed wire and comprised of "very spartan" pastel-hued cottages.

In the middle of a day's work here, the Non-Commissoned Officers Club used to feature lunchtime go-go dancers. Their act was immensely popular, but, according to legend, became an embarrassemnt to the downtown deans of docorum who felt it was inappropriate. So while cocktail hour "variety dancers" continue, the midday merriment has ceased.

"The presence of Air Force One dictates a lot what can and can't be done here," explained the club manager.