There is an old saying that when elephants wrestle, it is the grass that suffers. That maxim springs to mind regarding the heated debate surrounding the sudden closing lastTuesday of the historic Anthony Bowen YMCA building in Shaw.

While the board of the Metropolitan Y and the head of Bowen's management committee grapple, the losers for now are the children, whose home in Shaw has a shortage of wholesome recreational facilities that is roughly equivalent to its plentitude of drugs, crime and prostitution. While the adults fight it out, the kids know only that the doors to Bowen are shackled.

But I don't think the Metropolitan Y board's error was that it closed a building that a majority seemed truly to feel was a safety trap for children. After all, the community outcry would have been unanimous had innocent children indeed perished in a fire as they blithely dribbled their basketballs. No, the Y erred in the process by which it handled Bowen. Here-today-and-gone-tomorrow is no way to treat a historic structure that has touched the lives of so many people in Washington. The Y erred also in not moving faster to find a replacement for Bowen. For two years, they not only knew the building posed a safety hazard, they also had $500,000 set aside for a new branch.

The Y board thought it had covered all of the bases when it abruptly voted to close the Bowen building last Tuesday. But it did not allow for nostalgia, community sentiment, or the egos of the principal characters. So this is the story behind the Bowen Y's sudden death. It has pitted William B. Rumsey, director of the D.C. Department of Recreation and chairman of Bowen's management committee, against Thomas B. Hargrave, chairman of the Y Board.

The key words that day were money and safety. The old structure, they said, had eaten up $82,000 in the past decade, and it was a fire trap for children. Rumsey made an impassioned plea to keep it open. He said the 48 to 50 fire code violations found by the fire inspectors were housekeeping items that could be taken care of for $5,000.

One board member, a contractor, protested that with the leaky roof and structural deficiency the building could not be made safe for $100,000. A second board member, a judge, explained that in the event a fire occurred and children were killled, each board member could be held criminally negligent and personally liable. Money again. The judge's argument turned the tide.

At one point, board member David H. Eaton, president of the D.C. school board and minister of All Souls Unitarian Church, spoke. He cited the realities--the nostalgia that black Washington maintained for Bowen, the first YMCA for blacks. He cited the fear that if Bowen were closed it might never open again. He compared the controversy that could erupt to that surrounding the issue of old Dunbar high school. He cited the fear of the community, in a demographically changing Washington, that they would not be able to influence the downtown Y in determining where a new Anthony Bowen building would be built. As long as the Bowen building was open, that site had to be considered. If that building closed, the Shaw site might be more likely abandoned. But eventually, Eaton voted with the others to close the building.

Despite Rumsey's vehement objection to closing Bowen and the fact that he cast the lone dissenting vote, he told the board that he was a team member, according to the minutes. The board felt that even though Rumsey did not agree with the decision he would work nonetheless to ensure its smooth implementation.

But within an hour after the meeting, Rumsey confided dejectedly to a reporter at the District Building, "They just closed my building." The campaign to save Bowen spiraled from there.

Now, the Bowen branch is asking the board to reconsider its decision and Tom Hargrave is saying no. Two black men, neither of whom is an ogre, caught in a battle of will and ego, circumstance and money.

The elephants wrestle. For years they have been talking about a first-class replacement building for Anthony Bowen.

The grass suffers. There are kids who were 8 years old when the board began arguing over Bowen in 1967, and who are in Lorton today.