"How exciting," friends said, when I told them I would be following the pope around the country.

To paraphrase a popular definition of war, it turned out to be endless hours of waiting (waiting for buses to events, waiting through endless preliminaries for events to start because the press has to be in place long before the pope gets there, waiting with nearly 400 fellow media people in long lines for a hotel room at the end of a three-city, 19-hour day, then waiting two hours more for one's luggage) interrupted by moments of sheer panic (trying to get to mass sites before security shut off access, trying to meet deadlines; trying, after 10 days and 45 speeches, to remember what he said where and when).

Tight Security Wraps Miami

Nowhere on the pope's nine-city tour was security tighter than in Miami, where both the pope and President Reagan appeared.

In addition to the Secret Service and Dade County and metropolitan Miami police, National Guardsmen in combat unforms lined the streets -- a curious prelude to the pilgrimage of a man of peace.

But the tightest security of all was reserved for the 400 or so Jewish leaders from around the country, assembled in preparation for the Sept. 11 dialogue with the pope.

There were swarms of police at the entrances, in the lobbies and public rooms of the hotel where they were staying. At the elevators of each floor where a Jewish representative was billeted, a city policemen stopped would-be visitors and escorted them to the room of Jewish guests for verification.

When four or five reporters congregated, by invitation, in the room of the public relations man for the Jewish delegations, a policeman came to the room to investigate.

Reporters covering the meeting of the pope with Jewish leaders, already screened by Secret Service, were subjected to body searches. Briefcases, bags, cameras and recording gear were checked out by a police dog trained in detecting explosives.

The reason for all the precautions, one Jewish leader explained, was fear of "another B'nai B'rith" -- the terrorist takeover more than a decade ago of the B'nai B'rith building in Northwest Washington by Hanafi Muslims.

With the top leadership of the American Jewish community assembled in one place, the potential for mischief was great.

Fortunately, nothing happened.

And Out West in Los Angeles . . .

Generally, security seemed to relax the farther west we went. But the Rev. John Geaney, a communications expert helping escort TV crews to their designated positions, had a different experience.

On arrival in Los Angeles, he was attempting to get CBS-TV crews to the flatbed truck to cover the pope's arrival.

With the Secret Service's yellow-and-gold enamel lapel pin secured to the lapel of his black clericals, Geaney made his way past two check points and was approaching -- "slowly, I've learned not to make any fast moves" -- a third when the police sergeant in charge suddenly wheeled and challenged him.

Geaney explained his mission and displayed his Secret Service credentials. "That means nothing to me. Take him," said the sergeant to another officer.

In a scene straight out of "Hunter," the priest was immobilized, his hands cuffed behind his back and thrown up against a steel fence.

He was eventually able to persuade the cop that he was in fact who he said he was and released. "I'm still waiting for an apology from the LAPD," Geaney said.

The Universal Security Pass

Two days later in Monterey, Geaney stepped forward at a checkpoint to vouch for a press bus. He had barely opened his mouth to speak when the officer, in a quick glance at him, said, "Oh, sorry, Father. I didn't see your collar," and waved them through.

Mysterious Woman Sticks Close

Pope watchers in Miami and Columbia, S.C., were puzzled by an attractive young blond woman who stuck close to the pope as he moved through the crowds.

"I don't think she's from the Vatican," speculated one puzzled TV commentator.

She isn't. She's Secret Service Agent Karen Barry, who is normally at the White House guarding the president.

"Oh yes, we have a number of women agents now," Barry said during an off-duty conversation.

High-Profile Protestant Scolded

"He's going to be in trouble," predicted reporters who cover religion from Roman Catholic to Southern Baptist Convention, after the 90-minute South Carolina meeting of the pope with other Christian leaders. The prediction was for the Rev. Harold Bennett, who is president-treasurer of the now fundamentalist-oriented SBC's Executive Committee.

Sure enough, Bennett, one of the four Protestant leaders who made a brief presentation to the pope in the closed-door session, got a verbal scolding at the executive committee's meeting in Nashville earlier this week.

"He should have consulted with us before being part of that papal extravaganza," grumped the Rev. Kenneth Barnett of Lakewood, Colo., a member of the policy-making committee. He offered a resolution that would require denominational officers in the future to get clearance before agreeing to take part in any ecumenical event.

SBC President Adrian Rogers had declined an invitation to the dialogue, which Barnett dubbed "the pope's PR event."

National Council of Churches' head, the Rev. Arie Brouwer, who took part in both the dialogue and the public prayer service afterward, called the encounter "very important."

Of Deficits and Cabdrivers

The pope's visit left the San Francisco archdiocese $1 million short of the $3.2 million budgeted for his 22-hour visit. Monterey was $600,000 in the red and San Antonio was $500,000 short.

Whether the more than $21 million the trip cost could be better spent is a question that will remain. There are no tangible criteria to measure its worth, but consider this little incident:

The amiable cabbie waiting outside the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the pope had just celebrated mass, wasn't Catholic, he said, but he had bought a couple of souvenirs for his mother who was "very devout."

Conversations with cabdrivers all along the papal route inevitably turned to religion -- an effort, it seemed, to touch someone who had a connection, however remote, to the pope.

"I don't know if I believe in God or not," this chap volunteered, although he stopped short of calling himself an atheist.

But he thought it was good that others believed, and he thought the pope was somehow doing good by being here, calling forth people's better nature. It's just that religion was not his cup of tea.

Articulate and obviously well-read, the man got so involved in conversation that he missed a key turn-off, apologized and turned off the meter several blocks from the destination.

When he pulled up at the hotel entrance, he unexpectedly got out of the driver's seat and pulled from the back of the cab a yellow-and-white souvenir Vatican flag, the price tag still on it, and handed it to his passenger.

"Here," he said, "I want you to have this." Then he drove off into the night.