The ultimate nightmare:

It is quitting time after a very long week and a very long day.

The automatic timer on your oven, which has been running hot lately, has started dinner.

Your kids are home, alone, with their new wood-carving knife and chisel set.

Your old dog, with the bad kidneys that have been running hot lately, has started his automatic timer too.

As you race for the door leading to home and hearth, the boss tells everybody to stay put.

And he puts armed guards at the doors to make sure everybody heard him.

What do you do?

When something like that happened recently at a Strategic Air Command base in Missouri, workers who were held on the job from 15 to 30 minutes past the usual quitting time did what came naturally: They put in for overtime!

Should they get it, and did they get it? You be the judge. This is what happened:

An inspector general from SAC headquarters arrived, unannounced, at the Missouri air base. He did inspector general things all day. Then, at 4:16 p.m., one minute after quitting time for most civilians, he sprang a surprise alert.

In this case it wasn't a Soviet missile attack, but the next worst thing: A simulated robbery of the base payroll office.

The gates were locked. Employes who were just getting off the day shift were left sitting in their cars or offices for a half hour while the Air Police scoured the area for the nonexistent bad guys. After they didn't find them, the alert was called off.

The base gates were unlocked. Hundreds of steaming federal workers proceeded to fracture the speed limit to make up for lost time. The inspector general took to the air heading for another base to continue his work, which is to make life miserable for its civilian and military inhabitants.

Next morning, representatives of the American Federation of Government Employees union marched into the base commander's office. Each was carrying a copy of the union contract. It says, among other things, that workers are supposed to get overtime for work in excess of 40 hours per week, and also that the union is supposed to be notified in advance before the brass spring a "no notice" alert.

Management agreed that all of the above is true. But this case was different, the bosses said, because the inspector -- who answers only to the great command aircraft in the sky -- called the surprise alert, which was a surprise to them. In light of this, the Missouri SAC team said, they don't have to pay overtime and the issue isn't grievable through normal channels spelled out in the contract.

An outside arbitrator was called in. He said that although the issue is indeed arbitrable, overtime isn't required to be paid this time because the surprise alert was ordered by an outsider, the inspector general, and therefore base commanders didn't have the time to warn the union.

The Air Force says there is a good chance the union will be notified next time there is a no-notice alert, and it will probably be an evacuation drill during work hours.