Once during the early 1970s, while President Richard Nixon was out of town, staff members borrowed the gold putter that had been presented to him as a gift and used it to practice their golf game in the hallways outside the Oval Office.

"This was before Watergate," said former presidential assistant David Gergen, who remembers that the putting was organized by Nixon's special assistant, Stephen B. Bull.

Gergen, who said he was "on the outskirts" of the putting, and others who have worked at the White House say that such high jinks are inevitable whenever the president -- whether he is Republican or Democrat -- leaves town.

"It is a time of less tension," Gergen said.

With the president away -- as Reagan is this week -- the dress code at the White House becomes more casual, work crews are better able to tackle White House areas that need cleaning and repairing, and presidential advisers have a chance to reflect on the big issues of the day, officials said this week.

What's more, the skeleton crew left behind has a better shot at using such White House amenities as the mess, the health club, the swimming pool and the movie theater.

"In the Carter White House, the tennis court was the most lusted after," said Walter Wurfel, deputy press secretary from 1976 to 1979.

Wurfel said that the absence of the president also can bring more reasonable working hours for the staff. "You can come in late, like 8 or 9 o'clock," he said, "and get out early, maybe at 5 or 6 o'clock."

According to former White House curator James Ketchum, the departure of the president from the White House has essentially the same effect on the staff as the departure of a teacher from the classroom has on the students. "Except the students do have quite a bit to do in their lesson plan," said Ketchum, who served Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.

This week, while the Reagans are in Palm Springs, Calif., for the holidays, White House workers are "primarily cleaning on the second and third floor," said Rex Scouten, the current curator. "Normally, when the helicopter carrying the president takes off from the White House, we are removing furniture, getting ready to do some type of maintenance work while they are gone," Scouten said.

Last spring while the Reagans were in Europe for the economic summit, "we replaced the oak floors in the Green and Red Rooms," Scouten said. "Then this August, when they were in California, we did the Blue Room floor."

Scouten said that workers will spend most of Saturday taking down the holiday decorations that now "pretty much fill" the White House. When the Reagans return home Sunday, everything will be back to normal, he said.

At present, the executive office of the president employs about 1,300 people, according to spokesman Ben Jarratt. That includes the 322 members of the White House staff who are part of the president's full-time senior staff and other staffs such as the press office, legislative affairs, political affairs and communications.

While some of these staff members travel with the president, many remain in town. Of the 20 people who work in the White House press office, six are with Reagan and 14 are in Washington, said Jarratt, who described the scene here as "business as usual."

B.J. Cooper, the deputy press secretary in charge Thursday, said that the biggest excitement of the day was the temporary loss of water service in the West Wing, which includes the Oval Office and the press office. "That meant no restrooms, no coffee" for a few hours until water service was restored, Cooper said.

Mary Lynn Kotz, who worked at the White House during the Johnson administration, remembers the dedicated staff members in the curator's office where she was assigned and their "great jolly spirit."

Once the curator -- Ketchum -- happened to be away at the same time the president was away, Kotz said. The staff decided to dress a bust of Winston Churchill in a trench coat and an aviator's cap and position him in a chair behind Ketchum's desk. When the curator returned from his trip, he found Churchill in his place.

"I remember that," Ketchum said.

More typical staff activity during a presidential absence, he said, was to take advantage of the access they had to White House rooms and offices that otherwise would be in use.

For example, on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, Ketchum and other staff members worked several hours in the Oval Office measuring Kennedy's desk and discussing how it could be reproduced for a presidential library.

Originally a gift from Queen Victoria to Rutherford B. Hayes, the desk had gained national attention in the early 1960s after young John Kennedy was photographed playing under it and using its special hinged panel, a feature that Ketchum said was added by President Roosevelt to help conceal his braces.

The staff had just finished their morning's work and left the Oval Office, Ketchum said, when news came that Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.

During the Johnson administration, the desk was sent to the Smithsonian Institution. "Carter requested the return of the desk to the Oval Office," Ketchum said, "and it is the desk that Reagan uses today."