Merle Gray and Dave Crowther used to fly 727s for a living. Today, Gray pilots a 1979 Honda 14 hours a day, six days a week, as a suburban courier. Crowther parks cars, drives trucks and tends bar to make ends meet.

Both men refused to cross a picket line during the 1989 Eastern Air Lines strike. But neighbors and former colleagues H. Gordon Sheppard and Ray McHenry returned to work before the strike ended, convinced that the pilots union would lose.

Today, nearly two years after the walkout began, once-proud Eastern is in a holding pattern in bankruptcy court and facing charges that it falsified maintenance records. Though the airline's fate is uncertain, the toll of the strike for Gray, Crowther, Sheppard and McHenry is clear: Four men, once good friends, are divided, perhaps irrevocably. The men likened their personal differences to a civil war.

"It was like brother against brother," Sheppard said. "The tragedy of the Eastern story is that it separated the camaraderie of the people."

"I'm sure some people will take it to their graves," McHenry said of the rift.

The men and their families, who live in rural hamlets of western Loudoun County, reflect the lingering pain of one of America's most bitter labor-management struggles. Each of the pilots says he doesn't regret his decision, despite its effect on their relationships.

Gray said the group was like a fraternity. They attended parties at each other's homes before and during the strike. They shared hunting and fishing trips and worked together in aircraft cockpits.

"It's a very emotional thing . . . to fly with people, put your life on the line, and have them turn their back on you," Sheppard said.

All of the men say the friendships can't be restored.

"I don't feel I have anything in common with the pilots who crossed the picket line," Gray said. "They probably look at us, in a sense, as fools."

The pilot walkout began March 4, 1989, in support of the machinists union strike, but it focused on common hatred of Frank Lorenzo, who had purchased the ailing airline and begun to shrink it. Eastern has since been placed in the hands of trustee Martin R. Shugrue Jr.

Nationwide, few of Eastern's 3,600 pilots stayed on the job. The company began training replacement crews, but many striking pilots firmly believed that Eastern could not survive long without them.

Gray, Crowther, Sheppard and McHenry put in long hours on the picket line at National Airport, and worked at the Air Line Pilots Association command center in Herndon. "For 10 to 12 days, we were euphoric," Crowther recalled.

Their families were solidly behind them, but the stress intensified week by week. "It was financial, mental, everything," Crowther said. The men say they know of cases of divorce and suicide attributable to the strike.

By late summer 1989, word spread among the pilots that if they didn't cross the picket line soon, Eastern would never take them back. Several hundred returned in a single week. The four Loudoun men note the irony that the two among them who were more financially secure were the ones who went back to work before Eastern barred the door.

Sheppard and McHenry say their decisions to go back to work evolved as public disagreement among union leaders increased and they came to believe nothing would be gained by prolonging the walkout.

Crowther and Gray see it differently. "These guys just lost their nerve," Crowther said. "No question about that," Gray added. Taking the Consequences

McHenry, a 47-year-old Philomont resident who has been with Eastern for 22 years, said that "the intent and purpose for the strike were honorable." But, he said, once "you know you've lost, you need to say to yourself you can regroup, you can go back and try to rebuild."

The desire to put in an honest day's work was a key factor in his return. He said he had never imagined himself crossing a picket line -- "doing something so against your nature." He had guilt feelings, "like I'd left my buddies out there stranded."

Callers labeled him a "dirty scab" after he signed up to go back to work, and for three months he faced the prospect that he had crossed the picket line too late to get work at Eastern. But, he said, "you make a decision, you stick with it and you take the consequences."

"The downside is the loss of some good friends I thought a lot of," McHenry said. He said he and some others who returned to the cockpit "would like to reach out and talk" with those who didn't cross the picket line, "but are afraid to because of the scab label."

'They Hurt Themselves'

Sheppard, who has flown for Eastern for 31 years, could have retired when Eastern's troubles exploded. But he says he felt he owed something to his colleagues and the company.

"We just watched the airline disappear" in the late 1980s, he said. "It was heartbreaking. People went on strike to save the airline."

Sheppard, 55, of Hillsboro, is particularly critical of some of the union's leaders. Animosity toward Lorenzo wasn't enough to hold the strike together, he said, noting that as a young fighter pilot he learned that "blind hate never won a fight."

"I took my bags out at National {Airport} hoping there would be a {picket} line there" to cross when he went to sign up to fly again, Sheppard said. He said he was disappointed that "not a soul" was present.

"I wouldn't change one minute of 1989. There's not a doubt in my mind," he said. But he feels "great sadness" that his friends didn't see it his way. "The striking pilots haven't laid a glove on Eastern," Sheppard said. "They hurt themselves."

Grounded but Unbowed

At age 49, with 25 years invested as an Eastern pilot, Gray leaves his Round Hill home by 5 a.m. each day to start his courier pickups and deliveries. "I've already been through one engine" en route to logging 100,000 highway miles on the job, he said.

"Needless to say, I'd rather fly," Gray said. "But I'm still kicking. I might go into business for myself."

Eastern has called few pilots back to work since the pilots union ended the walkout in November 1989, and Gray says he can make more money working 80-plus hours a week as a courier than as an entry-level pilot at another airline.

Gray's wife, Jeannie, has a job, but they have put their house up for sale because they're having trouble meeting the mortgage payments. Still, he said, nothing that happened in 1989 "gave anybody any reason to think they would have any kind of future with Eastern."

"Money was more important than any personal attitudes or professional attitudes," Gray said of those who crossed the picket line. "Going back almost made a winner out of Frank {Lorenzo}."

Recent court decisions have supported union claims that former strikers should be rehired by Eastern, Gray said. "In the long run, there is no question in my mind that we will be vindicated."

'There Are No Winners'

Crowther, 45, flew for Eastern for a decade before the walkout, enough time to settle in a house in Bluemont and buy his "life's dream" -- a vacation cabin on 50 acres in New England.

He has sold the cabin, has put the Bluemont home on the market and is "just about out of savings," even though his wife, Eleanor, works. His strike benefits ended a year ago.

Crowther still flies occasionally -- on call for the private jets of the Getty and Forbes families. The rest of the time, he does odd jobs such as planting trees for a nursery. He hasn't been able to get a job with another airline.

"A lot of us had faith that the system would work and right would prevail," Crowther said. When the strike began, "we were about as naive as you can get."

Crowther said he has "no doubts" he was right to stick with the walkout, saying "all Lorenzo left was broken planes and people. There are no winners."