WHEN THE Cuban Revolution happened, I had no idea what my father thought of it. He was a postal clerk in Oklahoma, with 14 years to go before retirement. I did not ask him what he thought about revolutions. I thought the Cuban Revolution was terrific. I was a senior at Harvard.

A few times in the following years my father asked me what I thought about Castro and Cuba. This pleased me. It also made me nervous. The only country my father knew besides the United States was Mexico, where he and my mother had gone on a vacation; his politics were a blend of Gene Debs and George Wallace, once expressed in a hopeful vote for LBJ. I told him the Cuban Revolution was terrific. I gave him heavy intellectual reasons. I had become a professor of modern Latin American history at Harvard.

Seven years ago my father retired from the Postal Service. About five years ago, out of the blue, he proposed that he and I go to Cuba. aHe said he was "curious about their revolution." This surprised me. I had idly defended the Cuban Revolution, but I no longer thought anything was terrific. I worried whether the trip would disappoint my father (me, him in me?). I said I could not go yet . . . too busy, teaching, research in Mexico, writing. Every few months my father repeated the proposition. I should have known that once he made it, he meant it. Last winter he turned 68. And he paid $14 for his first passport. Then I knew he meant business.

This spring we went to Cuba to see the revolution. We were on the island only six days -- two in Havana, two in Cienfuegos, two more back in Havana. We could not see much. But my father saw enough for him to judge: "These goddamned Cubans, what it looks like we can't do, they've done -- put a stop to the rip-off and the gravy train. The Russians may be out 90 cents a day for every man, woman, and child here. But these people believe in working, and they make each other work. That alone is worth it." Back in Cambridge, I thought I had learned a lot too, enough to confirm my professional judgment that this was a revolution delivering more than it cost.

A week later hundreds of Cubans rushed into the Peruvian embassy grounds in Havana, begging to leave Cuba. Then thousands more joined them. With scornful permission from their government, they began to leave. By now 60,000 have come to the United States. Two hundred thousand more may come. It has made me think again.

Our group had seen some of the sights that I suppose are standard for tourists in Cuba: the Institute for Friendship Among Peoples, Old Havana, La Floridita, the Plaza de la Revolucion, the collective dairy farm at Cumanayagua, the Gustave Aldereguia Hospital and the Tricontinental Sugar Terminal in Cienfuegos, Varadero Beach, the Tropicana. And we had talked with the kinds of people whom I suppose groups like ours usually talk with -- officials from the Education Ministry and the Central Planning Board, representatives from Poder Popular (local government), a social worker at the dairy farm, teachers and students at the hospital, a manager at the sugar terminal, our bus drivers and, most of all, our guides, who calmly and carefully worked 16-hour days for us.

My father treated the guides like encyclopedias: How much did you pay for gas, what happened if you needed more than your ration, who decided if a kid went to high school, then to a trade school or a university? How much money did a doctor make, could an auto repair shop remain a private enterprise, what happened if a Communist cheated, how did you get farmers to move into collective farms, why did they not grow corn, could dentists or lawyers still have private practice? Where were the lines for food, how did you manage credit if refrigerators cost so much, did you fire loafers, were there pensions, were there old-age homes, who paid for funerals? Mostly he had received direct, credible answers. And he had taught one guide a word for "persons who do not behave correctly in a popular manner": goof-offs.

Little incidents had impressed us. In Vadado, at the Friendship Institute, the first morning, we attended a lecture by the companera from Education. A lady about 45, she sat quietly at a table, a blackboard behind her. When she began her words ripped across the top of our heads; this was not a lecture but a lesson she meant for us to learn. My father, who did not understand her or the translation, whispered to me, "Mrs. Knight." Yes, the dreaded Mrs. Knight, for centuries the home-room teacher of the eighth grade in our town, the widowed scourge of bullies, crybabies, nosepickers and goof-offs; the legedary drill instructor who transformed grade-schoolers into high-schoolers, children into youngsters, who made us hate her because she made us feel ashamed for not doing out "best" at our "duties" and who pursued us forever after, to instill in us modesty in success, dignity in failure and the desire to keep trying. The Cuban Mrs. Knight finished her lesson. Questions? She repeated the relevant part of the lesson.

Twice my father and I left the group and hiked four hours on our own around Old Havana. One morning we strolled alone in Cienfuegos, skipped the bus, and caught a ferry downriver to our group's hotel. On these jaunts we did not talk much with Cubans, just looked and listened.

In Old Havana, on a clean, quiet back street at about 10 a.m., we walked past women chatting in the doorways. A woman said loudly to her neighbor, "Those bums. Don't they have jobs? What are they doing parading the streets at this hour?" I told her we were tourists, that we had worked to save money to come to see what the Cubans are doing. She laughed and waved us on.

On another street in Old Havana, we passed two men arguing next to a garbage truck in front of an old apartment house. One of them had brought a big load of garbage in a big barrel. The garbage worker objected that the barrel was bigger than regulations allowed. The man waited sullenly for him to take it anyway. The worker shouted, "What the hell do you think regulations are for? What did we make the revolution for?" He took the loan anyway, cussing.

In Cienfuegos, the biggest, newest store downtown, a bookstore, is fully stocked. It is three or four times the size of the biggest bookstore in our town in Oklahoma.

In Cienfuegos, at noon, schoolchildren crowded around a student in our group. They shouted that they wanted her ballpoint pen. The guides had told us not to give kids anything, so as not to foster bad habits. "How can I give my pen to you?" our student asked the children. "I have only one. There are eight of you. To whom would I give it?" Eight small hands flew up. Eight children danced, waved, cried in harmony, "Me, me . . .!" Flustered, our student asked, "Is that what they've taught you?" Eight small hands slowly fell. Eight children sighed, "No." But they all still had their eyes on her pen.

Things we had not seen also impressed us. It surprised and delighted my father that he had seen no advertising, that except for cigars there had been no brands, that beer had come in bottles without labels. It satisfied him that he could find no sign of life insurance schemes, tax-exempt churches or real estate promoters.

Six days had proved nothing, but had led my father and me to the same judgment. What had finally most impressed him, "that they make each other work," had most impressed me too. Cubans generally seemed to know what their country's revolution had meant, to believe in it, to feel some responsibility for it and therefore to count intensely on each other. There had been no sense of the cynicism and resignation rampant in the United States now, historically pervasive in Mexico. Instead, we found a sense of old-fashioned patriotic determination and pragmatic optimism.

The right conditions for building socialism never have existed. They never will exist. In the most favorable conditions, with the best of luck, the struggle is long and painful. That is why socialists have insisted on discipline, personal and political. That is why their sorest problem always has been freedom, personal and political.

In 1978 the Cuban economy ran into an exceptional thicket of troubles. The most serious was a lack of coordination between "rationalization" -- the program of diversifying the economy away from sugar production -- and trade with Comecon, the Warsaw Pact nations' common market. The consequent need for tighter and more inventive domestic management prompted mismanagement, at worst embesslement, and the practice Cubans call sociolismo, the time-honored cover-your-ass syndrome, which reduced efficiency.

In 1979 "blue mold" ruined the tobacco crop and cut export earnings. "Sugar rust" appeared in the cane fields. Instead of growing at an expected 6 percent, the economy grew at 4.9 percent. Meanwhile, thanks to the revolution's baby boom and school system, increasing numbers of reasonably well-educated youngsters were making their claims on jobs and promotions.

This year, in addition to the continuing sociolismo, tobacco and sugar blights and an increasing supply of educated young workers, swine fever cut the supply of meat for domestic consumption. The expected economic growth for 1980 is only 3 percent.

In response, the government in 1979 took two kinds of measures. One was to boost trade with capitalist countries, mainly Japan, Spain and Canada. This included tourism from the United States, in particular exiles visiting their relatives; last year some 115,000 traveled to the island and spent at least $100 million.

The other measure was to give a new twist to "rationalization" by compelling established centers of production to operate more efficiently. Last December Fidel started severe criticism of sociolismo and "antisocial elements." And the government undertook a tough campaign against "spinlessness, negligence, cover-ups, bureaucracy, complacency." It began jailing some egregious socios. In February it expanded managerial authority to lay off "surplus" labor. On March 25 it announced a general reform of wages to take effect July 1, reorganizing the categories of wage-earners, raising the minimum wage and readjusting pay scales.

These changes sharply increased the strain on workers. Already the old "rationalization," requiring the reassignment of many working men and women, had disgrunted some with inconvenient relocations and frustrating alterations of seniority, autonomy and pay. The slowdown in construction aggravated the housing shortage, which cramped workers most. Sociolismo increased the burden on workers trying to do their duty, by favoring other workers' irresponsibility on the job, absenteeism, pilfering and black marketeering. Visits from exiled relatives revived feelings of loss, and demoralized those who could not understand why exiles thrived in the United States, while they still had to struggle in Cuba. And the new "rationalization" inevitably laid off dutiful workers as well as hustlers, pets and malingerers. Inspectors hunting socios found "antisocial" workers, and sent increasing numbers of them to jail. And the new wage reform, which probably will benefit the more educated youngsters now claiming jobs, promised to disappoint the unskilled already working, especially women.

Under this strain probably 90 percent of the country's 2.5 million workers calmly continued to discipline themselves, respect the discipline that the government asked of them and exercise their freedom to argue about what was wrong and how to fix it. But clearly some cracked. A minority of them were probably recent high school or university graduates who, having just begun their careers, felt that the revolution did not offer them enough chances for personal success. Most, however, were probably grade school graduates in their thirties, veteran unskilled workers who had come to feel that the revolution was abandoning them and that the time had come to fend for themselves.

Whoever they were, they had broken ranks in the struggle. And because Cubans count so intensely on each other in making the revolution, the resentment against them was ferocious. The government denounced them, too, as "antisocial," guilty if not of crimes at least of indiscipline and selfishness. This they took as persecution, the denial of the freedom they needed to make a career or to survive on their own. Their still dutiful neighbors accused them of asserting their freedom only to gain privileges or to free-load. This they took as harassment. Some petitioned to leave the country. As a matter of policy, the government granted them permission to leave. But they had poor luck finding a country that would accept them.

Several times last year little desperate bands tried to crash into the Venezuelan embassy in Havana. If they could oblige the embassy to grant them "asylum," they could go to Venezuela as "refugees." The Cuban government insisted that they were common criminals. The Venezulan government did not grant them asylum, but did not rule out granting it later.

In mid-January, 12 desperate Cubans crashed into the Peruvian embassy grounds, "just. . . to get out of the country." A few days later another band descended upon the Venezuelan embassy; two died. Again the Cuban government insisted that the gate-crashers were common criminals. The Peruvian ambassador declared that he did not operate "a travel agency," and that he would report future crashes as breaking and entering. But the Venezuelan government then declared that it would grant asylum in such cases. The Peruvian government followed suit, replacing its ambassador.

On Easter weekend another band crashed into the Peruvian embassy. A Cuban guard was killed, and the Cuban government called the Venezuelan and Peruvian bluff. It removed all guards from the Peruvian embassy, expecting several hundred "antisocials" to rush the grounds and embarrass the Peruvian government by obliging it to refuse them or resettle them in Peru (which is still on one of the International Monetary Fund's famous starvation diets). Several hundred did rush the place. But several thousand more came, too. The slogan went around Havana, "Good riddance to the loafers, the lay-abouts, the lumpen, and the scum." And the airlifts began to Costa Rica. This encouraged the American government and press to crow about an embarrassment to Cuba. And the Cuban government then decided to embarrass the United States by announcing that all the island's "antisocials" could leave by boat for wherever they pleased. Tens of thousands rushed to the designated port. The boats arrived from Florida. And the great "antisocial" exodus to Key West commenced -- and still continues.

Every day my father reads The Daily Oklahoman. It often makes him guffaw in disbelief. Every day I read The Boston Globe and The New York Times. They often make me groan in disbelief. Details and Stephen Kinzer's reporting aside, both papers so far have told pretty much the same Cuban story: Cuban Economy Collapsing, Havana Decaying, 10,000 Cuban Dissidents Sacrifice Everything for Freedom, Cuban Refugees Arriving, Cuban Arrivals Swamping Florida, Castro Sending Felons and the Mentally Retarded to America. . .

I wondered what my father thought of the Cuban stories he had been reading, and I called him. "You can't tell a goddamned thing from the papers," he said. "But I'd bet there's three kinds leaving and coming here. The kind that wants to get together with their families, and will work no matter what or where. The kind that has a strong desire to do some ripping-off, which they've sure come to the best country to do. And the kind that don't have the faintest notion or what they're getting into, that couldn't stand the daily working battle there and won't stand it here."

I think I agree with him, except on the last category. Evidently they could not stand the daily battle in Cuba. But I expect that many of them will stand the battle here. It is more their kind of battle. In Cuba the fight is in close order, one for all and all for one, to make the whole world new and right. Here it is in the lonliness, each one against the others, to fulfill one's dream of pride in oneself. Already tens of millions of sad, scared and desperately hopeful people have come here to fight for themselves, fought bravely, fulfilled a bit of their dreams, sometimes along the way fought for others' dreams, and lived out their lives with a certain satisfaction. Why should these tens of thousands of sad, scared and desperately hopeful people not do as well? They deserve an honest American welcome to join the Great 1980 American Pursuit of Happiness. They do not ask for much.