IF YOU'RE looking for a good metaphor for summer in Washington, consider United Airlines Flight 52. Just in from Los Angeles last Tuesday, the DC-10 landed at Dulles Airport and was taxiing along when the pilot apparently swung a little too wide on a turn. The right landing gear strayed onto the shoulder of the taxiway and hit a patch of recently laid asphalt, which was, on that hellishly hot day, probably the consistency of melted Swiss cheese. The wheels sank through the goo and into the earth, and the plane was stuck. The pilot revved the engines trying to rock it loose, like a Buick in deep mud, but it only sank deeper. The thing couldn't be budged.

Welcome to Washington, traveler. You might find it hard to believe, but this place where a jumbo jet can be trapped like a dinosaur in the tar pits has been inhabited by human beings since long before there was air conditioning. Indians lived here without even electric fans, and then there was a long succession of now legendary figures who wore full suits of clothes in August, worked at the office until 5, raised children, ate great quantities of fried food, did manual labor, danced till dawn -- and through it all never appeared to break a sweat. Most are gone now, some probably buried under stones that read, "It wasn't the heat or the humidity. It was just old age that got him."

To be honest, there was quite a bit of pretense to their supposed triumph over summer. Those who could afford to do so fled into the hills for relief whenever they got the chance. People learned certain techniques for making it look as if they were exerting themselves more than they were. But at least they put up a dignified front.

No more. We know where we stand today: on the thin-ice veneer of civilization produced by artifical refrigeration. If it breaks down, so do we, sometimes into hysterics. Flight 52, a huge, sealed cylinder full of people, sits immobilized on a glaring man-made desert without a single palm tree for shade, while 185 passengers wait a little nervously for one of those big mobile lounges to lumber out and pick them up. On their lips is the quiet prayer of almost every inhabitant of this supposedly self-confident, secular world capital: "Please, God, oh please don't let the air conditioning fail now."