Flying anywhere can be unpleasant these days, but taking Polish Airlines from Warsaw to Gdansk is downright horrific. Searching scrutiny upon boarding, perhaps a hassle over the fact that one has film in his camera (as I did), a requirement that passengers ask permission of the flight attendant before they can get up to go to the bathroom (an anti-hijack precaution) -- these were just a few of the amenities on our recent flight. In this case, though, it was worth it because we were going to see Lech Walesa, leader of the now-banned Solidarity movement.

We met Walesa, who had just finished his 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift as an electrician at the Gdansk Shipyard, over lunch at the residence of the pro-Solidarity priest Father Henryk Jankowski. Is Solidarity a union or a national movement, we asked. "We are the reform," Walesa pronounced. "We don't want power, just changes in structure. But," he cautioned, "we are dangerous when we are independent and creative at the same time."

Someone lit a cigarette. Walesa looked at it wistfully, and said, "Some time ago, when the government raised cigarette prices, I vowed to give them up if they ever did it again. They did and I did." Asked whether U.S. trade sanctions against Poland had helped Solidarity's cause, Walesa shifted to finesse: "It is a complicated problem. The U.S. has good diplomats, so I leave that to them."

After lunch, our small group moved to a parlor where several French trade unionists waited to hear this sage of Solidarity. Someone wondered whether Pope John Paul II's recent visit had helped the situation in Poland. Walesa said, "It's too early to tell. It was a big event, but its effects will depend on society -- if it will be able to take advantage of it. These are not times when even an outstanding man can achieve results. We need pluralism, social and economic pluralism."

"This is an absurd society," he continued, "where 90 percent of the people are Catholic, and atheists hold power. . . . We suggest, as reformers, logical solutions. We want to be unionists, we don't want to govern."

Of Mikhail Gorbachev, Walesa said, "He is a good person, faced with bureaucracy. He opens the tap, but water cannot flow as it should due to this bureaucracy."

Walesa struck a more ominous note on the issue of whether the system can be reformed. "If not, there will be a big revolution," he said. "We don't want revolution but evolution, the learning of democracy and economics. But if that is not possible, it will be dangerous. It is not possible to stop the course of events."

His closing thought, however, pulled back a bit: "This government goes in the right direction, but we may wait 300 years for results."

Walesa may be the best-known Polish dissident, but he is by no means the only one. Zbigniew Bujak, a husky and handsome 34-year-old trained as an electric power technician, became Solidarity's underground leader after the suppression of the movement and the imposition of martial law in December 1981. Captured in May 1986, he was released in the September amnesty.

At dinner in a Warsaw suburb, Bujak lamented the difficulties Solidarity faces: "It is hard to interest the youth; it is hard to wait." The pope's visit helped because he called for patience, Bujak said. The underground press is going strong: "There are at least 36 books a year published and 400 periodicals."

I asked Bujak what the party lineup in a free Poland might be. "Without a Soviet Union?" he said gleefully. "Real communists could meet in a bathroom." The largest party, he added, would be Christian Democrats, followed by the most intellectual Social Democrats, Peasants, and Nationalists.

Which American would free Poles vote for? Ronald Reagan. The next most popular Americans? Jeane Kirkpatrick and Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Bujak's colleague, Adam Michnik, a widely published intellectual of 41, was born into a working-class family and was once a protege of Jean-Paul Sartre. Between 1965 and 1980 Michnik was detained by the police at least 100 times, and he spent 14 months in jail in 1985 and 1986.

An intense man with short blond hair, Michnik eyed me solemnly as our interview began and said, "Poland has achieved the highest stage of communism." Pause. "It is a total mess." After a burst of laughter, he turned serious. "The rulers know they can't rule and the ruled know they can't overthrow the rulers. There must be reform, but there is none. There are only changes. Poland is pregnant with reform, but the government can neither give birth to it nor abort it."

I asked whether Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski could be considered a Polish de Gaulle, beset by problems and coping as best he can. "He is no de Gaulle," Michnik replied; "he is a Pinochet, though Pinochet is tougher."

Could there be a loosening of the Warsaw Pact, with Poland playing a role similar to that of Greece in NATO? "I don't know," he replied, "but we should act as if it is possible. We must take every chance for change. Perhaps Gorbachev means such a change."

The American sanctions against Poland following the imposition of martial law, Michnik said, "were not against the Poles, they were against the regime. I feared lifting them would mean the end of U.S. support for Solidarity, but it did not."

In 1980 and 1981, "mistakes were made" by Solidarity, "but martial law was not due to going too fast. It was imposed because Solidarity violated the rules of a totalitarian system. The best way to overcome such a system is without blood and revolution. We have lost, but only for now."

Is Poland totalitarian or authoritarian? "The state is totalitarian, but the people are post-totalitarian. I live as a free being in a free country -- even though I live in jail from time to time! But I am more free in jail than Jaruzelski is out of prison."

Tom Paine would understand.

The writer has served as an ambassador and as assistant secretary of defense.