Draw your chairs closer to the precipice, children, as Scott Fitzgerald once said, and I'll tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a great company that grew bigger and bigger for year after yea by building what people loved most. The the rules were changed and the great company was ordered to do things differntly. It asked for more time, and got an extension - and another and another. As another deadline approached the chairman of the great company expressed alarm. He wrote to the leader of the land and warned about "a matter of grave concern to all us." Unless the lawmakers acted immediately his great company wouldn't be certified to build the things that people loved most Calamity would result: factories would be shuttered, furnaces stilled, workers tramping the streets looking for jobs, and no one would be able to buy the latest models of the things that people loved most. He sent the identical message to the lawmakers conferring on the hill, and told them in the same words, that he needed their "assistance in a matter which could seriously affect the economic well-being of our country."

An that, children, is where we stand at this telling of this long, long story.

Not to be unduly arch, this story is about cars and air and General Motors and you and me. You can rest easy. There will be not diaster. GM will not have to shut down, the country will not slip into the sea. We will be able to buy our new cars. But before getting further into all that, first some background:

Nearly 30 years ago a Dr. Haagen Smit singled out the outomobile as the principal culprit in the smog phenomenon. He pinpointed the relationship between smog and automotive emmissions of unburned hydrocarbons and oxides of nierogen which, in the presence of sunlight, changed into photochemical oxidants. That identification of the car accelerated research into the health and welfare aspects of other automotive pollutants, principally carbon monoxide and lead particles.

Almost a generation later, in 1967, Congress passed air quality act. Although it required air quality standards to be established on a certain timetable, it did not provide for uniform national standards applicable to all parts of the country. Three years later, in the clean air amendments of 1970, Congress did establish, in precise quantiative terms backed by the weight of federal law and regulations, national air quality standards. Those amendments particaularly affected cars. They called for stringent emission limitations for hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide in all cars by the 1977 model year. Equally stringent emission standards, has now been voted in a bill that 1976 model year.

During this decade, Congress has granted three successive one-year delays in meeting the automobile emission standards mandated by the 1970 law. Another delay, plus a weakening of standards, has now been voted in a bill that passed the House.The version passed by the Senate also means delay, but it calls for maintaining higher standards than the House bill. While the House and Senate have been conferring about resolving their differences, GM has been warning of dire consequences. If the new standards aren't set by Aug. 8, when it plans to start producing its 1978 year models, the company says "plant closings would have to be scheduled immediately. Parts plants would be affected first and all automobile production and assembly for the U.S. market would be scheduled to be terminated by mid-September."

That language came in a GM statement last week announcing quartely earnings. GM reports it made a record profit of a billion hundred million these last three months. Its warnings of shut downs and economic disasters should not be taken as a threat, it says: it's only pointing out the facts. It cannot see from the Environmental Protection Agemcy that its vehicles meet the legal standards. That's the law. Unless Congress acts to revise the tougher auto-emission standards mandated, car production stops. Congress plans to start a vacation at the end of this week. Three days later GM plans its start of production. No congressional action, no cars.

End of background on with story.

As the nation-state of our corporations, General Motors watches with more than casual interest the workings on the Hill. It finds, in the words of one executive, the present House bill "good. It's more stringent than we wanted, but we swallowed hard and supported it. The Senate bill is less good."

That same executive, who asks not to be quoted by name, puts the issue into corporate perspective by saying:

"We've been fairly consistent over the the years in saying what we can and cannot do. In 1970 when they set the standards they knowingly set them beyond the capability. Absolutely. You know, it was a "technology-forcing concept. A deliberate kind of thing. And you can't argue that it's all bad, so long as there's some escape valve when it no longer works.

". . . What we've done as a society is attempt to go at this thing on the basis of what can be done to control, on the basis of what's technically feasible. Not on the basis of what's really needed.

"Bite after bite has been taken out to the apple of technical feasibility are we've made huge strides . . . But now we're coming very close to that core.And the closer it gets, the more expensive it gets, the riskier it gets, and the harder the technology gets. That's just the way these things work out . . . it's a matter of development and technology, and just writing a law saying that you'll be at X point by X date doesn't mean that you necessarily ever are going to arive there . . . What people forget is we've got 4,000 people - engineers, technicians, scientists, so on - working specifically on emissions control. We think they're the best people. We pay them well, and they're having success. One of the things that just eats out their hearts is that they're in there working hard doing what they think is a helluva job, and the people say, 'You're not putting any effort into this.'"

Eric Stork's a regulatory bureaucrat. In his years in government, he's dealt with two large industries that have been regulated by the U.S. government for decades - the airlines and food and drugs. Most recently, he's been dealing with the automobile industry. He's with the Environmental Protection Agency, a top administrator for what the government calls "mobile source air pollution control."

"What the auto industry is up against." he says, "is that famous fable of the little boy who cried 'Wolf' once too often." He remembers when the companies were opposing the placing of new technology on the '75 models. "The phrase used time and again by General Motors was 'industrial catastrophe' if the catalysts were required to be on all cars in 1975." When the government agreed to a dalay. GM then announced "they'd found a 50,000-mile catalyst they were going to put on all cars." That sort of episode "just doesn't give the company very much credibility."

"Right now they think everything we do is wrong," Stork says, "and I can understand that. Look, if you've grown up in the auto industry, grown up in the ethos of big cars, beautiful cars, stylish cars, powerful cars, and here comes a bunch of people who say that's all unimportant, what's important is whether those cars are clean and fuel economical, that we're not interested in style or power or size, just clean and fuel economical, then what you know to be good and true and beautiful is suddenly said to be irrelevant. And that's a terrible thing."

Looking back on this decade, and the struggles over clean air and automobile emissions, certainly progress has been made. In part, that's the result of positive steps leading to some cleansing of the air. And, in part, it's a reflection on what might have been: we'd be much worse off if we hadn't taken any action. The issue, though, remains the same. We're still a long way from achieving the national goals articulated by the Congress. That is, clean air everywhere.

No happy ending to this story, nothing but questions for you and me and GM and Congress. Is clean air a national goal worth achieving? Or is it an unattainable wish, a foolish fairy tale of the '70s?