"There goes Anastasio the Third," shouted a Nicaraguan in the know, pointing at an army helicopter whirring overhead. It circled over the empty streets and gutted buildings left from the monstruous 1972 earthquake, then rumbled off in no hurry.

"He likes to give radio instructions from the air," the man in the know went on, "It's one of his favorite pastimes."

Anastasio III, 27, a major in the National Guard, is the president's son being groomed to take over the helm of the Somoza family. His father, Anastasio II, uncle Luis and grandfather, Anastasio I, have ruled Nicargua for the past 42 years.

"Tachito", as young Somoza is known, was chosen to take over only the family business empire and went to Harvard. But as brothr Julio showed no aptitude or inclination toward the military, Tachito was also dispatched to learn the martial arts at Sandhurst, the British West Point.

Tachito's congenial student days now seem a long way off, according to a fellow student from Harvard who fondly remembered Tachito's rowdy celebrations in a discotheque that was closed to provide privacy. The tall, sturdy young Somoza is getting a little jowly, very serious, and, in the eyes of old time colonels whose orders he overrules, rather uppity.

Some of the military bosses begrudge his running the Guard training school, where they feel he is building a power base.

But some of the sharpest sniping is heard on the diplomatic cocktail circuit where "politicos" and "diplomaticos" compete in tales about altercations with the young major. A favorite is the story of his head-on clash with a Spanish ambassador, who, after a squabble over the allotment of earthquake relief goods, sent the loaded plane right back to Madrid.

A few weeks ago, Tachito sent a funeral wreath to the home of Pedro Joaquinn Chamorro, the assassinated opposition leader.

As the wreath was delivered, Chamorro's sons and other mourners grabbed it, tore it to shreds and returned the leftovers with a note saying: "The height of hypocrisy."

THE ARCHBISHOP'S telephone had been cut off for more than two weeks. "Don't think we haven't paid the bill," said his secretary, Josefa del Rivas. "They do it on purpose to bother him."

The offices of Managua's Catholic archdiocese had slowly filled up with callers not getting through by phone. They waited patiently under rows of religious pictures and framed press reports of the archbishop's mediation between the government and leftist guerrillas.

"They often cut his phone in his home also," the secretary went on indignantly, "and worst of all, a lot of his mail gets lost."

"They," del Rivas knew, were the archbishop's foes in the government. Last month, she charged, "they" had intercepted an invitation to attend a Tanamanian bishop's conference. When Nicaragua's archbishop did not respond, an alarmed emissary from Panama had come to see him personally.

Relations between Archbishop Miguel Obando and President Somoza have become very difficult over the last two years, ever since the church began to raise its voice in protest.

The archbishop's New Year's Day pastorial letter in fact dropped like a bomb from the pulpit. It openly condemned government abuse, accusing the government of misdeeds ranging from corruption to political detentions and even murder.

What did President Somoza think of the message?

"In some aspects of their criticism they are right," the general said, "in others they are wrong. But don't ask me to analyze it." Somoza said he gets on very well with Nicaragua's bishops. "It's just that the clergy is taking a turn which some of us old politicians are not used to."

Obando, a short softspoken man with a crew cut and a shy smile, does not sound like a person waging a verbal battle with a military strongman.

He weighs every word and says he is deeply worried about the country. "The situation is very tense here," he said folding his hands over his desK. "It's a climate of violence."

His close friend Chamorro had been slain several days earlier. Several weeks ago, a number of priests and nuns had been beaten up by National Guards as they were present when protesting students seized a church.

There is new concern now among the clergy about the rate of close to 40 American Capuchin priests, almost all of whom work in isolated regions in northern Nicaragua. They were the first to publish detailed accounts of peasant killings by the National Guard, who had charged the peasants with collaborating with the guerrillas.

A new report produced by the Capuchin fathers charges that the torture and executions of peasants has worsened and in the capital, people wonder how much longer the government will stand for so much controversy.

"Not to worry", shrugged a young priest, one of the archbishop's principal aides. "Those Capuchin fathers are from the United States. And being an American is like having life insurance around here."

OVERNIGHT, after a bout of riots, the capital had been smeared with the intials "FSLN." The Sandhurst Liberation Front, or El Frente, as everyone calls it, most probably did not have teams of wall painters going around town.

"It has become an act of defiance to print those letters," said a Managua businessman, whose neighbor's son had painted a few. "Students do it; it's like shaking your fist, or sticking out your tongue at the governmet."

Over the last 15 years the followers of Augusto Sandino, who fought the U.S. Marine occupation of Nicaragua in the 1930s, had made no significant impact.

To the government, the guerrillas were little more than a handful of irritating mosquitos and the political establishment, including the opposition, saw them as a band of wild, disoriented Castroites.

That changed as the sons and daughters of the middle class put on olive-green fatigues and adapted to living off birds and rabbits in the mountains of the north. They fought for democracy, they said, not for a Marxist state.

Many of them have since been returned to their parents in government coffins, as have numerous National Guards with whom they clashed.

There are believed to be fewer than 200 armed men and women in El Frente, not much next to the well-trained, well-equipped 7,000-man strong National Guard. The guerrillas are not counting on a military victory, their spokesmen say. For the moment they virtually occupy the northern province of Nueva Segovia and hope to recruit the peons on the haciendas as their allies.

El Frente is waiting, it says, for the political forces to align in the cities. One sign of such a growing anti-Somoza coalition was seen in this week's nationwide general strike.

Somoza is not frightened, but he is very annoyed. Those initials, FSLN, lasted only for one day. The next morning many a wall in Managua had been covered with fresh paint.