No physical barrier separates the independent city of Fairfax from the surrounding county of the same name. But there are those who are beginning to think that something like a moat might be a good idea.

Fairfax City has backed out of the subway system, started its own commuter bus service and blighted hopes for a regional gasoline tax, but to its own political leaders, it is all a matter of independence and old-fashioned self-reliance.

"We're just trying to row our own boat, that's all," says the city's mayor, Nathaniel F. Young.

To exasperated officials from neighboring jurisdictions, Fairfax City is a little bastion of blind self-interest, playing iceberg to the metropolitan area's Titanic.

"They're trying to ruin everythin for their own self-aggrandizement," said one Fairfax County official. "Just who do they think they are? What do they think they're doing? Listen, don't quote me. These days, we're trying to be conciliatory as hell."

Getting along through gritted teeth is becoming a familiar story among those who deal with Fairfax City.

In the last few years, the city, which became an independent political jurisdiction in 1961, has found itself fighting a seemingly endless variety of adversaries.

On the regional level, transportation has been the issue, as the city sued every jurisdiction in sight to get back its contribution to the subway system. It also refused to pay its share of the Metrobus deficit when the future of its own subway station was thrown in doubt.

Within its own borders, the feud centers on the question of whether the city should start its own school system or continue to contract the service to Fairfax County. While a voting majority of three city councilmen and the mayor have decided to go ahead with plans to begin an independent school system, the majority of voters is opposed to it, according to Councilman Walter Stephens, who is one of those in favor of it.

Currently it is the county that Fairfax City classifies as the enemy. The mayor brandishes a list of what he calls a "litany of terrors" the county has visited against the city. One of his aides glares up at the monolithic Massey Building, which is located, like most county offices, on Fairfax City territory, and mutters, "They look down on us literally as well as figure-lively."

"All we are trying to do," said Mayor Young, "is what we think is right for our citizens." It is the city, Young contends, that is the aggrieved party in its many contretemps with the outside world and its only interest is in defending the rights of the city and of reason itself.

Why, Young demands, "would any city with 30 gas stations want to support a gas tax?" Why, he wants to know, should Fairfax City contribute to a subway system when the line extending out toward its borders may never be built. Why should the city be overcharged, as Young feels it is, for a county-provided education system when it can set up its own? Why should the city pay for an ineffective bus system when it can start its own?

"You're just gotta be stupid to do the things they want us to do," Nat Young said.

Ever since the city became independent, two very different points of view have vied for political control. One group always has advocated a more cooperative attitude toward the world at large, while the other has opted consistently for a fierce self-reliance.

An articulate summation of the citys warring political factions is provided by the two men who were prominent witnesses to the city's birth and growing pains.

John C. Wood practices law in a house that once belonged to Antonia Ford, a Confederate spy. Ford married the man who held her under house arrest for her crime, and such dextrous handling of the practical end of politics befits the present occupant of her home.

Wood was the mayor of Fairfax City and the moving force behind its change from town to independent city. Newspapers at the time were filled with fulminations by, for, and against him and the present city hall is referred to as "the house that Jack built.

A lean man who lost his eyesight over 20 years ago but who still maintains his law practice, Wood is fond of referring to city facilities as "my water line" or "my sewer system."

There is a certain justice in such possessiveness. Long before most of Fairfax County was anything more than a gleam in a developer's eye, Wood "went out and built us a dam" on Goose Creek in Loudoun County, gleam in a developer's eye, Wood thereby assuring his town a healthy water supply, rapid development and an enviable tax base.

Now Wood gives short shrift to those who contend that Fairfax City's determination to go it alone hasn't got a chance against the interdependent suburban landscape. "Frankly, honey, I don't think that regionalism stuff is worth a hoot," he said.

Wood's succinct dismissal of regional concerns is echoed by his ideological compatriots, who say regionalism lacks relevance to their six-square-mile domain.

Regionalism, Wood suggests, is fine for those who have the misfortune of suffering from such contemporary ills as insufficient public housing, lack of money or overcrowding. Such problems, however, have little to do with his political bailiwick.

"We are a small compact, homogeneous area," Wood said. "The mayor lives on my street and the members of the Council live near by. We all went to the University (of Virginia) or to VPI or William and Mary. We're not from Iowa or Timbuctu or someplace like that."

It is a matter, said Wood, "of knowing people and not knowing people.

"It's as simple as that. It makes for an entirely different attitude."

Retired now from the overt pursuit of political power, Wood look fondly on the days when he knew every policeman in town and all 12 lawyers. "It was a real vital time, I enjoyed myself, let me tell you. We didn't have bureaucracies to get lost in and keep things from getting done.

"We had fun," said Jack Wood. "We did anything we wanted."

Anything, that is, "until the liberals got into the act."

The "liberals" as Wood calls them in a tone that implies utter disdain, were those who sought increased cooperation between county and city. They were headed by another lawyer, Edgar A. Prichard, who succeeded Wood as mayor in 1964.

Wood and Prichard described themselves as good personal friends despite the yawning chasm that divides them on Fairfax City issues.From the beginning, Prichard said, he was opposed to the change from town to independent city. "I was perfectly happy being a town. I liked the kind of control we had without being independent of the county." Prichard said.

As mayor, Prichard said, he tried hard "to make peace with the county." He was responsible for negotiating the first set of contracts that spelled out the terms under which the county would provide agreed-upon services to the city, terms which he felt were "highly favorable to the city."

Now Prichard looks with dismay at the increasingly isolationist stand Fairfax City has adopted toward the rest of the region. "I think it's ridiculous," he said. "The city of Fairfax is just asking for a free ride."

"We used to get along beautifully," Prichard said. "There's no reason why we can't do so again."

Like a number of other observers, he feels that the problem can be traced to the current political regime, that it is a matter of power and personalities rather than issues and ideology.

Like a numberof other observers, he is talking about the mayor. Nathaniel F. Young, says Edgar A. Prichard, "is like a polliwog in a teacup."

But to hear Nat Young talk, Ed Prichard is the man who irrevocably ruined the virtue of Fairfax City when he negotiated those first contracts with the county.

"Course he'll never admit this," says Young, who calls the money Fairfax City spends on lawsuits the least extravagant item in the budget, "but Ed Prichard just believes bigger is better, that's all. He'd just love to see better, that's all. He'd just love to see County and Arlington and Falls Church in one big bowl of happiness."

"No one could hurl such a charge at Nat Young."

"They just think they can shove anything they want down our thoats, that's all," Young said. "They don't mind you fighting back, they just mind you fight back and win."

As defined by Nat Young, winning including being the only jurisdiction not to approve a gasoline tax that carried with it the stipulation that all five northern Virginia jurisdictions had to approve it before it could go into effect. "Boy, we really stumped their toes on that one," Young said.

Another victory in Young's eyes was was the city's suit to get back its contribution to the Metro subway after hopes for the full 100-mile-system began to dim and subway officials decided to think twice about the proposed Vienna station.

U.S. District Court Judge Oren R. Lewis ruled last spring that the Metro transit authority and the seven Washington area cities and counties sued by Fairfax City must repay the $2 million that the city had contributed to the subway.

The case is now being appealed but Young is confident he's going to get the city's money back. "We just have better lawyers than they do, that's all," he said. "Our boys are going to be experts in more damn things than you can shake a stick at before we're through."

While others accuse him of political grandstanding and unrealistic expectations of the city's ability to provide quailty services independent of the county, Young defines the issue more simply. "We just don't want to be had, that's all" he said. "They want to come hat in his hand, saying 'yes sir, yessir, is there anything I can do for you?' That's just plain stupid."THWhether the voters of Fairfax City see things the same way as their mayor and his three-man coalition on the city council is open to speculation, city council is open to speculation. Young ran unopposed for re-election in 1976, but there is no lack of candidates for his seat in the May election.

And that, says Walter Stephens, a City Council member who has already announced for Young's seat, is the wonderful thing about Fairfax City's brand of small-town democracy. "If people don't like it,"he said cheerfully, "they can just sweep everybody out."