When Rep. Leo J. Ryan's party, first reached Jonestown, we were all struck by the neat wooden structures so far from civilization and by the mix of blacks and whites, young and old - seemingly normal people who we were told, had willingly chosen to live so far from home.

Marceline Jones, the Rev. Jim Jones' wife, met us as we left the Jonestown dump truck that had brought us from the Port Kaituma airstrip, where our plane had landed several hours before and where Ryan would be killed along with four others the next afternoon.

Marcie, as everyone called her, invited us to the pavilion, where Jones awaited us and where he would lead his followers in a mass suicide less than 24 hours later. Everything was so alive and so peaceful that Friday night, at least on the surface, that it was impossible to know that this carefully cultivated little world would soon be destroyed by a man gone mad.

Marcie told up that supper - hot pork sandwiches and greens, fruit tarts and coffee - was ready. We would be told proudly by our hosts that everything we ate had been raised in Jonestown, this quasireligious, socialist agricultural commune carved out of Guyana's remote rain forest.

As we walked to the pavilion, residents of the commune greeted us individually and escorted us along. They engaged us in conversation, asking about our trip, telling us how glad they were we would have a chance to see that Jonestown was not the concentration camp its detractors had made it out to be.

Most of the commune residents, those who were not part of the welcoming party, were eating dinner in a nearby dining area, washing clothes in the open-air communal laundry or baking bread.

Children gathered around swings and benches near the pavilion and Jonestown appeared to be just what its brochures' said it was: a eaceful place where people of all races and ages could live in peace without the violence and hate they had known in the ghetto and without the materialistic anxieties of their native United States.

Jonestown was an experiment in socialism, we were told, where money, power and elitism had been eliminated. The hundreds of seniors, as the aged were called, got the best medical attention and their lives had new meaning.

For the young blacks among the more than 800 residents, Jonestown offered an escape from the drugs and crime in which we were told many of them had been involved before coming to Guyana. And for the middle class, college-educated whites - who seemed to hold the top leadership positions - Jonestown seemed to be a logical extension of the civil rights and antiwar battles they had fought over the past decade. It was the socialist society that they wanted for their native country, but that they realized was impossible, at least for now.

Although we had been told that once we got to Jonestown we would be free to wander and talk to anyone we wished, we began to feel we were being guided.

First to the pavilion, then to sit down with one of our new "friends," then to meet the leader himself, who sat at the head of our table complaining about a 103 degree fever he said he had suffered from that day. We then went to eat dinner and to watch an elaborate and highly professional two hours of entertainment provided by the Jonestown band and various amateur singers in the commune.

Ryan sat meanwhile to the side of the pavilion interviewing persons he had requested to see. "Concerned relatives" who came with us on the plane were meeting with their sisters, sons, nieces or parents. Some of the conversations were strained. Others animated. But nobody had yet told anyone that he or she wanted to leave Jonestown.

After dinner and during the show, I walked over to Ryan to ask him if he had learned anything. He said no, not very much yet, but pointed to a tall, middle-aged white man with a crew cut who, along with all of the more than 700 Jonestown residents in the pavilion that night, moved to the soul music played so loudly that it was difficult to hear, to talk, to ask questions - or to have them answered.

Ryan said there was something very unnatural about the middle-aged and older people, black and white, standing, clapping and jiving to music that may have appealed to the young, but not to the old.

It was an observation I would not forget. It was the first real sign that maybe these people had been either programmed or somehow forced to act in a way that conformed to an image Jones wanted to project.

I also wouldn't forget the man whom the congressman pointed out. His name, I later learned, was Tom Kice Sr., and he would be shooting at me and the others at the airstrip the next afternoon.

As I walked around the pavilion, I noticed that most people scattered as soon as I came near. I also noted that someone would always come along and be friendly. "Hi, how are you doing? Don't you want to listen to the music?"

Sure," I said, "but I can her it from here. I'm curious to see your facilities."

The usual response was that there would be a tour the next day, that people probably were asleep in the cabins. Or some other reason was given why I really shouldn't wander around on my own.

I decided to return to the table where Jones was talking to some of the other reporters who had come along. Mark Lane and Charles Garry, Jonestown's two lawyers, were there, as were several young people who I would later learn were Jones' principal lieutenants.

"People here are happy for the first time in their lives," Jones was saying. "When can this dialogue (between Jonestown and its detractors) stop so we can all live in peace? I don't want to tear these people up."

"We can do a good job for Guyana and for the United States if they would just leave us alone," he said.

He was asked if his Peoples Temple was a religious movement and he looked to Lane and Garry for a moment before answering.

"Yes, very much," he said. But then he said he was a Marxist, too, "in the sense that I believe in living together, sharing work, goods and services."

I was sitting right next to Jones and I remembered something Grace Stoen, a former Peoples Temple member by whom Jones claimed to have fathered a son, had told me. She told me Jones, for all his insistence that he was a caring, unselfish man, was in fact incredibly vain and power hungry.

"Just look at his sideburns," she said. "He fills them with eye liner." I was curious.

It was true.

Suddenly, as I was staring at Jones' sideburns, his demeanor turned. I didn't hear the question he had just been asked, but the answer, I thought, was revealing: "Threat, threat, threat of extinction!" he raged. "I wish I wasn't born, at times. I understand hate, love and hate. They are very close."

"They can have me," he said. "In many ways I feel like I'm dying. I've never felt this way before."

Someone asked Jones about the beatings that reportedly took place at Jonestown, about the black box that residents were said to be placed in for days at a time when they did something Jones didn't like, about the endless sermons he preached that kept his people, even the aged, up until 2 or 3 in the morning even though they had to rise again at 6 a.m. to begin work.

This prompted another rage and I almost felt sorry for the man. He was obviously sick physically and some of what he said seemed incoherent at times.

"I do not believe in violence!" "Violence corrupts. And then they say I want power. What kind of power do I have walking down the path talking my to little old seniors?"

"I hate power," he continued, his rage growing.

"I hate money. The only thing I wish now that I was never born. All I want is peace. I'm not worried about my image. If we would just stop it, stop this fighting. But if we don't, I don't know what's going to happen to 1,200 lives here."

The music had ended. The interview had ended. Except for, Ryan, Ryan's aides, Lane, Garry and a representative of the Guyanese government, the rest of us were soon on our way back to Port Kaituma, where Jones had arranged for us to sleep on the floor of a discotheque.

It was the last place Don Harris and Bob Brown of NBC and Greg Robinson, a photographer for the San Francisco Examiner, would sleep; they would die the next afternoon.

That night, we were sitting around having a drink when a local policeman came to the discotheque. He sought us out and told us some things, one of which was particularly interesting. He said he knew for sure that there was at least one gun in Jonesville, an automatic rifle, that had been registered with the Guyanese government.

Don Harris asked Jones about the gun in an interview that he taped when we returned to Jonestown the next morning.

"A bold-faced lie!" Jones thundered."It seems like we are defeated by lies."

Jones said he believed there was a conspiracy against him and against the Peoples Temple, a conspiracy that he blamed for a number of law suits that he said prevented him from returning to the United States.

"I wish somebody had shot me dead," he said again. "Now, we're substituting a media smear for assassinations."

Suddenly, the word came that several families had decided to leave with Ryan. People were gathering. Tensions, for the first time, was so apparent that it could be felt.

Circumstances were pressing in. Facts were beginning to overcome Jones' denials as fast as he could make them. Don Harris was throwing questions at Jones, hard questions that events were making even harder to answer.

"The more that leave, the less responsibility we have," Jones was saying after denying that anyone wanted to leave the idyllic life Jonestown offered. "Who in the hell wants people?"

Harris returned to the question of guns at Jonestown. "This is rubbish. I'm defeated," Jones said, clearly near the breaking point. "I might as well die. The guns have never been used to intimidate people. Anyone is free to come and go.

"The only thing I feel is that every time they go, they lie. What I thought was keeping them here was the fear of the ghetto, alienation, the fear of industrialized society.

"I must have failed somehow.

"I want to hug them before they leave," he said as events were quickly moving beyond his control. More people wanted to go. I will let them. But they will try to destroy us. They'll try. They always lie when they leave."

People were crying. Families were divided, with some members wanting to go but others not - or fearing they couldn't.

Al Simon packed up his three kids and wanted to leave. As we were walking back to the dump truck for the final trip to Port Kaituma airstrip, Simon's wife began screaming, "No, no, no!" Someone whispered to her: "Don't worry, we're going to take care of everything."

Ryan returned to the pavilion tosee about the custody problem. We went to the truck. A few minuted later, as we waited, we heard a commotion. The newsman ran to the pavilion, but were stopped by mean-looking security men.

Harris was allowed in as our representative. He came back to say that someone had tried to kill Ryan.

Suddenly, the congressman emerged and walked towards the truck. His clothes were covered with blood. The other man had been cut by his own knife as Lane and others wrestled with him to save Ryan's life.

Ryan was OK. But the violence had started. It was about 3 p.m. Saturday. Within 3 1/2 hours, three gunmen would attack us as we tried to baord chartered aircraft and then, in a final act of desperation, Jones would order the mass suicide his people had rehearses so many times before.

Steven Jones, 19, who was in Georgetown when the suicides took place, say yesterday that his father had gone crazy and that Jonestown had reflected his paranoia. But Jones said his father's dream of a socialist unity was still valid, that it had proved that socialism could work.

Asked if Jonestown had not been an experiment in fascism - with its armed guard and other means of preventing people from leaving - rather than an experiment in socialism, Jones replied: "My father was the fascist. Jonestown was and still could be beautiful."