6:30 a.m. The lines of cars -- about 50 of them -- had already worked into pretzel patterns around the entrances to Hunter Exxon off 1-95 near Fort Belvoir. The huddled masses yearning to get gas were mostly still dozing in their front seats. Many had been there for two hours already.

Owner Roy Page arrived, looked around, and quietly started to lead me back behind the hydraulic lifts to his office. But they were already after us. "Open in a couple of minutes?" asked one. "You got the bathroom key?" pleaded another. We retreated.

Page handed me a gray-and-white pin-striped Exxon work shirt. I was to be a George Plimpton of the gas jockeys, a journalist-as-pump-at tendant. "Should we go ahead and open up?" I asked.

"No not yet," said the wiry, sunburned Page. "It wouldn't be safe, just the two of us out there."

The men and women who pump gas in this country are on the front lines of the energy war, caught between frustrated consumers and the seemingly all-powerful petroleum producers. They joke about it. They try to keep smiling while they try to keep pumping. But it's not much fun anymore. "This job used to be all right," said 17-year-old C. J. Medaglia, who has been pumping gas at Hunter Exxon for Exactly a year. "i used to like it. I'd work the night shift [after a day in high school] and you'd pump some, then sit down and have a Cigarette. You could relax. But now, with the gas crisis, there's nothing but cars . . . cars."

It can get rough. "One guy left," said Thayer McDougle, 16, a longhaired attendant sporting aviator sunglasses. "Somebody [a customer too late to get gas] said they were going to shoot him a couple of weeks ago. So he quit. He's working at another job now."

By 6:50 yesterday morning, the full crew had assembled: station manager Thomas Moran, shift manager Duane Gallimore, 60-year-old Earl Hall, who has been pumping gas since 1961, McDougle, Medaglia, Page, and me.

At exactly 7 a.m. we walked out of the mechanics' bays -- and started pumping.

I fumbled with the nozzle on one of the "regular" pumps, trying to negotiate it into the side of a pickup truck towing a trailer from Pittsburgh down to Florida. The driver watched patiently still rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

"Boy, this government. I just don't know. I'm trying to make it to Disney World," he said, nodding toward his children asleep in the back of the truck. "I must have rocks in my head."

I filled his tank, with a little help, and managed not to spill gasoline all over the side of the truck. Remembered to put the gas cap back on. Then got him change for a $20 bill. One car down. But it looked like there would be hundreds more to go.

Out in the line, where many drivers were still dozing in their front seats, I noticed a sleeping bag stretched out on the grass in front of the station.

Only a hand was visible, stretching from beneath its folds.

People were still too tired to get really angry, and in any case most seemed to be resigned to the stitution. A 20 or 30-minute sojourn in the lines isn't bad by today's standards. As one customer put it later in the day: "A wait that was intolerable two months ago has become terrific now."

Suddenly, just as the lines were beginning to untangle, a big green sedan pulled into one of the lanes reserved for commercial customers, business vehicles that get special consideration. A woman in a blue Honda was furious -- and she turned on me.

"How did this guy get in?" she shouted.

"Well . . ."I ventured. "It sure is unfair. I mean I waited for 10 cars and then he just shoots in."

"Well," I said, "we don't like it either [I was getting into the part.]

"But sometimes it just creates more problems if we make a scene about it . . .You know?"

She still thought it was unfair. I told station manager Moran about the little incident. He smiled.

"I'm not above saying it's the owner's brother," Moran told me. "They accept that and if it keeps people from getting excited, you know, what the heck."

A white Lincoln Continental was stuck beside one set of pumps, keeping the lengthening line of cars from getting to them. It bore New York plates, wide white sidewall tires, and no key for the gas-cap lock.

The driver, a man in a broad-brimmed hat, was mumbling, "The key is supposed to be on the ring," as Page took pliers to the cap.

"Doesn't this seem a little odd to you?" I suggested, wondering if the car might have been stolen. Page shrugged.

"It sounds like it's somebody else's car," said another attendant.

The tank was filled, finally. "Damn," said the Continental's driver. I can't find the keys." He started fidling around under the dash, eventually starting the car and driving away.

I was getting the hang of it, advancing from mere nozzle-squeezing to salemanship. "Would you like me to check under the hood?" I started asking [I have done it once or twice on my Toyota].

Somewhat to my surprise, I found that most of the people who answered yes really did need oil. I'm not sure they all believed me, but I sold it to them anyway.

I began to sense the perculiar power that pump attendants wield, especially these days.

Moran said his social life has improved since the crisis began. "I find a lot of people are willing to get together with me a lot more. They are getting more friendly," he said.

But it is simpler, even, than that. Occasionally I would walk down that long lines stretching along Backlick Road. Not everyone in them realized that the lines they were in were for the self-service pumps only and that there was another line on Newington Road for full service, which is quicker and only four-tenths of a cent more expensive.

I noticed people in line visibly cringing as I approached to tell them about the shorter line. They were obviously fearful that I might bear the dreaded "Last Car" sign.

"Have you heard about closing time?" asked one of the younger attendants. "That's when people really get upset . . . You know, I kind if like being the ones who puts up that sign."

But Medaglia was right. There is not, if there ever was, much fun in this job, and there is even less money. Whoever is making a fortune off oil these days, it is not the pump attendants.

"It's rough, isn't it," said 60-year-old Earl Hall, who watches over the self-service pumps. "Nobody has to rock me to sleep at night, I'll tell you . . .I make $3.50 an hour. The work's worth about $6 at least, right?"

Moran said that of nine people on the last payroll, six had not drawn full paychecks because of shortened hours. "You'er talking about people making $9,000 a year. You're talking about cutting into that. It's not much."

Closing time, 3 p.m., was approching, and I was failing fast. Like the other attendants, I was getting to the point where nothing surprised me not a Cadillac full of Russian emigres on their way to Daytona Beach, not a hard-nosed young man in a bullet proof U.S. government car who demanded special treatment, and got it, for a CIA vehichle.

I began splashing gas on the sides of cars. A man asked for $6 worth of gas and I gave him $6.60. I kept putting the nozzles in the tanks and forgetting to turn them on.

Page handed me the "Last Car" sign. I trudged over to a silver Ford and taped it on the rear. As I walked back past it the woman inside told me, "You'll find your place in heaven."

Then the losers started coming in. One tall man with South Carolina plates said, "Hey man, I've looked everywhere. What am I gonna do." Then took me aside. "I mean, well, there's a tip in it for you." He didn't get any gas.

I tried to soften the blow for those with gauges on dead empty, though they didn't seem much consoled "We'll be open tomorrow from 7 to 11 in the morning," I told them.

Each time I said it I thought to myself, "Thank God I won't be here," CAPTION: Picture, Harried Post report Dickey fills one of many cars he served in his only day at the pumps. By Larry Morris -- THE Washington Post.