On a wintry January afternoon in 1965, a chartered bus loaded with scraggly teen-age boys from America's ghettos and backwoods rolled into an isolated, snow-covered park in the northwest Maryland mountains. There, atop Catoctin Mountain, the most highly touted program in America's young War on Poverty -- the Job Corps -- began to unfold.

For hours before, staffers and planners at the pilot Job Corps center had debated what seemed to be a crucial question: When the first 30 boys arrive, should we give them cigarettes or should we give them milk and cookies? Are they adults or are they children?

"I remember vividly what a great debate we had," recalls David Gottlieb, a sociologist who helped design and administer the early Job Corps program. "And then the bus pulled up and these kids started getting off, and it became very, very clear that lower-income kids were a side of the moon we had never seen before."

There was towering, street-wise Gregory Ratliffe, 18, "Slim" to his friends back in the Baltimore ghetto, orphaned as a young boy, the apparent leader of the nine blacks in the group. There was little Ray Martin, 18, of eastern Kentucky, who for four years had loaded coal at $6 a day to support his widowed mother and 10 brothers and sisters. And there was Robert Collier, 16, of southern Virginia, who rarely spoke or ate because his mouth ached from a jaw full of badly decaying teeth.

The scene, in retrospect, captured all the hopes and innocence of the War on Poverty in its early days, a time when America discovered poverty and government vowed to conquer it, when President Lyndon Johnson spoke confidently of a Great Society, shaped by massive federal intervention in the lives of the poor.

Years would pass before men like Gottlieb could admit how much that moment foreshadowed about a War on Poverty plotted by men who hardly knew the poor, but dreamed nonetheless of reshaping their lives. And the boys, swept up by versions of the same dream, would not understand until much later why many of them were unchanged by the months at Catoctin.

Now they have had almost 16 years, time in which Americans have come to know poverty as an enemy that outlasted the war.They can now say and see things that they couldn't then. They can admit that the early Job Corps, designed to remove teen-age dropouts from impoverished communities and prepare them for jobs, was a crushing disappointment; and they can explain why they refused to acknowledge its flaws, even though problems were obvious soon after Catoctin opened.

The men who came as boys to Catoctin on that January afternoon haven't heard from the federal government in 15 years. Labor Department officials, who run the matured version of the 1965 Job Corps, said earlier this year that it would be virtually impossible to find them.

In a search covering several months and 11 states, the Post has located 24, roughly one-third, of the men who entered Catoctin in its first two months. Now men in their 30s, they are as lost in the aftermath of the War on Poverty as they were in its planning stages. This series will tell their personal stories of that war, as they saw it then, and as they see it now.

With two exceptions, they say they are indistinguishable from their friends who stayed home the winter that they went off into the Great Society. Ray Martin is a coal miner; Robert Collier is a truck driver and Gregory Ratliffe is a foreman in a popcorn factory. Seventeen of the 24 have returned to the towns and cities they came from.

Yet there is fodder here to support any philosophy of government's role in the fight against poverty. Most of the men have moved up in the world, compared with their beginnings, and two have leapt dramatically out of poverty. c

Theirs is a rare perspective on a government program, seen through the lens of hindsight by the people it was intended to help and people who designed and believed in it. The story is broader than Job Corps and the War on Poverty; it is a portrait of a federal crusade in the making -- one that seemed, at the outset, unique to government, and then, unavoidably, took on many of the political and bureaucratic characteristics that its architects had vowed to avoid.

And their stories take on even more significance now, as a new administration heads toward Washington, imbued with a very different set of assumptions about how government should approach the Ray Martins, Robert Colliers and Gregory Ratliffes of today.

In declaring war on poverty in 1964, government leapt into an arena that was still largely mysterious to social science. Gottlieb, who became the Office of Economic Opportunity's "expert on disadvantaged youth," said he had never met a child from Appalachia or the Baltimore ghettos until the first 30 arrived at Catoctin. His ticket to expertise, he recalls, was a book he had just written on adolescence, while on the faculty at Michigan State University.

Poverty has only recently exploded into public consciousness with the publication of several books, most notably, Michael Harrington's "The Other America," that exposed the squalor amid American plenty. Congress was startled particularly by the Defense Department's report, "One-Third of a Nation," revealing that one out of three youths who enlisted in the armed services failed the mental aptitude tests.

With missionary zeal, President Johnson exhorted the American people as "citizens of the richest . . . nation in the history of the world" to purge their land of poverty. "Having the power, we have the duty," he said. In his 1964 State of the Union Address, he declared: "We shall wage an unconditional war against poverty and we shall eliminate it."

Responding to the call, hundreds of young college graduates, academics and professionals put aside career advancement to enter government service, a field elevated to the status of a calling during the Kennedy administration. The slain president's brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, became director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, the command center of the War on Poverty and its social programs.

The Job Corps, considered the most creative and exciting of the new programs, targeted the nation's "disadvantaged youth" -- boys and girls, ages 16 to 21, from impoverished communities, who had dropped or flunked out of school and had no prospect of advancement. In the jargon of the day, the program aimed to remove them from their "negative environments," which were "breeding grounds of failure." After two years or less in a faraway, residential center, where they would get the basics of a high school education and job skills, they would be ready for the "world of work."

Almost lost in the euphoria was the realization that there was virtually no time to test the concept on real kids before it went into operation on a large scale. "We just haven't had time to work out some of the details," a Job Corps official was quoted as saying in a newspaper article two weeks before Catoctin opened. "We'll just have to see how we do. After all, we've only been at this four months."

Meanwhile, the search was on in earnest for the first participants. The youths who arrived at Catoctin on Jan. 15 had no idea how carefully, with such sensitivity for symbolism, they were selected from America's ghettos, hills and hollows. Search for the Right Poor

The first group, the planners realized, would be under a microscope. If they succeeded, the Job Corps would be a hit; if they failed, the ramifications for the whole War on Poverty would be devastating. They decided to take care to exclude anyone who had a serious criminal record from the first 30, even though later groups included many who did. The pilot participants also had to include a good mix of America's poor -- black and white, rural and urban, northern and southern -- to demonstrate the democratic visions at the heart of the antipoverty crusade.

Baltimore became the hunting ground for the urban, northern, ghetto contingent, largely because Job Corps planners had confidence in local officials there. Letcher County, Ky., the heart of the deeply depressed Appalachian coal-mining region, was selected partly in homage to its congressman, Carl Perkins, a member of the House Education and Labor Committee and a major force in the passage of anti-poverty legislation. Wise County, Va., another depressed Appalachian community just over the Kentucky line, was the third target population. The search for "disadvantaged youth" in these areas did not specify that the boys have interests in the sorts of skills to be tught at Catoctin.

The search reached Greg Ratliffe on a Sunday afternoon in late 1964, as he and his longtime buddy, Vernon Holland, sat in Holland's house perusing the want ads of that morning's Baltimore Sun. This had become a Sunday ritual, ever since they had dropped out of school in eighth grade. They had never liked school much. Not many kids in the inner-city neighborhood of Sandtown did, he recalls. Anybody who got a diploma took the first bus out of town, and nobody ever talked about going to college. Even before they dropped out, they preferred to spend mornings at Holland's house, cooking and eating pancakes with a crew of truant cronies -- "we called it home economics," Ratliffe recalls.

Since dropping out, Ratliffe had worked as a $40-a-week busboy at a fancy country club, a trash collector, a groundskeeper at another country club, a stadium vendor. He and Holland also made a little pocket money by "hustling" change from shoppers at Lexington Market in return for carrying their groceries home. In short, want ads, and life in general, didn't hold much promise for 16-year-old dropouts from an inner-city ghetto such as Sandtown.

"Me and Vernon was really dragging our butts," Ratliffe says. "We were too young for service and we'd run outa ideas."

But that Sunday, something caught Ratliffe's eye: This little box came up: 'Learn and earn at the same time. Join the Job Corps.'" Ratliffe, now 34, traces his finger in the air before him as he recalls the ad, as if he can still see it in his mind. He hadn't heard much about the War on Poverty, but he was about to.

The next day, he and more than 100 other inner-city Baltimore boys crowded into City Hall to sign up for the program. Some had seen television ads about it; others had been contacted by local unemployment offices, teachers and principals; the word-of-mouth network was massive. At City Hall that day, they learned how the Job Corps would teach them a trade and the basics of a high school education, all the while paying for food, clothes and living expenses, then place them in jobs so they could start their lives again.

Several months later, Ratliffe got a letter saying he was to be one of the first participants. "I ran around the corner waving it in the air, and I got to Vernon's and I hollered, 'Vernon, I'm going to Job Corps.'" So was Vernon.

"When so many kids in your neighborhood try out for it, and everybody's desperate, and only a couple kids get it, it's like a big dream for somebody who didn't have a lot of future ahead of him," Ratliffe says. "It was such a big deal. We thought we were gonna be rich and famous."

Dreams were also kindled in the Appalachian regions of Kentucky and Virginia, where the dominant coal-mining industry was so depressed that veteran miners were making $40 a week, and their sons rarely found work at all.

Ray Martin, who had gone into the mines at age 14 after both his father and grandfather were killed in mine-related accidents, got a special invitation to Job Corps from an EOE official who had seen Martin featured in a Life magazine photo essay on poverty in Appalachia. Having come of age in the shadow of hulking machines that lumbered across the gouged-out-mountains in the jagged horizon, Martin had a fascination for heavy equipment and what made it work. At the local unemployment office, a screener told him he could learn mechanics in the Job Corps, and get paid enough to send money home to his mother, brothers and sisters. He signed up.

"I thought it was almost wild. I didn't think something like that could really happen," Martin recalled recently. "Here life had been tough all along and suddenly this pops up."

The messages that recruiters conveyed to the first 30 youths were anything but consistent. Robert Collier of Big Stone Gap, Va., said he thought the Job Corps would make him a millionarie - his definition of a success. Donald Mullins of McRoberts, Ky., thought of it as a vocational school. Ratliffe, with the skepticism of the streets, simply concluded "the government had a whole lot of money it wanted to give away." Almost all the youths were baffled by the sudden public fascination with their forgotten lives. Spotlight on the Boys

Reporters and photographers mobbed the 10 Letcher County boys at the train station in Whitesburg, competing for interviews as they started their trip to Catoctin. The local reporters' questions showed a certain confusion over why a War on Poverty had been declared on their region. "They were quite hostile," recalls Dan Meyer, the youths' escort on the trip. "They said: 'We know who these youngsters are. They're good people. They're fine.You're going to use them to claim great results, but they could make it anyway.' I answered from my heart. I told them that's not my reason for joining this program, and I said I was glad they were watching us this closely."

In Baltimore, where the youths met their urbvan counterparts, an ebullient Mayor Theodore McKeldin greeted them and led them in a pledge to the War on Poverty. Other officials solemnly dubbed them pioneers in the most dramatic social experiment since the American Revolution. More interviews and photographs followed. Then the final leg of the trip began. By now, two carloads of reporters were trailing them.

They made their bumpy odyssey into the Great Society aboard a chartered bus, climbing the rutted, icy slopes of Catoctin Mountain.

The white, Appalachian boys sat in one group, the Baltimore ghetto contingent in another, eyeing each other with wonder and caution across a yawning cultural divide.

They had little inkling then of the grand visions that were focused on them from Washington, where an elite cadre of social scientists and government officials monitored their voyage with the excitement that attended the first space shot. Nor did they realize what stirring dreams the next weeks' press reports would ascribe to their then flustered minds.

Ratliffe remembers stepping off the bus, onto the muddy, snow-covered ground of the Catoctin park, then "casing" the center with his Baltimore buddies, acting supremely uninterested in the staff that waited expectantly to meet him.

If only Greg Ratliffe, street kid, and David Gottlieb, expert on disadvantaged youth, could have peered inside each other's minds at that moment.

Gottlieb: "Those guys from Baltimore in their long overcoats and their leather jackets looked so cool, so sophisticated in a way we hadn't realized. They were survivors. I really wondered if we'd be able to control them."

Ratliffe: "We was petrified when we got off that bus. Our knees was knocking. But we didn't let anybody know stuff like that back then. When we were growing up, if we were timid, the big word was faggot. We weren't allowed to show weakness." CAPTION: Picture 1, Former Job Corpsman Wayne Holbrook holds picture of himself and LBJ. By Dale Russakoff -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, Park Ranger Ron Crawford walks past the buildings that were once the center of the Job Corps program: the administration building and work house. By John McDonnell -- The Washington Post; Picture 3, President Johnson signs into law the $947.5-million War on Poverty bill. UPI; Picture 4, A 1964 Life Magazine photo shows Ray Martin, then 18, who had a $6-a-day job in a Kentucky mine. By John Dominis, Life Magazine -- 1964, Time Inc.; Picture 5, Former Job Corpsman Gregory Ratliffe sits on the doorstep of the Baltimore house in which he was raised. By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post.