Less than a month after America's pilot Job Corps center opened to drumbeating media coverage and predictions of sweeping triumph, the center's director called the Office of Economic Opportunity to report a stunning piece of news:

One of the boys had decided to drop out.

It seemed unreal, officials recall, that someone from a "negative environment," the contemporary social scientists' term for the ghetto and backwoods origins of Job Corps' targets, would prefer home to the rustic fresh air of the Catoctin Mountain Job Corps Center.

Within minutes, one of the program's startled officials was in his car, speeding toward the center in northwest Maryland. It seemed that the whole vision was crumbling, he recalls.

"I kept thinking, 'I can't believe it. If even one of the first kids wants to leave, what does it mean.?Maybe there will be a mass exodus before the program even has an opportunity to get started,'" says David Gottlieb, a socialist who helped design and administer the early Job Corps program. "On the other hand, I was curious. Why would a kid who came out of poverty ever want to go back to it?"

"I'm lonely," explained Eddie Wayne Cox of Wise, Va., the skinny Appalachian kid who had set off these high-level, official fears. In reassuring tones, Gottlieb told him about the promise of the Job Corps, the importance of sticking with it, the dreams of the Great Society.

"No, sir," was all that Cox answered.

"But you have an opportunity here."

"No, sir," the reply came again.

After an hour of such exchanges on a cold February afternoon, Cox asked Gottlieb for a ride to the train station in Washington so he could go home. Gottlieb obliged, and came to a reconciliation of sorts:

"I said, 'Okay, so there are bound to be a few dropouts.'"

Indeed there were. As the weeks went on and the center reached its capacity of 100 boys, it seemed that Catoctin had a dropout a day -- and for compelling reasons, some beyond the control of anyone at OEO, others directly related to the politics and the native behind America's pilot Job Corps center.

At the heart of Job Corps was the belief that poverty-ridden areas breed failure in young people. To break the "cycle of poverty," the theory contiuned, OEO would move hard-core disadvantaged youths from the ghettos and backwoods to "positive environments" -- Job Corps centers -- surrounded by people who could serve as both instructors and role models.

The planners viewed Catoctin as an idyllic, summer camp-type environment that could also answer all of the boys' basic personal needs. The boys had to bring only the clothes on their backs and a desire to learn; the rest came through the program, free of charge -- work and dress clothes, allowance, monthly payments of $25 into a readjustment fund, food, housing, recreation and transportation home for vacations once a year. Catoctin cost $5,000 to $7,000 per youth, depending on whose average was used. Unforeseen Drawback

It took Eddie Wayne Cox less than a month to hit upon the Achilles' heel of this theory -- homesickness. For most of the boys, Catoctin represented the first separation from home -- from a ghetto neighborhood with its strong territorrial identity, or from an isolated hollow where every ancestor known to the family had lived and died.

"You take somebody from someplace where there's love. You know a kid's gonna miss that," recalls Oliver Little, a third-grade dropout from Letcher County, Ky., and now a coal miner there. "It was the wrong kind of opportunity." Little left Catoctin less than a month after Cox did.

"If they could've given us something to get our minds off of home, I believe it might've went," he says.

The problem for Little and many of the other early dropouts was that they came to Catoctin expecting a structured program in mechanics, equipment operation, electronics and other trades. This sort of training was available at several centers that opened later in the year.

But at Catoctin, the pilot center, they found basically a shell of a Job Corps program -- a national park in need of landscaping, carpentry, forestry work, sidewalk paving, signs and a general face lifting -- all of which they were expected to perform.

The schedule called for half a day of forestry work -- or, at the centers in urban areas, job training -- under the direction of the center staff, and half a day of basic schooling in math and reading. Participants were to spend up to two years in the program, working toward their high school equivalency degree and a certificate in at least one job skill. These tools would help equip them for the job market, officials hoped. At the time, Job Corps had not developed a job placement system for the program's graduates.

Discipline techniques varied, at first, from week to week. The staff was instructed at the outset to use positive reinforcement rather than cracking down on the unruly boys. However, several staff members recall, this resulted in several of the street smart Baltimore recruits virtually running the program. Within weeks, the routine was made more regimented, complete with military-style barracks inspection in which counselors bounced a quarter on the boys' bed to see if they were made to specifications.

The decision to open Catoctin in its rudimentary state was part of an overall push to sustain the momentum and visibility of the anitpoverty crusade. oAs expected, Catoctin was heavily publicized in the press during the first days. In addition, officials felt the boys would enjoy sharing in the development of their own center, much as unemployed men during the Depression helped refurbish Catoctin and other public lands in the acclaimed Civilian Conservation Corps.

The tools with which the boys could learn their desired trades would arrive shortly, OEO officials told the center staff.

This strategy had devastating effects on the center in its early months. While some boys took quickly to the forestry routine, the absence of more structured training programs bred hostility in their ranks.

A bitter Gregory Ratliffe, then an 18-year-old, eighth-grade dropout from Baltimore, confronted his National Park Service work leader one morning, refusing to go to the woods. "I told him he could'nt get me back out there unless he could show me how I could get a job pruning trees in downtown Baltimore," Ratliffe recalls.

"They had the right idea, but the way it turned out was different. They didn't have the idea how the kids would feel about it all. They should've just told us the truth. That's another one of the politicians' problems," says Ratlife, now a $313-a-week factory foreman in his home town.

He and some of his other friends from Baltimore later organized a work strike and soon found themselves being shipped to other centers in separate regions of the country. Training Misdirected

"The guys came for trades and it wasn't there. I seen a lot of them get frustrated," recalls Richard Sherrill, known to his Baltimore friends as "Peewee." An eighth-grade dropout and one of 11 children in an inner-city Baltimore family, Sherrill had one of the highest aptitude tests in the first 30. But the lack of skills training "turned me off," he said. He got in a fight with a Kentucky boy one day -- in retrospect, he attributes it partly to his frustration with the program -- and was dismisseed from Catoctin. Later that year he was readmitted to Job Corps, to an urban center in Newark, where, he says, he learned much about job skills and self-discipline.

The Catoctin staff, an unlikely blend of career Park Service employes and idealistic young men who had enlisted in the War on Poverty, watched the dropouts and disillusionment from the front lines, acutely aware of the program's weaknesses.

"I was very outspoken about it. I could see that the kinds of things we were teaching at Catoctin were not the things that would keep those boys from going back home," says Maurice Robinson, one of two schoolteachers who helped open the center. Robinson, then 33 and himself a native of the Baltimore ghettos, remembers talking to OEO officials about the problem and being reassured that boys who wanted more sophisticated training in the trades would soon be transferred to urban centers, run by private corporations. tBut many boys who asked for transfers didn't have the patience to wait for them.

"OEO had a fantastic concept," Robinson says, "but we just felt they were in Washington dreaming of a Utopian program. They didn't have to face those kids and carry it out."

Urban centers, which generally had more advanced training programs, accounted for only 10 of the Job Corps programs that opened in the first year. The other 87 were "conservation centers" like Catoctin, run by the federal land management agencies. This arrangement was the product of a political trade-off with the land agencies, whose leaders lobbied for a piece of the Job Corps pie, viewing it as a way of bringing large-scale improvements to the public lands, as in the days of the old CCC.

Once the centers opened, however, the agencies found that Job Corps taxed their staffs more than expected. Unlike the middle- and working-class men who filled the ranks of the old CCC, the "disadvantaged youth" in the Job Corps tended to need instruction in basic areas like the work ethic. This spawned more political wrangles.

Clyde Maxey, the career forest ranger who became Catoctin's first center director, recalls that his supervisor, and many in the Park Service hierachy, took Job Corps as a challenge to their turf. "My supervisor kept asking me: 'Who do you work for?Me or OEO?'" Maxey recalls.

Even as the center was shaking from the defections of early recruits, something almost magical seemed to be happening to many of the boys who remained.

There were some who tested as illiterates at first, then showed dramatic reading advances after being fitted with glasses. Robert Collier, who refused to eat or talk to anyone for the first few days, began to fill out and mix more with the boys after he got some dental work -- treatment for more than a dozen abscessed teeth. The center's first-year medical budget was almost exhausted on the first 30 boys.

Further, there were boys who gradually began to develop self-respect, as they learned to open up to certain staff members who won their trust -- among them, Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Sam Griffiths, a former Mr. Physical Fitness of America, who set up an athletic program that became the center's most popular activity; Robinson, who seemed to understand "where we were coming from," as several recruits put it; and others whose lives stood for achievement on a level many of the boys had never witnessed before. Successes Emerged

Ray Martin, who at 18 had already spent four years as a coal miner, emerged as a mechanical whiz under the guidance of Park Service mechanic Pete Young. "I'd never been around anyone as patient as that man," Martin recalls. "He really took an interest in me. He let me know I could make it. It was like somebody who took you and just turned you loose."

"It let you see there could be something besides the street," Baltimore's Richard Sherrill says in retrospect. "And the streets could be bad. By getting off of the streets, you could see the light in a way. You could see there was a lot more out there, and you could start to see how to get it."

Most of the youths in the first few waves who stayed at Catoctin had decided for various reasons that they wanted "out" of their earlier lives. Tommy Duran, the son of a Beckley, W. Va., coal miner, was determined to learn a trade that would free him from the lock of the mining industry. Dave Fortune, of Florence, S.C., saw the Job Corps as a way out of a plantation-style economy that kept young black men yoked to landed white interests. Henry Epps of Baltimore watched some of his friends drop out, but he resolved to stay in the program in hopes of fulfilling a lifelong dream: blearning to be an electrician. "The opportunity was definitely there, but your head had to be in the right place for you to get it. A lot of guys just weren't there," Epps says.

While these awakenings were underway in the ranks, the Job Corps staff was going through some related transformations. Many of them had viewed the War on Poverty as a skirmish that could be won in a matter of a few years, certainly in their lifetimes.They signed up with a missionary zeal, to line up on the side of the angels in American politics.

Like the theorists who planned the Job Corps, they quickly realized that the battle was more complex than they had imagined. Gradually they readjusted their visions. Says Bill Whelan, who, at 24, became Catoctin's counseling director: "I realized that first year that Bill Whelan wasn't going to save the whole world after all. I recognized as an individual that I could only do so much. If I could help a few of these kids just by talking and working with them, that would be my contribution.You had to decide consciously where you could best use your time. Some of the kids were simply impossible to reach. You had to face that."

"The one thing we gave those youngsters was a sense that they had some importance and some worth . . . I don't care how much they spent; if Job Corps could communicate that, it's worth it," says Dan Meyer, who helped open Catoctin and later centers.

In these ways, the center staff redefined victory and defeat, and the war itself. Dropouts, lots of them, were inevitable; the important point was that even with Catoctin's meager resources, a good number of boys stayed with the program. This, in itself, proved the program could work, they said.

However, the outside world had not shared in the front-line educational process that produced the new insights.

On June 10, a Baltimore Sun reporter called Maxey to ask how many boys had dropped out since the center's highly publicized opening. Maxey pulled out his records and gave the answer -- 62 out of 150, a little more than 40 percent turnover in less than five months.

The news made front page headlines in Baltimore the next day. The day after that, The New York Times put the story on page one, and sent it out to the nation, with a few added quotes from OEO officials to the effect that Catoctin was an exception; it faced unique problems because it was a pilot.

After the papers came out, Maxey got another call -- this one from a Job Corps official. He says he cannot recall which one.

"He asked me why I released that figure," Maxey recalls.

"I told him: 'Because it's the truth.' He was still pretty angry, and he just kept asking me why I released that figure. He told me to refer calls like that from now on to OEO. He said they could explain it in a way that wouldn't make it look negative."