It was some 40 years ago that Washington's National Symphony came to Florence, a small town in the tobacco country of coastal South Carolina. I guess the NSO at that time must have been the cheapest thing going, or else they had an engagement somewhere further down the Altantic coast and needed a convenient stopover, if not a watering hole. I don't know why, but they came.

The stage was too small, so there was a jerry-built platform out front that nearly touched our knees as we sat in those front rows. Black crepe paper, or some thing that looked like it, covered the raw pine.

Then this massive bunch of people walked out on the stage--looking for all the world like illustrations from Mr. Popper's Penguins--and sat down on the folding metal chairs. They had all these instruments --many of which looked pretty weird. We recognized a few--violins, the piano, cornets. We'd never seen or dreamed of a bassoon. I'm not sure I believe them today. They had tubas in the high school band, and drums, but not those big copper kettledrums! So our first impression of the NSO--40 years ago and 500 miles away--was of size and wonder.

Hans Kindler came out. The folks in the back knew to clap, so we did, too. I don't remember what he looked like, because I was sitting so close to him, looking up his left pant leg most of the evening.

But the music. My God, what a revelation. I have no idea what they played that night, but I'd guess it must have been pretty standard. From the warm feeling that still comes over me when I hear anything schmaltzy and romantic, like Tchaikovsky, I guess they played something like that. Whatever it was, it grabbed me that night and never has let go. The reason I listen to music now has something to do with what happened as I soaked up that fantasic sound made by the NSO.

I've heard a lot of music since then. The Victrola with its heavy 78s that crackled and hissed and scratched away, and the record changer that sounded as if it were crushing the records and throwing them at the wall. And the symphony came back several times. One thing never changed: they had the symphony only on the years of successful ticket sales. I often wondered if the musicians--who must have grumbled about playing out in the sticks --knew they were our bonus.

I've heard many other orchestras in other cities. In my office, I keep my radio on low at WGMS or WETA every day, switching from one to the other when a talk show comes on. I've gone to the Kennedy Center when I could, and I was among those totally demolished by the fun of the "1812 Overture" at Wolf Trap last summer. I love my church choir totally uncritically. I leave the distinctions to the critics. I've learned to like all kinds of music, but it was the National Symphony Orchestra that pressed my "on" button.

I write in appreciation of that orchestra, but also a bit in protest. I think too much is being made of the great strides the orchestra has made in its 50 years. Sure, Howard Mitchell added something. And Dorate. And Rostropovitch. I don't mind celebrating these later glories of the NSO, but I have to protest any possible bad- mouthing of the early days. Even by implication.

I think something important is to be said for a bunch of musicians who rode grimy coaches to towns like Florence, who ate at greasy spoons when they really were greasy, and who sweltered through un- air-conditioned concert halls like the Florence High School auditorium. The critics may have some right to throw rocks at the quality of what they did. I don't think they ever got away from the "top 40" symphonic hits. Whole sections probably missed beats when prompted by that incredible diesel blast when the train came through town.

But I've never heard music sweeter nor more majestic then I did that night over 40 years ago. I don't care that it was interrupted by diesels and birds. I don't care that they couldn't handle Stravinsky very well. I don't care (this is a lie, but you've got to give me some poetic license in a piece like this) that they've gotten a lot better in the years since.

I only hope that somewhere on the NSO list of engagements for the coming year there may be a few railroad towns and high school auditoriums where local folk have broken their backs to raise the money to get the orchestra to town. And where there are going to be a few people who will be shaped and moved as was the little South Carolina boy I was back then.