Where is the war, I wondered, driving in from the airport past jeep patrols and kids carrying wood on their heads and finding, on a soft Saturday evening, a certain loneliness in the streets but an unmistakable tranquillity as well. Where is the war that, acording to our TV, is crackling hotter daily in El Salvador, reducing the country to death and desperation, numbing the survivors?

And on Sunday: at the altar where Archibishop Oscar Romero was gunned down, Bishop Arturo Rivera y Damas reads a scholarly sermon followed by a prudent homily, and strolls to the rear of his bullet-pocked cathedral for a friendly chat with the foreign press, which is there just in case.

In the afternoon: a walk through the high- rent district of stores and newly walled homes around the Camino Real Hotel; and an ,eclair at a well-kept shopping center where police with guns at the ready drift through; a raucous go- kart competition in a parking lot.

Evening: dinner in his elegant, guarded home with a government minister, a reformer who says with a shrug that he does not know "whether I will get it from the left or the right." His 17-year-old daughter, to fulfill a new high school requirement, is doing 300 hours of volunteer social work--at a military hospital. Another guest, a Venezuelan, is investing millions in a gasohol plant. The minister's wife runs a small family factory, notwithstanding occasional guerrilla-inflicted power outages. She tells of a recent dance, her circle's first in several years, from which she returned home "exhausted and euphoric."

My first impression is of a country, or at least a city, making do with an almost startling normality. Missing are the tension and decay and the sense of fugitive time evident in, say, a Beirut or Kinshasa. En route I had heard, in Miami, complaints of that city's street lights not being replaced; in San Salvador they are shining. A woman reports she had fled with her children in the worst of the urban terror of 1980 to Boston, but she has now returned: "It's safer here." Repeatedly, people shake their heads in awe at the doggedness of commuters in improvising ways to get to work on time even though the guerrillas have burned 1,200 buses in two years.

The guards, the guns, the soldiers, the walls, the peepholes--and, on the farms, the wire and the patrols--all that I expect of a country at war. What I do not expect are the traffic jams, the early-morning joggers, the fresh billboards, the uneventful 50-kilometer drives in the countryside, the traditional soccer craze, the tennis exhibition.

The chief of the rural police observes proudly that "the subversives," as the guerrillas are called, threatened among other things to prevent the fields from being sown and harvested. But though sugar cane has been burned (tie a burning rag to a cat's tail), two crops a year come in. Most of the 130 power pylons destroyed have been rebuilt, he says. All 600-plus kilometers of railroad track are open --though locomotives are still blown up--except for one bridge whose collapse Lloyds paid off on as an accident.

There is terrible war in this country, or a terrible condition of violence in which perhaps more than 30,000 civilian lives have been lost in two years. The word at the Camino Real bar is that for $20 any cab driver will take you to view a body, bound, at roadside. The press corps murmurs that heads are being cut off again. Never move hastily in the presence of anyone with a gun, a newcomer is warned. A quarter of a million refugees, mostly peasants, are spread through the country.

The economy is bleeding: international reserves gone, most foreign investors scared off, no new national investment, a brain and skill drain, unemployment soaring. Some of this is laid to the world tides--prices of coffee, sugar and cotton are down. Another part, business leaders insist, is due to failings of national economic policy. The cruelest share, still, is that of the guerrillas.

But "the story" is not just the war. The story is the pervasive determination not to be intimidated by the war, and the resourcefulness of all kinds of people in coping. This may be one of those preposterous journalistic impressions, but it is mine.

The peasants, being peasants, endure. I took a small sample in a day visiting newly formed cooperatives in Sonsonate province in the eastern part of this Massachusetts-size country, and in a meeting with responsible officials of the big independent peasants' union. They were people with gnarled rural faces, limited formal education, ready grins and a formidable courage and will to make the fledgling agrarian reform work for them.

One union leader told me threats from right- wing death squads had forced him to send his family to Guatemala. "Never before in the life of the country did anyone care for the peasants. We were parentless, ashamed to say we came from the countryside," another organizer said.

From a dozen interviews with peasants, I concluded that the reform is facing great difficulties of both concept and execution--and these peasants are determined to make it succeed. They do not say, first the war, then the land. They say, the land, now.

The size, vigor and sophistication of the middle class belies the unexamined view I had brought to El Salvador of a sleepy, underdeveloped country. These were not, I was regularly told, members of the "oligarchy," a discredited class and certainly a class whose members are fading from open association with it. The middle class are people of skills and means, given privately to volunteering that they have made grievous mistakes of commission and neglect but hoping now to balance the retention of some privilege against service to a new society.

I have had intense talks with 20 or so of these people. It is not clear, to them or to me, whether their catch-up effort is too little and too late. But they strike me as more sober, realistic and respectful of the need for change in their context than, say, most Israelis and most white South Africans. They will have no truck with "subversives," although some confidentially wonder if they should not, and they are convinced they are a target of "international communism." But at the same time, they concede the existence of the raw social injustice that characterizes their country to this day. A civilian in the junta has one son a captured guerrilla, another apparently still in the mountains.>

I write this not having yet met the man, Roberto d'Aubisson, regarded by many Salvadorans as the leader of the incipiently fascist element supporting the death squads. He heads the new law-and-order party formed to contest next month's elections. The idea that an anti- democrat could profit from the country's first reasonable democratic procedure in 50 years strikes many people as ironic.

The elections are the most conspicuous evidence of the aching for normality that impels . . . well, who? The government and the establishment are pushing the elections hard: "Not a solution but a first step to repair the law and our own self-respect," a businessman puts it. To some in the junta, the elections are a ticket for more American aid; to the reconstructed middle class, an atonement; to the military, or so the minister of defense assured me, a fulfillment of the reformist coup of Oct. 15, 1979; and to the peasants and workers . . . no one really knows. Nothing says more of the apparent appeal of the elections to the common people, however, than the ferocity of the left's attempt to spoil them by burning voting documents, threatening voters with death, and so on.

In brief, there is an agony here, and there is an attempt to rise above the agony in many personal and public ways. From many Salvadorans I have heard a complaint, expressed politely at first and then with gathering bitterness, that the American people have been misled by the media to think that only the agony exists and that it exists on account of the rapacity of a ruling elite that blames international communism for its travail. "The foreign press looks only for corpses," a peasant, leader of a cooperative, declared to me. "But we are fighting for the future. We do not want to feel we are fighting alone."