When it was finally over, when the helicopter had taken Hawkeye away, when the sets were dark in tens of millions of living rooms, and the glasses were washed from the parties, we'd all witnessed the breakup of a community.

That was what the "M*A*S*H" bash was about. Take away the somber stuff about life and death, take away the message about peace and anti-war, take away the $450,000 commercials, take away the three-hanky ending, and the appeal of this 21/2-hour marathon leave-taking had to do with our sense of community.

The community of a bunch of Army medical people in Korea. The community of a bunch of actors in Los Angeles. The community of a nation of viewers.

Today we often use that word in strange, casual ways, to identify a special interest group like "the medical community," or "the arms-control community." But rarely when we mean a group whose special interest is in each other.

The word community was once rooted in geography, but we are uprooted. We move 12 times in a life. One generation follows frontiers, another follows jobs, houses, school systems.

The word community was once connected to long-term relationships, but we are disconnected. We live our lives increasingly as individuals. In 1930, less than 8 percent of us lived alone; in 1980, almost a quarter of us did.

Yet the need for belonging, the need for shared enterprise and interests, is no less attractive to us because it's elusive. We may be as nostalgic for community as we are for family.

I thought about this in our own private "M*A*S*H" bash, thought about how many kinds of community this moment represented. If The Waltons were our foster family, perhaps the "M*A*S*H" troops were our foster community. Perhaps television is even our foster community.

We create, or try to recreate, ways to group in our fragmented world. The characters of "M*A*S*H," a band of Americans in Korea, a band of healers in the midst of destruction, were a model in some ways. Theirs was the kind of community created in response to the chaos or threat of the world. Theirs was a group that tried to establish and hold on to its own values in alien territory.

Our own immigrant ancestors created this sort of refuge of familiarity in a strange land. People who had little in common in their homelands banded together in Little Italies, Germantowns, Chinatowns.

In every war, strangers forge ties as intimate as those of marriage. There is a glue in danger and in emergencies; those who are dependent upon each other for life itself shortcut the process of creation.

But the cast, like the characters of this show, represented a special kind of community. Today our sense of belonging to a neighborhood is weaker. But perhaps our sense of belonging to a work place is stronger. Many of us were more touched by the real-life good- byes of co-workers in Hollywood than by the TV goodbyes.

In our workaday world, co-workers share a context and interests. We know each other through daily bulletins on our lives and through a common purpose. For many, the best part of work is what author Robert Schrank called "schmoose," and the hardest part of retirement is the loss of community.

What of the third kind of community --the television audience? I am not sure whether there is such a thing as a "community of viewers." A community requires some participation, some active involvement with real-life others. Television-watching is a solitary experience, yet in some ways a shared one.

From time to time there is an "event"--a Super Bowl, a "Who Shot J.R.?," a "M*A*S*H"--that becomes at once larger and more personal. The TV set then is a common text. We take this most asocial, even anti-social, box and make a party of it.

Our desire for a social life in the largest sense wins out over the centrifugal force of individualism and its toy, television.

Well, this happened again on Monday night. Funny how we get together to say goodbye. Copyright (c) 1983, The Boston Globe Newspaper Company