It is one of those rare mornings, a crisp fall day in the middle of summer. The ferry crosses the choppy harbor water from Battery Park to the Statue of Liberty, carrying a hundred tourists who speak a dozen languages.

Standing at the right railing with me are a group of Japanese schoolgirls in red- and-white-striped jackets, five German businessmen with time off from Wall Street appointments, a French family with three children. Like millions before us, our eyes are fixed on the massive statue that dominates this urban seascape.

It would take a tougher skin than mine not to respond with goose bumps at the sight of this national monument. This morning, I share a sense of communion with all those who ever passed the welcome sign on their way to America. Around me, lens caps pop off cameras and Lady Liberty becomes an elegant backdrop to memories.

To be frank, the Lady looks her best from this distance. When we land moments later, the statue looks worn and shabby.

The island, Bedloe's Island as it was called when the French sculptor, Auguste Bartholdi, first chose it as a site for his country's gift, has deteriorated into a neglected urban playground. Paths of green asphalt and flagstone bisect patches of weeds and crabgrass. The only flowers are a motley collection of marigolds and mums.

The statue itself is in need of vast repairs. Two weeks ago, when the list of repairs was published, the wounds sounded symbolic. After 97 years spent lifting the arm of Liberty, the shoulder has weakened. The torch itself is leaking, corroded by acid rain and air pollution. There are strange plants growing in the arm. The head is not on straight.

If all goes according to the plans of the Centennial Commission, $30 million in repairs will be made by the 100th anniversary on Oct. 28, 1986. Even before the official kickoff of a campaign to raise $230 million in private funds for Liberty and the nearby Ellis Island, $2 million has been raised.

Every day, the commission receives letters and donations that almost always include the phrase "The first time I saw the Statue of Liberty. . . ." Nearly $200,000 has come from schoolchildren in 1,800 schools in all 50 states. They have held every imaginable fund-raiser from bake sales to bike-a-thons. One classroom even formed its own corporation and sent the profits.

It appears that Liberty is a popular cause. In the end, it probably will be easier to fix this 151-foot statue than to define its meaning.

Standing here, even amid the tourists and crabgrass and graffiti, it is impossible not to think about symbols and liberty. This huge statue has had a checkered history of meanings, as full of ambiguity as a Delphic Oracle.

In the beginning, it was the dream of French liberals who had watched their own country waver between the excesses of revolution and repression. These were people who idolized the American model and hoped we could--would--export it. Their statue was designed to reach out from America to Europe and they called it, "Liberty Enlightening the World."

Both French and Americans had trouble raising money for a monument to enlightenment. The bulk of the French money for building the statue was raised through a national lottery. The bulk of the American money for the pedestal was raised by a newspaper campaign, in The World, after Joseph Pulitzer began printing the moving and perhaps fictional "letters" from poor patriotic contributors.

But once the statue was in place, its meaning changed again. Perhaps we couldn't export liberty, but we imported immigrants. The Statue of Liberty became The Mother of Exiles. Years later, in 1903 at the height of immigration, the words of Emma Lazarus, a young woman who had been moved by the plight of the Russian Jews, were placed on the statue: "Give me your tiredYet man, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . .".

Today we seem to export arms as often as dreams. We no longer import the wretched refuse of teeming shores. We allow only the people with the proper political papers and skills to trickle through our Golden Door. We argue with each other about the best way to protect our own liberties.

What is the meaning of our statue of liberty? For some, I suppose it is a simple historic monument to an immigrant past; for others, a reminder of how extraordinary our liberties still are in this world. For still others, it is a symbol of something else special about the country: we are a people who put our ideas on a pedestal.

But this sunny morning, on a shabby island in the middle of a busy harbor, Liberty seems worth the cost of restoration.

Copyright (c) 1983, The Boston Globe Newspaper Company