His local congressman had suggested bombing the Beirut airport, but Mayor Roy Cox, the man known for making a killing with this town's first self-service gas station, wanted to check the balance sheet.

No one ever accused Cox of being liberal, but after thinking about it overnight he concluded that "going out and bombing Beirut or any place is not a wise thing to do. There is no way of doing it without killing a lot of people, one way or another."

From the twisting streets of Atlanta to the crowded restaurants of California, Americans everywhere this week were calculating the risks for the people held hostage in Beirut and finding themselves as cautious as their president.

A cross-country trip -- California to Minnesota to Arkansas to Georgia -- revealed frustration everywhere, mixed with disapproval of rash military action and concern for air travelers' safety. But faced with a reporter, rather than a neighbor across the back hedge, Americans shy away from dangerous quick fixes: no bombings, no invasions, no assassinations.

Then, in the midst of most conversations, comes an important qualification, a time bomb for policymakers in Washington and abroad. "After we get those people back here safe," said Cox, sipping a soft drink in the muggy late afternoon, "we ought to think about doing something."

Endorsing the thoughts of many prominent Americans, such as former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, who have appeared often on television in the two weeks since the hijacking, Americans from a cab driver to a financial firm president in Atlanta are drawn to the notion of striking back, once the hostages are home.

"Our business over there has done more for them than for us, and if they don't want those jobs, fine," said Burbank, Calif., Vice Mayor Mary E. Kelsey, 68, who favors pulling American investment out of the area. Duluth Police Sgt. Harold Abrams, 47, said that "after the crisis is over we ought to take severe military action. I think we have to occupy part of those countries."

How deep this feeling goes, and how risky it would be for President Reagan to ignore it, remains unclear. The hostage crisis has filled the front pages and news programs, but there is much evidence that it is not constantly on American minds.

Last week, at the urging of a local television weatherman, most Atlanta residents driving to work turned turned their headlights on in support of the hostages. That same day on the Pasadena and Santa Monica freeways in California, despite some national publicity about the demonstration, one commuter encountered only one other car with its lights on.

"I seen it on the news, and that's it," said dietary technician Emma Scales, 25, as she watched a repairman work on her car on an England sidestreet. "I didn't give it another thought. I work all day."

Rushing to his car and sweating under the weight of two huge briefcases, Atlanta accountant Dan Frost, 26, said, "I really don't see any safe option, but I really haven't thought about it much. I have this client . . . ."

An editorial cartoon in the Atlanta Constitution shows a group of scruffy, bearded, wild-eyed midgets playing in front of a cage holding a huge, scowling Uncle Sam. While some poke the giant with sticks, another says to a companion, "Oh, it's fun now, but has anyone thought about what might happen if he gets loose!!?"

In the little town of England, population 3,186, the hostage crisis takes third place to the prime topics of weather (too dry) and crop prices (too low). Several residents remarked on a suggestion by Rep. Tommy F. Robinson (D-Ark.) that the Beirut airport be bombed: They thought he meant immediately, but, like many of his constituents, Robinson favored such action only after all the hostages were home or all efforts to negotiate their release had failed.

In the hot stillness of a town where only birds and air conditioners make much noise, few people faulted the Israelis for their reluctance to release their Shiite prisoners, as the hijackers of TWA Flight 847 have demanded. "Those of us who believe in the Bible believe in the Jews and Israel," Cox said. "My wife, she believes even stronger than I do, she believes the Jewish people were put on earth for a purpose, and they are carrying out that purpose."

Willie Graves, 20, was standing outside a little frame house on an unmarked street without sidewalks. He said he would be joining the Marines soon and had followed the crisis closely on television and in the Arkansas Democrat. "I'd hate to go out there and not know what's happening," he said.

Graves stands with the 83.7 percent of Democrat readers who said in a poll last week that they supported Reagan's refusal to negotiate with terrorists. Once the hostages are home, Graves said, "we ought to do something so they will realize in the future they can't take 40 Americans and get away with it."

Out at the England Country Club, couples participating in the "scramble" golf tournament (husband and wife take turns hitting the same ball) said they also had faith in Reagan. "I'd like to go over and get those people now," said Rick Watts, 33, a construction company vice president riding a golf cart with his wife, Cheri, a 29-year-old schoolteacher. "But if we do that, a lot of people are likely to get killed."

Idel Burkett, a 56-year-old housewife, was trimming the hedge alongside her husband's tiny Burkett Bros. auto repair shop, a little prefab building with crude, hand-lettered signs in the middle of a residential England neighborhood. "I don't think we ought to use force," she said. "I think we ought to talk. And we ought to take some preventative measures, like putting marshals on those planes." Her son Curtis, who would have been 38 this year, died in Vietnam in 1970.

In Minnesota, conversation about the hostages has often taken second place this week to the new race track, Canterbury Downs, outside Minneapolis -- the first regular parimutuel race track in the state. "We're a bit preoccupied," said a Minneapolis Star and Tribune editor. "We just put out a 28-page special section on the races."

Glenn N. Sandvik, editorial page editor of the Duluth News-Tribune & Herald, said he has had trouble figuring a way out of the crisis but finds his readers not terribly engaged with the issue.

"I have heard very, very little," he said. "I don't think we've had two letters on it, and those two are our regular kooks. Up and down the street, it isn't a big subject in Duluth."

Part of the problem, he said, may be the lack of an explicit target for people's wrath, such as Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

In Minnesota, a mostly Democratic, pro-Mondale electorate is watching Republican Reagan in a quandary. From people who have talked of the crisis, Sandvik said, he has noted a tone of "it almost serves Reagan right." Their candidate, Walter F. Mondale, struggled with a similar problem as vice president during the Iranian hostage crisis, and they see how dearly his president, Jimmy Carter, paid for it.

Dave Rutske, 30, a field service engineer for Dynascan Manufacturing Co., was thinking a great deal about the hostage crisis when he plopped his oscilloscope in its black case on the baggage X-ray machine at O'Hare International Airport. He was on his way to Duluth to check the equipment in a big steel mill and noticed that the X-ray technician looked perplexed. "That's an oscilloscope," he said. "Oh, okay," she replied. But Rutske thought to himself, "If it had been hooked up to explosives she wouldn't have known any better. She just took my word for it."

Dillard Munford, head of a firm that operates a chain of more than 1,200 stores, has been to Israel and met with Prime Minister Shimon Peres. But he does not see why the Israelis he admires cannot cut their own deal to save the American hostages.

"We've given them nearly $5 billion; damn it, they owe us something. They may owe us 39 hostages. They may want to be proudly independent, but I can't be completely independent of the bank that provides me credit."

Neal A. Boortz Jr., a broadcaster turned attorney who still hosts a highly rated talk show on Atlanta station WGST-AM, said reaction to the crisis seems to have come in three stages.

First was general outrage, followed by a more considered feeling that "the United States could not afford to hurt the hostages by retaliating. Let's do what we can to get the hostages back before we take any retaliatory action."

"The last stage in the last couple of days is just a general feeling of disgust that nothing has been done yet," he said. "It will be interesting to see, if they are released through negotiations, how people will react to whatever we gave up for them."

Yet even in Atlanta, where publicly expressed interest in the crisis may be as intense as anywhere, the hostages do not always get first billing.

When Boortz began his 10 a.m. show yesterday, the first caller wanted to talk about John McEnroe's tennis-court antics, and the second was distraught over a new real estate development.