There is a school here called the Texas State Technical Institute that trains the next generation of America's skilled workers -- not the movers and shakers, but the fixers and makers: auto mechanics, meat processors, aircraft pilots, laser technicians and apprentices of 50 other trades. Most of the 5,000 students at the campus, a former air base, are working-class kids between the ages of 18 and 25 who come from the small towns and farms of Texas, places right out of "The Last Picture Show."

They are serious, religious and optimistic, for the most part, although many worry about the inevitability of nuclear war. If they had a motto it might be: Do what it takes to get it done.

Theirs is the as-yet-undefined generation that followed the Baby Boomers and Yuppies, labels of utter insignificance to most of them. Sammie Martinez, 21, a student of auto mechanics from Kerrville in the Hill Country, has never heard of the Baby Boomers and thinks a Yuppie is a fish. His car-repair colleague, Stephen Lambden, also 21, from Point Comfort along the Gulf Coast, is unfamiliar with the word Watergate, although he remembers the name Richard Nixon because his uncle once worked as a mechanic in the White House garage.

For role models, they look to figures who are strong and uncomplicated: their parents, Rambo, Arnold Schwarzenegger, heavy metal musician Paul Stanley, science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein, test pilot Chuck Yeager, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach and, most of all, Ronald Reagan.

The traditional definitions of liberal and conservative seem useless to them. They consider President Reagan not a conservative, but an activist.

"He does what he has to do to get it done," said Martinez. "He had to bomb Libya, so he bombed Libya. I don't consider that conservative."

As Waco goes, remarkably, so goes the nation.

There are about 32 million Americans 18 to 25 and, although they show no collective sense of who they are, they nonetheless seem to have a definite and distinct value system that largely transcends class, education, race, sex and geography.

In search of clues to this generation, Washington Post reporters earlier this month interviewed scores of young adults from a variety of places and backgrounds: Technical students from the small towns of Texas; University of New Hampshire undergraduates; welfare mothers and jobless men on the streets of Baltimore; scrubbed and polished interns in the brokerage houses of Wall Street; community college students in Chicago and rural Illinois.

They look different, but sound pretty much the same.

As a group they seem optimistic, self-preoccupied, self-reliant, achievement-oriented and unable or unwilling to connect personal goals with societal objectives. They tend to scorn the ironic, uncertain, contemplative and idealistic. They adore the quick, active, clear-cut and pragmatic. They prefer symbols to words, movies to books, television to newspapers, the present to the past or future.

This generation seems remarkably unalienated. It rarely rants against "the system," nor -- apart from a few punks with brightly colored hair -- does it assert a style of its own. These young people even dance to the same rock 'n' roll music that jerked and twisted their parents a generation ago.

Their dreams are neither unrealistic nor overly romantic. They yearn to survive and thrive in the world, not to change it.

Burgess L. Mimbs, 18, a meat processing and marketing student from Marshall in east Texas, wants nothing more than to move to Los Angeles, work in a supermarket and eat "family dinner" the way families do on television. David Chadwick, 25, studying to become an auto service manager, would like someday to earn as much money as his father, a draftsman in Midland on the west Texas plains.

Financially, these students have reason to be optimistic, even in Texas, an oil-dependent state now in a recession. The job placement rate from the technical school here is 80 percent overall and, in many fields, including auto mechanics and laser electro-optics technology, multiple job offers await every graduate. Mostly because of the high-tech that they have learned here, the students express no concern about being held back by the enormous numbers of Baby Boomers who entered the job market before them. Career as a Space Technician

Lane Jacobs, 19, a student of laserelectro-optics, grew up in Daingerfield, a small town in east Texas just north of Lone Star, where the steel plants are closing. His father, who works in a machine shop, is a lifelong Democrat whose hero was John F. Kennedy. Lane was born four years after Kennedy died, but his father talked about the bold, young president so much that Jacobs went to the library and read about the New Frontier. He was most impressed by the fact that Kennedy started the space program.

In fall 1984, when he turned 18, Jacobs voted for the first time. He brought to the voting booth a conviction that the Democrats were better for the working class. His family was decidedly working class. He voted for Reagan.

"I voted for him then and I would again, if I could," Jacobs said. "I like how he stood up for the United States. I like what he did in Grenada and Libya. Everyone around here liked it. There were a lot of people wearing shirts: 'Qaddafi Dead or Alive,' and 'Navy 4, Libya 0.' I'd say most of the people here in my age group -- we'd go over there and fight if we had to."

The prospect of nuclear war, Jacobs said, is always in the back of his mind and comes forward whenever Reagan takes a military action, such as the bombing of Libya.

"I still will agree that what he does is right," Jacobs said, "but it makes me think, well, the threat's getting closer, the clock's ticking down. But if it's gotta be done, it's gotta be done. That's the way I feel about it."

Jacobs is the "Star Wars kid." His uncle, Larry Jacobs, works on the antisatellite program for the military in California and inspired Lane to study laser technology, a key component of the Reagan administration's Strategic Defense Initiative. Dozens of graduates of the laser program here work on SDI research in New Mexico and California. Larry gave Lane a cap that he wears proudly each day in class. It is blue with a gold eagle soaring in space, zapping an enemy missile. It is called the ASAT Satellite Killer hat.

Sometime in the next 15 years, Lane Jacobs said, laser technology will become so efficient that Star Wars will work.

"I know it will work," he said. "I absolutely believe it. My uncle's working on it now, and I want to follow him. I want to be the second generation of Star Wars."

Shellie Wilburn, 19, is entering the next generation of apple experts. Two weeks ago, at one of the final lectures before her graduation, she learned this important distinction: A Red Delicious has four points on the bottom and is deep red, while a Rome Beauty has a grainy appearance.

Wilburn is an honors student in supermarket management. Her goal is to be a front-end manager of a grocery store, the supervisor in charge of checkers and sackers. Although she was reared in a tiny cattle town near the Louisiana border, Wilburn shares the practicality of East Coast college students flooding business schools and evacuating history departments. There are few jobs on the farm.

Happiness, she said, comes in reaching goals, not fantasizing. That explains why so many of her friends stay close to home, aiming for jobs "a little bit better than their parents." Her father repairs Holly Farms trucks.

"Only a few want to do outrageous things," she said. "This one guy really believes he'll be president, and another guy wants to be the richest guy around. Mostly, though, people are realistic."

Wilburn is a devout Baptist. She said that she prays every day, partly to ease her constant worry of nuclear war. Maybe not in five years, or even 10, but someday, she said, she believes she will witness a red-hot, world-ending war. The fear makes long-range personal goals pointless.

"The world is in such bad shape, and it keeps doing downhill," she said. "With Libya and all the killings and rapes, it's hard to be young. It scares me . . . . I'd like to find the right guy before it all ends." Concern Over Nuclear Threat

The concern about nuclear war is prevalent among the students in most departments on the campus. Several blocks from Wilburn's classroom, in the car-repair shop of the Auto Technology building, Sammie Martinez sounded almost like an antinuclear activist when asked about the issue.

"I think they should get rid of it all, take it all away -- all the bombs, the missiles, everything. Don't let anyone have them," said Martinez. "Every morning I wake up and think, well, am I gonna get nuked today?"

A pacifist? Hardly. Martinez calls himself a Republican who believes in a strong defense. His heroes are Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rambo: Schwarzenegger because, as Commando, "he fought the bad guys;" Rambo, because he was tough. Rambo inspired Martinez, the son of a masonry contractor, to buy a bow and arrow. He roams the Hill Country hunting small game, pretending he is Sylvester Stallone.

"What I like about those guys is the attitude," Martinez said. "Getting the job done. You gotta put your foot down. If you want to get the job done, you gotta do it yourself. You gotta do what you gotta do. That sort of attitude, I love it!"

Martinez's parents both quit school and began working full time after the eighth grade. They picked cotton and vegetables in the fields west of San Antonio. His father became a successful contractor, even supplying the stone for the fancy Y.O. Hilton hotel near Kerrville. What son Sammie wants out of life is his own place in the country, and a Corvette. The Corvette would be an expression of individuality.

J. Mark Robinson, 22, is learning the care and feeding of cows and pigs as a student of livestock and ranch management. He said that his spare time is better spent teaching his two children about God than worrying about elections. But he is a registered Democrat and voted for Reagan, explaining: "I'm really an American, not a Democrat.

Reagan hasn't disappointed him yet, he said. The Libyan bombing was "great. We don't want to be a bully, but we don't want to be kicked and dragged . . . . Reagan doesn't either."

Don Poston, a cattle management teacher at Texas State Technical Institute for 15 years, said that Reagan is as popular among his students now as the Beatles were for an earlier generation -- an apt comparison in these apolitical times.

"They're a reflection of the public, and it has gotten more conservative," he said of his students. "They like Reagan because he says what they want to hear: No more government giveaway programs; an honest day's pay for an honest day's work."

Unlike the youth who protested the Vietnam war and hated whichever party was governing during that time, Poston said, today's students aren't social activists or party loyalists. They identify with individuals and care little for groups.

In class one day recently, Poston asked his students what they hope to be doing five years from now. Their answers, he said, show that the students of today dream a little less than their predecessors. One student would like to teach agriculture, another to work on a ranch, another to secure "a reasonable position" on a dairy farm.

Burgess Mimbs' ambitions fit that pattern. He is learning to be a butcher here in a refrigerated building stacked with pork loin and prime rib. He imagines himself heading to Los Angeles to manage a small market. He said he believes financial success will bring happiness. He calls it his No. 1 goal. But even as he describes his future $48,000 salary and third family car, he says the competition can make a guy lonely.

"After people step on your toes, you learn you can't confide," he said. "There's no loyalty, no unity."

Television, Mimbs said, makes people want more material goods. Still, he added: "It gives you something to look forward to and shows you things you might not have a chance to see."

One day he hopes to share at least one thing with television families: "I've always eaten by myself. I'd like to have a family dinner. I like the way it looks on TV."

Like David Chadwick, an auto mechanic student, and Lezley Shannon, a meat processing colleague, Mimbs asked: "If you don't strive for money, what do you work for?"

Chadwick put it differently: "I don't know anybody who wasn't after it."

"Everybody wants to be better than the next guy -- stronger, bigger, have the best girl or the most gold," Mimbs said. "Everybody's striving because nobody wants to be left out. What do you do, if you're left out?" Flying High as a Pilot

Two years ago, Mike Reed was working the north tower crane during the construction of One American Center in downtown Austin. Last week, he was flying high after graduating from the Aircraft Pilot Technology school here and serving as the student speaker at the ceremony.

For many families, the graduation of a son or daughter from the Texas State Technical Institute is a landmark event.

"They come to me with tears in their eyes, these parents," said Russell Smith, one of the school's directors. "Often, it is the first time anyone in the family has graduated from an institution of higher learning."

Reed, 27, is an exception. Before he came to TSTI he had earned a degree from Southwestern University in his Texas hometown of Georgetown, 30 miles north of Austin. But the degree didn't help him find his place in life. It wasn't until he arrived here that he felt he was in the right place at the right time. Pilots are disciplined and straightforward. Those characteristics radiate from Mike Reed.

His father, a construction foreman, is a strong Democrat. Reed speaks of his dad with enormous respect and admiration, but when it comes to politics, he is not his father's son. He likes Reagan's economics and his firm hand in foreign policy.

"It seems to me the economy is turning around, and I find it hard to believe it was because of the previous guy," Reed said. "Things are picking up in aviation, and transportation in general. Right now, in fact, they're having a shortage of well-qualified pilots to handle increased demand, and I think deregulation has a lot to do with that. So I've got no quarrel with Reagan at all."

But Reagan is not Reed's hero. His dad might be the only mortal who fills that role, Reed said. Maybe Chuck Yeager. The person who had the most effect on him, however, was science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Reed has read every book that Heinlein has written, and he tries to live like Heinlein's characters, who strive to understand each other thoroughly and speak only what they know to be the truth.

"I think they sort of represent my generation, in a way," Reed said. "They think on our level, a certain wave length. Given a certain situation, they do what we would want to do. They are determined, ambitious, but would not necessarily step on somebody else to get what they want. They do their utmost to be competent. They stick by their beliefs, whatever the cost.

"They do what needs to be done."

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