Charlene Mitchell went to work at IBM in 1977 at age 24 and prepared herself for a lifetime of commitment to a company that had never laid off a worker, even during the Great Depression.

Mitchell, who lives in Reston, was following in her family's footsteps. She recalls watching her grandmother weep on the day in 1962 when she turned 65 and had to retire from the job she loved at IBM. And Mitchell's father, a 30-year IBM veteran, would sometimes burst into song at their home during her childhood, belting out the IBM anthem, "Ever Onward," partly in jest and partly out of affection and loyalty to the company.

Given her life experience, Mitchell couldn't believe it when she started hearing stories about coming IBM job cuts. Then one morning in April 1993, Mitchell's manager at IBM's site in Bethesda called her into her office to talk. Mitchell noticed the woman was trembling.

" At the end of today, give me your badge, your desk key and everything that belongs to IBM,' " Mitchell recalled the manager saying. " Go home, and don't come back.' "

For anyone who has lost a job during the past decade of downsizing, Mitchell's story may sound familiar. She is one of about 12,500 Washington-area employees who left IBM as the company slashed its local payroll from more than 15,000 in 1987 to 2,500 today.

More than 1,200 of the permanent IBM employees were terminated, as Mitchell was. The bulk of the workers were shifted to other companies as IBM sold divisions or spun off administrative functions, where hundreds more subsequently were laid off by the new employers. About a third of the IBMers who left took early retirement or buyout packages after seeing "the writing on the wall," as one put it. Many temporary w orkers, some of whom had worked at IBM for years, also lost their jobs -- but no one kept track of their numbers.

Nationally, more than 3.2 million jobs have been cut by large corporations in the past six years, according to Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger & Grey.

The Washington Post interviewed more than two dozen people who had left IBM's nearly 30 locations in the area during the past eight years to find out what happened to them.

Gene Wolff, a retired IBMer who lives in Northern Virginia and helped coordinate an informal job networking effort for laid-off workers, tracked 400 of his former colleagues. He found that about 260, or 65 percent, had found permanent, acceptable jobs, although half of them took a pay cut. The remaining 140 people either took part-time jobs, moved away or retired. Decreasing Surplus' Population

The personal lives of the 24 people interviewed have changed since they left IBM. One couple divorced. Two people said they suffered mental breakdowns. Nearly all had to lower their standard of living, although two are now making more money than they did at IBM. Two found themselves unable to assist their college-age children with school expenses, and the kids dropped out and went to work to support themselves. Five found jobs, but then were downsizing victims again. One woman, once debt-free, declared bankruptcy and may lose her home.

Charlene Mitchell, for example, recalls vividly what happened that day she began Life After IBM.

Dazed by her manager's words, Mitchell stumbled blindly back to her office and began piling her belongings into a box. No tears; she was numb.

Down the long hallway of offices, she could hear other people yelling and sobbing as they too learned they had become what IBM called "surplused." Even the workers who had survived were crying or angry, and someone told Mitchell that employees who had gone to the director's office to complain were being turned away by uniformed guards.

People who became overly emotional were escorted outside by the guards. Workers' names were removed from the e-mail system so they could no longer use it.

"Some people who were not surplused were acting even more shocked than those of us that were," Mitchell said. "One woman in tears came into my office, gripping me so tight it hurt. She wailed and said, My God, my God, what will happen to you?' . . . I needed that like a hole in the head."

At home that night, Mitchell's husband, David, reacted with shock when he learned that the $100,000 family income had been cut almost in half.

"I thought he'd gone ballistic," Mitchell said. "He screamed, What do you mean?' He just yelled and screamed. I felt terrible. I felt I was punched in the stomach twice." Triggered by Sudden Losses

IBM began shedding workers in the late 1980s, though it didn't formally announce its first mass downsizing until March 1993. When that announcement came, it represented a watershed event in employee relations, say management experts. IBM workers' loyalty was so deeply ingrained that wits often said IBM actually stood for I've-Been-Moved, to make light of the sacrifices its sober, buttoned-down workers would make for what is often called Big Blue.

"It was the end of an era," said Eric Rolfe Greenberg, director of management studies at the American Management Association, which represents the nation's major employers. "It was the last bastion of corporate virtue falling. It was like finding out your grandmother is having an affair. The era of job security had come to an end."

Even those who left of their own choice were affected. "It was very, very traumatic," said Dave Eldredge, now 49, of Gaithersburg, a manager who accepted an early retirement package and left the same day as Charlene Mitchell. Since then, Eldredge has spent a rocky period as a self-employed consultant and has found a job as project manager for software development at McLean-based Pragmatics Inc., albeit for less money than he earned at IBM.

From the point of view of management, Wall Street observers and even many employees, a downsizing of some sort was inevitable at IBM. The company had become a giant through its domination of the computer mainframe market, and even though it had pioneered in the personal computer arena, the company was too wedded to its core business and had too many layers of bureaucracy to adapt successfully to the new environment.

The company's decline, once it came, was precipitous. It lost $8 billion in the second quarter of 1993 alone, compared with a $734 million profit in the same quarter a year earlier. Wall Street demanded action. Under Chairman John Akers, and later, Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the company reluctantly abandoned its eight-decade policy of retraining or relocating people rather than dismissing them. It had 406,000 employees worldwide in 1986 and only 219,000 at the end of 1995.

"There was no other way," said Vince Mauriello, director of work force management at IBM. Mauriello said that IBM attempted to cushion the blow for its workers by giving them two weeks of pay for every year of service, or up to 52 weeks' pay, medical coverage for six months and access to outplacement services. Some older workers were allowed to retire early with full benefits.

At the time, Wall Street analysts criticized IBM for being too generous. IBM has since pulled back, limiting its severance package to a maximum of 26 weeks' pay.

IBM today has returned to profitability. In a recent company report, IBM Chairman Gerstner thanked the layoff survivors, who he said "brought the company back from the brink to this new point of opportunity." Anything Is Better Than Unemployment'

For the laid-off workers, however, the high salaries they had earned at IBM ended up complicating their job search. David and Paula Clancy, both IBM employees in their late thirties, made more than $80,000 combined and lived in Montgomery Village in 1993, before Paula lost her $34,000-a-year secretarial job at IBM. The company spun off its administrative functions to new firms that took over the work and hired the IBM people to do it. Paula's job was shifted to a company called Tascor.

But Tascor did its own layoffs and Paula soon lost her job there. The family's income dropped to David's salary alone, "living hand to mouth," Paula said.

Paula said other companies didn't seem interested in hiring her.

"What scared a lot of people was my salary at IBM," said Paula, now 42. "They said, You won't be happy at $25,000.' I'd say I would. Anything is better than unemployment, I'll be honest with you."

As the job rejections mounted, Paula became increasingly discouraged. "I got very depressed, especially when I couldn't find a job," she said. "I felt worthless . . . I didn't want to get up in the morning. I dragged myself out of bed. My temper was bad."

In late 1994, the Clancys gave up on living in the costly Washington area and moved to Virginia Beach, where David found a job doing computer repair. The lower cost of living there means that Paula can accept a job that pays less than what she might earn in the Washington area and that they still will be able to afford a home. "It looks like we are going to do better here," she said.

But she has deep regrets because her parents, who live here, are elderly and need assistance that she can't give them long distance.

"I gave up my family -- and that was hard on me," Paula said. "I miss them horribly. I was finally becoming close to my brother. But I had to think of my husband and my kids." From the Abyss to a Better Job

For Barbara Shinrock, losing her marketing job at IBM's Manassas location in April 1992 has ended up, in a roundabout way, being better for her family. After 18 months at an advertising agency, Shinrock launched Edge Strategies, a marketing firm whose clients include executives at American Express, Oracle and BMC Software. "Owning my own business allows me to balance my life without having to ask for permission or forgiveness," said Shinrock, who lives in Reston with her husband and three children.

Shinrock makes three times what she earned at IBM, and uses the extra income to provide "a margin of comfort" for her family finances. "It's not like we moved to McLean, bought a big house and two Jaguars," Shinrock said.

Despite her individual success, Shinrock was changed by her IBM layoff. Working at the company in the years leading up to her termination was eerie, she said.

"It got to be like the Holocaust, where you're not so sure it was good to be the survivor," Shinrock recalled. "Productivity during those years was nonexistent. Even the survivors couldn't be productive. We were all immobilized by fear."

Shinrock said she hopes never again to go through a similar experience. Working for herself, "if I perform well, I can control my own destiny. But that's not true at many corporations today where there are random acts of corporate violence."

Shinrock said she never bought into what she calls "the IBM mythology," but many of her friends did. "I didn't expect I'd stay on the farm forever," she said. "I feel for a lot of people {who did}. It left them ill-equipped for something {that is} as traumatic as a divorce."

Brian Gentry, 25, also landed on his feet, ironically in a position where he now reviews IBM's work to make sure it meets government performance standards. Gentry had worked for IBM in Manassas for three years as a temp, making computer circuit cards for $9.35 an hour. But one Thursday in January 1992, when Gentry arrived at work, he was told that the next day would be his last at IBM.

"At first I took it personally," Gentry said. "I thought I didn't do a good job, and that I just didn't know. When you get terminated, you think, What did I do wrong?' "

He coped by moving back in with his parents, working at Price Club for $5.50 an hour and finishing up his degree eight months later. He found a job at the Arlington office of EG&G Inc., a defense contractor that reviews IBM. He now earns $33,500, or almost double what he earned at IBM.

"I got the last laugh," Gentry said. "I got a job where IBM had to be nice to me."

Wolff, the retired IBMer who helped the others find new jobs, said younger workers, most recently out of school and with the freshest skills, earned less at IBM and were better able to adjust to the lower salaries common at other firms. Meanwhile, the older workers had homes that had appreciated in value significantly and were close to retirement age, so some only had to wait out a few rough years before pension checks began arriving. Rough Waters for Middle Agers

But people in the 35-to-50 age range, caught with lofty mortgages, high salaries and outdated skills, found themselves in rough waters.

"We're not old enough to retire and get out of the game, but we're fighting for jobs against the young workers," said Beverly Nicknadarvich, 42. "We're caught in the middle."

Five years ago, Beverly and her husband, Bruno Nicknadarvich, had achieved the American middle-class dream. They lived with their two sons in a comfortable, three-bedroom home nestled amid pine trees on a two-acre lot in Mount Airy. Both worked for IBM in Bethesda, Bruno as a business controls analyst and Beverly as a secretary. They earned $73,000 that last year, in 1990, which meant that Beverly could buy what she chose at the grocery store, and that they could go out to dinner when they wanted.

"It was nothing if the kids needed a pair of shoes," she recalled.

Then the rumors started that big changes were coming at IBM. Beverly said she saw "the writing on the wall," and decided to take one of the buyout packages. She thought she would launch herself in a career in real estate sales. Unfortunately, the housing market slumped, and Beverly landed in a series of temporary jobs.

She had earned $18 an hour at IBM, but she made only $12 an hour as a temp, working back at IBM, doing a job similar to her old one but with no benefits or security. Then she was hired at Prudential Home Mortgage at $10 an hour, although it was a permanent job with benefits.

But Prudential too was downsizing, and Beverly survived three rounds of layoffs. She said she found it more troubling watching others lose their jobs than losing a job herself.

"I would say, Lay me off instead and keep him. He has credit cards and bills. He doesn't know what it's like. But I've been there. I can handle it,' " she said. "It was scary. You didn't know who, and you didn't know when."

Overwhelmed by their financial pressures, the Nicknadarvich's marriage, already strained, finally dissolved. They sold the family home in 1993, using the money to pay off bills. Beverly kept the younger son with her, and the older boy, now 21, got married and moved in with his wife's grandmother.

Meanwhile, Bruno had left the company in 1992 amid the general downsizing. He found a job as a car salesman, working long hours, seven days a week. But he lost that job last year, and he now works as a truck driver. He lives with his elderly parents in a trailer in Frederick.

"It's not too cool at my age to be living with my parents," said Bruno, 43, who first went to work at IBM full time when he graduated from the University of Maryland in 1974 with an engineering and business degree.

Beverly, meanwhile, decided she could no longer afford to live in the Washington area at $10 an hour, so she quit her job at Prudential, and she and her new boyfriend and son moved to rural Garrett County, Md., in 1994. She went to work for a publishing company there, doing telemarketing, for $5.50 an hour.

She lost her job two weeks before Christmas 1995, when her boyfriend had surgery on his back and the company declined to give her three days off to care for him at home. They now live on his disability income, and she is unemployed.

"It's a struggle," Beverly said. "Thank God for credit cards, though they are maxed out now. I got to claim poverty level on my taxes this year." 50 Years Old and Out of Work

James Studzinski, who lives in Sterling, has found himself in a spot he never dreamed of when he joined IBM in 1969, one year out of college. He's 50 and unemployed.

"They called it womb to tomb," Studzinski said. "I never thought I'd leave IBM. Now they've done away with everything. Here's the pink slip. Now go.' "

Studzinski didn't wait to be terminated. He accepted an early retirement package in 1988 and landed a job managing a consulting subsidiary for the National Association of Rehabilitation Facilities.

He advanced there and at one point was earning $95,000 a year -- $35,000 more than his top IBM salary. He lost his job at the end of last year as the organization began downsizing.

Studzinski and his wife, Mikey, now look back with some bitterness at the 20 years he gave to a now-changed IBM. The family moved five times and while James worked long hours, Mikey was home alone with their children.

At times "it wasn't much fun," she recalled, but added, "Everybody's job was secure."

Now, with her husband out of work, Mikey tries hard to stay cheerful. "You've got to have a sense of humor," she said. James "needs me to cheer him up."

Those who have lost the most after the IBM job cuts were unwilling to be quoted by full name.

Phyllis, a 50-year-old Silver Spring woman who had worked at IBM for 15 years, once had stellar credit, but after she lost her job and her new business failed, she said she was forced to declare bankruptcy to protect her condominium from foreclosure.

Susan, an engineering technician in her mid-forties from Manassas, was rushed to the hospital with a seeming heart attack three months after she lost her job, and has since suffered from depression so severe that she said she feels as if she's "not worth anything."

For Charlene Mitchell, now 43, who lost her job at IBM in April 1993, things are finally starting to improve. She found a position at Georgetown University seven months after her layoff, earning about 20 percent less than she earned at IBM.

Fifteen months later, though, that job was cut. Her husband was expecting a fall 1995 transfer to Memphis, so Mitchell began looking for a job there. She found a position earning 20 percent less than her previous one.

Now she's living alone in a one-bedroom town house in Cordova, Tenn., with makeshift furniture, awaiting her husband's arrival this month. "There are days it's very lonely," Mitchell said.

What she calls her "Pollyanna" view of life is gone.

"It was like Mother Hen IBM had thrown us out into the real world," Mitchell said. ". . . We had become a dime a dozen." CAPTION: TOUGH TIMES AT BIG BLUE (This chart was not available)