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Textbooks and TV docu-dramas, said Terkel, have a habit of skimming the historical surface of World War II: ''What did 'Winds of War' (ABC's recent miniseries) tell us about World War II and Pearl Harbor? Nothing.''

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''I interviewed a big Hawaiian guy, John Garcia, whose financee was coming home from church in Honolulu the morning the Japanese attacked Pearl. Our guns were going crazy, firing hysterically at the Japanese. His fiancee was killed by an American gun.

''Not many people know it, but the night after Pearl people here in San Francisco went wild. Crowds roamed downtown, throwing rocks at all the marquees because they (were afraid of a Japanese attack on the West Coast and) wanted all the lights out.''

''I'm thinking of starting the book with Garcia. He later got a job as a cop in Washington, but refused to use a gun. He'd walk empty-handed into a liquor store that three guys were robbing and say, 'The cops are waiting outside, so you might as well surrender.'

''It sounds crazy, but he got away with it.''Terkel speaks quickly and often in sentence fragments. Occasionally, his mind jumps about as if someone hit the fast-forward button. Tracking the train of thought requires frequent leaps of faith. You trust he knows where he's going - and usually aren't disappointed. Conversational detours come with the territory.

''I wanted to get Lew Ayres,'' said Terkel. ''He was a conscientious objector in World War II. People criticized him because he played the young German soldier in the film ''All Quiet on the Western Front.''

''He first agreed to do the interview with me and then backed down. I don't blame him. To show you what a clod I was, I was one of the guys who criticized him. I wanted to put him in the book and apologize in the introduction. I'll apologize anyway.''

Terkel appeared restless and headed for the bedside telephone. ''Heard of the Port Chicago Mutiny?'' he asked as he dialed. ''They were loading a dynamite ship (in San Francisco Bay) and it exploded. A lot of guys were killed. They had no safety devices, and the workers went on strike. Fifty guys got sent up to prison for 13 years. I'm trying to find one of those guys. I'd pay for the interview. But I'm afraid they won't talk. They all got dishonorable discharges.

''They may hang up on me.'' The phone was still ringing, but Terkel was getting no answer. He would try again later.

Meanwhile, he wanted to explain why World War II sparked his imagination.

''You see, World War II was a real benchmark. During the Great American Depression, the nation's beautiful machinery slipped on a banana peel; the gears were stripped. World War II ended the Depression, and then came the bomb - and the Cold War. It was such a different world before World War II. Not only the US , but the whole world.

''It changed the way we live. You had the whole military taking over. Before World War II, you never had a George Marshall or an Omar Bradley with such power. There was no Pentagon. You didn't have a Department of Defense. It was a Department of War. And as Admiral Gene LaRocque, one of the heroes at Pearl Harbor, points out, you could criticize the Department of War then, but now you're considered a traitor to criticize defense.

''Vietnam's still too close to understand. By contrast, World War II, which altered history, is forgotten. I've got (on tape) Steve McConnell, (US Rep. and Florida Democrat) Claude Pepper's aide, who was part of the big postwar baby boom. He played offensive tackle on the same team as O. J. Simpson. He was part of that golden generation born into affluence - the generation toward whom every commercial is targeted.''

Terkel was still pacing and spotted his profile in the dresser mirror. He swept back his mane of white hair and patted his paunch. ''This is ridiculous,'' he said. ''I've got to get this down. He again glanced at his reflection and back down at his stomach. ''When my wife sees this, she's going to. . . .''

He stopped in mid-sentence and returned to his World War II project.

''I've got hundreds of interviews, and so far it's a wild mural. I'm waltzing along now, but when I start editing the stuff will evolve in my mind. I've got a daily radio show, and it's hard to take off much time. When I do, I work at home. I don't get out of my pajamas for a couple months, don't leave the house, work seven days a week, 12 hours a day.''

Terkel makes ''no pretense at statistical truth or consensus.'' He likens himself to the prospector who ''heads out where the gold is'' and pans on hands and knees for a few precious nuggets.

''I tell the tape transcriber, 'Don't leave anything out.' Out of a hundred pages, I might use eight. Sure, I edit it. I cut to highlight the truth, never to distort it.''