I WAS the scummiest man in the office, babysitting the after-hours phones. A message came down the Associated Press teletype: NATO operation "Arctic Express" north Norway - closed to press. I had a sudden vision of grandeur beyond Pittsburgh's corporate lights: Me sitting in a tree on a Norwegian farm I knew from boyhood, getting the story, a hero journalist.I didn't even know how to operate a camera. Besides, I barely knew how to type fast, let alone stand on the top of the world and call the moves of a five-country practice alert in the event the Soviets invaded the Norwegian fjords. Just a midnight dream of an office-boy journalist. I wondered how many years I'd need to accomplish such a beauty. I showed my bureau chief the NATO message in the morning, just to scorn my idea. I had been content with my obscurity in the pecking order of the office. Little did I know that when you become content with your obscurity, there's something in life that never leaves you there. My bureau chief looked at me seriously, "Do you think you could pull it off?" In the morning light, my idea to get into the area by virtue of visiting relatives in Norway seemed full of vanity. "No," I said. "I can give you a week off if you want to sell the idea in New York. We can't pay for travel. We're not set up for it. But we could use the story against UPI." Without sleep I went to New York. At Time-Life, I got as far as a minor editor's office. "My father was on the cover of Life in 1944," I begged, "with Norwegian soldiers." They didn't even bother to check my story. "We did a piece on NATO last year. Sorry." Then I hit that arch-rival of newsprint in those days: television. At CBS News, I mentioned to the secretary I was from AP, had been turned down at Life, and wanted to talk to the CBS foreign editor. She let me in past the police guards. The foreign editor's office was deep in the center of the building, like Churchill's wartime bunker. The editor was benignly angry in a busy way. "Look, I want you to know you're the first person from Time-Life to make it this far into the building." "But I'm not... ." "So you think you can pull it off?" "I could get legally into the area." "Go back past the Cronkite working area. Check out a Bell and Howell 70DS. Shoot a hundred feet on the way home tonight. We'll critique it tomorrow. Get a pair of silk gloves. You'll need them in the Arctic." He looked me in the eye, more benignly than angry. "You're one heck of a journalist if you think you can just barge in here from Life - and to my office!" "But I'm not... ." "Good luck." I was worried. I telegrammed an obscure uncle who was married to my father's youngest sister. I hadn't seen him since I was 11. I hadn't been in Norway since I was 11. The plane was delayed in a swirling snowstorm in Stockholm before going on to Oslo. I had no hopes I'd be met or helped. I was coming out of America with no communication with any of those relatives in 10 years: This trip was just a boy's temporary lapse of interest in anything but himself. A man and his daughter followed me into the terminal at Oslo. My box said CBS News in white letters. They kept staring at it suspiciously. The man came close, said under his breath, so not to attract attention if he were wrong "Stromholt... ." "Yes," I said. "I am Ivar!" "Uncle!" The daughter stood bashfully back. It was my cousin, Ingjerd. As children, she and I had played together in the barn with kittens. She was now beautiful and dignified as a Lapp girl, dressed in a red coat. "Come, we must talk." They drove me to their house outside Oslo. My father's sister met us at the door, and the little children were dressed as if for a wedding. The table was set, dinner prepared as if for a prince's arrival in a suburban house. "No, no," said Ivar to a meal right away. "We must talk." He sat me down at a coffee table with military maps. "The operation is closed to journalists. You know that. But I will get you some permissions. I am a major in the Army." He looked me over. "This is just like it was with your father. Many times we made strategy in the war." Then he said gleefully, pointing to the map, "Now. Your other uncle, Torfinn, he will meet you here." "But doesn't he live on an island, a schoolteacher? He'll have to drive a hundred miles. My plane doesn't get in until four in the morning." "Ingjerd, your cousin, will go with you - I have military duties here in town." "I can go north alone." "Hallett, you must remember, we are family here." SO my cousin came with me, in her red coat, on a moonlit SAS flight that landed almost on waves during coastal stops. It made its way in hours of jet stream through the warm Arctic night. Ingjerd watched me as I recorded my impressions into a cassette. She began to unfreeze her English. "It's too bad. Grandmother would have liked to have seen you once more, like this. She often talked about you and your brother." Coming in low over white night peaks, we dropped down quickly into the valley of Bardufoss. Torfinn, elegant as I remembered him, stood straight and still as the Arctic night, under some tall pines at the log terminal, with his car. "We don't want you to be alone so near to the family farm," he said, driving his old Volvo. "Perhaps I can help driving your camera in my car. Your cousin Ingjerd has come because most of the women have to be at home now. She will represent the females of the family, your hostess." I missed filming the Italians, the Alpini mountain troops, with shined high-leather boots. They were the one military group among the Americans, West Germans, British, and Canadians, who had beautiful Florentine beards. I had my silk gloves on but the camera stayed in Torfinn's trunk until I got permission to film the wide transports flying like locusts through the pass in the peaks, landing in great parachutes of snow. I stood on the airfield, watching. Ingjerd brought me a hot drink. Torfinn had driven to a long-distance phone to check on my permission. A small, two-engine plane lined in the Arctic morning glow above the peaks. It taxied to the wooden terminal. Two men came out toward me, my cousin in her red coat between them. They wore gray overcoats, and one had a briefcase. "This is young Stromholt? Sorry, we didn't know you were in the country. We brought your permission, personally. To film for CBC." "CBS." "Yes, of course. Canadian Broadcast Corporation. They often come to Norway for nature filming. By the way, how is your father?" Wouldn't they ever get it right where I was from? It was a success. I got six seconds of film on CBS and filed a long report to my bureau chief in Pittsburgh. He replied, giving me a few more days to be with my relatives. When I got home and was once again just another night person in Pittsburgh, my boss came to see me. "That must be a pretty place up there - in Sweden." "Norway." The foreign editor called me that morning from CBS: "Check's in the mail. Keep in touch. Glad to find out you aren't at Life anymore. That UPI's a good outfit." I didn't bother saying "AP." It didn't matter technically where I was from. I had the image of a cousin in a red coat, Arctic skies with clouds like reindeer, nights landing on the coast of the top of the world. Uncles Ivar and Torfinn. They knew where I was from.