It's ironic that the theme of the Knoxville 1982 World's Fair is ''Energy turns the world.'' The fairgrounds is an energy sink. Laid out along a natural gully, it is lined with asphalt, and walking down the main roadway among the great pavilions is like rambling along on a hot cast-iron skillet.The temperature of the asphalt has gone up to 120 F. on an 83-degree day. Dead ends and bottlenecks abound. Every day more than the expected 40,000 fairgoers show up. Making your way through them down a long paved field toward an imagined exit which turns out to be yet another Gatorade stand with a 20-minute line snaking in front of it can cause a personal energy crisis.

Though the advertising for the fair says, ''You've got to be there,'' you don't. But if you feel you must pay your respects and your $9.95 admission ($8. 25 for children under 11; $9.25 for over 55), wear a hat and make sure to study the maps and search out places to sit. It will take planning. There are few benches, and it's hard to see ways out of the asphalt gully. But there is a delightful glade around the creek that flows through the University of Tennessee campus, and though there are not enough benches there, either, the stone paving is better to sit on than asphalt.And, listening to one of the fair's many strolling guitar players while resting up, I smelled jasmine growing on a bank.

The exhibits by countries and corporations are crowded and, after the wait, seem insubstantial. I was there on a steamy Saturday in May (it was 94 degrees F., and I overheard a local saying, ''Wait 'til summer, when it gets hot'') with more than 90,000 other people. There were lines at least two hours long for favorites like the Chinese pavilion and the Japanese pavilion. At around 11 in the morning I saw a sign on the French pavilion noting that one could have one's hand stamped for the 6:45 p.m. showing of its 15-minute movie.

After waiting in a half-mile-long line for the Chinese exhibit, you come into a bazaar where hydroelectric equipment is laid out side by side with gewgaws, china, and intricately carved jade and ivory objets d'art sitting on gaudy strips of chiffon. Heaps of beautiful Chinese rugs are proudly displayed --with price tags. In the back, some 600-year-old bricks from the Great Wall of China are not for sale. Signs are endearingly painted on visible pencil lines, but don't ask questions; only the people who take money for fans, tea, or rugs speak English. In its blunt, unshowy way, the exhibit tells a lot about China. It is also crowded and claustrophobic. People sit on the floors in the corners, leaning up against the cool glass of the display cases, before dragging themselves along to new energy--saving wonders.

The United States exhibit is bigger than the others, and better planned to accommodate crowds. It has many entry doors, so people sift in rather than thronging. Many exhibits are on lucite panels, so you have a feeling of airiness as you waft through a stream of facts and figures, and homely Americana such as cotton gins and an old gas tank marked ''14.9.'' There is a beautifully photographed but uninformative movie. Like the stunning slide show in the Japan exhibit, it shows you what energy-generating equipment looks like, but unless you sit near a knowing technocrat father and curious son as I did, you won't hear much about what it does and how.

Persistent enthusiasts will enjoy the British pavilion, where experiments with Glauber's salt, as well as a safe, futuristic coal mine, are visible in more detail, and there is not much crowding around the displays because as you enter, you hear the familiar roar and trumpeting of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding. This separates the sheep from the goats. Mere wafters-through rush to two television screens to see a replay of that royal kiss, leaving energy sleuths room to peruse perceptive suggestions by schoolchildren and examine the distillery that uses waste heat to grow tomatoes.

But there is more fun to be had elsewhere. The Folklife Festival is delightful, if only because it's on a grassy hill and there are no lines. It also offers a helping of real life that will restore your parched soul. On the workshop stage, live musicians keep up a joking patter and a sprinkling of songs. The day I was there, they were concentrating on piano, and some good blues came bopping out onto the sweltering crowd, even though Howard Armstrong, who was playing, said, ''I hope you can hear what I'm gonna say, but it's not going to be enough to keep the flies off ya.''

There was also a bluegrass band, playing to a bigger group; a small exhibition of quilts from the 1880s; and some folk doodads -- animals that looked as if they were made out of tractor parts, pottery, baskets, and carved wood. While the rest of the fair looks to the future in the usual unrealistic style of World's Fairs, the folklife exhibit is comfortably settled back in the past and the present.

Appalachian Foodways, for example, is a complete demonstration kitchen, set up with every ingredient the traditional Appalachian cook could wish for, from carrots to pole beans to bear meat, carefully preserved in Mason jars. I visited on the day of ''the whole hog,'' when Evelyn Badget, of the University of Tennessee college of home economics, cooked everything but the oink. I arrived while she was making chitlins.

An unspectacular show if ever I saw one: a cook slicing up and boiling hog intestines and ''lookin' out'' dandelion greens (going through and making sure they were clean). It was nowhere near finished by the time I got tired of standing around the kitchen. But after hearing two robots discussing Zen in the Japan exhibit, there was something reassuringly real about Mrs. Badget, who muttered that she never really liked chitlins, told with some satisfaction about finding a worm in her mother-in-law's greens, and gave me a delicious hunk of corn bread.

At the other end of the fair is the Family FunFair, which you pay for by buying coupon books. There are those who deride the Knoxville World's Fair as just a big overgrown carnival. That would be fine by this reporter. The anguish of a day among robots in the asphalt gully was magically washed away by a cool, breezy ride (for three 50-cent coupons and a comparatively short wait of 15 minutes) on the 17-story Ferris wheel. The Tennessee River, the wooded hills and cliffs, and the rooftops of the University of Tennessee make a fine view, and my companions, two terrified teen-age boys and a calm Southern grandma, were delightful.

As the lights twinkled on and the crowds sank away 162 feet under my hot, dusty shoes, I realized that the best way to visit the World's Fair would be exactly the way I did it, only backward. Stay away from the east gate at 10 a.m., opening time. Enter through the southwest gate at dusk, take a ride on the Ferris wheel, and then amble in to the fair proper when it is dark and cooler. You can eavesdrop better on Tennessee talk, the lines are shorter, and there is less danger of a riot among those waiting for ice cream sandwiches. See one or two pavilions and wend your way up the hill to the Appalachian exhibit before everything closes at 10. Someone is liable to feed you a hunk of corn bread, play you a tune, or crack you a joke.

There are special days and weeks for various participating nations at the fair, during which the crowds will be parted by parades and festivities in the appropriate accents.

The US shines forth on June 28 to July 4, of course; Japan, July 12-18; Peru, July 26-Aug. 1; People's Republic of China, Aug. 2-8; to and many others.

The Folklife exhibit is having its own theme weeks, such as Storytelling Week , June 7-13; Native American Week, Aug. 2-8; Women's Culture Week, Sept. 6-12; Coal Mining Week, Sept. 13-19; Harvest Week, Oct. 11-17; and Family Week, Oct. 18-24.

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