A silver helicopter whooshes down from the Williamsburg skies, ruffling the dust around the orange brick arsenal built in 1715 on Queen Anne's orders. The helicopter carries presidential planners from the White House, a structure that didn't even exist when Her Majesty commanded that the octagonal Magazine be built to house arms and ammunition for her American colony.
By May 28, the 18th-century quiet of these skies will have been shattered by fleets of 20th-century helicopters, their puttering metal whine announcing the arrival of heads of state and their retinues for the 1983 summit of industrialized nations here.
Already in press shorthand it's the Williamsburg summit, like the Versailles summit last year, the Ottawa summit in 1981. It is that annual gathering (since 1975) of world leaders to talk face to face about international problems in a picturesque setting. This summit will include heads of state from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, West Germany, Japan, and Italy and the president of the Commission of European Communities.
By June 1, pictures of Williamsburg's Colonial bricks, knee breeches, and powdered wigs will have flashed around the world as nearly 3,000 members of the news media file stories from this spot drenched in American history. It was 200 years ago in Williamsburg, the capital of Great Britain's largest colony, Virginia, that the American Revolution was hatched. At the Virginia Convention on May 15, 1776, Founding Fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and Patrick Henry called for a Declaration of Independence from King George III's rule; it resulted in the birth of the nation July 4, when the Continental Congress in Philadelphia approved its own Declaration of Independence.
But if history were the only factor in a US summit site, the summiteers might all have been meeting in the shadow of Plymouth Rock. Versailles is a tough act to follow - pourquoi Williamsburg? Michael McManus, administrator of the summit, explains there were other factors:
He says President Reagan, after Versailles, had wanted a characteristically American site, preferably out West under the Big Sky. The President preferred some place like Jackson Hole, Wyo., or Yosemite, in California, although nearly 100 site possibilities were considered, including other historic areas such as Old Sturbridge Village (Mass.) and Mystic Seaport (Conn.). There are also stories that some of the other Californians in the administration campaigned to have it in their home state; and while a Disneyland summit might have been memorable, Mr. McManus says it was the Coronado Hotel in San Diego they had in mind.
''But logistically,'' he explains, ''we needed several factors: nearness to an international airport, plenty of hotel rooms, a communications system. So we began to focus in our own backyard . . . .'' And Williamsburg won. It was the site of a formal state dinner for the 200th anniversary of the Yorktown victory in 1981 and had, over the years, played capable host to dozens of visiting heads of state.
The world attention that will be focused on Williamsburg is a public relations dream for this 18th-century restoration village. And it is a logistics nightmare for the summit office staff of 75, who are in charge of the care, feeding, protocol, security, transportation, lodging, and communications of the approximately 5,000 people who will descend like a plague of benevolent locusts on this sleepy Virginia town.
McManus says the summit office plans to keep the price tag for this summit low, even lower than previous summits, at under $7 million, ''through the use of modern management tools and tremendous response from the private sector.'' He says corporations such as IBM and some of the major auto companies are lending typewriters, copying machines, and cars for the delegations. Meanwhile, the dairy, biscuit, soft drink, poultry, and meat associations are contributing food for the press, which the host country is required to supply.
The French found their bill for Versailles so formidable (primarily because of press feeding costs) that they wouldn't even discuss it, McManus says. Initial plans for a fast-food press setup in the style of McDonald's or Burger King on a local tennis court have been scrapped in favor of computerized feeding by Shamrock Associates, which does catering for nearby William and Mary College.
McManus says the biggest challenge for summit planners ''is the overall coordination for eight of the most important people in the world: caring for them, along with their staffs, while maintaining two 24-hour switchboards and round-the-clock transportation. It's comparable to being in charge of handling a small town for three days.''
Summitsville at Williamsburg will include US President Ronald Reagan, French President Francois Mitterrand, the United Kingdom's prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, Italian Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani, and the president of the Commission of European Communities, Gaston Thorn. It will also include foreign ministers and finance ministers from each country. With backup staff and others, the summit office estimates 2,000. The nearly 3,000 members of the press who have credentials to cover any statement by the eight newsmakers present a historic case of media overkill. As one veteran of nearly every summit since America's first in San Juan, Puerto Rico, points out, the press, except for the pool reporters, is never allowed near the newsmakers all weekend, until the final statement. Generally, he says, each nation will brief its own press in its own language, and then some reporters will share information with fellow reporters from other countries.
These massed choruses of the media will file their stories from press headquarters in a $1.2 million conversion of a gymnasium at historic William and Mary College (1716), where air conditioning has been freshly installed. The gym also holds 60 telex machines, 300 telephones, delegation briefing rooms, a central platform for joint statements, a computerized message center, currency exchange, travel desk, and post office. No VDTs (video display terminals), says summit press director Anne Haskell, as she ticks off all the facilities. The two miles of extra telephone cable needed for the meeting will be a tasteful Williamsburg green, to blend with the scenery.
As visitors to 173-acre Colonial Williamsburg know, ''the historic area'' at the heart of the town is unblemished by a single TV antenna or telephone pole. It contains the 88 original historic buildings which are the core of the restoration brought to life in 1926 by John D. Rockefeller Jr., who lived in the village at Bassett Hall. He was the Daddy Warbucks of Williamsburg, who gave $60 million to re-create this glimpse of history.
There is a sense of ''Brigadoon,'' the mythical Scottish village, about Williamsburg. This is particularly true if you stroll through it in the early evening, before the cars forbidden during the day arrive but after the busloads of tourists leave. It is very still then, so still you can hear the crunch of the ground-up clamshells that cover the paths under your feet. The white frame buildings with their austere beauty line the unpaved streets silent as struck sets on the back lot of a movie studio. Just as you think the village is deserted, a Colonial dame in a white gown and ruffled mop cap comes around a corner, walks up on a shuttered porch, checks her mailbox, and enters the house. A light goes on inside.
Down the road at historic Bruton Parish Church, the grass is a thick, spongy green from three centuries of growth. The churchyard of this Episcopal church is full of old magnolias and hollies with knotted roots, and with the worn gray headstones of centuries. A well-trodden path leads to a granite monument to the Confederate soldiers who fell in the battle of Williamsburg in 1862.
The brick of Bruton Parish Church, like that of the other original, restored buildings is the color of peach dust: a pale, mellow orange that has been sandblasted by time. The church's ancient bell tolled to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
It was a rector of this church, W.A.R. Goodwin, who was responsible for interesting John D. Rockefeller Jr. in the restoration of Williamsburg and who helped him plan it. The church is still active today, its parishioners worshiping amid the tourists. It will not, however, be the site of a ''Prayer for Peace'' service originally scheduled for the summit but canceled when some unnamed foreign officials objected to the mingling of government and religion.
Off Duke of Gloucester Street, down the road from Bruton Parish, rises one of the scheduled sites of activities during the summit - the Governor's Palace. Originally designed as a governor's mansion, it was dubbed ''palace'' in 1720 by colonists who resented the additional taxes levied upon them by the British crown for its construction. The Palace, like the other major summit site, the Capitol, is a reconstruction half a century old, not a restoration. It is a majestic orange and gray brick building built in 1930 on the site of the old palace, which burned in 1781. Its authenticity was aided by such things as a floor plan sketched by Thomas Jefferson in 1779.
While the summiteers pore over affairs of state, some of their staffs may take the guided tours of the palace and capitol. At the Palace, this correspondent took a tour led by a young woman in a peony silk gown with Colonial panniers (modified hoop skirts) and a white ruffled cap. She asked a man in the tourist group to act as ''mayor,'' and to bring a Williamsburg citizens' petition to Lord Botetourt. The petition implores this last English governor not to transfer their Virginia customs house away to a muddy little town called Richmond. ''Hopefully, the governor will not be too busy this morning to see us,'' she told the ''mayor'' with the petition. But the governor was too busy, an aide in emerald knee breeches informed us. Then the tour began in earnest in a vast entry hall glittering with over 600 crossed swords, rifles, bayonets, and antique muskets covering the mahogany paneled walls and ceiling. We toured his lordship's bedrooms, library, and a blue dining room, where his ''butler'' dressed us down as a group of servants who had spilled the gravy and hadn't polished our shoe buckles.
These dramatizations of 18th-century life, complete with costumed actors, are part of a recent emphasis at Williamsburg on making history entertaining. They may be an effective answer to theme parks for the hundreds of children who tour Williamsburg daily in school groups; adults may find the play-acting a bit simplistic. A late-afternoon reenactment of a Colonial muster, however, with a fife-and-drum corps, soldiers in tricorn hats, and a black cannon belching smoke , delights everyone. So does a glimpse of the Palace kitchen where a cook, her hands dusty with flour, makes apple bread and tends a duck sizzling on a spit.
Williamsburg is strewn with quaint shops and reenactments of everything from candle-dipping to blacksmithing. If you tire of it all, you can plop down in a Colonial garden and sniff the chives or lavender in the wind. in the Colonial reconstructions of taverns, the atmosphere includes waiters in livery and strolling musicians in costume singing 18th-century ballads. Colonial ambiance is a cottage industry in Williamsburg, which employs 3,000 people to maintaim its historic atmosphere. A Williamsburg Foundation produces books, records, a magazine, films, exhibits, and educational programs.
Even with a $90 million endowment and a nonprofit status, Colonial Williamsburg has business pressures. Its normal attendance of a million people annually was down about 50,000 to 950,000 last year because of the recession. There was a deficit of between half a million and $1 million in the 1982 budget of $21 million, says press bureau director Albert Louer. He points out that Williamsburg is in competition with theme parks like Disneyland as ''a vacation destination, and we give some kind of entertainment, but we also work hard to give a quality experience.'' He estimates that a family of four on a budget can stay at a campsite or economy motel and do Williamsburg's on a $50 a day, tour tickets included ($10 to 15 for adults, $5 and $7.50 for children). Those who stay at Williamsburg's own facilities, the motel at the Williamsburg Information Center two miles from the historic district, the Lodge, or the posh Williamsburg Inn, will find that rooms alone go for $59 to $65 a night at the motor house, $ 70 to $105 at the Lodge, and $92 to $130 at the Inn.
Of course, lodging is not a problem for the summiteers, who will be housed comfortably if quaintly in some of the historic homes of Williamsburg. And secure. The historic area will be sealed off by security forces a few days before the summit and Colonial Williamsburg will be closed to the public that Memorial Day weekend. Unlike the situation in some previous summit sites, there is no natural moat or drawbridge to keep the entire town at a remove from the press and public. Colonial dames and townies mingle normally in the larger town of Williamsburg, of which Colonial Williamsburg's restoration is a part. For the summit, townspeople who live within the historic section (most of them are foundation employees) have had security checks. Their names will be listed at sealed checkpoints so that they may enter and leave their homes.Just as delicate as the matter of security for visiting heads of state is the problem of feeding them in the style to which they're accustomed. The expert on that will be Thessalonians Judkins, the Williamsburg Inn's room-service captain and VIP specialist, whose father, a Methodist minister, christened another brother Proverbs. Mr. Judkins, a 45-year veteran, is as discreet as a diplomat; he doesn't divulge anything about the tastes of the summit's heads of state. But he does mention the time Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia, recovering from an illness, wanted only home-cooked food: boiled fowl, cracked veal bone with marrow, and apple streusel, all prepared as his security men stood over the stove. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who had his private cook with him at the historic Adam Byrd House, shipped in his own food - milk, cheese, veal, chicken, rice, and exotic seasonings. Emperor Hirohito of Japan had his own beverage and food taster, who stood behind him sampling each item before he ate it.Summit heads of state, tasters or not, will be dining on some of the typical Tidewater dishes that make this section famous for its cooking: Virginia hams, Southern fried chicken, oysters, crabs, shad, bluefish, breads (spoonbread, corn bread, and Sally Lunn), peanut soup, grits, and pecan pie. With food like that, they may be too full to climb to the peak of the summit.