'How I didn't climb Mt. Everest,' and other tall tales

The sentence seemed to leap out of the gray newsprint: ''Telephone calls yesterday to the Dior office were unavailing.'' One could hear the long, doleful signals in the perfumed air. First, the sustained ring, like a rising inquiry (''Are you there?''). Then the shorter, falling cadence at the end - the dismissive click that says, ''No, I'm not - at least for you.''

How the beseeching rhythm of a ringing phone can test one's capacity to hope! The caller has reached out. The world has responded - with an oblivious buzz.

This particular unavailing phone call happened to involve the litigation Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis just brought against Christian Dior Inc., suing the company for using a Jackie look-alike in an ad without the consent of the original. A fascinating story in its own right, but not the story we're concerned with here.

We're interested in the story of why there is no story, or why, at least, there is not a fuller story. These days a newspaper reader or a TV news watcher is steadily treated in the last paragaph to these odd phrases: ''. . . did not return our calls,'' ''. . . declined to comment,'' ''. . . refused an invitation to appear on this program.''

Interviewers devote large segments of type to describing the difficulties they experienced setting up the interview in the first place. Cooling-heels-in-the-waiting-room has practically turned into a set piece.

One makes news out of one's failure to get the news. Indeed, to explain how you failed to get the news is considered more fascinating than the news itself - by reporters and editors, at any rate.

It's all rather like receiving an A from a professor who is so intrigued by an ingenious excuse for not turning in a term paper that he promotes the excusemaker to the head of the class.

Is this phenomenon restricted to journalism? Of course not. Here is another example of what we have come to call the ''How I didn't climb Mt. Everest'' syndrome.

Your neighborhood supermarket is remodeling itself. Too many customers have been able to find products lately. The time has come to move Aisle A to Aisle C, and vice versa. That'll shake up the basket pushers! Then, right in the middle of the floor, why not throw in a few of those free-standing display cases of cheese and imported biscuits that snarl traffic patterns so cleverly?


But meanwhile, the sign will go up: ''We're sorry for the temporary inconvenience. . . .''

The sign may grow old, cracked, and illegible before the ''temporary inconvenience'' ends - like those similar signs apologizing for road repairs that have been confronting shoppers for months as they bump their way to the supermarket.

With all the signs in place, explaining all the messes, who needs to clear them up?

''We're sorry . . . '' - the phrase has become so famously indispensable that more printed forms and tape-recordings must begin with it than any other phrase.

In the interests of nonsense, Lewis Carroll had Humpty Dumpty chant:

I sent a message to the fish: I told them, ''This is what I wish.'' The little fishes' answer was, ''We cannot do it, Sir, because . . .''

Are we, in all earnestness, adopting the fishes' answer as our operative - or maybe, inoperative - slogan?

Things have not been getting done for centuries - we're not disputing that. Nor are we arguing that people never made excuses before. Who can forget Ring Lardner's Alibi Ike, raising the excuse to a level of genius?

But the excuse used to be the exception. It had to be applied carefully, like credit before the invention of the charge card.

Now the explanation of failure appears to have become institutionalized as a way of life. You can hardly tell it from success. And in important cases as well as trivial.

In the same way that we've come to expect the form (''We're sorry, the item you ordered is out of stock . . .'') instead of the merchandise, we've also come to expect to be told that arms control talks will fail. All we demand is a plausible story - and not too plausible at that. A stately variation on ''telephone calls were unavailing'' will do. And this is sad; this is dangerous.

In another context, John Keats coined the phrase ''negative capability.'' Do we really want to end up as the Age of Negative Capability, set to a chorus of ''Due to circumstances beyond our control . . .''?

We would be sorry, to say the least, if American can-do optimism became an item out of stock.

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