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''The Spanish Civil War vets saw World War II coming,'' said Terkel over breakfast near Union Square. ''They were left-wingers who tried to stop Hitler and were criticized in America for being 'premature antifascists.' Had they succeeded in Spain, there might not have been a World War II.''

He speared a bite of grapefruit.

''Many of them went back and fought in World War II. They were real heroes. Irv Goff was Hemingway's Jordan (in the novel ''For Whom the Bell Tolls''), played by Gary Cooper'' in the 1943 film of the same name.



* When he comes to San Francisco, Terkel takes a $44 upper-story room at the Beresford Hotel. He likes the creaky elevators, the no-frills bedroom furniture, the peeling red flocked wallpaper. In short, he says, he likes ''its tattered elegance.''

We met early one morning in the Beresford's dining room, which is shaped like a bowling alley and furnished in ersatz Victorian. Terkel, a short, portly fellow, was comfortably dressed in gray Hush Puppies; red argyles; slate trousers; and what has become his unofficial uniform, a red-checkered, button-down shirt.

Terkel is warm, passionate, theatrical, and brimming with irreverence. He is kind, but occasionally abrasive. He loves to laugh and to gab. His free association with words is like a jamming jazz musician. He an intelligent raconteur with an actor's knack for recitation; Terkel is capable of quoting anyone from Shakespeare to Beckett. After a few minutes, one begins to feel he is seated across the table from a one-man talk show.

That particular morning, the New York Times had featured a story on its arts page about the recent Broadway revival of an Arthur Miller play, ''View from the Bridge.'' As it turns out, Miller is an old friend of Terkel, who in 1958 played the role of Eddie Carbone, the working-class Italian-American protagonist in Miller's waterfront drama.

Never one to bypass an opportunity to spin another yarn, at breakfast Terkel recounted the play's disastrous dress rehearsal:

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