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Ticky-tacky testament

My husband and I sat at a table in the ''model home'' of a proposed new tract of houses, nervously preparing to sign our lives away, as we kiddingly told each other. We had no idea we were signing up to become famous - or notorious - in song and on film.

With the exception of the five models, nothing would be completed before another six months. We chose our model from one of the tract maps after reading - and perhaps doubting - the rosy promises made in the attractive brochures.

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We'd done our homework, checking with City Hall officials and planning commissions, and we'd studied smog charts over the Los Angeles Basin.

This, we hoped, was the place for us. A city was rising where once there had been nurseries and strawberry farms as far as the eye could see.

We'd been afraid of moving into a tract house; leery of looking out of a window and seeing nothing but other houses or other roofs. But as we were among the early buyers, we had first choice of the southern exposure we wanted. When the house finally was built, it bordered the property of an elementary school, which was to be erected in time for our two children to begin their education. Eventually the school's playing field and green lawn backed up against our yard, and later our daughters would climb over the fence at lunch time or when school was out. In the distance, a few homes were visible on the Palos Verdes hills.

It is now almost 30 years since we bought the house under the GI Bill. As my husband rose in his field of teaching, we were able to manage the payments and later to extend the loan to enlarge the house. (It had been more than adequate as a beginning.)

The other families in the tract had been in about the same situation; good people, willing to help each other after initial awkwardness. We were all aware that property needed to be maintained and upgraded; that if, in keeping it up, we'd need to do without we could do so. We shared the expense - no small thing at the time - of fences built on the property lines. (''Good fences make good neighbors.'')

Then, after we'd been settled here for a while, the campaign of commiseration began. Articles appeared in newspapers and magazines; there was even a song, even a documentary film. They all told in terrible detail the awfulness of living in what the song and film described as ''ticky-tacky houses.''

You could hardly pick up a periodical without coming upon some pitying diatribe: against the builders who, they said, built these tasteless houses only for profit; against the life the residents were inevitably living; against the people themselves who were compared to Barbie dolls. The film about the ticky-tacky houses actually used dolls, instead of people, to demonstrate the tasteless, sterile existence of the inhabitants.

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And that song! Oh, that song! It was sung by folk singers, who decried our lot. The only things comparable today are the sad songs calling attention to the plight of seals and whales. The singers, of course, meant well: They were trying to save us from ourselves.

Architects, sociologists, city planners, writers, all had a field day. From their towers, they saw our homes as boxes and (in the film) ingeniously depicted the men as emerging to go to work at the exact same hour, dressed in identical clothes, getting into carbon copy cars, and driving away from the cardboard houses, while cardboard wives waved them off.

The truth doesn't come close to this melange. Of the 24 families on this street, there are teachers, a writer, a landscape painter, a highly successful businesswoman, a sheriff, aerospace engineers, a moderately big-time industrialist; not a Xerox copy in the lot. (In less than a week, Smitty across the street had repainted the trim on his house, creating a little mayhem on the color-coordination the builders had carefully devised!)

What alternative to living in a tract house was offered by the planners, the architects, the sociologists? ''Better nothing!'' The only house fit to live in, they said, must be built on your own piece of land. One of a kind. Custom designed. Individual. Form must follow function.

At the time the cost of houses as specified by these experts began somewhere in the vicinity of $40,000. Our tract homes began at $13,000, and, on a teacher's pay way back then, even $13,000 meant a lot of stretching budgets and doing without (and happily).

It got so that we didn't want to admit we lived in a tract house. ''Just a little place,'' we'd evade. ''Well, it's a roof over our heads.'' (Three bedrooms, two baths, with a good-sized yard both front and rear.) How we hated being pitied as poor fools who didn't know better. Aerial views of entire tracts of houses showed acres of rooftops; just looking at the films seemed to shut off one's breath. These photos appeared to justify the experts' denunciations, to prove they jump here

cc23pknew what they were talking about. Theirs were theories on paper; ours were lives to be lived.

Common sense, of course, eventually prevailed. But, until it did, we expected the house to fall down around our ears; this it refused to do. Much later, when we wanted to change the drain-board tile, the craftsman said ruefully: ''I just can't get it loose. They don't build houses like this anymore.''

Is our house simply a staunch defector from the experts' dire forecasts? Not at all. They're all - at least in this tract - fine. The original promises of the builders have been more than fulfilled.

Whereas, in the film, the ticky-tacky streets were shown barren of more than postage-stamp-size green in front of each pretend house - as if nothing could grow in such a wasteland - trees now arch over the street creating a cool leafy tunnel from spring until late October. Landscapes are to say the least imaginative, from rock gardens to mischievous topiary animals.

As to the implied tackiness of the people, they never were plastic. They are real flesh and bone and sensibility; chance neighbors who became good, caring friends.

We, at any rate, are grateful we ignored the experts, for instead of the predicted slums, our roofs - almost paid for! - can, of late, be said to be made of solid money.

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