While other Eastern European countries seem to be following the Soviet lead in adopting limited democracies, the news out of Romania still reflects the old hard-line brand of communism. The situation there reminds me of an urban legend I heard when visiting the country some years ago.

Today in Romania the government reportedly continues the surveillance of citizens and the repression of dissent, and it has accelerated its program of destroying whole villages and neighborhoods in order to replace them with "collectives" and high-rise apartments.The story I heard in Bucharest in 1981 dealt with living in such an apartment and reflected typical government controls at that time.

Supposedly two young men with official-looking credentials, or wearing badges or uniforms of some kind, went around to apartment units in a section of high-rises in the capital city.

At each apartment the men explained that they were the city "air inspectors."

Government bureaucrats - often sporting outfits or badges - are common in Romania. And Romanians are familiar enough with endless government regulations and checkups to believe that household air inspection was a plausible reason for entry. After all, even room temperature is regulated during the winter.

Also, air pollution has been a growing problem, now worse than ever, I understand.

The young men would ask a person in each apartment to provide a clean glass bottle or jar for the inspection. Then they would swing the container around in the air of the apartment and affix a labeled paper cover.

The "air inspectors" repeated this throughout the day in hundreds of apartments, until they had accumulated a huge number of clean empty jars and bottles.

At the end of the day the bogus air inspectors were said to have taken their loot to one of the many bottle-return depots in Bucharest and collected the deposits on them.

This might seem like a great deal of effort for a few cents per bottle, but collecting empties in order to redeem the deposits is a common practice in Romania, especially among children, Gypsies and the poor.

No Romanian throws empty glass containers away, and virtually every kind of container - from jam jars to beer bottles - requires a deposit. The redemption centers display posters showing the entire range of returnable glassware, and each day lines form of people matching their empties to the pictures in order to collect the fees.

I heard the story told several times in the area of Bucharest where I was staying, always from someone who knew a friend who had an acquaintance who supposedly had been taken in by the air-sampling scam. I never met a witness.

Believing that this was an urban legend characteristic of Romania, perhaps even unique to that country, I mentioned it in a talk I gave on modern folklore to some Romanian folklorists.

Most of them doubted that "The Air Samplers" was a legend - because, they said, it was possibly true, and because I lacked variations of the story.

I argued that the sampling method described sounded less than scientific, that the story was never verified by a witness and that I expected to hear a variation eventually.

Then one man in the audience, with a puzzled look on his face, spoke up: "But I thought that really happened in my own apartment building, on the other side of the city from where you heard it."

In his version, the young men had claimed to be water inspectors. "I wondered at the time," the man commented, "how they managed to carry so many bottles full of water around without spilling them."

Had this man actually met anyone who had been visited by the water inspectors?

Well, no, he had not. But he did have a friend who said he had a neighbor who had presumably given them a bottle.

I'm not sure how well "FOAF" would translate into Romanian, but that's surely what this source represents - just another friend of a friend.

(C) 1989 United Feature Syndicate Inc.