The date was Jan. 24, 1964.

At 1:30 a.m., two men walked into Natoli's Delicatessen and drew guns. As a customer fled unobserved, the gunmen pistol-whipped Natoli and his clerk, locked them in a back room, and took $120 from the cash drawer.

Meanwhile, the fleeing customer notified police of the robbery. Officers Robert D. Handwerk and Paul T. Connors responded. As they entered the door, the gunmen blasted them with pistol fire, killing Handwerk and wounding Connors.Handwerk was 28 years old. He left a wife and two small children.

It was one more tragic chapter in an old story. Robbers have been killing policemen for hundreds of years. But the story took a new turn in the days that followed Handwerk's death.

News accounts emphasized how frequently our policemen and fire-fighters die in the line of duty, and how little help is available to the wives and children they leave behind. People began to chip in money to help Handwerk's survivors, and from that spontaneous gesture of support and sympathy, Heroes, Inc., was born.

Heroes, Inc., looks after the needs of the widows and orphans of this area's policemen and firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty. Funds are doled out carefully, but generously, to help each affected family reorder its life.

Among the anonymous members of Heroes, Inc., are doctors, lawyers, family counselors, investment experts and other specialists. Each is on call to help stricken families cope with their problems.

There is never a charge for these services.

Nor is one penny of contributed funds ever used to pay for operating costs. Members of Heroes, Inc., dig into their own pockets for office rent, telephones, letterheads, printing, clerical help, postage and similar expenses.

This means that all the money the public contributes to Heroes, Inc., is directly available for distribution to the people who are being helped. I know of only one other charitable fund from which nothing was ever deducted for expenses: the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund as it existed in the days when Walter Winchell, Bob Hope, Lindy the New York restaurateur and a few other insiders quietly paid all the operating expenses.

Since the day Robert Handwerk was gunned down, 85 law officers and firefighters have given their lives in our service. The Metropolitan Police Department has suffered by far the heaviest loss: 26 officers. But there is hardly a neighborhood in the metropolitan area that hasn't been affected.

In addition to MPD's 26, the police casualty list has been: Prince George's, eight; Montgomery, five; Montgomery County deputy sheriff, one; Arlington, four; Alexandria, two; Fairfax, one; Virginia State Police, one; Maryland State Police, three; FBI, two; U.S. Park Police, two; Secret Service, one; Washington National Airport Police, one; and two United States marshals. Total: 59 law enforces.

In addition, 26 firefighters died in the line of duty. Five were with the D.C. Fire Department, four with Prince George's, two with Montgomery, one with Bethesda, one with Silver Spring, two with Alexandria, one with Arlington, one with Reston, two with Sandy Spring, two with Chillum-Adelphi, two with Clinton and three with Baden.

Some of these place names might not be familiar to some readers. The Baden Volunteer Fire Department, for example, is not in the news every day. Baden is a little community in Prince George's County. (Go out Branch Avenue and bear left on Brandywine Road as if you were heading for Patuxent.) But in 1973, Baden lost three men in a single day.

That's the way life is for people in law enforcement and firefighting careers. Those who serve us in these jobs never know which summons to duty will be their last. If fate decrees it, they must stand ready to give their lives.

Of the 85 area men and women in blue who have died since Heroes, Inc., came into being, 32 were single, 53 were married. They left 92 dependent children.

Because of your generosity, Heroes, Inc., has been able to promise: "Every one of these children who wants to go to college will get that opportunity." Today, 10 of the children - and two widows - are enrolled in colleges. A dozen other children are nearing college age.

If you would like to help the survivors of those who gave all they had, be advised that your contribution will be tax deductible. Please make your check to the order of Heroes, Inc., and mail it to: Heroes, Inc., P.O. Box 1860, Washington, D.C., 20013. If you don't have the time to write a covering letter, just clip this column and enclose it. The Heroes committee will understand.

Please do it today, before you mislay the mailing address. Thank you.