The operation was scheduled for 8 a.m. on Tuesday, but my instructions were to report to New York University's Medical Center the Sunday morning before. Instead of enjoying a good dinner and a broadway show on Saturday night, we had to settle for the Automat and an early bedtime.

Why the early check-in? Every hospital wants its patients to sign in early because "pre-op prepping" takes time.

Part of the prepping, I soon learned, was the removal of all hair from the front of my body "from chin to toes," a project not unlike shaving a gorilla. The shaving was done by a man who was apparently late for an appointment elsewhere.

He used a safety razor and a lubricant that looked loke soapy water but wasn't as effective as soapy water wouldhave been.

By the time he finished, my anterior was marked with a dozen nicks and cuts and I looked like a skinned rabbit.

The shaving man had no sooner departed than a nurse arrived and announced cheerfully that her mission was to obtain a blood sample from me.

"1'm sorry," I said, "but I think you're too late."

That didn't deter her of course. She drew off what I assumed was the last of my blood and assured me that by the time I digested my next meal, my body would manufacture a full replacement for the blood she had taken.

At the time, I didn't believe her, but in retrospect it appears that she may have been telling the truth. For the next 18 days, blood was drawn from me daily and sometimes twice a day - great vats of blood, it seemed. But I never ran out. Amazing!

On the Monday night before the operation, my surgeon returned from a month-long fishing vacation and stopped by to see me. "The catheterization they did on you in Washington makes it plain that you need a new valve," he said. "But I'm not so sure we ought to bypass that blocked artery. After we get you opened up and see what's what, maybe we'll do the bypass as an encore."

"Just tell me one thing," I said. "Did you really spend your vacation fishing and come back with a clear eye and a steady hand, or did you stay up all night drinking beer and playing poker?"

He grinned impishly and held out a right hand that trembled like the back fender on a Model T. "I really fished," he said, "and I'm in great shape. I hope that by tomorrow at this time you will be, too. Right now, you'd better get some sleep."

Sleep the night before open-heart surgery? Well, what the hell, why not? I was in the hands of a man my family doctor and cardiologist considered the best in his field. I had great confidence in him. Why worry?

I slept soundly that night. The next morning I was given some medication, placed on a wheeled cot, and taken to another part of the hospital. At approximately 7:45 a.m., the cot was parked in a corridor - presumably outside an operating room.

"Well," I said to myself, "I suppose that in a couple of minutes they'll wheel me inside. I guess I ought to be apprehensive now, but I'm not. I'm just sleepy. They told me all I had to do was show up, and the rest would be a piece of cake. Nothing to it. These days, they do open-heart surgery routinely. So why worry? Maybe there's time for a little snooze before they . . ."

I never did see the inside of that operating room. I was asleep by the time they wheeled me in - with the Angel of Death invisibly perched on the foot of my cot. Somewhere On High, the word was out that Bill Gold was scheduled to suffer a heart attack in the next few minutes. And he did.

I wasn't until almost three weeks later that I was told what happened that Tuesday morning. Soon after the surgeon opened my chest, I had a coronary. My left leg was quickly slit open, an artery removed from it, and a coronary bypass procedure begun. If one is destined to have a heart attack, there is apparently no better time for it than when the patient's chest is already open.

I escaped unscathed from an attack that in other circumstances would - at best - have left me with serious heart damage.

A fisherman with a clear eye and a steady hand had done his job flawlessly, and even if I someday get all the bills paid, I will be forever in his debt.

The unsung hero in this case, as in so many others, was the family physician. It was he who first noted changes in my heart when I felt no paind and had no hint there was anything wrong. Without him, I wouldn't be here today.