THEY HAD a big celebration at Ashland Oil Co. last week. While other companies were forced to report windfall profits, Ashland had to announce a downturn for the third quarter from the previous year.

When a top Ashland executive told the directors that profits had declined by 14.5 percent everyone in the room applauded.

"How on earth did we do it?" a board member wanted to know.

"I guess we're just lucky," the executive replied. "We have no overseas operations, and that's where the big money came from for the other oil companies."

"Exxon must be burning up," another director said. "By being down 14 percent we now have the best public image in the country. No one can call us obscene. We're very proud of management for our lousy showing."

"We can't take all the credit, sir," the executive replied. "You see we had two hurricanes, and this really hurt our construction division. Then our coal operation has gone to the dogs. Also since we don't produce crude, we've had to replenish our inventories. Compared to the other oil companies I would say we've had a miserable year."

"You're being too modest," another board member said. "It takes ingenuity for an oil company not to show any windfall during this period. I got a call from the White House yesterday congratulating us. The president said if everyone did as badly as we did, he wouldn't have any problems decontrolling oil."

The executive said, "I'm being bombarded with calls from the other oil companies accusing us of publicizing our losses just to make them look greedy. They're boiling mad."

"That's just too bad," someone said. "They should have thought of that before they started raking in all that money. Exxon, Texaco and Gulf are being portrayed in the press as the highway robbers of America. At least everyone from Ashland can look at himself in the mirror when he shaves in the morning."

"I'll second that," another board member said. "The Seven Sister oil companies are jealous of us because we refused to make windfall profits. They would like to be in our spot, but they don't have the know-how."

The Ashland executive said, "The only peope who seem to be questioning our relatively poor showing are our stockholders."

"I don't think that's a big problem. You can't put a price on the goodwill that we engendered last week. When someone sees an Ashland logo in front of a station, they know that we're not ripping them off."

"I understand about hurricanes and the coal mines," a board member said. "But surely there must be other reasons we're not rolling in petro dollars."

The executive said, "The real big money in oil comes from production. The companies that have their own oil wells can fiddle and faddle and get $30 or $40 for a barrel on the spot to market in Europe. Those of us without our own curde have to count our profits in pennies."

"Well, let's keep it that way," a board member said. "Let the other guys face the wrath of the American people. We'll sit back and enjoy our piddling gains in style. I propose the board give our management team a vote of confidence for what they have done in the last quarter, and urge them to keep the profit picture as bleak as possible for the coming fiscal year."

The board voted unanimously to pass the resolution.

The Ashland executive was so moved that all he could say was "You won't be sorry for your trust. The day this company makes a windfall is the day that I resign."