The first letter I opened yesterday was from May Golder, who wrote: "My husband had been seriously ill, and recently passed away. In paying some of his bills, I sent a check that was quite sizable to one of his doctors as part payment.

"My check was returned to me with a beautiful letter of condolence that ended with this paragraph: 'I am returning your check. Consider your account paid in full. At this time of your life you need not be burdened by concern for such mundane matters.'"

I think I know just how Mrs. Golder reacted to that letter. The surgeon's fee for my heart valve and bypass operation was $3,000. I left a check for $1,000 for him before I checked out of New York University Hospital and left word that I'd send the rest as soon as I got home and mortgaged the World's Greatest Grandchildren.

A few days after I returned to Washington, I received a letter from the surgeon, who had just discovered that I was a fund-raiser for Children's Hospital. "Consider your bill paid," he wrote. "Anybody who raises money for needy children deserves a break."

I didn't take advantage of his generosity, but it sure did make my tired old heart feel better.

The next letter was from Dorothye K. Servais. She lost her card case. There was nothing in it to worry about except her credit cards, driver's license, ID cards and other valuables.

But Dorothye worried anyhow, even as you and I would have, until P. K. Stone of Rockville turned up at her door. He had found the card case and had hastened to return it to its owner. Dorothye is grateful.

The next few letters were on other subjects. Then I came to a note from Lowell F. Padgett of Manassas, who began to develop a severe toothache a few nights ago. "Nothing helped," he wrote. "Never in my life have I encountered such dental pain."

By midnight, he was desperate. He called a nearby dentist at his home, expecting that at best he'd be "worked in" before the dentist's first appointment in the morning.

Imagine his surprise when the dentist's reaction was one of genuine concern and helpfulness. By 12:30 a.m., Lowell was sitting in the dentist's operating chair, and a few minutes later "the tooth and the problems were gone. oOh, what sweet relief!"

Lowell expected to pay a fancy fee for getting that dentist out of bed, but the dentist wouldn't hear of it. His regular fee was all he'd take, and Lowell thinks Dr. Hilliard W. Freeman is one in a million.

I found myself wondering whether there was something strange in the air or whether it was just a figment of my imagination. And as I wondered, I came upon a letter from Tony Merrill that began with the words, "Something odd seems to be going on in my end of town." He went on to explain:

"It began just before Christmas when I went to the Mazza Gallerie to buy stamps at the temporary postal facility that had been placed there. The young woman at the counter was pleasant, charming, courteous and gracious. Gracious!

"Then the young man at the Chevy Chase McIntyre Hardware Store took several minutes to answer my questions about a restaurant in the area, describing several choice items on the menu and adding that the selection was 'eclectic.' Yes, eclectic, so help me!

"Last Saturday, I drove a busy clerk at the Connecticut Avenue Radio Shack almost to distraction with an inadvertent indecision on my part. He had gone to some pains to find just what I wanted, and had filled out my Visa form and phoned in for verification. When I changed my mind, he cheerfully filled out another form for credit. He couldn't have been nicer.

"Yesterday, at Baker's photo store, I stood by as a camera specialist patiently explained to a woman just how to operate her Christmas gift camera, which had been bought elsewhere. Then he gave me equal time and patience on a repair item on which his store will receive about $5.

"My walking axis is from Spring Valley to Chevy Chase Circle. I find that people often say 'Hello' as they pass. When little children do it -- O.K., they don't know any better. But adults? Some of them even look me right in the eye and give forth with a cheerful, honest, straight-out 'Hello.' What the hell's going on in Our Town? Do you reckon that in some subtle way people are getting nicer to one another? Or is Fate using this series of coincidences to set me up for some great human relations catastrophe?"

Tony, I'm as confused as you are.

I don't agree with the theory that people are basically good. Nor do I agree with the aphorism, "People are no damn good."

I think human beings and human nature are unpredictable.

There is good in all of us; there is bad in all of us. And only God can foretell which quality will dominate at any specific moment.