You soon learn to stop rescuing people who gabble along and blunder. You learn eventually that it's not really your Christian duty to set everybody at ease.

But in my twenties I never knew that and was forever sticking my foot in my mouth, simply in an effort to help people out.

Guess what, I told my bride in 1949, Bill and his new wife are coming to supper if next Friday suits you, and sure enough they came.

As the evening went along nicely, with many a reminiscence about school, it seemed to me Bill kept hinting at an apology for not having sent my wife a wedding present.

Now you understand I am terribly subtle and sensitive to nuances of meaning in conversation and I thought the time had come to set old Bill at ease:

"Well, hell, Bill," I said raring back, a very model of camaraderie, "everybody we know is getting married, and sure, we'd like to send presents when our old buddies go down the drain. But you take you and me. We're just starting out on a dime a week (I was then employed at The Washington Star) and what could you or I send a bride? It takes all we got just to stay fed.

"Besides, if we busted a gut and sent something, it couldn't be anything but a goddam mustard pot or something, and we got 17 of those."

My bride, just then, gave me a Red Alert glance, a warning signal she has since perfected.

"We just adore," she cried out with that hoked-up enthusiasm born of terror, "that darling jam pot you sent us, Bill. We use it every day."

Well it was news to me. How was I supposed to know Bill sent us one of those 17 mustard pots or jam jars or whatever they were? I do remember they cost $14 and had a curved spoon sticking out the top, ending with a strawberry or a grape or an acorn. Galt had them on sale for $5 a few weeks before we got married. Seventeen kind friends bought one.

Eh. Today, all these decades later, I wonder what happened to the 17 jam jars. My wife has a thing about never giving anybody something you got as a present, so I know we didn't unload them on other brides and grooms, but I don't see any around the house. I guess we've been through a lot of chutney and raspberry and just wore them all out.

Then once in Tennessee we had a dance at our house for the school band in which our boy had the honor to play trombone. It was a junior-high band and the kids were all about 14. The furniture was moved out, the record player double-checked and the Bach fugues carefully stored out of harm's way, since the young folk were going to bring their own records, several thousand of them, including the Beatles who were quite new and quite the thing.

The mother of another lad in the band (he played trumpet, I well remember) was in exile in the kitchen with me and said:

"Oh, those Beatles. Aren't they frightful. Obscene, really, and you can't understand a word they're singing."

She rattled on for a while, and the record changed for the worse, and I didn't want her to think I wasn't interested in what she was saying, though the truth was I didn't give a fried fantasia what the kids played. It was their bash, not mine, and they were getting greasy with fried chicken and hollering and the whole scene was supremely mad, anyway, and my only job was to make sure the house wasn't knocked down and nobody got into any serious fights. But to show my interest -- merely to make polite conversation with Mother o' Trumpet, I screamed over the din:

"Oh you're right, of course. Still, the Beatles have a sort of innocence, don't you think? And at least they don't sound as awful as that spavined goat having his throat cut, the one that's bleating now."

"That," she said, "is my older son. He has a great future in music. He cut that record last month in Nashville. They all told him up there he'll go far."

We never got on well after that.

We went to a wedding, not long after, of an actress and a theater director. I had to leave the church, overcome with a fit of coughing when the soprano started pawing her way through some palm trees and a lot of candles, "leap out of the garden and into my heart" and she kept feeling around for the hole in the greenery and finally emerged like a white jungle cat. So I was out on the church steps recovering and missed the big show:

Just after the bride's mother had settled in her seat and there was a hush awaiting the gorgeous actress, in marched a tall, slender woman swathed head to heel in about 30 yards of cloth of gold, with rockets of diamonds coming out her hair. She walked in slowly -- she was just another guest -- and finally sat down near the front. After her entrance, the bride was scarcely noticed when she finally marched in.

My wife was chatting with an older couple while I parked the car at the reception.

"Wasn't it a lovely wedding," said the lady, and my wife said oh yes, so lovely, and then, in one of those bursts of enthusiasm and honesty that have made her social life so rich over the years:

"And did you see that simpering little baggage come prancing in at the last minute, all wrapped up in gold like a mummy?"

"That was our daughter," said the couple.

"You're kidding," cried my wife, "but what a comeback. She really was, etc. etc." My poor wife never dreamed anybody you might actually meet would have a daughter who would upstage a bride on her wedding day. But they weren't kidding. It really was their daughter.

"And she really did look like a mummy," my wife said at home that night.

"So much the worse," I growled at her. "It's when it's true that it's unforgivable."

Hearing myself say this, I instantly perceived the truth of it. And from that day on -- for all these hard lessons I learned in youth -- I have kept my mouth shut on all occasions, and have never since offended anybody, and never since had to taste my own shoe leather. graphics /illustration: How was I supposed to know Bill sent us one of those 17 mustard pots. (By Susan Davis for TWP)