A GOOD BIT depended on her making a good impression at that first interview.

Dian Fossey was a young woman working at occupational therapy, but all her life she had wanted to work with animals, chiefly gorillas. With a little help from her friends, she screwed small courages together, got a loan from a bank (to be repaid in three years) and took off for Africa. She hired a car to the Olduvai Gorge to meet Dr. Louis S.B. Leakey.

She had never laid eyes on him. She had no credentials as an anthropologist or zoologist or anything else, except a passion for gorillas, just as Don Quixote had a terminal passion for knight errantry.

Dr. Leakey and his wife, Mary, received her kindly and listened to her dreams of visiting the mountain gorillas of Africa. They spoke to her of Jane Goodall, who at that time had for three years been studying chimpanzees in the wild, and encouraged her.

At the Leakey station, a rare giraffe fossil had just been found. Fossey was given the privilege of walking down to the site and examining it. As she ran down--exulting beneath the great free sky of Africa--she fell into the hole in which the new fossil was lying. She splintered her ankle. The sudden pain made her vomit on the rare fossil.

Well, that's the way your first interview sometimes goes.

Fossey was lugged back by disgusted laborers. If Fossey had had any sense, or had listened to the (surprisingly sympathetic) Leakeys, she would have given up her trip to see the mountain gorillas.

Instead, two weeks later she taped herself up and traveled on in the bumpy hired car and walked five hours up the mountain where she saw the wonderful beasts and took pictures.

She went back to work to pay off the bank loan, but that was not the end, only the beginning. The Leakeys helped her achieve her dream of getting back to Africa. The National Geographic Society has supported her long-term work.

She lived in the mountains with the gorillas from 1967 to 1980, and her work is now famous through the world.

"I've never worked for a salary," she said when I saw her recently in Washington. "I know some people worry about pension plans and health benefits. But to me, the chance to do the work you dream of, to study what is most important to you, that is everything."

Tune in a few years from now: Will Dian Fossey starve to death in her old age? I doubt it. Bread upon waters, you know.

Dignity is the first word that comes to her mind describing the apes, now down to 240, Fossey estimates. Her book, "Gorillas in the Mist," tells of her life with them.

Suppose in her old age she winds up poor? Well, she never did call herself a prudent accountant. She's done and she's doing the work she does well--"and there are still 67 miles of film to be edited"--and the big deal, when it's all over, is to say to yourself that life was worth living.

Another notable workhorse visiting the town in recent days was Dr. Denton Cooley, the Texas heart surgeon, whose clinic has celebrated its 50,000th performance of open heart surgery. Cooley was the guest of Paul C. Kiernan, prominent local surgeon, who presided over a huge dinner for Cooley at the Chevy Chase Club. Money for scholarships at three medical schools was given by the Mitchell Foundation, which honors outstanding medical men.

Cooley relayed with some relish the long litany of awe at heart surgery from Aristotle on. All the things everybody said could never be done have been done. Well, many of them. Cooley doubts an artificial heart will ever be practical in any foreseeable time. Not in the way an artificial leg is practical. But an artificial heart, which of course has already proved successful for a few weeks in a human patient, may be a lifesaver for a patient awaiting a heart transplant.

I asked him whether it bothered him that perhaps too many medical resources are going to dazzling medical tours de force. Or whether he sees his job as one to help heart patients, period.

He said of course he often thinks about how we handle medical resources. He suggests a perspective: in terms of the price of a battleship, are we really too extravagant in costly heart surgery? (Ans.--No. In case you wondered.)

Cooley is 63, lean and (sorry) gentle. He doesn't jog or gobble Vitamin C or any of that. He doesn't smoke. He can pass for 47.

Recently his wife wanted to give him a surprise, a beach cottage near Galveston. You know real estate transactions, but this one was rammed through in something like an incredible two days start to finish. She gave it to him on a Tuesday. Wednesday the hurricane hit.

"The storm not only blew the house away but the lot, too," he said.

First the cup is missing, then the wine, as you might say. Life has ups and downs for all.

Which brings us, of course, to Secretary James Watt, who spoke of the coal commission membership of a woman, two Jews, a black and a cripple. Several things went wrong in this list, bringing the juggernaut of public shock upon him.

First, don't ask me why, the phrase "two Jews" is not proper, and neither is the word "cripple." You can't say "two Jews" though you can say "two distinguished Jewish leaders." You can still say "a woman" or even "two women," I believe, but if you list them with Jews and cripples and blacks, that is offensive. Why? Because minorities do not care to be identified as minorities except on high rhetorical occasions, and in any case do not like being lumped with other minorities against whom they frequently feel prejudice.

Then there is that form of prudery which consists of being utterly wiped out upon hearing something that is not really horrifying. We Americans are masters at pretending shock, ranking ahead of possums and hedgehogs.

From the outcry, I naturally supposed the secretary had referred to a gang of bimbos, roaring pansies, pinko nervous Nellies and so on.

No doubt the secretary should be boiled in oil since I do not agree with him on many Interior decisions, but this sensible verdict should be reached for the right reasons.

And while we're about it, I have yet to see the turpitude of the secretary's having a small party at Arlington House, an Interior Department responsibility. You'd have thought (if you heard the screams at the time) he had dug up Traveller and made sausage.

There are days I read the American press and say for God's sake come off it already.