When you are a 5-year-old boy, a Pogo-ball toy ranks right up there in importance with Darrell Green and Doug Williams. So when Janie Culos of Potomac discovered that the Zayre's store in Wheaton had the last Pogo-ball in all of Montgomery County, she piled 5-year-old Robert and his 8-year-old brother Chris into the car and started driving.

As Janie was paying for Pogo, Chris started fiddling around with a nearby gumball machine. Robert naturally tried to copy his big brother. But when Robert reached up through the opening and into the body of the machine, his arm got stuck.

As Robert's screams filled the store, Janie called 911 for help. The Kensington Fire Department got the call. Brian Wilson and Lt. Eric Jacobs were on the scene within three minutes.

Brian defused the situation in expert fashion. Instead of trying to pry Robert's arm free, he began by trying to relax the hysterical youngster.

"Hi, buddy, this happens all the time," Brian said -- even though that was far from the truth (Brian later admitted that he'd never seen a kid's arm trapped in a gumball machine, and had heard about it happening only once before).

Brian asked Robert his name. Brian asked Robert where he goes to school. By the time Brian and Eric lifted Robert and the gumball machine into the air, Robert was as relaxed as could be expected.

Holding Robert in the air like a log, Brian twisted Robert's hand "in one gentle motion," according to Janie. Out came the arm. No need for hacksaws, sledgehammers or surgery. Total damage to Robert: A couple of very minor skin abrasions.

I'd call that a pretty skillful rescue -- by a pretty skillful firefighter. But Brian Wilson says it's routine for people in his business.

"I was just doing my job," he said. "All firemen do so much good and don't get enough recognition."

We've just done something about the recognition problem. Now we need to do something about the gumball machines at Zayre's.

Believe it or not, two days after Robert Culos' arm got stuck, the same thing happened to another boy, according to a Zayre's official who declined to give his name.

Same machine. Same way. Even the right arm, as in Robert's case.

Enough for store officials to pack the gumball machines in mothballs? Maybe it's enough for you or me. But it's not enough for Zayre's.

The Zayre's official said he doesn't think the gumball machine is dangerous, so he doesn't think there is any reason to remove it. He called two arms stuck in the same machine within three days "a coincidence."

I'd call it more than a coincidence. I call it a loud, clear warning.

It's wonderful that we have Brian Wilsons at the other end of the phone when we need to reclaim the arms of 5-year-old boys. It would be even more wonderful if there were no machines in which 5-year-old boys could get caught.

Late in December, when "H.M.S. Pinafore" was beginning its five-week run at the Kennedy Center, the K.C. public relations staff was faced with the problem of how to sell seats to a show that many people already have seen many times.

The staff hit on an ingenious idea: For the two preview performances of "Pinafore" on Dec. 29 and 30, substantial discounts would be offered to ticket-buyers who could sing a song from "Pinafore" (or part of one) to the ticket-seller.

What followed was not sisters and cousins and aunts, or treacle and toffee and excellent peppermint drops.

What followed was what we will gently call a musical mishmash.

One woman marched up to the box office and opened her throat. Out came: "O-o-o-o-o- o-o-o-klahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain . . . ."

Was the woman kidding? Or did she think that Buttercup had grown up in Tulsa? Rather than risk offending the woman, the K.C. gave her a discount.

Then came a woman who serenaded the ticket- sellers with selections from "Mikado." She got her discount, too. So did the woman who sang "The Age of Aquarius." So did the man who sang a few bars from "Iolanthe," apologizing all the while.

My favorite was the man who walked up to the window and opened his mouth, but couldn't make a sound. He told the ticket-seller he'd been practicing all the way downtown in his car, but when it came time to deliver, he choked.

He got his discount, too.

In fact, just about everybody did. To its everlasting credit, the Kennedy Center modified its original promotion campaign to give discounts to anyone who made any musical effort whatsoever. In the end, about 2,000 of the 3,000 seats for the two preview performances were sold at a discount.

Let's give three cheers and one cheer more for the K.C. staff. They know that skim milk sometimes masquerades as cream -- and they can still laugh about it.