HE SAT IN THE SHADE of a tree, his jaw slack, his face expressionless, not smiling, not laughing, not showing in any way that he was hearing what was being said. Once, though, he doffed his hat to someone, and once, someone said, he smiled when the name of his home town, Yakima, was mentioned. I did not see that, though. By then, I was circling the crowd so I could get close to him. There was something I wanted to tell William O. Douglas.

His wife, Cathy, was on his right and down the aisles, sitting out in a hot sun, was the Chief Justice of the United States and the likes of Teddy Kennedy and Gene McCarthy and Mac Mathias and some others who along the way either had a hand in saving the C&O Canal from becoming a highway or had something to do with the bills that bought the land or maybe the last bill which said that the C&O Canal should be named after William O. Douglas. That's what this ceremony was all about.

Near where William Douglas sat, a little waterfall gurgled as the water spilled over a canal lock. The sky was clear overhead and the day was hot as a perfect Washington day in May should be. People came out on the teraces of office buildings to watch the ceremony and they drew a barge up close on the canal, put some musicians and singers on the roof and let them play some folk songs. It was a nice moment, a beautiful moment, and maybe that is why people either kept their dark glasses on or turned away at certain times or merely gave up pretense altogether and cried. It was a perfect day for crying.

Douglas sat in a wheelchair. He was wearing a hat and a bluish suit and there was something about the way he was dressed to indicate that something was wrong - that maybe he had not dressed himself or maybe, on the other hand, he had. His tie was too loose around the neck and the knot was too large. The shirt was big for a body that had come through polio determined to be robust and the collar sort of draped itself over the tie. By now, I was near him and I could see that he was tilting a bit to the left. The speeches continued and then, fanilly, it was his turn to say something.

The lowered the microphones to his level and they swung them around to face him and he started. The voice was high and sometimes it faded, but he sat strong in his chair and he praised Chief Justice Burger and he remembered Franklin Roosevelt and he recalled that he had come to the Court as the replacement for Cardozo. He told how Cardozo would place his canoe on a train and travel up the Potomac, coming back to Washington on the water - on the canal. Sometimes, Douglas would stop and there would be silence and sometimes he would have to be nudged, but he talked without a text and he spoke well and at one time he said, "I promise to get well and to be able to walk again."

My mind went back to a day on the canal. It was years ago and the canal was new to me then. I was walking along in the sunshine, sort of wondering about the place and now it was a miracle that it existed at all - how the developers and the lovers of highways have been told to go fly a kite. Suddenly, there was a stir and walking toward me, the sun framing him from behind, was Bill Douglas.

He was out for a stroll and as he walked along people joined him. He was smiling, saying hello and all that, and the people were saying nice things to him, thanking him for this day and the canal. He had walked the entire length of it back in 1954 to publicize it and save it from being made into a higway and so even before they got around to naming it, this was Bill Douglas's canal. I started to move toward him that day, wanting to say something, but there were lots of people around and I backed off. There would be another time.

Since then, I have returned to the canal many times. Now I bike along it, and there was a day this spring when I was pedaling upstream to do a column about fishing and I came upon the barge being towed by two tall mules. Musicians were on the barge and they were picking at their banjos and guitars, singing some songs and making some music. The barge was moving slowly up the canal and I shifted down on the bike gears and effortlessly I followed the music upriver. After while, I stopped and watched a turtle swim around.

So on the day of the dedication ceremony I had something so say to Bill Douglas. But it was hard to get really close; hard to get past the people who knew him and had something to say to him - hard to drop my journalist's pose and become a groupie. So I said nothing and went to the reception that followed the ceremony, not knowing if Douglas would be there. But they wheeled him in and someone gave him a glass of punch or wine and the people kept coming over, leaning over him or kneeling a bit, and chatting. He looked tired and worn, but I went up to him anyway, waiting for a free moment, sort of hanging on his right side. Suddenly he looked my way and fixed me with his eye. It was the fierce, proud eye of an eagle and I sort of nodded and backed off, thinking that I should not intrude and that I would say what I wanted to say my way. On paper.

I wanted to say thank you.