It is one of those cold winter nights that helps airlines sell trips to Florida. The wind is biting and the temperature will eventually drop into the teens.

To Ronald Morrison the weather means one thing - it will probably be a busy night at the D.C. Alcoholic Detoxification Center where he has been a nursing assistant since 1969. "Cold night like this one a lot of people will want to get in here," he says, leaning up against the admitting desk. "It's worse when it rains or snows, thought, because they don't like sleeping on a wet sidewalk."

There is a knock on the door. Outside are two policemen. Between them they are holding up a man in his 20's whose eyes are nearly closed.

So the police push the man through the door, his eyes open wide with fear. He looks around obviously trying to figure out where he is.

Without a word to the policeman, Morrison walks to the man and begins talking quietly.

"Take it easy man," he says as the man begins to shake slightly. "You are not in jail. Do you hear me? You're not in jail. It's all right."

Within three minutes the police are gone and the man calms down. Morrison continues to quietly ask him questions. In the meantime, admitting clerk Morris Hutchins positions himself by the pair and waits for Morrison to finish.

"What is your first name," Hutchins says. He speaks very slowly, emphasizing each syllable in a loud voice. It will take 14 questions to obtain a full name.

Once he gets the name he checks the files to see if the man, who is 24 and works at a nearby store, has a previous detox record. He has none.

When Hutchins is finishing, Morrison takes him by the arm and walks him into the bedroom. There he talks to him for a moment and leaves. Fifteen minutes after being near hysteria, the man streches out and goes to sleep.

Until 1966 a man found drunk on the street in Washington spent the night in jail. Then, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that chronic alcoholics could not be charged with public drunkenness.

That court decision gave birth to the Detox, which opened in 1967 with 25 beds in D.C. General Hospital. In May of 1968 it moved its current building, a two-story split level at 619 N St. NW.

There are 75 beds in the Detox and often they are not enough. Eighty-five percent of the men who are admitted once return again.

"It can get to you," says Morrison, who is 41. "You see a guy leave here and a month later he's back weighing 20 pounds less. The next time it might be 40 pounds less. A lot of them, you know you're just watching them die."

Bad as care may be for the chronic alcoholic, it appears to have come a long way in 12 years.

The young man admitted on this night will receive a hot meal in the morning and, if needed, medication. He will not be back on the street for at least 72 hours and most of the time, he can stay longer if he wishes. Before he leaves he will receive some initial counseling.

Counseling was not part of Detox's original purpose but Wesley Branch, who was the nursing supervisor when the program started and is now its acting director, has made it part of the program.

"We don't want this to be like another jail," Branch, 50, a Washingtonative, says. "We try to develop a relationship with the men and we try to convined them that they need help and that they can get it."

"Sometimes I see a guy who looks like he can be talked to, so I try," says Hutchins, himself a recovered alcoholic of nine years. "I try and talk to him and convince him to get it together before it gets him."

One such person was a dental student who came in the previous night - his third visit to Detox in 16 months. Hutchins later turned him over to Branch. The student sat, book in hand, and tried to smoke a cigarette as Branch talked. His hands shook violently each time he tried to take a drag.

"How long have you been drinking?" Branch asks.

"Since I was 17."

"Do you remember the first time you got drunk? I know I remember mine. I was sick as a dog the whole next day."

"Yeah. I remember." The student laughs. "It was with my buddies. We got some wine, went to the park and passed it around."

"You drink with your friends a lot?"

"Yeah all the time. I guess you could say it's part of my socializing."

And so it goes for over an hour Branch asks the questions, which slowly establish a pattern of socializing and drinking.

Finally, having set the scene and having gone over the effects of drinking on the student's life. Branch asks the key question.

"What do you think your problem is," he says quietly.

"I'm an alcoholic, I guess."

"You guess or you know?"

"I know. I can't handle it, I can't stop anymore. It's out of control."

For a minute there is silence. "Now," Branch finally says, "we can discuss treatment."

"I can see the signs because I've been there," Hutchins says. "I was deteriorating but I was lucky because I knew I needed help, I went to the outpatient clinic at St. E's and got help."

Hutchins says working at the Detox for seven years has helped him suppress any desire he might have to pick up the bottle again.

There are six people on the busy 4 to 12 p.m. shift at the Detox. Besides Morrison and Hutchins there are three other nursing assistants - Jerry Sharp, Irving Jackson and Eugene Mavs and a nurse, Doris Antirri. All except Antirri have worked the shift at least five years.

All admit that their jobs get to them at times. "Your try to stay detached from it because you know things will be easier for you if you do," says Morrison, a soft-spoken ex-marine. "I've seen guys who have been in here over 200 times. You know they're killing themselves and you try to talk to them.

"It depresses you, especially when you become attached to them and see them get worse. You feel as if you're not doing enough. But you can't start thinking it's all hopeless because if you do, you won't even deal with them at all."

What keeps Morrison and the others going are those rare success stories. The ones who leave and only come back to say hello - sober.

A man comes through the door. In his arms is a paper bag filled with clothes. He has brought them for the patients, who often ruin their own.

Branch, working at the admissions desk, lights up like a Christmas tree.

"William," he says, coming around the desk to shak hands with the visitor. "It's great to see you. How old are you now?"

"I'm two years old last week," William answers proudly. In other words, William took his last drink two years ago. He stays only briefly, but his appearance leaves the men buoyant.

"That was a present for me," Branch says. "Those are the ones who keep you going. They remind us that we're not here for nothing."

The wind is still blowing hard - gusting to 30 miles per hour according to the Weather Service - and business has picked up. Moments earlier the police have brought a man in on a stretcher. He is conscious but too drunk to stand up.

Now another man comes in, alone. he carries a bottle in his left hand. He is drunk.

"I want to check back in," he tells Hutchins and takes a seat on the bench.

As he does Morrison and Sharp come around a corner and see him. Morrison shakes his head. "He just left here eight hours ago," he says.