Since there are only 84 days until Christmas, I figure it's time I started learning to love my fellow man.

So today, I'm going to test my brotherhood impulses by aiming them at a species many would consider challenging:

Federal employes.

My ally in this effort is Alison Barrett, of Rockville, a personnel specialist for four different federal agencies here over the last 16 years.

I first violated Barrett's air space last month, when I reported the sighting of a bumper sticker.

It read: "Save Energy -- Work for the Government and Call in Sick."

Barrett found this less than amusing. So she wrote me a sizzling letter.

I was so awful to have publicized the bumper sticker, she implied, that, to put it delicately, my mother couldn't have been married to my father.

I wrote back to tell Barrett that I was sorry to have offended her, and that I was sure she was as conscientious an employe as she had claimed.

But I closed with a backhand volley.

Surely any conscientious federal employe was the exception, I said.

Just as surely, I said, a fed who collects a salary for reading the newspaper with his feet resting comfortably atop a desk was the rule.

Well, back came a two-page riposte, which I found pretty well argued.

Here are some excerpts:

"(I am) heartily sick and tired of what a friend of mine has called the 'Feds-in-a-barrel' syndrome. The bumper sticker -- and your quotation of it -- (was) a probably fairly accurate reflection of the country's attitude toward civil servants . . .

"Certainly, as both a civil servant and, more specifically, a personnel specialist who deals on a daily basis with such problems, I admit the possibility of civil servants who abuse sick leave. Or who are lazy. Or who, in other ways, may be less than optimum employes.

"But look around The Washington Post, Bob -- the whole staff. Can you honestly assure me that no one there has ever called in 'sick' for a hangover -- or a ball game?

(Columnist's note: are you kidding, Alison? Every hour on the hour.)

"And look at a few other businesses. Have you never run into a really rude waiter? And come back several months later -- after complaining about him -- and found him still in the same job?

" . . . Do you really think General Motors is absolutely filled to the eyeballs with nothing but competent, intelligent, hard-working workaholics?

" . . . We're all human. The civil service is as much a cross section of mankind as any other business (Given the fact that there are roughly two million of us, we can hardly help but be anyting but a cross section!).

"We aren't some kind of horrid critter when we're hired. And we don't turn into some kind of horrid critter after we're hired.

"We're essentially . . . pretty hardworking people with a job to do, who basically try to do it the best way we know how.

" . . . We work hard; we take pride in our work, and the fact that it basically -- most of it -- benefits the country; and we're very much overdue for a pat on the back!"

Feeling my pulse pound in patriotic agreement, I called up Barrett at her office to thank her -- and to hoist the white flag.

The phone rang five times.

It was finally answered by a harried-sounding man.

He said Barrett was away from her desk.

He didn't know when she'd be back.

He didn't know if she'd be back.

He had to be cajoled into finding out.

I finally spoke with Barrett about an hour later. But I coulnd't help wondering.

Could it be that a secretary had called in sick?

While we're quoting from mail from readers, we should give rightful due to a recent postcard from Erwin Aymar, of Silver Spring.

"Your plug for 'bathrooms' in subway stations gives me a pain," Aymar began. (Don't columnists get the warmest mail?)

"Who needs a bath in the subway?

"'Rest room' is silly enough for what the British call WC.

"Why not strike a blow for decent English? 'Toilet' is respectable and accurate for what you want to say, in this and several foreign languages."

Agreed. And all the more so now that George Takacs, of Largo, Md., calls to inform me that I was wrong when I reported that there aren't any whatever-you-want-to-call-thems in Washington's subway.

Look behind the door marked "Electrical Equipment," which is usually just beyond the Farecard gates as you enter a station mezzanine, Takacs advises.

In most stations, voila! -- one toilet for men, one toilet for women.

They're clearly marked, they're not locked and they're watched over with utmost care by one of those anti-crime movie cameras, according to Takacs.

Best of all: There's no charge.