LATE AT NIGHT the phone rings and a stranger says his friend is dead. It is around midnight and there is grief in the voice of the caller, a man, and he talks on, blurring facts and dates and talking all the time as if you somehow had to know that his friend was Michael Nathan, doctor of medicine and high school chum, shot in the head by the Nazis or the Klan for being, of all things, a communist. "Small c communist," the man says. All he wanted to do was help people.

The man plunges on. He knew right away it had to be Michael. He knew when he heard the shooting had taken place in Greensboro, N.C., that a doctor had been one of those shot and that there were communists involved. It had to be Michael. All day he had waited for the news and then a friend had called and now, in the night, he was calling me.

The voice is deep, rich. A tear hangs from it. The man says that Michael Nathan was his oldest and dearest friend. He says they went to junior high school together and then high school and that they stayed in touch ever since. He had a wife and a baby. The baby, the man says on the phone, is only 6 months old.

The man has been on the phone all night since he got the news. He called his friends, the ones from high school, the ones who remember Michael Nathan, and now he is calling me. The more he talks, the more flesh he puts on a newspaper story, a headline, a film clip on the nightly news.In the films people went into a crowd and shot other people and then the commercials came on. Some of the people were called Nazis and some were called Klanners and some were called communists. It was a period piece -- something out of the '30s. I mean, how come the hoods weren't wearing double-breasted suits?

But now it turns out that Michael Ronald Nathan, 32, was a real person. It turns out he was born in Washington, D.C., that he went to a junior high school named Buck Lodge and then to a high school named High Point, both of these in Prince George's County. It turned out also that he was something of a poor kid; not very poor, but maybe just barely into the lower-middle class. His father died in 1960. No one seems to know what his father did. He fought in World War II, but nothing more is known.

Michael Nathan, it turns out, was one of those rare kids. He was smart and he was well liked and he worked hard for his high school and so he was given an award. They called it Blue and Gold night and they had the whole thing set up like the court of some king. There ws a king and a queen and a duke and duchess and a lord and lady. Michael could have been king, but he turned it down.

"He took a stand on principle," the voice on the phone says. "I became a lord. This was 1965. Nobody understood Michael." p

Later Michael went to Duke University. He was one of those who supported the strike of the maids and the cafeteria workers and he was one of those, the caller says, who occupied the president's office. He went on from there to medical shcool and he worked n South America and Central America. Michael worked with the Indians and with the poor. He worked in clinics and 10 years after he graduated from medical school he did not own a decent suit or a big house and did not have to worry about sheltering his income.

"There's nobody I admired more," the voice says on the phone. "I want other doctors to read about him. I want them to feel guilty on their yachts."

The voice goes on, and soon it becomes clear that Michael was one of those people who never stopped. Everyone had been radical and idealistic, but Michael just never stopped. The others dropped out. They went for the nice house and the car or maybe they just got tired. Michael Nathan was one of those people for whom the rules don't apply. He did not sell out and he did not get more conservative as he got older. He got more radical.

Every once in a while, Michael Nathan would come back to the Washington area. He would usually come back for a march or something. The last time he returned it was for African Liberation Day. It was Michael Nathan and several hundred others, mostly black, mostly militant blacks. Michael went out to the suburbs with his wife and visited with a friend and more friends came over. They talked politics and then they all went back to their lives and Michael went back to his. He went back to his clinic and to his organizing in the South and to this communism -- small c -- that no one quite understood.

So when the shots rang out, everyone who knew Michael knew he had to have been there. When they said two doctors had been killed, they knew one of them had to be Michael. There aren't that many radical doctors around, so people stayed by their phones and read the newspapers and that night friend called friend to tell them that their friend Michael Ronald Nathan, was dead. The news report said he had been shot by men calling themselves both Klan members and Nazis and that Michael himself was a communist. It was late, but one of them lifted the phone to call me. The world had to know. Michael was a small c communist, the man said on the phone.

All he wanted to do was help people.