However much I grumble about gasoline credit cards and the delays they cause when lines are long, ever I realize that credit has become a necessary evil.

For half a century, motorists paid cash for their gas and suffered no ill effects. Today they just couldn't get along without credit cards.

So there I was, next in line at the self-service pump, waiting as patiently as a curmudgeon can wait, while the lovely blond up ahead filled her tank.

First she couldn't get the cap off her tank. Then she couldn't figure out how to keep her rear license tag down while she inserted the hose nozzle into the tank. When the hose was finally operational and the gas was flowing, the wind kept blowing her hair into her eyes, making it difficult for her to see the whirring digits on the pump. She just had all sorts of problems.

Eventually, her tank was full, or as full as she wanted it to be. She got the hose hung up, but not quickly. She got the cap back on her tank. And after going through several pockets, she even found her credit card, and an attendant processed a sales slip for her. At long last, she was headed back into her car, and I started up the motor in mine.

But she didn't get in. Instead, she tugged futilely at the door for a moment, then ran into the office of the filling station and spoke to the attendant there. "Oh, good heavens," I said to myself. "She's locked herself out of her car. I'll be here forever." But I wasn't. The attendant emerged from the office in a few seconds with a wire coat hanger in his hand, and in half a minute the young woman was in her car and on her way.

I can sympathize with her because I have locked myself out of my car at dozens of filling stations. I'm in the habit of pushing down the locking button every time I get out of an automobile, and it's a hard habit to break.

Fortunately for me, I learned a long time ago to carry an extra set of keys in a different pocket of my pants -- a backup set that has saved me time and time again. The young man could not have followed precisely the same plan because she wasn't wearing trousers. But she did appear to be resourceful enough to work out her own variation of the theme. SHOULD WE CRY INSTEAD?

Let me tell you about a crazy dream I had last night.

In my dream, the police caught a fellow in the act of holding up a bank. They took him down to headquarters and said, "You might as well confess. The bank's hidden cameras took pictures of you. They have the whole thing on videotape."

"You guys are making a big mistake," the man said. "The only reason I was stuffing that money into my pockets was because the teller had been acting very suspiciously and I wanted to find out what he was up to. I was just beginning to turn up some good clues when you people barged in on me and ruined my investigation."

"Oh, yea?" one of the policemen said. "Why don't you write a letter of complaint to your congressman?" Then I heard my wife's voice, which surprised me because I didn't even know she was in the dream. But I heard her say, "Bill, Bill wake up. You're laughing in your sleep." TIME MARCHES ON

Syd Kasper otes that Steve Roper hasn't been a central character in the Steve Roper comic (did I say comic? ) strip for quite some time. Mary Worth may be in semi-retirement. "She puts in only infrequent guest appearances."

Syd reserves his sharpest line for a man who appears even less frequently than Johnny Carson. "Judge Parker," says Syd, "has been missing longer than Judge Carter."

Everything Syd says is true. Many a comic strip artist who thought he was introducing a new character for a single sequence has found that the newcomer was more popular than his central figure. In comic strips as in TV scheduling, audience reaction is closely watched and "ratings" determine who lives and who dies. OOOPS!

Air Florida has been using a breezily written full-page ad to tell travelers about its strightforward $76 fare to Florida that involves "no fine print."

Alan R. Coburn notes that the ad does well until its final line, which attempts a play on words. It offers a refund -- "finely printed by the U.S. aMint."

Alan suspects that a printed refund would be the work of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The Bureau of the Mint produces coins. MYSTERY STORY

The Rev. Hubert S. Beckwith was puzzled when a letter arrived at the United Church of Christ in Annandale addressed to "Mr. Christ S. Act" in care of the church.

He finally figured it out. Somebody working from a mailing list had sent a letter to the church's Christian Social Action committee.