A friend told me the other day about an A 80-year-old man in Northeast Washington who is going to the polls Tuesday for the first time in his life. He's put his voter registration card on the coffee table next to his Medicaid card -- a symbol of its status.

The man's wife wouldn't sign up when my friend, a voter registrant, went to call. "Come on, I'm going to do it, you do it to," her husband coaxed, adding, "Do it for black people," the friend recalled. The wife shook her head in refusal, fearing the act would put the government into her business, perhaps interfere with her welfare check. That didn't faze her husband, a tall, powerful-looking man who was glad someone had finally come to walk him through a voter registration process that he had not understood. He is a man who cannot write his name, so a granddaughter signed the registration form for him. But he's made arrangements to sign himself on Tuesday -- with an "X".

This man's pride and his recognition of the value of voting brings to mind the alienation of a Northeast Washington mechanic and Vietnam veteran who sat out the last school board election two years ago: "You think I'm going to take off from work to be tricked again? Be real, man," he told a reporter. "This government ain't for blacks. They kill off the Black Panthers and let the KKK run free. I can't even feel like a man when I vote. I just feel like a fool."

Part of the problem with the veteran is the general alienation that many people feel from politics. It's part of a national trend -- only 53 percent of the adult population voted in the last presidential election.

But by any measure, Washington is an embarrassingly nonvoting town, especially when it comes to off-year school board elections like the one coming up Tuesday. In the last two such elections, only about 14 percent of the city's registered voters went to the polls.

These are not the times for black people to engage in the luxuries of alienation and neutrality. These are strange times, times like no others in this century, when blacks are faced with a serious challenge to their rights as citizens to full participation in the economic, political and social life of this nation.

This decade promises to be tough for many people, but potentially shattering for the black and the poor. Exercising the basic right to vote is an aggressive act that is the very least that those blacks among the estimated 273,000 registered voters here can do.

The most visible issue here is Initiative No. 7, the education tax credit proposal, which poses a personal threat to the majority of parents in this city -- those whose children attend public schools.

This election is different in another way, too. It is not about electing politicians or about the kind of political hypocrisy and injustice that so worried the Vietnam veteran. It is about one of the most important issues we've seen here in more than 25 years.

It is an election that is as much national as it is local in its implications. The charge is being led by the National Taxpayers Union, which brought its campaign to Washington once it failed to get a similar proposition on the ballot in California in l979. It's an issue with an immediate result. Barring a congressional rejection, it will become law shortly after passing. On Tuesday, each voter will be an instant legislator.

If this election winds up like the last two and 85 percent of the registered voters stay at home, the no-shows may be handing a victory to the tax credit raiders who have brought their campaign here in hopes of revitalizing an issue that so far has succeeded in only two states.

They're counting on our reputation as a nonvoting town, and hope further that lack of interest in the off-year school board race will keep voters at home. They're counting, too, on disillusionment with the schools and the school board to further deflate enthusiasm of the rank-and-file voter who has a stake in the public schools, and leave a clear field for the dilligent voters -- parents of children in private or parochial schools.

So if that Vietnam vet feels as I do about the right of children to free public schools, which on a national level, educated 86 percent of the students entering college last year, he will feel like a fool if he doesn't vote on Tuesday. If he does, he'll man the ramparts against these raiders in our midst and use that ballot like a bullet.

The 80-year-old man's pride gives me hope. He's never had the benefit of the education that the public schools have to offer, but he's conversant enough with the serious challenge to know he is "doing it for black people." Maybe that same spirit will rouse some of the politically alientated to come to their senses and call a halt to this thinking that going to the polls is an empty gesture. It would be a shame to send the old men into battle alone, while the young warriors stay at home -- griping and throwing away their strength.