You don't get to be a colonel in the Air Force unless your nose can distinguish between the perfume of truth and the stench of fiction. The other day, Charles Summers of Annandale was sure he'd inhaled a whiff of the latter.

While trying to enter the New Carrollton Metro station, Col. Summers discovered that all the Farecard machines were out of order. What to do? Just ride to your destination and pay there, said the kiosk attendant.

In a few minutes, Col. Summers was at the Pentagon. Up to that kiosk attendant he marched. What now? Buy a $1.80 Farecard and bring it to me, said the attendant.

The colonel did so. Then came the stunner. When Col. Summers handed over the Farecard, the attendant put it in his pocket, with a cheery, "That's all there is to it."

"Hold on a second," said the colonel. "Don't I have to put the card through the slot?"

"No," said the kiosk attendant. "I'll see that it gets to the right place."

"What's the right place?" asked an increasingly suspicious Summers.

"Accounts receivable," replied the attendant.

"Hey, I don't want to say anything," said Col. Summers, proceeding to say lots of somethings, "but what's to prevent you from putting that Farecard in your pocket and selling it, or using it yourself?"

"Listen, buddy," said the kiosk attendant, reddening in the face. "I don't try to tell you how to run the Air Force. This is the system."

It is?

Yes, says Metro public affairs director Cody Pfanstiehl.

"If he had put that Farecard he bought at the Pentagon through the slot, it would have deducted only 60 cents (although the fare from New Carrollton was $1.80). There's no way the gate would have known he got on at New Carrollton," Pfanstiehl said.

What the Pentagon attendant did was "usual procedure," Pfanstiehl said. While it's true that the possibility of larceny exists, Pfanstiehl called the risk "relatively minor."

Summers, meanwhile, has retained some of his innocence. "You know," he said, "none of this would have happened if those Farecard machines had been working."

"Colonel," I replied, "it's nice to talk to a dreamer once in a while."