After his recent experience, Dennis Butler could have said to heck with it. To his credit, he hasn't. What he said -- and says -- is: "Why?"

Dennis ran into an unusual form of age discrimination. A few weeks ago, the Red Cross came to his home town of Woodstock, Va., to gather blood from donors. A red-blooded and public-spirited soul, Dennis hurried downtown to give.

The procedure went the usual way: sign in, give basic personal information, take (and pass) the blood test, take (and pass) the blood pressure test, drink a cup of juice to jack up the blood sugar level, then lie down and prepare to donate.

The nurses were just about to puncture Butler's arm when one of them asked his age. "Sixty-seven," Dennis replied. Sorry, said the staff, but if you're over 65, you can't give without a doctor's permission.

So Dennis picked himself off the table, rolled down his sleeve and went home -- embarrassed, chagrined and confused.

Why the 65th birthday cutoff? According to Dr. Fred Drew of the blood services division of the Red Cross, the policy exists to protect donors.

"There are all sorts of things that we feel are complications," he said. "If they are that motivated to give blood, then there's usually no problem to get them to a physician to make sure they are as good as they feel."

Could giving a pint of blood really create a risky situation for an elderly donor? It sure could, according to Dr. Drew. A person with a borderline cardiovascular disorder could "significantly increase" his chances of having a heart attack right then and there, or soon afterward, by donating blood, Dr. Drew said.

I'd be the last person to wish a heart attack on anyone. But it seems to me that the Red Cross has laid down a blanket policy that doesn't take into account certain realities.

Reality One: the older you are, the harder it is to get around. It sounds harmless to require that donors obtain a doctor's prior approval. But bus fare to the doctor's, then bus fare to the Red Cross? Fighting traffic? Competing for parking spaces? Many elderly people would simply not bother. How does the Red Cross profit from that?

Reality Two: the Red Cross policy is designed to protect not only the elderly donor, but the Red Cross itself, against lawsuits that might result if a donor dropped dead on the table. But why not ask donors to sign a form exempting the organization from responsibility if anything goes wrong? That would protect the Red Cross just as well.

Reality Three: the Red Cross can't afford to be choosy. No one knows better than they that many would-be donors--of whatever age -- are sick, or alcoholic, or addicted to medication or narcotics. In light of regular blood shortages, how can the Red Cross afford to turn away anyone who's healthy?

If none of the above makes the case, there's this idea: Why couldn't the Red Cross arrange to have a volunteer doctor ride along with each bloodmobile? Such doctors could test and certify the health of elderly potential donors right on the spot. No bus fares, no hassles, no embarrased Dennis Butlers.

Speaking of Dennis, he says he'll try to donate the next time the Red Cross comes to Woodstock. But how will he handle the age problem? "I'll do a Jack Benny on them," he vows. Thirty-nine forever!