An 84th birthday is worth celebrating properly, and Helen Bertram of Berwyn, Ill., was doing exactly that on the evening of Feb. 6. She was deep into a sumptuous prime rib dinner at P.J. Skidoos in Fairfax when all of a sudden, she began to choke.

A piece of meat had gotten lodged in Helen's windpipe. As her daughter, Lois Markus of Annandale, looked on in horror, Helen began to turn red and to gasp for breath. But Lois did not know the Heimlich maneuver, so for several seconds, she could only watch helplessly -- and think the worst.

Then another diner noticed what was happening and rushed to the table. Lois describes him as a man in his thirties, about 5-feet-8, with a full beard. He calmly asked Helen to stand up. As soon as she did, he hugged her from behind, his forearms just below her rib cage, and squeezed sharply, inward and slightly upward. Out popped a piece of roast beef. Just as quickly as she had been in danger, Helen Bertram was out.

Lois would like to issue huge thanks to the bearded stranger, whose name she did not get amid all the commotion. I'm happy to pass those thanks along, and to wish Helen a belated happy birthday. They don't get any more dramatic, do they?

However, Helen's story makes me wonder, as I have before:

Shouldn't every restaurant be required to have one employe who knows Heimlich on duty at all times? More than 5,000 Americans lost their lives in 1985 by choking to death on food. Do we want to rely on luck, as Helen Bertram did? Or do we want to cut the number of choking deaths dramatically, as a Heimlich requirement in restaurants would probably do?

Thank you, Marcia Reefe of Kensington, for raising something that badly needed it.

"How about a word on those sure-to-be-told, utterly horrible and distasteful shuttle jokes?" Marcia proposes. "Maybe they can be stopped before they get started."

Sorry, my friend, but you're too late. I heard my first sick-o shuttle joke mere hours after last month's disaster in the skies over Florida. I have since heard half a dozen. Not a single one was funny. Not a single one failed to turn my stomach.

But a turned stomach isn't going to stop shuttle jokes from originating. Nor is it going to stop somebody from thinking up similar jokes the next time there's a highly publicized tragedy.

So, Marcia, I think the better battle is to let disseminators know what we think of their jokes, and of their childishness.

Here's how I handled Tasteless Joke Spread one day last fall. I was visiting an office in New York, and was introduced to a young man. "Hi, Bob," he said. "It's nice to meet you, and did you hear about Leon Klinghoffer?"

Klinghoffer's murder during the Achille Lauro hijacking had happened only a few days before, and I thought there must have been some news development that morning while I had been heading north by train. So I hook-line-and-sinkered by saying, "No, what happened?"

The man proceeded to deliver the punch line -- something dreadful about sharks and wheelchairs. My response was to stand there and stare at him.

When he chuckled awkwardly, as if to signal me that hey, it was just a joke, I continued staring. Finally, he just walked away.

I can't swear I cured this fellow of telling tasteless jokes. But maybe I made him think twice the next time. I fervently hope so.

Considerably better are the jokes about that pearl of Ohio, Cincinnati.

Sample: Cincinnati is the only place in America where Pac-Man is still a moneymaker.

Second sample: Some cities put visitors to sleep. Cincinnati puts them in a coma. And bushels more.

Please, please, if you're a Cincinnatian, don't call to tell me that I've just unfairly maligned your dear, sweet home town. Show up instead at the Hard Times Cafe, 117 Nelson St., Rockville, from 7 to 10 p.m. on Feb. 26.

They're going to have a "Cincinnati Night" there and then to benefit the Greater Washington Chapter of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. No doubt many Cincy jokes will be swapped. But the big draw is what's on the menu: Cincinnati chili.

If you've never tried this gastronomic gasp-maker, be warned: Cincinnati jokes may make you laugh, but Cincinnati chili will make you weep. If you've been looking for a reason to drink half a beer every 45 seconds, Cincy chili is it.

Reminder: Bloom County has been suspended for several weeks while Berke Breathed, its creator, recovers from an accident. Cheeverwood is appearing in Bloom County's place.