Funny how phone calls start in one direction and veer sharply in another. So it went with a motorist who called the Levey Phone-In Psychiatric Service last week with a tale about the Beltway.

"Bob," she began, "I saw something between Branch Avenue and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge that you're not going to believe."

"Ma'am," I began, "I make it a point to believe every story about the Beltway I ever hear."

"Okay," she said, "try this one. I'm driving along, minding my own business, when I notice this Chevy right beside me. It's full of kids, like maybe high school seniors. We're driving along at 60 miles an hour when all of a sudden one of the kids decides to climb out the window of the seat behind the driver."

"You mean he leaned out the window?"

"No. I mean he climbed all the way out the window and into the driver's window, holding on like an orangutan. While the car was going 60!"

"What did the driver do when this package arrived in his lap?"

"I was just coming to that. As the guy was climbing in the driver's window, the driver moved one seat over, and took his hands and feet off the steering wheel and the pedals. The car was going down the Beltway for 10 seconds with no one controlling it."

"I believe it, ma'am," I said. "I don't like it, to put it mildly, but I believe it."

Then came the veer.

"Did you call the police?" I asked the woman.

"No."

"Did you get the license number?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Because I didn't want to get involved. I work for the federal government, and you know, Bob, you can't be too careful these days."

"So why call me when you won't call the people who can actually do something about this?"

"I don't know," said the woman. "I just thought somebody ought to hear about it." And with a soft click, she hung up.

Was the woman a liar? A gossip? An out-to-luncher who thinks that newspaper columnists have extraterrestrial powers?

I think the answer is none of the above. I think this woman was simply lazy and frightened. I think she was willing to be a public-spirited citizen right up to the point of personal inconvenience.

The business about "working for the government" was nonsense. I have never heard of a federal worker losing his or her job for reporting a dangerous driver on the Beltway. Yet I hear similar paranoia from federal workers every day.

Do some federal workers really believe that their colleagues and supervisors spy on them? Do some federal workers really believe they must always be meek mice -- never pointing out a wrong, even when the wrong is done in public, at high speeds and in a place where dozens of people could be killed?

We are never going to make the slightest progress in the war against Beltway nut cases if we aren't willing to act, and to follow through on what we see. If you're reading, my caller of last week, I hope you'll take heed.

Thank you, Robert B. Hudson of Chevy Chase, for an idea that will get us even -- very even -- if it didn't amount to vandalism.

Robert says he is outraged -- as who is not? -- by nonhandicapped motorists who park in spaces designated for the handicapped. So he suggests that motorists carry a stack of permanent-stick decals, to apply when parking space thieves strike. The decals would say:

I STEAL PARKING PLACES FROM THE HANDICAPPED

I'm not a big movie fan, but I don't have to be to know about "Animal House." It featured food fights, gargantuan belches and many other episodes of wretched (and juvenile) excess.

So imagine the puzzlement of Jonathan Blum of Potomac as he sat down to catch a recent rerun of "Animal House" on WTTG.

"This motion picture contains mature acts which may not be suitable for all viewers," read the prefilm warning.

Mature? If there has ever been a less appropriate word for a movie, I've never heard it. Jonathan either.

Eagle-eye award of the week to crossword hound Bennett Willis of McLean.

Ben noticed that the July 3 and July 4 puzzles in The Post each had the same clue and the same answer for 9 across. The clues were " -- -- -- -- -- metabolism." The answers were BASAL.

No, it wasn't an error. The puzzles were created by different people. And they don't have any other clues or answers in common.

"In 20 years of doing these puzzles, I have never seen the same word in the same location on successive days," Ben writes. Bet he's not alone.