'Hey, Mr. Levey," said the stocky teen-aged boy in the Bart Simpson T-shirt. "Would you like to meet Lethal Weapon?"

I figured Mr. Weapon would be a second teen-ager who likes vivid nicknames, so I said sure. I started realizing my error as soon as the first teen-ager told me what I'd have to do to shake hands with Lethal. I'd have to stand on a bench, he told me.

Gamely, I stood. I peered into the rafters of the bath house where the teen-ager told me to peer. And there he was, two feet away, curled around a 2-by-4.

Lethal Weapon was a black snake.

That breed isn't lethal. Most of the time, black snakes don't even bite. But when a scaly, six-foot-long creature starts flicking his tongue at you, reassurances you learned in high school biology suddenly seem far, far away.

I suppose I jumped back a bit -- all right, it was more than a bit -- because Lethal Weapon's social secretary and several of his buddies burst into laughter. It was the kind of trick campers have been playing since camp (and snakes) began.

"You never see anything like Lethal Weapon back home in the city," said one of the assembled teen-agers a little later. Which, as always, is the whole point.

Our annual Send a Kid to Camp campaign is designed to bring kids from troubled, crowded environments to three camps in the Virginia countryside. There, the kids can have outdoorsy experiences they've never had before (even if some of those experiences make gullible columnists flinch).

By all accounts, this has been an unusually happy year for the 1,100 children who are scheduled to attend the camps in our program this summer. The 1990 campers have survived July monsoons, a couple of power failures, unfamiliar food and all-too-familiar mosquitoes. As one 12-year-old told me last Thursday on the volleyball court of Camp Moss Hollow, "it's going to be terrible to go home."

However, home was still eight days away for last Thursday's campers, and lunch wouldn't be served for two more hours. Moss Hollow was alive with activity.

Fourteen-year-old girls had divided up into teams for a scavenger hunt. Each team needed to find 26 items -- one beginning with each letter of the alphabet.

One team was stuck on Y. No one had any yogurt. No one had brought a yo-yo. What to do?

Finally, one of the girls realized that she was the answer, because her name was Yasmine. Her teammates merrily decided to stuff her into the collection sack, along with the quarter, the blade of grass and all the other items they'd already found.

Meanwhile, at the swimming pool, about a dozen 13-year-old boys were doing cannonballs off the diving board and groping for coins that were rumored to be on the bottom. But one young man was grumpily sitting on the steps.

He told counselors that he didn't feel well. But one counselor confided that the boy didn't know how to swim, and was afraid he'd be teased if the other boys found out. The counselor spent the next 20 minutes assuring the boy that he'd meet him for private swimming lessons that night, after dinner.

In the arts and crafts shack, 20 12-year-olds were busily fashioning mini-skyscrapers out of wooden ice cream spoons and glue. Their teacher was a 29-year-old Russian architect who was spending the summer as a Moss Hollow counselor under a cultural exchange program. The kids all said they'd never met a Russian before.

And in the gazebo beside the dinner bell, a slender boy with a Marine Corps haircut was making a lanyard. Yellow over pink, pink around yellow, pull through and yank tight. "Going to use it for a key chain," he said. "Never had a key chain before."

Our Send a Kid to Camp campaign can't eradicate the poverty that many campers face back home. It can't bring back parents who've abandoned these kids. Nor can it wave a magic wand and rid their neighborhoods of drugs and poor schools.

But our program can produce Lethal Weapon, Y-for-Yasmine, a counselor who cares, a Russian who's just like you and me and a quiet place to make a key chain. Little miracles. Big dividends.

Fund-raising for the campaign continues through Aug. 10. It costs $352 to send one child to camp for two weeks. However, donations of any size are welcome. All gifts are tax-deductible.


Make a check or money order payable to Send a Kid to Camp, and mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., 20071.

In hand as of July 28: $210,802.86.

Our goal by Aug. 10: $275,000.