"Are you a friend of Bill Wilson?" It's an ordinary enough kind of a question, and it's asked probably a thousand times a day somewhere in the world, and if it doesn't mean anything to you, it is a genial code phrase for at least a million people who know that the late Bill Wilson, also known as Bill W., was one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The question, innocent enough, helps one AA member identify another in social settings, stores, on the street and at the beach and in the work place. It is usually asked when one AA suspects that another person is also in the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous and wants to say hello in that context. The tip-off has to do with some of the outward signs that a man or woman has recovered from alcoholism through the granddaddy of all the self-help programs: a crispness of manner, a set of clear, attentive eyes and the confidence that comes with knowing exactly how and under what circumstances one has escaped an ugly life and an even uglier death.

What Alcoholics Anonymous is is a million- plus souls walking the land freed from the fear of dying of a drug or alcohol overdose, dying an ugly death of bloated liver and yellowed skin, of fiery car crashes or gunfire, much of the latter being self-inflicted. Every AA meeting consists of a handful, or more, of human beings who had, essentially, been written off by society as hopeless.

Most AAs can tell you what day they had their last drink. Many can tell you the hour and minute. All lead up to telling you how they stopped with one version or another of two simple words: "Something happened."

That "something" will be celebrated this month in 114 countries around the world as the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous observes its 50th birthday. Monday, the half- century mark for AA, will mark the exact beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous: with the last drink of Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, a surgeon and co-founder of AA.

That "something" that will be marked has to do with the darkness that comes with the realization that a person has had his last possible ounce of alcohol, white wine, muscatel or Scotch. As the bottom nears for an alcoholic, the normal reactions and feelings of a human being are replaced by an overwhelming fear -- blind, unreasoning fear of impending doom. At this stage the alcoholic may be afraid to leave the house, to drive a car, even to leave, yes, the bed. It is a fear of nothing and of everything, a dread that, possibly, retribution (for what?) is at hand.

And finally, after days or weeks or months or years of "maintenance" drinking, keeping enough alcohol in the system to stave off withdrawal symptoms (such as convulsions, DTs and hallucinations), in the words of the immortal Roberto Duran, the alcoholic will simply say "No mas, no mas," and stop it.

He may accompany this act of the last drink with the magical three words: "Please help me."

This can be reduced to two words, and then one, "Help," and then, AAs will tell you, it is possible to begin the recovery from fear, guilt, anxiety, rage and, if the alcoholic is lucky, many of the physical impairments that go along with alcoholism.

What AA offers to the person who has decided not to drink anymore is in the words of the preamble that is read at the start of every AA meeting. It begins: "Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism."

There is little organization in AA, and it has been called the anarchy that works. Groups form, almost spontaneously, and find a place to meet. Many groups meet in church basements, in office buildings, in recreation centers.

At the basic "closed" (members-only) AA meeting a leader presides, reading the preamble, choosing a topic for discussion, or amplifying on whichever of the 12 steps of AA is to be discussed that hour. Generally the leader will relate the subject (it may be "gratitude," or "tolerance" or even "how did your day go?") to his own life and drinking experiences, and tell part of his "drunkalogue" to the group, which may number from five or six to as many as 40 or 50 or more members.

Each person in the meeting, then, may have the chance to address the subject, or just "dump," if he chooses, telling of a current problem with wife, dog, car, lover, boss or cab driver. Most experienced AAs say they find most of their real problems within themselves, and that the catharsis of "dumping" helps the solution to present itself.

"Open" meetings, which may be attended by anyone (few sightseers are reported at meetings around Washington), are less candid and more general in nature than the closed meetings, and at the third type of meeting, the "open speakers' meeting," a leader might bring two alcoholics who will each tell his story for about half an hour: how he began drinking, what it was like, how he got to AA and how life is today. Almost invariably, the point of surrender to the powerlessness over alcohol is expressed in a phrase very close to "Something happened."

The story of this remarkably successful organization starts with William G.

Wilson, a riches-to-rags stockbroker and Wall Street hustler. He had been diagnosed as a hopeless, chronic alcoholic, doomed to apparently endless hospitalizations and then mean death or insanity. In one of these hospitals, Wilson in November 1934 had what he described later as a spiritual experience, and never had another drink.

He had been hospitalized several times before, and this last time, in October, he was 39, drunk, impotent, angry and depressed, and after a flash of light that filled his room, he was to live a life of service to others and die sober in Miami Beach on Jan. 24, 1971, at the age of 75, at which time his full name, picture and story were carried by the media worldwide for the first time. He had been, well, anonymous.

After preliminary recovery, but still shaky (experts in the field of alcoholism estimate that it takes a month of sobriety for every year an alcoholic drank just to clear his system of the physical effects of booze), Bill W. went to Akron on a business trip. The trip turned out to involve results other than what our protagonist had expected, and he found himself craving a drink, a typical alcoholic response to unexpected events. He knew he would drink again unless -- unless what? Then it came to him that if he could find another alcoholic to talk to, perhaps the two of them could do what he alone could not.

He made a few telephone calls, and through a rather involved route found "Dr. Bob" Smith, another "hopeless" alcoholic.

Bill W. had been exposed to the Oxford Group, a sort of spiritual predecessor of AA, which had had only limited success in helping anyone get sober. One of the things he had learned is that an alcoholic will listen to another alcoholic who knows what he's talking about when it comes to booze, and no one else. And in Akron that evening in May, 1935 -- dry only a few months -- Bill W. knew he was doomed if he could not find another alcoholic, drinking or not, to talk to and, if possible, help.

So exactly what transpired between Bill W. and Dr. Bob -- who had been drinking alcoholically since medical school -- was that the latter found that he was not alone nor was his problem unique, and that here was somebody who had been there and knew the territory and could show him a way out. Bill W. wore the mantle of total credibility. And Bill W. not only found an alcoholic to help. In the course of helping Dr. Bob, he lost his desire to have just one drink.

That seems to be the basis for the simple magic of AA: The laughter in the rooms where anonymous alcoholics gather is the laughter of those who have been at the gates of hell and been restored; the men and women there laugh at their own problems and understand those of the newcomer.

The founding date of June 10, 1935, for Alcoholics Anonymous was selected because that was the day of Dr. Bob's last drink. The last drink Dr. Bob had was a bottle of beer Bill W. slipped the good surgeon on his way into the hospital to perform an operation. This last drink was to steady his hand.

Dr. Bob was to die, sober, in November 1950, 15 years later. It is estimated that he personally treated more than 5,000 alcoholics during that period of his life, at no charge, and that he was never free of the compulsion to drink until his last breath, a rarity among those who recover from alcoholism in the fellowship he helped create.

His last words to Bill W. were said with a wink: "Remember, Willie, don't louse it up. Keep it simple."

The remarkable thing about AA is how it has been kept simple and functional by its members -- men and women who are notorious for their talents at complicating, say, a two-car funeral.

The simple part of AA is that it offers 12 steps to recovery, the 12 steps that have formed the basis for almost every other program of "self-help," including Neurotics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Impotents Anonymous and similar groups for overeaters, cancer victims and gamblers.

The steps are all "suggested," which recognizes the alcoholic tendency to resist authority in whatever uniform it appears. And alcohol is mentioned in only one of them, the first: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable." It is suggested to newcomers that this step is the only one of the 12 that can ever be done perfectly.

An AA member has got to cut some sort of a deal with himself and a "higher power" about the business of drinking. Bill W. said he had a literal spiritual experience, with a blinding flash of light. Most AAs enjoy what is called a spiritual "awakening," a simple coming to accept that there is a power greater than one's self, a power that can lift the compulsion to drink alcohol and, by extension, much, much more.

So a prospective AA member is told that, yes, the AA program might work for him if he stopped drinking, and it is usually at this time that "something happened."

It might be in the middle of a moonless night when a man who had been unable to go without an infusion of ethanol for four hours for the past 10 years pours his white wine (reduced to this from half a gallon of bourbon a day because of decreased tolerance) back into the jug and decides to be serious about not drinking. "Something happened," he will report after a comfortable period of sobriety.

Or a housewife who has been chained by Scotch whisky to her isolated bed for five years might look through the cobwebs of a treatment center window and know that all she has to do is go downstairs and join the group to begin her recovery. "Something happened," she will report after she has taken some new place in society.

The "something" is that, when an alcoholic is able to admit utter defeat and utter powerlessness over alcohol, he is stripped, at least temporarily, of that will power that has failed him so often and so dramatically. He is forced to rely on something else: a power greater than himself.

AA emphasizes to newcomers that this decision to stop drinking need be only for today. You can drink tomorrow, if you choose, but just for today you don't have to. This is very simple stuff, but remarkably effective with people who for years had begun every grocery list with liquor.

Now Alcoholics Anonymous is not your run-of-the-mill social gathering, and I have never heard of anybody saying, for instance, that the bowling alley seems to be crowded tonight, why don't we go see what one of these AA meetings is like?

If some kind of black light were to be rigged at the door of one of those church basements, it would certainly detect a footprint on the seat of the pants of almost everybody coming in, at least for the first visit. The footprint might be that of a spouse, a lover, or a judge, but more frequently an employer, because the job, ergo the wherewithal, is that important.

But those who get there and stay find that once they have admitted that they are powerless over alcohol there is some help. It begins there, with the surrender. The AAs don't ask anybody to believe in God, or anything else. What you can believe is that yesterday morning you had to have a drink to get your day started and today you didn't.

This is where the magic begins, magic in terms of the workings of the mind and soul. As it begins to dawn on a new AA member that he hasn't had a drink now for a day -- two days, a week, 10 days, what? a month! -- he can see that although the rest of the steps do not mention alcohol, they have built into them a formula for stripping away the sorts of thinking and behavior that led to the escape-drinking that led to the compulsive- drinking that led to the swollen liver and the red eyes that looked back at a hated face in the mirror.

Don't drink, say your prayers and get to a meeting is the admonition given to new members. There is more advice to come:

*Get a sponsor (someone to begin to trust, for once in your life, and explain to you what the program is and maybe tell you the next thing to do is brush your teeth).

*Read the Big Book. ("Alcoholics Anonymous," written by Bill W. and Dr. Bob and the first 100 AAs to get sober. It was first published two years after AA's founding; it sold its 4 millionth copy this last winter.)

*Keep coming back, keep it simple, first things first, easy does it, one day at a time, until the cynical drunk begins to suspect he's a victim of a bumper-sticker mentality.

He is also told he should get to a meeting a day for at least 90 days. At the end of that, he may be told, if he isn't fully satisfied, "your misery will be fully refunded."

It isn't hard to find 90 meetings in 90 days in the D.C. area. There are an estimated 1,000 meetings a week here now.

The magic of AA is simply a relationship between people that works. Psychologically, it involves a sort of transference that would make most shrinks suicidal with envy. As a prospective fellow of AA begins to recover from the effects of continued ingestion of a toxic substance, he looks around and usually "connects" with one person in one meeting. That person will have that certain something -- the clear eye, the stride, the self-confidence and the self-esteem and the apparent joy of living. He will express these qualities in what he says during the meeting and afterward. And the newcomer will want all those things.

This may be the person the newcomer asks to be his "sponsor" -- a member more senior in terms of years of sobriety who is available to steer the newcomer into the steps of the program and provide a ready ear for all sorts of personal problems, the way Bill W. learned with Dr. Bob.

This connection need go nowhere, not even sponsorship. But, once made, it is transferable, first to several members of the group and then to the group itself. (Many AAs urge newcomers who consider themselves atheists or agnostics to use the group as a power greater than themselves for the time being.) In extreme cases of recovery, the transference is then made from the group to the entire AA fellowship and then, saints perserve us, to society in general.

This connection/transference is made during the meetings, where at the same time the underlying principles of the AA 12 steps are toyed with and examined and teased and discussed endlessly (but an hour at a time, the AA propensity in this area being to start and stop meetings on time, unlike the churches many AAs fled). The principles, not so oddly, are tolerance, patience, honesty, open-mindness, willingness, humility, gratitude and other things taught Boy Scouts but forgotten quickly by those whose reluctance to grow up emotionally can lead to serious chemical substance abuse.

Not everybody gets to Alcoholics Anonymous. There are an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 alcoholics in the Washington metropolitan area alone, according to Joe Wright of the Washington Area Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. Of these, 35 percent, or 40 percent at the outside, may touch a form of help, if nothing more than counseling with a clergyman, or AA, or perhaps formal treatment at a hospital. The other 60 percent will continue their course of untreated alcoholism to its abysmal end.

Of the lucky 40 percent, better than half will go back to the booze and stay there until dead or insane.

Of the remaining 20 percent, 10 will find and make the sobriety grade for three to five years, and the other 10 will vacillate in and out of AA (members call this "slipping" or "relapsing"), with 5 percent eventually getting more-or-less permanent, or at least long-term, sobriety in AA. A 1983 survey found 30 percent of the members women, with 20 percent of all members under the age of 31.

And none of them will ever graduate. Nobody every gets completely well in Alcoholics Anonymous. When you are cured, one old-timer said, they hang you on a hook in the packing house. Nobody ever graduates, although many sober up and never go back to meetings. Sobriety is viewed there as a process, not an event. A few go back out there after long years of sobriety, and it is a lot harder for them to get back on track than it is for those who relapse early in their first brush with newfound sanity.

See, the deal cut with a higher power in the middle of the night is to put the cork in the bottle, the plug in the jug. That is up to the alcoholic to do, a day at a time. The steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous program are intended to give the alcoholic a way of life based on gratitude to whatever that power was that made the dark go away.