For most of us, the morning of Dec. 24 marked the beginning of the last shopping day before Christmas. But for the audience of WOL's "Cathy Hughes Show," it may be remembered as the day Santa almost lost it.

Ben Dudley, the station's veteran newscaster, had decided to take a break from the grim news that is too often his morning fare and take a turn as a radio Santa Claus. Children in the listening audience were encouraged to phone in their wishes for Christmas presents. There were even some free toys at the station (the spillover from Yetta Galiber's annual toy drive for handicapped children) for parents whose Christmas budgets were stretched to the point of embarrassment.

For the first several minutes, it went predictably enough: requests for firetrucks, Baby Alive, Gogo Pup and other such trinkets. Then came the first of several calls that, as Dudley said later, took the "Merry" right out of his Christmas.

"Merry Christmas, Santa," said the bright 15-year-old voice on the phone.

"Merry Christmas to you, ho, ho, ho," said Dudley in his best North Pole accent. "How are you this morning?"

"I'm doing fine."

"And what's your Christmas wish?"

"My wish ... " The brightness had vanished, and adolescent vulnerability had taken its place. "My Christmas wish is for my mother to get herself together and get away from drugs, you know, just find herself, you know, ask the Lord for some help, because she needs it. That's all I really want for Christmas."

Dudley, as close to open sobbing as I've ever heard him, managed to say something reasonably comforting ("We're going to pray with you and ask God to help your mother get herself together") before bolting from the H Street studio to get himself together.

Hughes took over for the next several seconds.

"Have you talked to your mother and told her how bad she's hurting you?"

"Yes."

"Have you called any of the hot lines to see if anybody could help?"

"No."

"Well I'm going to put you on hold and see if we can't get you some numbers. You hang on, now. You know, sometimes it's hard to understand how people who love you can hurt you so much."

By then Dudley had recovered and was back in the studio, ho-ho-hoing and promising the good girls and boys that they would get their pink radios and fire engines and doll babies. He even managed to keep his composure when a caller asked his help in putting an end to "this killing of young kids in the streets so this time next year things will be better."

But he did acknowledge to his radio audience that the two calls had touched him deeply. "What can you say?" he told me later. "It makes you wonder what's happened to childhood, the innocence of 8-year-olds. When these kids tell you they want their parents off drugs, that sort of thing, it makes you realize it's a real world out there."

It does for a fact. You think of the youngsters who are unhappy because their blue jeans have the wrong name on the pocket, or whose "sneaks" are the wrong brand, and you wish they could hear these heart-rending requests. You wish they could spend an hour with Yetta Galiber of the Information Center for Handicapped Individuals during her annual Christmas "sale." (Galiber collects thousands of toys and then distributes play money with which handicapped children can "purchase" gifts for themselves and their siblings.) Just being there can do wonders for your perspective.

And you wish all parents and children could have heard the exchange that has altered my entire attitude toward the excesses of Christmas giving, and still has me wondering how to turn heartbreak to useful purpose. Here it is:

"I know you can bring other things besides presents," the youngster began. "So I want my Mommy off the drugs too, and I can't talk on a long time because if she hears me I'll get a whipping. But I want that, and if you can do that, I want you to make my brother undead, because they shot him this summer on the street. And if you can do that, then I want a secret house, a playhouse, so I can live somewhere else. Okay?"

"Okay, Michael, and you be a good boy."

"Oh, and today is my birthday. Can I have another present because it's my birthday?"

"Sure, Michael. What is it?"

"A truck."

"Yeah, you can have a truck. How old are you?"

"Ten."

"All right, Michael. Merry Christmas to you. It's 23 minutes after 7 a.m. on Christmas Eve."