Delta Flight 1131 from Atlanta to Miami last Saturday morning told a story of how much better Americans work as people than as cogs in a machine, or bureaucrats. This is what happened as I observed it from a front-row seat in the tourist section.

Shortly after takeoff, there came from the first-class section a loud, anguished wail. A male voice cried: "I don't want to live. I want to die."

Looking up the aisle I saw a dark man in a white shirt standing with his head in his hands. He looked Cuban, and I mentioned that to the man in the seat next to me. My neighbor said something about probably being skyjacked to Havana.

At that moment a stewardess came by and closed the curtain between first class and tourist. I asked what had happened. "Somebody in there is sick," she said nonchalantly.

A few minutes later I heard from the first-class cabin a sustained pounding against the side of the aircraft. Then silence. The stewardess came by to say they would be serving a light snack. At that point there was a shattering noise from the first-class cabin.

The captain then announced that we were running into a spot of bad weather. The seat-belt sign was flashed and service of the snack suspended.

Shortly thereafter, the captain announced that we were beginning our descent. A stewardess came by and collected the portable trays used in the front row of seats. Several minutes later we landed. Both the shortness of the flight and the look of the ground and airport where we touched down made it clear we had not reached Miami. But only when we had taxied to a stop at the gate did the captain reveal the facts.

He announced that one of the passengers had been ill. The plane had landed at Orlando, and the passenger would be taken off. There would be a short wait to take on more fuel; then we would continue on to Miami. There was a loud burst of applause from the passengers.

The curtain between tourist and first-class had been opened. I saw the man in the white shirt being escorted off the plane. I approached one of the passengers in first class and received a brief description of what had been going on.

The man in the white shirt, after his cry of anguish, had started to beat his head against the side of the plane. A stewardess eased him back into his seat. When food and drink were served, he smashed a tray to the floor. Hence the loud crash.

Then he rose and started to try to open the exit door. "That could have been very dangerous," the first-class passenger said. But one of the stewardesses brought him back to his seat and talked to him quitely all the way down to Orlando.

The captain appeared in the cabin. I went up, introduced myself and said I would like to write about the superb handling of a difficult problem. He seemed pleased and gave me his card. It identified him as Charles Rarick, of Dallas. He said I would have to clear any reporting with the public relations staff in Miami.

I said I understood that. I told him I had a lunch that would be tough to make given the delay of the plane. He agreed to wire ahead so that the public relations people could be alerted.

When the plane arrived in Miami, there was an agent to meet me. He had received word from the captain but no information about what had happened or what I wanted to do. When I told him, he said he would have to take it up with his supervisor. Since it was a Saturday, he wasn't sure that anybody from public relations was on duty. I suggested that they might be called at home.

We proceeded to a ticket counter just outside the corridor leading to the gate. The agent said he would go inside and bring back the superviosr. I asked him for a card so I could keep track of things. He said he wasn't important enough to have a card.

By good fortune, I met at the ticket desk the young man who was meeting me to take me to the lunch. He agreed to call the other people coming to lunch and ask for a delay. Then I waited for the agent and the supervisor.

About 10 minutes later the young man who met me reappeared. He had not been able to reach his friends on the phone. We had to be on our way or we would miss the lunch. The agent and the supervisor had not appeared. So I left my card and the name of my hotel with the man at the ticket desk, asking that the supervisor call me at his earliest convenience.

The Delta public relations office, which I called two days later, tells me they telephoned my hotel late that night. I never received the message. So I filed this report.