Lt. Theodore Holmes says he is "too old and too long on the job to be bitter," but some anger still seeps into his voice when he remembers how he had to sleep in a bed marked "C" for colored and eat off a plate set aside for blacks when he joined the D.C. Fire Department in 1963.

Shocked and indignant, Holmes banded together with other black firefighters and worked for nearly two decades to bring about change in what one black officer still calls the "country club atmosphere" of the Fire Department -- the agency that was one of the slowest in the District government to become integrated.

In 1980, as blacks and whites traded charges of racial bias and reverse discrimination, Holmes and another black fireman filed complaints with the D.C. Office of Human Rights charging the department with a wide-ranging "pattern and practice of racial discrimination."

At least three times since then, the black firefighters believed they had won their case. But each time, the victory dissolved into another round of combat.

Last week, the Justice Department joined the fray, filing a suit in U.S. District Court here that could torpedo a new affirmative action plan that grew out of Holmes' original complaint. Justice has charged that the plan -- which calls for strict numerical goals to increase minority representation -- is itself "discriminatory because it grants preferences based on sex and race."

A few days earlier, Local 36 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents about 1,000 D.C. firefighters, including about 200 who are black, filed its own lawsuit attacking the plan's promotion provisions with the same argument.

Now, five years after their battle began, Holmes and his allies are back in court, in a case that underscores how complicated and elusive affirmative action goals can be.

The battle could have impact beyond the D.C. Fire Department. The Justice Department's entrance into the case has transformed it into another confrontation over the use of what civil rights advocates call "goals" and what opponents call "quotas" as a means of redressing past employment discrimination.

"It is another escalation in the Justice Department's attempt to change civil rights law," said Barry Goldstein, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. "D.C. is important because it is on the national stage."

On Saturday, U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey will hear arguments from all sides: the D.C. government, the black firefighters, the union and the Justice Department. After that, according to one of the lawyers, Richey could do anything, from giving the plan "his judicial blessing" to "tossing it out and sending us back to square one."

Meanwhile, Richey has said that the plan is "not in effect."

Already the controversy has exacerbated racial tensions in the department, held up promotions and prevented the filling of 114 vacancies, nearly 9 percent of the department's full strength. It also has cost the city millions in overtime pay -- $2.1 million in this fiscal year alone.

"Perhaps even more important, [it] means that existing firefighters are carrying an excessive workload and face the danger of fatigue and exhaustion," Corporation Counsel Inez Smith Reid told the judge last week.

In the field, the cost is being measured in other ways. The controversy, union President Thomas Tippett said last week, is "tearing this department up." At Engine Company No. 6 on New Jersey Avenue NW, a white fireman agreed. "You keep rubbing the same spot, this black-white thing. It's no good," he said, shaking his head. "It's like rubbing a sore, it keeps getting worse and worse."

Fire Chief Theodore R. Coleman would not be interviewed about the affirmative action plan and the pending lawsuits.

While only a handful of firefighters have seen the complex affirmative action plan, many are aware of the first directive taken from its pages. The plan asserts that the 1982 selection process for promotions to sergeant resulted in "an adverse impact on black candidates" and that five black firefighters should be promoted as a remedy.

On March 8, the chief ordered those promotions from a list that ranks firefighters based on their scores on a 1982 exam, their seniority and their completion of job-related college courses. The five black firefighters were selected over a number of white firefighters ranked above them on the list.

The incident created an uproar. Local 36 filed its lawsuit hours before the promotions were announced, and complaints from firefighters led to the Justice Department's challenge.

Now, as the lawyers prepare for their legal encounter, firemen in the field are debating the issue, too.

"I look at it from the standpoint of past discrimination," said Lt. Donald Edwards at Engine 6. "There are certain things that, as a black, I can't forget. That's the way of the world. To equalize things, something needs to be done. This plan, if it's a one-shot thing, maybe it's what we need."

Patrick Foley, a white firefighter, doesn't see it that way. He is ranked fifth on the 1984 sergeant promotion list. "Yes, years ago there was discrimination and that is documented," Foley said. "But if to pay back for past discrimination, they discriminate against me, that makes me angry . . . . It's unfair to everybody."

Caught in the middle is the D.C. Office of Human Rights, whose director, Maudine Cooper, approved the plan. Its long-range goal is to ensure that percentages of minorities and women in the department are "equal to their group representation in the available work force" in the District.

According to the plan, blacks make up about 64 percent of the District's population, but 38 percent of the department's uniformed work force. Currently, "the vast majority of captains, lieutenants and sergeants are white," Reid told the court last week. In addition, nearly 67 percent of those making between $25,000 and $33,000 are white, according to Reid, while black males account for about 62 percent of those making less than $20,000.

In a telephone interview Friday, Cooper said: "We're trying to correct historical inequities with the least amount of pain . . . . The black firefighters don't think we have done enough. The white firefighters think we have done too much . . . . The status quo will just not work in correcting the historical discrimination."

In 1950, the department still had five all-black companies, according to the Progressive Fire Fighters Association, and no blacks were assigned to any white company. When the chief attempted to desegregate, the plan was blocked by the firefighters' union and some southern congressmen, then in control of the House District Committee. It took until 1962, after what a newspaper editorial called "a full decade of painful effort," for the department to integrate.

Nearly two decades later, 1980 opened with its own set of racial tensions. In January, Mayor Marion Barry named the city's third black fire chief, and the union protested that the mayor had passed over a more qualified candidate who was white. "Has the fire chief's job been reserved for a black person?" the union president demanded to know.

Black firefighters were just as angry, charging that the new chief had been chosen because he was a black man with no record of association with militant blacks or their affirmative action goals.

The charges were hurled back and forth, and in October, Holmes and another black officer filed their complaints with the D.C. Office of Human Rights.

In 1981, then D.C. Human Rights director Anita B. Shelton, ruling on their complaint, ordered the D.C. government to develop an affirmative action plan that would give minorities "preference in all new hiring and promotions" until "traditional patterns of racial segregation" in the department are eliminated.

The city appealed, which led to a 50-day public hearing. The hearing. culminated with a ruling that the test used in 1980 to select D.C. firefighters had had an adverse impact on black applicants. Again came the recommendation for an affirmative action plan.

But, according to Joan Burt, attorney for the black firefighters, the District did not comply. On March 22, 1984, Burt's clients took their claims to federal court. Judge Richey worked out a consent decree in which the District said it would submit an affirmative action plan. It is that plan, issued in January, that brought everyone to court again.

This time, Judge Richey may determine if the plan, in his own words, "meets constitutional muster."

Last week, corporation counsel Reid defended the D.C. plan with its hiring and promotion goals as "a reasonable plan," one that legally "does pass muster." Burt, however, said her clients have their own suggestions for a plan "with different mechanisms for relieving the disparity . . . that would be fairer to everybody" and "not cause such as uproar."

Local 36 president Tippett said his union wants "rank order promotions, with no preference because of race. That's all we're asking." And Justice, which has attacked both the hiring and promotion goals, said, in its press release, that "racial quotas . . . are just as inconsistent with federal law as outright exclusion because of race."

The city government, the union, the black firefighters and the Justice Department all filed arguments in court yesterday. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law also sought to file a "friend of the court" brief opposing Justice's position.

Meanwhile, Theodore Holmes said he is not discouraged. "I have learned . . . you never get a conclusion, a victory, a win. It is just on to the next plateau," he said.

"Whatever happens Saturday, is just another step, another plateau."