Until the letter arrived late Monday afternoon, with a brief scrawled note attached to a page from something called "The Nonviolent Activist," the intended topic here was an old subject that continues to reflect new tragedy among countless American families -- drug use, especially among the children of noted public figures.

In the last few years, drug-charge arrests of sons and daughters of former and present prominent public officials appear to have accumulated. There has been no pattern to them, no distinction to be drawn from political background, ideology or region. Nor has any major political institution been untouched by the personal heartbreak they represent. They have fallen equally cruelly upon families who represent highest positions in White House, Supreme Court or Congress and down the political line to offices of mayors and law enforcement officials. The latest example involves the son of Geraldine A. Ferraro, John A. Zaccaro Jr.

These cumulative incidents pose numerous questions about the fabric of American families and culture and/or pervasive availability and use of drugs. At the least, they've seemingly become so common as barely to be news. Either that, or the public reaction to them bespeaks a welcome maturity on the part of people who recognize drug usage as a deeper societal problem exposing underlying generational strains at all levels of American life.

But more on this later. For now another, not unrelated, generational subject. It's about a person forever fixed in my mind as a symbol of the protests of the tormenting 1960s, the very time when many of the most favored of America's youth were in the process of dropping out, turning to drugs, or both.

"Sorry to be the bearer of such bad news," my friend wrote. Attached was a brief article headlined:

Lessie Klein, 1946-1985

Underneath, it read:

"Lessie Klein, 39, was killed in Nepal on Nov. 23 in a motor-vehicle accident. Lessie was on her way to Vedchhi, India, where she was to help with preparations for the War Resisters International Triennial Conference to be held there in early January 1986. Lessie had been a nonviolent activist for many years, working part time to devote her principal energies to the nonviolent movement.

"In the late '60s and early '70s Lessie worked for CCCO in Philadelphia and San Francisco. Since 1976 she had lived in the Boston area and was active with the American Friends Service Committee, the International Seminars on Training for Nonviolent Action and the Bay State Center for Economic Conversion (as well as numerous direct-action projects). She initiated the Cambridge Research Project, a project to explore alternative use planning for Cambridge military industries. Lessie brought firm ethical commitments, enormous good sense and an exceptional sense of humor to her many undertakings as an activist. She was also a very talented raconteur. For her many friends the loss of this beloved friend is irreplaceable."

I first met Lessie, the daughter of a neurosurgeon near Boston, 18 years ago this month. It was in New Hampshire, and she was one of the legion of students who left campuses to campaign for Eugene McCarthy against the war in Vietnam, a course that took her and them across the country from New England to California.

Like so many then, Lessie was disillusioned by the outcome; unlike so many, she refused to give in to despair or to drop out. Sunny, bright, vivacious, she continued working for what she believed. Months would pass. Then a witty postcard would arrive from some distant point bringing me up to date on her activities. If she was discouraged, she never hinted at it. She kept prodding me to pay more attention to what people like herself were doing. I did not. Finally, we lost all contact.

What Lessie planned after her appointment in Nepal, I have no way of knowing. I have a feeling that she would have turned up next in the Philippines. Whatever her experience in America in recent years, there she would have found her metier. She would have been witness to the toppling of a corrupt dictator and, I'm sure, been exhilarated by such compelling evidence of the unquenchable impulse for democracy. For Lessie, there at last would be proof that nonviolent protest remains a powerful weapon in the hands of the people.