For $1.08, three weeks ago, I bought a toothbrush, toothpaste and plastic comb (black) at the Pines Restaurant and Motel on Alabama Rte. 431. So I had the answer to a question that never before crossed my mind: Where do you buy a toothbrush in Opelika, Ala., at 6:30 in the morning? The kindly saleslady didn't even ask why I needed the tools. I'll tell you.

A word of caution first. The essayist E.B. White once said no one can write anything without giving it a slant, no matter how pure his heart, how sincere his intentions. No man is born perpendicular, White said, although many are born upright. At the keyboard today, you have a man who is bent out of shape. You'll catch the direction of my slant.

Airline baggage handlers are agents of the devil. There, I feel better already. Sports pages tell us the home team wins more often than the visitors. Home floor, home bed, all that. Forget it. The home team wins because it doesn't have to mess with baggage handlers.

Tired of lugging a typewriter onto airplanes, six months ago I bought a plastic case for the blessed machine. The case, they told me, was indestructible. Ho, ho. The mind refuses to imagine what torture the baggage handlers visited upon my indestructible case. It must have been awful. Last time I opened the case to work, the typewriter came out in pieces. Ball bearings dripped from its broken body. The repair man said it may never walk again.

Anyway, three weeks ago I was en route to the Super Bowl.

My baggage wasn't.

The baggage handlers had lost it.That was the official version. Anyone who flies more than five or six times a year has heard the story: "Yes, sir, we have a tracer on your baggage and we will deliver it to your hotel first thing." Once, these smiling assassins of spirit delivered a bag to my hotel room. Someone else's bag. Mine, poor thing, never returned from its voyage into darkness.

I began the Super Bowl trip by flying from Washington to Montgomery, Ala., for a basketball game. When my baggage didn't appear, I told the airline to deliver it to my hotel in Opelika, 50 miles away. Sure thing. Eleven hours later, I called to find out where the baggage was.

"At the Montgomery bus station," someone said.

"What's it doing there?"

"It'll get out to Opelika on the first bus tomorrow morning. They'll bring it to your hotel by 8 o'clock in the morning."

It was here that I deviated from the perpendicular. I also went crazy. "Wonderful," I said. "But I won't be at my hotel. I have to catch a plane in Columbus, Ga., at 8:30 and I'm leaving the hotel at 6:30 in the morning."

A lot of other stuff was said. I wondered why it took an airline 20 hours to deliver a bag 50 miles. The man from the airline didn't say anything, but then he might have been sleepy. I called him at home at midnight. His airline's TV commercials say it's ready when you are, and I was ready to get my bag.

"I'll get it on the first plane to Atlanta," the sleepyhead said. "You'll get it there in the morning, first thing."

So at 6:30 that morning, I combed my hair with my fingers and set out in search of a toothbrush. It was dark and 11 degrees and I was driving around Opelika, Ala., looking for a toothbrush. They didn't tell me about this in Journalism 101.

"No, sir, we don't get much call for toothbrushes," a girl said at an all-night truck stop. "Want some chewin' tobacco?" She winked prettily.

After three stops, I started thinking. This can be dangerous early in the morning. I've made maybe 75 trips this year. Time spent in packing, checking in baggage and waiting by moving belts for my bag to appear (last, always last) - that time might add up to a week. A week! A week spent with a suitcase! I felt faint.

And there's that commercial. The one with the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the fashion of Mean Joe Green at work, they're kicking suitcases and slamming them against the ground and biting them.Unthinking viewers probably believe that's an endorsement of the suitcases' toughness. Veteran travelers know better.Somewhere a black-belt baggage handler is showing that film to his assassins and saying, "Look at those nambie-pambies."

Finally, I found the Pines Restaurant and Motel. I put down my $1.08. I brushed my teeth. Then I drove to Columbus, Ga., for my 8:30 flight, arriving 45 minutes early.

"The plane left 15 minutes ago," said the ticket agent, who explained I'd lost an hour by driving from Alabama, in the Central time zone, into Georgia and the Eastern time zone.

Wonderful. My bags were lost. And so was I.