Morning rush hour doesn't pinch any worse than at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE. As the masses descend on Washington from the east, the light at Bladensburg is the first they encounter. Backups of half a mile are routine.

So it's no party if an emergency vehicle has to make its way along the westbound lanes of New York Avenue near the National Arboretum and the Washington Times building. Not only are there no service lanes at that point, but the traffic is packed so tightly that many motorists can't get out of the way even if they want to.

Such was the ballet one recent Thursday morning when a D.C. ambulance appeared, with lights flashing and siren wailing. Helen Kerschner of Columbia was one of the motorists who tried to make way. There were several close calls and several delays, "but somehow a path was made," Helen reports.

She also reports what happened next.

You might call it a Big Slack Attack.

The ambulance wailed its way through the intersection of Bladensburg Road. It made a U-turn. It turned northwest on Bladensburg. It made another U-turn. It turned east on New York Avenue and roared past Helen and her fellow crawlers. "At last," thought Helen, "they're on their way toward wherever they're going."

Not just yet.

A minute later, Helen saw the same ambulance in her rear-view mirror. Once more, the corps de ballet struggled to make way. Once more, there were close calls and delays, and finally, a path.

The ambulance scooted through the intersection of Bladensburg and made a right turn.

Into the parking lot of a McDonald's.

"If I were still living in Los Angeles, I would have assumed they were just filming a commercial," writes Helen. "Something to the effect of, 'When you have a real emergency, head for McDonald's.' " Alas, Helen now knows what we veteran Washingtonians have long realized. The priorities of our ambulance service are sometimes, shall we say, from hunger.

Helen did not provide the number of the ambulance, so I wasn't able to check with the crew. However, Capt. Theodore Holmes of the D.C. Ambulance Bureau's office of public affairs said drivers "absolutely and positively may not" use sirens and flashing lights for personal reasons.

Capt. Holmes speculated that there may have been an injury or an illness inside the McDonald's, so the use of lights and sirens may have been legitimate. However, the police have no record of anything unusual at that location on the morning in question, and the McDonald's manager doesn't remember a sick or injured person on that date.

It smells. And ketchup isn't what it smells of.

In case this ambulance crew has forgotten, its job is to protect the public, not endanger us through unnecessary use of emergency equipment. The rest of us don't ask for special privileges when we get the hungries. Ambulance crews shouldn't, either.

SEND A KID TO CAMP

We're getting close. But you know what they say about closeness and cigars.

Our 43rd annual Send a Kid to Camp campaign closes on Friday. We've done quite well. But "quite well" is not going to get us to our goal, or past it.

Our program sends 1,100 underprivileged kids to camp each summer. These are young people whose lives often hold little joy and little promise. But a visit to summer camp seems to freshen spirits.

A child who has never ridden in a canoe, or never seen one, suddenly discovers the wonders of nature. A child with a sour attitude suddenly smacks a home run or swims half a mile -- and finds that it doesn't hurt to smile. A child whose parents never cared for or about him spends two weeks with a new batch of bunkmates -- and learns how terrific making friends can be.

Our program has performed these little miracles for two generations. But the need has never been greater. Our community is struggling with unprecedented social difficulties. As always, the kids bear the brunt, even if they don't bear the responsibility. As always, the people who can do the most to help are you and me, their neighbors.

As you can see below, we are still considerably short of our 1990 goal. But a last-minute infusion of bucks from readers like you will see us through.

It costs $352 to send one kid to camp. Even if you can't send that much, please send whatever you can spare. You'll help a small person in a big way. Thank you very much.

TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE CAMPAIGN:

Make a check or money order payable to Send a Kid to Camp, and mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., 20071.

In hand as of Aug. 1: $218,192.86.

Our goal by Aug. 10: $275,000.