It was nearly 10 p.m. on Jan. 12. Darkness had fallen two hours earlier as Amtrak's Autotrain sped north through South Carolina toward Washington. The Orgel family of Gaithersburg was aboard, heading home from a visit to Disney World.

But 10-year-old Ben Orgel wasn't sleepy. So he asked his mother, Ann, if he could go for a walk through the train with a girl he had met who was about the same age. Ann said yes, and curled up to try to catch some sleep.

A few minutes later, sleep was the farthest thing from her mind. Ben had returned from his walk with a tale that would concern any responsible parent.

It seems Ben and his friend had hiked forward several cars to the snack bar. As they waited in line to buy some refreshments, the two children chatted. Perhaps they were excessively loud; perhaps not. In any case, a woman in her late 60s seated in the row of seats closest to the snack bar took offense.

Accounts of what happened next differ. Ben later told his parents that the woman swatted him on the bicep with her open hand and ordered him to shut up. The woman later told Amtrak Police that she merely tugged Ben by the sleeve and asked him to quiet down. But there is no question that a woman who was a stranger touched a 10-year-old boy (or his clothes) without warning -- and no question that Ben Orgel was frightened by the incident.

Ben's parents consulted the train crew. They were told to file a report with Amtrak Police once the train reached Washington. When the Orgels did so, the police told them that they'd have to return to South Carolina, the scene of the incident, if they wanted to press charges.

Obviously, the episode didn't warrant that, so the family considers the matter closed. But very much open is the issue of why the law considers a crime aboard a train a local matter when both the perpetrator and the victim were aboard a high-speed interstate vehicle.

Thomas F. Maher, the D.C.-based Amtrak detective assigned to the Orgel case, said that in one sense, Ben's run-in with the woman is a poor test case. Maher called the episode "at best a misdemeanor" and said it was "highly unlikely" that a South Carolina court would issue a warrant for the woman's arrest.

The incident was simply a matter of how differently the young and the old view a train ride at night, Detective Maher said. "Elderly people don't want to hear justice; they want to hear quiet," he observed.

If a serious crime occurs aboard an interstate Amtrak train, Maher said the train crew is instructed to notify local police at the next stop -- or to make an unscheduled stop if necessary. Amtrak Police are also notified, Maher said.

But there's still a big gulf here. What if the woman beside the snack bar had hauled off and belted Ben? No question that it would have been an assault. But if the train crew didn't see the punch, and didn't choose to stop the train, the Orgels would have two unappetizing options: 1) Persuade the Amtrak Police in Washington that the incident had been serious enough to warrant an arrest or 2) Take their own time and money to file a civil action back in South Carolina.

What we need is a reciprocity agreement between the state where an aboard-a-train incident takes place and the state where the train ultimately ends up. A victimized child and his family should be able to obtain justice without retracing their steps by 600 miles.

Clarence M. Long, you're my kind of guy. More to the point, on Jan. 22, you were Nat Preston's friend-in-need.

On that afternoon, at the height of rush hour, Nat rode the Red Line from downtown to his home in Northwest. But when he got off at Tenleytown, Nat discovered that he needed to add 30 cents to his Farecard to get out of the system. All he had was large bills -- which the Addfare machines don't accept.

Clarence Long had a better idea. He is the custodian at the Tenleytown station. When Nat explained the situation and asked him for advice, Clarence reached into his pocket and handed Nat 30 cents. Refused to be paid back, what's more.

Thanks to Alberta Schlesinger, of Fredericksburg, for this contribution to the Not-Quite-What-He-Meant file:

When Alberta went shopping recently at a Food Lion grocery store in Stafford, Va., she noticed a sign. "If the package size you want is not on display, ask the perishable manager," it said.

"Poor guy," says Alberta. "He's probably hiding out in a refrigerator for safekeeping."

John McCall, of Upper Marlboro, says he saw it stuck to a passing bumper on the Beltway: HONK IF YOU'RE AGAINST NOISE POLLUTION.