Christmas was coming, the goose was good and fat (plus murdered, plucked and roasting), and it seemed the right time to teach the oldest son the meaning of the season.

We lived outside Washington, D.C., when this urge struck; the boy and I would travel down to the mall for the lesson and be back home in time for the afternoon games.Such is the life of a one-hour Samaritan, who sometimes finds more than he went looking for.

We beat it down to the city in our Oldsmobile, a 1976 Cutlass (Bicentennial Edition) that looked much like those bombs you see rolling around Havana: dented, faded, peeled vinyl roof, back bumper wired up with coat-hangers dry-rotted seats. While not your typical Santa's sleigh, we went bearing gifts - three new sleeping bags for the homeless, who were usually rushed off with donations of excessive puniness - or with a growl.

Driving past the Commerce Department, the boy spotted a man reclining behind some bushes. He readily accepted our present, and the young donor looked rather pleased with himself - animated by that odd joy that comes from giving things away. Then came a woman who took the second bag, leaving the boy with even greater joy, and leaving me with a riddle: How many demons can dance in the head of a human being? There were no vacancies in her haunted skull, it was clear, but the boy smiled innocently as she rambled off, muttering to herself. "One left," he said.

The best, in an odd way, came last. Our third recipient was hunkered down in a tent made of blankets, and didn't come out for several minutes, even though the boy, now a determined shepherd, kept calling him. Finally, the fellow emerged, blinking at us, uncomprehending, his look no different than if he were confronting two beings that had just popped out of a flying saucer. You have seen his type before: jacket splattered with vomit, soiled pants, bearing an unspoken message to all one-hour Samaritans: I am beyond you.

We left the bag and fled.

But guys like this are not beyond everyone, and that day the boy also had the chance to see what the real Samaritans look like. They are the people who pull up to the curb in beat-up station wagons, let down the tailgate and dish out soup. They know the diners on a first-name basis and feed them in bowls that look to have come out of their own kitchens, with spoons they might spread around their own tables. It is a remarkable sight. These are the stout-hearted ones, the type to teach your boy a lesson.

Let him watch them spoon soup into these shaking wrecks, steady even as the stench turns the air black. As your child takes all this in, you can tell him that when he gets older he can study at the feet of moral philosophers and holy men until his beard grows to his feet, but none will teach him more than these. In fact, the pros will teach him much less, though at a steep price.

(Dave Shiflett is assistant editorial page editor of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.)