It was August 30 years ago in West Florida. Someone reported a body had been discovered in a house. The detective, Charlie Hall, asked if I wanted to go with him. I said, ''Sure.''

The house was a wooden frame with a small front porch in a working-class neighborhood. The woman's children, who had spent the night at their grandmother's, had tried to get in but the door was locked. The little boy, about 9, climbed in a window, found his mother dead and ran back to the grandmother who called the cops.

When Hall and I arrived, no one was there. We went through the front door, which opened onto a short hall. To the left, an open door led to a bedroom cluttered with cheap furniture. There was a large double bed and a woman, with long dark hair, lay there in a blood-spattered, white nightgown. She had a bullet hole about half an inch above the left eye. She had been dead at least eight or nine hours.

Maybe in life she had been attractive, but in death she was hideous. When life leaves, what's left doesn't look human. I'll leave it at that. There's no need to stick an ugly image in your mind. Hall went through her purse and found pornographic pictures as well as her ID. We later pieced together the story, which wasn't that unusual.

A marriage broken by infidelity, arguments, fights, booze, separations, reconciliation, more fights, booze, and then destruction. Her husband had shot her. He was found a few hours later slumped in his car. He had shot himself.

But back in the room there was nothing for me to do. It was hot and it smelled bad, so I walked out on the porch to have a smoke. As I got there, the woman's two children, the little boy and his sister, came running up the path. They intended to go by me, one on either side, and go into the house. Without thinking, I reached out with both arms and caught them, led them back to the steps, sat down, tried to comfort them.

There are several aspects of this that nailed it in my memory. I was living then in a purely adult world, a world peopled by newspapermen, cops, courthouse lawyers, bartenders, barmaids, prostitutes, alcoholics. It was a world of cynicism, sarcasm, black humor, one-night stands, hard drinking, occasional violence and brutality.

The women in it were as hard as the men. A man was valued on how hard he could hit, if he could shoot, if he was street smart, if he was quick with a wisecrack, if he could look the most disgusting horror in the face and not lose his lunch or show emotion, if he would stick instead of run if the situation got tight. It was a world without children. A world without tenderness.

So when I reached and grabbed those children it was the first time in my life as an adult I had even touched a child. I remember how startled I was by the lightness of their being. If you've ever held a living bird in your hand - that's what I mean. They were so alive but so light, so fragile, so vulnerable, so different from the heavy hardness of adults.

Also I had, by that August afternoon, trained myself to be a cold, detached observer. It made no difference, I told myself, if the world self-destructed. My job was just to watch, not to interfere or participate or make any judgment. Yet, when those children came running up, the pattern broke by itself. I acted. I became a participant in something I had intended only to observe.

Finally, they were beautiful children. Maybe if they had been ugly or dirty it wouldn't have made such an impression, but both children were beautiful, clean, neatly dressed. It seemed impossible that two such sordid, stupid and violent adults could have produced such lovely children. The contrast was stark: beauty in the midst of ugliness, innocence in the midst of evil. It was like finding two angels in a garbage dump.

I tell you this story because as intelligent adults you can see through many of the Sentinel Santa stories that the parents in some cases would win no prizes as human beings. In some cases, the misery is self-inflicted. But I hope you will remember that children are indeed angels in this garbage dump of a world. Children are what God intended humans to be and surely there is no truer measure of a society than how it treats its children.

My own soul has so much scar tissue I still have a hard time generating sympathy for adult human beings. It's a failure on my part I have to live with. But children remain a lifeline that keeps me human, that keeps a better part of me alive. I hope you will remember that children are innocent of the folly and failures of adults. When you reach out to a child, you come as close as most of us ever will to touching the hand of God.