June 05, 1994|By JOHN E. McINTYRE

The children were the first in the water at the swim club this year -- noon on the Saturday before Memorial Day. It has become their place: They frisk and cavort in the water as exuberantly as dolphins in the sea; they have friends with whom they play "Marco Polo" or dive for pennies or marbles. Once we arrive and they are launched, I scarcely see them again.

The age of 10 brings advantages to adults, too. I get credit for being a dutiful and affectionate parent merely for going along and springing for hot dogs (relish AND onions, ketchup AND mustard on one, ketchup AND mustard on the other). Once they are immersed in their own society, I sit in the shade, write the odd letter, read Kingsley Amis' mordantly funny accounts of what a disagreeable lot most human beings are. An ideal situation. Twice each summer there's free beer.

This year bring the additional discovery that middle age renders one invisible. Another 20 years, and I'll be conspicuous as a gaffer or geezer. Twenty years younger, and I would be apprehensive about how I looked and sounded and seemed, particularly to those 17- and 19-year-olds in string bikinis parading breast and belly, hip and flank about the premises all afternoon. Instead, I am surrounded by other parents in their 40s, the sort of people who have plainly, in youth's eyes, let themselves go. I can wear a silly round white canvas hat and be as anonymous as the blades of grass at my feet.

The children, too, vanish into a mass. It takes some moments to pick out one's own from the turmoil in the water or the line at the diving board. Ten is as good as 40. Another year will surely bring the first twinges of adolescence -- the struggle to forge an identity, the preoccupation with appearance, the torment of wondering, "What do other people think of me?" A rough season lies ahead.

With luck, and a daunting quantity of parental patience and affection, they should come through with something of the sweetness of temper that they have shown for the past decade.

But for this afternoon, all vexatious concerns of identity, youth and middle age fade. Time slows after Memorial Day. The sun wheels across the sky in a ponderous arc. The wind in the leaves, the traffic in the street on the far side of the fence, the insect-like drone of distant adult conversations and the whoops and shrieks of the younger children merge into a single sound, as constant and timeless as the surf on the shore.

Summer has arrived, and life -- who would have thought it? -- is sweet.

John McIntyre is a deputy chief of The Sun's copy desk.

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