Being like Gene

It may be that we all have at least a bit of Peter Pan in us - the child who never wants to grow up. But I remember more often yearning to finally grow up. As a child I didn't want to be as grown up as my parents were - that didn't seem too terribly interesting - but I did desperately want to be just a little older than I was.

In fact, my sole ambition the summer of my sixth year was to achieve the age of two of my cousins. My family was vacationing on Nantucket Island, and these cousins had come to visit.

They were five and three years older than I. Steve, the younger, was dark and quiet, while his brother Gene was fair and exhuberant.

Both, I thought, were the ultimate in sophistication. They knew grown-up secrets, understood grown-up jokes, and possessed grown-up knowledge. They could point out license plates from far-away states. They knew the names and sometimes even the years of cars. They read books without pictures. When we ordered pizza, they could eat a pie between them, while I struggled to get through a single piece. I longed to emulate them.

Consequently, I spent all my waking moments by their sides. Gene finally nicknamed me ''the Barnacle,'' and in the morning, when I leaped out of bed with the dawn, determined to track the two of them down, they would cry, ''Oh no. Here comes the Barnacle!'' but I don't think they ever really minded.

They taught me to play a game called ''Running Bases'' - which mostly consisted of my running back and forth between them as they threw a baseball over my head and shouted, ''She's out!'' each time one of them caught it.

They showed me how to ride an inner tube in the quiet bay, and to look for small sea creatures there.

They inspired me to order strange ice cream cones which I didn't like and couldn't finish. (Gene's favorite, Peppermint Stick, was the worst. It was full of sharp stinging bits which hurt my tongue.)

After dinner they would play checkers and I would watch. One night Steve undertook to teach me, and he displayed a patience way beyond his nine years. We had trouble right at the outset when I couldn't decide between red and black. ''But I like them both,'' I protested. ''Sometimes it's that way,'' he explained kindly but definitely. ''You have to choose.''

My strongest memory is of the last night of the summer. We had lingered late at the beach that afternoon, fully occupied with the construction of an elaborate Gothic sand castle.

Then, just as we were getting ready to head home for dinner, we saw the tide coming in. Hurriedly we slapped together ten sets of walls in a defensive ring around the castle, working furiously as the dark and now-cold ocean crept up the beach toward us.

We were no match for it, however, and the first three walls had already caved in by the time we finally had to leave.

''But don't you think it might last?'' I asked Gene as we padded home along a sandy road. ''The inside walls are so strong.''

''No,'' he said firmly. ''The ocean is a lot bigger than you think.''

He said it so calmly. His words implied an understanding of the ocean, and a stoical acceptance of the destruction of his creation. But I was only six, still young enough to want to cry about it, or at least to stay and fight it out until the end.

He was right about the castle, of course. We checked the next morning and it had disappeared without a trace. And then, within a few days, summer vacation had disappeared as well. Labor Day arrived, the brilliant sunshine began to fade into the softer tones of autumn, and we headed back home for school.

My father took some color slides that summer, and every now and then he digs them out of a dusty shoe box, and we look at them once more, marvelling over the fact that we were once all so young.

What amazes me though, is that those little boys in bathing suits leering at us from the slides were the wise and wonderful heros of my youth. Surely that summer they were older, grander, larger.

But what is really strangest to consider is that somehow I never reached the status my cousins had attained that summer. It eluded me every year, always passing into the hands of some slightly older group. When I did reach their age, I found it belonged to young teen-age girls who had dates, and wore earrings, and studied algebra. Then it was high school seniors. They had driver's licenses and took SAT tests and talked about colleges. That was maturity. And then it was the young professionals. And now I look at Gene and Steve again, with their established careers, their children and their houses in the suburbs, and I'm still a little awed.

So I guess I'll never be as old as Gene and Steve were that summer.

For one thing, I'm not yet very good on the names and years of cars. For another, I still don't like Peppermint Stick ice cream. But what's worse, I never learned to make a quick decision between the red and the black in checkers , and even now, I still hate to walk away calmly, leaving the ocean to destroy a favorite sand castle.

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