Small children play the games of summer

SMALL children are made for the beach. Under crushed white caps, grasping a yellow pail in one hand and a red shovel in the other, they bounce toward the ocean like a beach ball exuberantly out of control. Some motor inside them seems to drive them beyond a safe speed until everything vibrates -- the stomach, hanging complacently over the trunks, the head, bobbing this way and that on their shoulders, and, of course, the well-upholstered legs.

For a child, sand is nature's trampoline, rebounding him into the air at each downward thrust of the foot.

When a small child reaches the water's edge, what has been a kind of dance turns into a dance for real. The celebrator spins and whirls where the waves break on the sand, stamping tiny fountains of water in all directions as if to praise such a perfectly marvelous universe of sun, sky, beach, and sea.

Just before collapsing dizzily on the seat of the pants, a squeal of purest delight rises from the throat of the summer-worshiper.

After the first excitement, the small child will settle down to a small child's duties -- picking up the largest, ugliest rocks on the beach and depositing them with a triumphant grunt at the feet of an inert parent. Or maybe the little beachcomber will decide to build a sand castle, squatting beside the masterpiece rather like a miniature sumo wrestler.

Small children belong to the beach as naturally as the sandpipers that run along the water's edge. They are so at home, almost as if the beach is the human being's first case of d'ej`a vu.

But after a while, we adults can feel embarrassed, sentimentalizing over small children at the beach. A cheap trick on the part of the lyric poet in us!

Bless their innocence, but it is also ignorance, we conclude sadly from our experience.

The children building sand castles don't know that 40 years ago this August we adults blew to pieces, like a sand castle, the city of Hiroshima.

The children paddling to the water with pail and shovel don't know that we adults -- inventing ever more sophisticated pails and shovels -- have constructed a technological universe that plunders and pollutes nature's universe and threatens finally to destroy it.

At the end of an August day at the beach we adults, weary with our disenchantment, are grateful for the illusions of small children who don't know the ``facts'' -- that there are oil spills in their sea and smog in the sky above them, and that the crowded beach symbolizes an overpopulated world full of desperate, hungry people who do savage things to one another to survive.

At the end of an August day at the beach we adults can almost forget these ``facts'' and share in the illusions of small children, as sea gulls swoop above the whitecaps in the darkening air. The curtain is ready to fall prettily on another day -- on another cycle within a millennium of cycles. How the small children would love the scrawled-crayon effects of the sunset, if only they could keep their eyes open long enough to see it after a hard day at the beach! Is any scene more charming?

The fantasy, of course, must end. We adults see through our sunsets -- we adults even see through our small children.

But are we, in our experience, right? Are they, in their innocence, wrong? As profound a thinker as the scientist and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead decided that we smart adults are the ones deluded -- so mesmerized by our engineered environment and our reduction of ``reality'' to mere equations that we misunderstand the nature of the universe as well as ourselves.

Citing the sunset -- doubtless over the sea, doubtless in August -- Whitehead wrote: ``When you understand all about the sun and all about the atmosphere and all about the rotation of the earth, you may still miss the radiance of the sunset'' -- you will see without seeing.

Score one for the small children of summer.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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