COMMENTARY. `How I spent my summer vacation' - an update for the late '80s

Pity the classmates of 11-year-old John Kevin Hill and 10-year-old Christopher Lee Marshall. When school starts next month and teachers across the country assign the obligatory September essay, ``How I Spent My Summer Vacation,'' John Kevin, of Arlington, Texas, and Christopher, of Oceano, Calif., will each be able to write about flying a small plane across the United States.

Too young for a pilot's license, too short to see over the cockpit without cushions beneath them, the boys, accompanied by their flight instructors, nevertheless succeeded in their separate and definitely competing quests to become the nation's youngest cross-country aviators.

In his essay, John Kevin will be able to explain how his father, a motor home salesman who ``hates planes,'' happily financed his flying lessons. He can describe the blue and white Cessna plane, the thunderstorms that felt ``just like a roller coaster,'' and his appearance on the ``Today'' show.

For his assignment, Christopher can write about how his father, a pilot with Delta, bankrolled the adventure for a cool $15,000. He too has a bad-weather story to recount: being forced to land his Piper Warrior plane in Mississippi because of thunderstorms - an experience he calls ``the fun part'' of the trip.

What other fifth- or sixth-grader will be able to write an essay half as exciting?

Not so many summers ago, these sophisticated pursuits would have been unthinkable for the grade-school set. Vacation typically involved such laid-back activities as running through the sprinkler, braiding lanyards at the local park and rec program, catching fireflies at dusk in an empty peanut butter jar, and spending a week or two at day camp. For a few truly competitive kids, the high point of summer was the annual soapbox derby, a nationwide event.

Now the soapbox derby has apparently moved to the skies. Pint-size pilots like John Kevin and Christopher represent a new breed of youthful competitor, eager to make their mark in a world where the fast track begins in the crib. No slouching in front of TV for them, no midsummer whining that ``there's nothing to do.''

For preteens without a plane and a flight instructor, carefully structured activities such as computer camps and sports clinics offer self-improvement along with competition. In Marco Island, Fla., youngsters attending a Dollars & Cents camp can even gain a head start on their investments as they sit around a pool discussing mutual funds and the fine art of reading the Wall Street Journal.

Not surprisingly, this hurry-and-succeed attitude is not without its critics. Some parents worry privately that their children's lives are overprogrammed and overcompetitive. And in ``Time Wars'' (Henry Holt, $18.95), a new book billed as ``the first comprehensive look at time,'' social commentator Jeremy Rifkin questions the ``faster is better'' ethos that dominates American culture today.

``We are a nation in love with speed,'' he writes. ``We are obsessed with breaking records and shortening time spans. ... Americans are always in a hurry.''

If faster is better, younger is best of all. A recent New Yorker cartoon makes the point by showing two mothers pushing their very young daughters in strollers. With a smug smile, one mother turns to the other and asks, ``How are her scores?''

If the trend continues, consider the possibilities awaiting publishers: ``The Venture Capital Coloring Book,'' ``Strike It Rich in the Sandbox,'' ``Big Bird in the Board Room,'' ``The Future CEO in Your Crib,'' and ``Getting Your Toddler into Guinness.''

Still, these titles are for children who haven't yet succeeded. For those who have, including the two precocious pilots, other questions remain, such as: What will they do for an encore?

John Kevin hopes to fly around the world at 13. Later, he wants to become an astronaut.

For now, there is still a squabble to resolve over which boy deserves a place in the record books. And there may be other post-flight details to work out: Donahue appearances? Product endorsements? Book contracts? (Possible title: ``The Little Pilot That Could.'') Only the young aviators' parents, lawyers, and accountants know for sure.

Whatever they do, John Kevin and Christopher had better hurry. Some nine-year-old could still take to the skies before school starts and break the aviation age barrier again. That would further complicate the record books. It would also give the younger pilot's fourth-grade classmates a tough act to follow in writing those back-to-school essays.

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