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On the wings of a swan

Where does it begin, this urge to travel, this delight in new experience, this conscious building of memories? Perhaps it is in the genes. Some of it must be a gift, even if unintended, from our parents.

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They were big swans, I remember, big enough to let two people sit on them.

And it seemed like there was no end to the wonders you could see, the adventures you could have, from the back of a swan.

This memory is always accompanied by a feeling of elation.

The swan ride involved a long drive to a special place _ a vast expanse of pure magic _ just outside of Denver named Elitch Gardens. I'd always get very tall when we got there, and that was fun, too. Little kids do suddenly get tall when some grownup puts them on his or her shoulders. My father would carry me to the "river," which I now recall was an incredible distance from the parking lot.

We'd wait there at the river until a man would stop a couple of the big white swans; people would get out, and then we'd get in.

I'd say "Go, go, go!" and bounce up and down.

And the man would give our swan a push and the ride would began. It was always a grand adventure, going for what seemed like miles, under the trees and Japanese lanterns, through the gardens, past the other rides and the merry-go-round, drifting on the "river current" in the back of that swan.

Elitch still exists, but I've never gone back. It wouldn't be the same. My father and my mother, probably even the man who gave our swan a push, are gone, now.

But the memories aren't; they are kept with the memories my parents created for me, to be used whenever I want them. I can replay them as a conscious act or just enjoy them when they come up as random thoughts.

Thus, I can still smell, ever so faintly, the smoke from my father's cigars, his after-shave and my mother's lilac fragrance.

I can smell the hot dogs, the flowers, the popcorn at Elitch.

I can hear the music of the merry-go-round and the laughter of the park visitors, the calliope, the gurgling of the water and my parents' voices.

Those memories, made so many years ago, are a gift for life.

Swans that can take a 3- or 4-year-old over the face of the Earth on a Sunday afternoon are a little harder to find now. But I saw what looked like might be a great version of this kind of thrill at Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens not long ago: While these were miniature copies of old cars that ran on a track through the gardens, the principal was the same.

My wife and I watched while little boys and girls sat behind controls and steering wheels that really didn't do anything, their parents riding as passengers.

A thin, balding man, smoking a cigar, was sitting next to a boy of about 3 as one of the "flivvers" came by us on its tracked road. Man and boy were wearing the same expression: elation.

It was my father and me all over again, only this child would remember a car instead of a swan.

Most every city of any size has a similar ride, maybe a train or a boat ride, a merry-go-round or even a real streetcar.

I think a lot of us know inherently the wisdom of building memories for our children, and of including ourselves in those memories. You don't need a lot more immortality than that.

Freelance writer Bob O'Sullivan lives in Canoga Park, Calif.