The idea-donged into my head at 2 a.m. on a Saturday that was a Friday until the beer started. I was sitting on a couch in the living room of my friends the Js. I swear I was feeling sane.

But maybe guilty, too. Even beer could not blot out the eightyleven favors I owed my hosts. So I looked at the beer bottles. I looked at the fire trucks all over the floor. And I heard my voice saying: "How about if I take your kids for a weekend sometime?"

This was a remark of no small boldness. Not only were Adam, 7, and Josh, 5, alert and alive and sometimes alarming, but I, 30-plus, was a babe lost in the woods when it came to parenting. I had never, as an adult, spent more than six continuous hours around a child.

And this would be children, plural, versus me, singular - 48 hours to the best of three falls.

A Friday night through a Sunday night. Two each of dinners, breakfasts and lunches. Two nights of the boys fighting for the covers as they shared a double bed in my guest room. Not to mention who-knew-how-many episodes of punch-your-brother.

Moreover, what would the kids be getting in the way of an example? Someone who cannot spread peanut butter without tearing the bread, that's who. Somone who smokes, drinks, jaywalks and fastens his seat belts only when he feels like it. Someone who, if pressed, would guess that Sesame Street connects Massachusetts Avenue with Connecticut.

So this was clearly an idea born of malt and madness.

The Js bought it in three seconds.

We agreed on a weekend four weeks thence. I remembered this three weeks and five days thence. I rang up the mother, and far from saying it was all off, she started dictating. I grabbed for a pad.

OK, yup, right, Josh likes blueberry yogurt, but Adam will only touch vanilla. Josh may not eat chicken, but he will if he knows he can't have cookies instead. Coke is out, citrus fruit is in. Fine, great, see you Friday.

The family's entrance was unforgettable. The boys wore T-shirts and jeans. The parents wore looks of anticipation.

Adam said hello and immediately challenged me to a game of checkers. Josh said hello and immediately challenged me to get him a glass of apple juice.

As I was pouring Josh's juice, Adam asked impatiently why I wasn't at the checker-board yet. Then, just as I was screwing the top back on the juice bottle, Adam asked for some himself.

"Whipsaw you, don't they?" I asked the father.

"This is nothing," he said.

I saw the parents to the door. They were going to the mountains and the movies for the weekend, both difficult destinations with kids afoot.

"Goodbye, sons," said the man who made all this possible. "Bye," mumbled Adam, barely looking up from the checkerboard. "Bye," said Josh, giving his father five - in the back.

And then they turned wonderful.

Not only was there no madcap dashing around, but Adam and I played checkers without Josh getting jealous.

When bedtime arrived, Josh asked me to read a story. Not only did his older brother not object, nor offer his favorite substitute, but both listened without a sound.

At lights out, Josh even offered a compliment. "You readed the story good," he said.

Breakfast was an English muffin breeze, and as I did the dishes, the thought crept in that this might be easy. Just then, a little Josh face was aiming at me. "Why you smoke?" it said.

Well, at least the subject wasn't sex. "I don't know, Josh," I said. "It's just a habit I got into a long time ago. I don't even like it sometimes."

He looked at me as if I was pretty dumb. "You could hurt yourself," he said, marching away. For the first time in years, I considered quitting.

I had planned lots of activities for the weekend to ward off boredom, and the kids blended. At an otherwise all-adult barbecue Saturday night, the kids amused themselves with orange soda while everyone else discussed Peter Bourne and Jimmy Carter. At a Sunday softball game, Adam amazed, many of catching fly after fly.

But at each stop, long before it was time to go, two sets of eyes would implore me. "Can't we go back to your house yet?" asked Adam. "We like it at your house," said his brother. And so we would.

Sunday night rolled around, and so did the parents. Giggling, Adam complained that I had kissed both boys good morning, and then repeated my act at night. "What do you think your mother and I have been doing?" replied the father. For the first time all weekend, I got to share an "in" laugh with other adults.

And then the boys and their plastic snake and their Little League pajamas were gone. It was dead quiet - except for the noise my shod foot made as it came down upon, and crushed, a plastic checker Adam had forgotten.

So Hertz Rent-a-Kid has done his thing, and the statement reads: no broken dishes, bones or egos.

Josh ate the blueberry yogurt. Adam ate the vanilla. Everyone took two big vitamins and one small each morning. No tooth went unbrushed. No brother used the other's towel.

Do it again? Whenever. At least one kid learned a thing or two.