Labor Day meant three things to a skinny 10-year-old in Philadelphia -- the end of summer, the beginning of school and the annual grandmother of all beauty contests, the Miss America Pageant. For seven days before the crowning, the radio told the daily winners in swimsuit, talent and charm. The newspapers showed the girls grouped by region, by states in alphabetical order, by hair color, by size, and reported in detail the girls' latest witticisms ("I'm the Maine one."), the number of siblings Miss Nebraska had ("Are there any more at home like you?" the headline asked) and unusual talents (drawing a portrait in the manner of Rembrandt while doing an acrobatic interpretative dance to the music of Rachmaninoff.)

No matter . . . 10 years old . . . perchance to dream . . . (wavy dissolve, as they say in TV land) . . . and there she is -- the fairest -- the most beautiful -- the most talented and coveted in the entire U.S. of A. A statuesque beauty draped in satin and chiffon and wearing the tiara of all tiaras, knocked slightly askew by the departing Miss A.Scepter in one hand and a spray of roses in the other (long-stemmed American Beauties, of course), and the ermine, or reasonable facsimile thereof, across her shoulders. The obligatory gasp when her name is called (Me!?!), the traditional stream of tears down the cheeks, and the walk down the runway to the familiar music. There She Is . . the one . . . the only . . . Miss America.

We were raised on being beautiful. And, if we were lucky, if school started late and the pageant was early that year, we got to go see the parade of Miss America hopefuls on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Picture thousands of people lining up along the route, sand and ocean on one side, stores selling frozen custard and lemonade and steak sandwiches on the other. The 48 hopefuls plus territorial representatives parade straight down the middle, while men, women, boys and girls each dreamed one of two dreams: Wouldn't it be lovely to be Miss America? Or, wouldn't it be lovely to be married to Miss America?

Then, after all the cars filled with local dignitaries, pageant reps and PR people passed by -- after the marching bands -- the contestants, in long gowns, white gloves and state banners. "Here comes Miss Alabama," someone would say, and the crowd would murmur and there would be slight applause for the southern beauty. Miss Alabama smiled, waved and threw salt-water taffies.

I didn't get one. I'd forgotten about this part: Every year they threw those paper-wrapped taffy symbols of Atlantic City. But I remembered quickly, and by the time Miss Arizona arrived I was ready: When the crowd stopped its polite clapping, I yelled, "Isn't she pretty." and clapped hard and long. She threw me a smile and three taffies. And by the time Miss Wyoming had come along, my sand bucket, my pockets, my hands and my mouth were stuffed with taffies.

And then Saturday night, the time for the chosen. In my living room I listened as the announcer described the girls: 5'6", blonde, blue eyes, 36-22-35, 116 pounds; 34-20-34, 102 pounds, 5'2". Bits of information were spliced in between: the contestant who liked to be called "skeets" after a favorite horse; the father who owned the local hardware store; the girl who wanted to be a minister's wife so she could do good works. Two hours of homey details: Almost all had "boyfriends," but "nothing serious, oh no, my goodness." All the parents were "proud" of their daughters, and brothers and sisters "couldn't be happier."

Throughout the hall there was scattered applause as each girl was introduced. The loudest applause was for Miss New Jersey, the home-grown girl; Miss Pennsylvania (the hall was packed with Philadelphians), and neighboring Miss New York.

Then Miss Congeniality went to Miss Hawaii or Miss Puerto Rico.

The first cut was made. ("Our thanks to all of you very beautiful girls who entered. It was really very difficult to make a decision because you're all so pretty this year.") And then the talent contest: the piano version of "Miserlou," an accordian solo of "Lady of Spain," an operatic version of The Bell Song from "Lakme," a dramatic reading from an Irish playwright, a patriotic dance to the tune of "Stars and Stripes Forever," and the ventriloquist. "Tell me, Mary Sue, who do you think is going to win this contest?" Lips hardly moved: "I'm not going to answer that. You think I'm a dummy?" Laughter, applause.

The judges are introduced: a former Miss America, a fashion expert, a Distinguished Person, an entertainer and a showbiz type.

Then, the second cut: Five girls remain. "May we have the questions, please? You'll each answer one. Step right up to the microphone, dear, and don't be nervous, we all love you." Throat-clearing, wide smile. "Now, if a person said an unkind thing about you, what would you do? "Pause, pause, "If a person said an unkind thing about me, I would do what the Bible tells me to do. I'd turn the other cheek." Applause, applause. A religious girl.

Then, the cruelest cut of all: "And now, judges, the envelope, please. Fourth runner-up . . . third . . . second . . . and then first. Remember, if anything happens so that Miss America is unable to continue her reign, the first runner-up takes her place."

Then, screams, squeals. The beautiful polished hand to the mouth. "Oh, no." and THERE SHE IS . . . Miss American.

Bert Parks, I love it. Have another salt water taffy. 59th ANNUAL MISS AMERICA PAGEANT -- Channels 4 and 11, Saturday at 10.