The tape was doing what car tapes are supposed to do. It was a Burl Ives collection, folksy and melodic, and it was keeping the girls quiet while their mother drove. Burl sang "Shoo Fly," Mona's favorite, his opulent voice caressing each line ("I feel . . . I feel . . . I feel like a morning star . . ."). He sang "Big Rock Candy Mountain," with its seductively unhealthy lyrics ("Oh, the buzzing of the bees in the cigarette trees . . ."). He sang "What Kind of Animal Are You?" and "Polly Wolly Doodle" and "The Ballad of Davy Crockett." The tape ended, and there was a moment of silence from the back seat.

"Play that song again," Lizzie said.

She was 4 at the time, and her sister was 2 1/2. There's no way she could have known what she was getting us into. Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee Greenest state in the land of the free . . . -- "The Ballad of Davy Crockett"

Not knowing what you're getting into, of course, is the great cliched truth of new parenthood. "Oh, it will totally change your life," we novices are constantly warned, but we do not -- and cannot -- understand what that glib phrase means before the sleep deprivation, household chaos and radical restrictions on social interaction kick in.

I was no exception to this rule. But I have since learned that there was a more important gap in my knowledge. I was clueless, not just about the ways children shock the family ecosystem, but about the ways they teach themselves about the world. And what I have come to understand, with the help of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and a few dozen other characters not usually featured in works by Penelope Leach, is this: They never learn anything in exactly the way, or at precisely the time, you would expect them to.

Kids see the universe as an endless web available for browsing. Click on Burl Ives. Click on Davy Crockett. Hmmm, that's interesting: Let's go to the next level, and the next, and now let's follow that line over here. Before you can say "Remember the Alamo," your firstborn daughter is clicking on brutality in 19th-century Indian wars, the gender gap in frontier legends, the triumph of Jacksonian democracy and the distorting effects of heroic narratives on historical truth. All this before you've had time to research the basics, such as: Where was Davy Crockett born, anyway?

Not on a mountaintop, it turns out.

After that first replay request, Lizzie began to ask for "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" again and again, and her mother started having flashbacks. I'd never paid much attention to the King of the Wild Frontier myself, but Deborah could still summon fond images of the little yellow disc with the Disney version in its grooves, and of buckskinned hunk Fess Parker, who played Davy on TV. So she fielded the girls' initial questions as best she could, and set out to supplement our knowledge. Young folks ought to know their history, and how a person gets to be a legend. So these here are the naked, green-skinned facts o' my life. And a lot of it is the truth, too. -- From the audiotape "Davy Crockett," in the

Rabbit Ears "American Heroes and Legends" series One part of our task was to sort out fact from fiction. Another was to explain the difference.

As it happens, there was quite a lot on Davy Crockett in the children's section of our local library, most of it divisible into two categories. There were works of the Davy Crockett: Young Rifleman variety, which were either fact-based junior biographies or fictionalized versions of the historical Davy's life. And there were tall tales, books with titles like The Narrow Escapes of Davy Crockett, in which Davy appeared as a wholly legendary, Paul Bunyan-like figure who hitched rides on lightning bolts, climbed Niagara Falls on the back of alligators and walked across the Mississippi on stilts. One of the most helpful books, Robert Quackenbush's Quit Pulling My Leg!, bridged the genres; the main text narrated the real history, while in the margins, a skeptical cartoon raccoon debunked the Crockett myths.

We must have read Lizzie half a dozen of these books. For weeks, her bedtime reading was all-Crockett, all the time. Whenever we hit the library, she'd head straight for the Crockett bios and start pulling them off the shelf.

By now, both she and Mona had memorized the Davy song. Was it true, they asked, that he "killed himself a b'ar when he was only three"? Probably not, we explained. That was a "tall tale." Was it real that he "fought and died at the Alamo"? Yes it was. Was he, in fact, "born on a mountaintop in Tennessee"? Well, not on a mountaintop, but by the banks of the Nolichucky River, in what we now call Tennessee, but Tennessee wasn't a state yet . . .

There are a number of specific concepts in that Disney ballad that require explanation when you're talking to a pre-schooler. Statehood, for example, which gets you into the federal system. And Congress, which gets you into the whole notion of representative government. And the Liberty Bell, which gets you into the American Revolution.

Still, I'd have never predicted that we'd get so far into explaining Andrew Jackson that we'd end up reading Lizzie, at her insistence, a 150-page American Heritage Junior Library biography of the soldier-president. Or that a few months later, we'd be squatting on the floor of the National Portrait Gallery as she copied a full-length painting of Jackson leaning on a cane.

The real Crockett's career was closely linked to Jackson's. Davy did not fight "singlehanded" in the Indian wars, as the song would have it, but under Gen. Andrew Jackson; the two men did not see eye to eye. Later, after Jackson became president, Rep. Crockett broke with Tennessee's Democratic machine. The machine promptly turned him out of office and sent him on his fateful way to Texas.

But those are facts, and we weren't confining ourselves to facts. To the girls, at this stage, "Andy" was essentially a mythic figure, just like "Davy." What's more -- according to one of our favorite tall-tale books, Irwin Shapiro's Yankee Thunder -- they formed a two-person mutual admiration society.

"You're the best man I ever clapped eyes on," Shapiro's Davy tells Andy, "and o' course I'm Davy Crockett."

"Then by the great horn spoon," Andy roars in reply, "let's find out which one o' us is the best o' the two! And that man will run for president!"

Maybe it was just his association with the beloved Davy, but this down-home Andrew Jackson began to seem a good deal more appealing -- to both grown-ups and children -- than the hot-tempered Old Hickory of the history books. Lizzie began to puzzle family friends, not to mention strangers in grocery stores, by asking them to guess who her favorite president was (no one ever did). Pretty soon Mona wanted a favorite president, too.

Abraham Lincoln got the nomination. We knew what he would get us into, but it was too late. He went off to Congress and served a spell Fixin' up the government and laws as well -- "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" To understand what came next, you need to know that Deborah and I had fallen into the habit of telling tall tales ourselves.

A year or so before Davy arrived on the scene, we had more or less accidentally created alter egos for the girls: a couple of sisters with adventurous dispositions and supernatural friends. The device proved popular, and "Tell us a Jane-and-Ida" became the cue for one parent or the other to invent a story. We stole shamelessly, lifting plots and characters from whatever anyone happened to be reading. So it wasn't long before Davy and Andy joined the cast.

This introduced a problem we hadn't faced before: explaining historical time.

Preschoolers have trouble with concepts like "we did that last month," let alone "Davy Crockett first went to Congress in 1827." But unless we were to yank Davy and Andy out of history altogether, we would need to convey some idea of what had happened when. I can't say we ever really solved this, but what evolved was a kind of historical relativity chart.

Lacking any notion of how long ago 1827 was, the girls could at least understand "before" and "after." So when Jane and Ida's time machine took them back to dance at Jackson's rowdy first inaugural, we would point out that this was "before the Alamo" and "before Abe was president" but "after Davy went to Congress." We could also note that Davy and Andy were "after Paul Revere," thus roping in another old-timer Lizzie was fond of (thanks to a children's book narrated by his horse).

The time-machine stories had additional benefits. They generated innumerable openings for the ever-popular question "Was that real?" And they produced a barrage of informational asides, such as "That was before there were telephones," or "In those days, women couldn't run for Congress." At the end of the day, my pretty Polly is a-waitin' in the cabin door, with supper on the table and the youngsters around her skirts. -- From the Rabbit Ears audiotape Alert readers will have noticed by now that while our children are both girls, their heroes, at least during this phase, were dead white males. We noticed too, and had conflicting reactions.

In part, we were relieved that Lizzie and Mona didn't care about gender where Davy and Andy and Abe were concerned. We had watched them reject Power Rangers (a decision we'd secretly applauded) because they were "boy things" (a motivation we hadn't been so happy about). But Davy Crockett, perhaps because he isn't much in evidence on playgrounds these days, never got defined as a boy thing. Which meant that he and his presidential pals were free to claim squatter's rights -- along with Pippi Longstocking, Bilbo Baggins and the redoubtable Ozma of Oz -- in the girls' imaginations.

At the same time, we could see them puzzling over girl-boy stuff in other contexts. And we could see that there was plenty to puzzle about.

Lizzie loved The Hobbit, for example, and we read it to her a lot. On perhaps the third time through, she announced that the only thing she didn't like about it was that the characters were all boys. Later she began to take an interest in the age of sail. We read her well-written stories about boys who sailed with Columbus and boys who grew up on clipper ships. But nothing could compete with The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, a book she'd picked out on the basis of its cover illustration: a girl on the deck of a late-18th-century brig.

Reading aloud, we sometimes edited out the more offensive sexism when it wasn't essential to a story. We employed the phrase "women's lives were different back then" so many times that Lizzie would sometimes interrupt us ("I know, I know, women's lives were different . . .") before we could get it out.

Yet how could we treat Davy Crockett as anything other than what he was: the exceptionally attractive hero of an exceptionally male narrative?

In real life, Crockett had a couple of wives about whom one never hears much (the first one died young). The legendary Davy comes with a legendary wife named Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind, a rough-and-ready charmer who swims with otters, grins the skins off bears and wins Davy's heart by, among other things, knotting six rattlesnakes together to form a rope. Lizzie and Mona liked Sally Ann Thunder Ann well enough, and they also enjoyed a marvelous book called Swamp Angel in which a giant Tennessee lass performs Crockett-like feats. But there was never any question of divided loyalty.

There is, after all, no Queen of the Wild Frontier. To the Texas plains he just had to go Where the land was free, there was room to grow And he fought and died at the Alamo -- "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" When Lizzie was 5 1/2, we got her a plastic Alamo set, complete with bayonet-wielding blue plastic Mexicans and rifle-toting brown plastic Texans. She and her sister took to it immediately, arranging Crockett, Bowie, Santa Anna and company in a variety of warlike configurations. Yet we couldn't help observing that their favorite activity was tucking the troops in for the night. It wasn't till a neighbor boy joined the game that the first shots were fired in anger.

All of which was fine with Deborah and me. Serendipity had blessed us with the Davy Crockett story, which had opened some wonderful windows. But the ending was a definite problem.

One of the best and most obvious things about childhood is that it can be a kind of mortality-free zone, protected from the grimmer aspects of adult reality. At the same time, children are driven to master the world by understanding it, and a parent's job is to help them. The question is: How do you balance these conflicting impulses?

Once the serendipitous learning begins, can you -- or should you -- ever try to slow it down? How do you introduce your children, who have a deep need to feel secure in the face of mundane realities like approaching darkness and large dogs on the street, to a world in which Alamos happen? How do you talk about brutal religious persecution (I was amazed at how often the concept of burning at the stake showed up in innocuous-looking books like Bed-Knob and Broomstick), or cannibalism (this too, it seems, is a persistent theme in vintage kidlit), or trench warfare (there's a lovely film version of A Little Princess that relies on World War I as a plot device)? Our family doesn't watch much TV, but the girls will be reading the newspaper soon enough. How will we explain the inexplicable violence that surrounds them?

Dig a bit into the Davy Crockett saga, of course, and you'll find a lot of blood on the floor. You've got to deal with the endgame at the Alamo, including the fact that Crockett probably wasn't killed in the fighting, as John Wayne and a legion of patriotic Texans would have you believe, but literally "put to the sword" after he surrendered. And you've also got to deal with various grisly massacres of the Creek Indian War: of whites by Indians, famously, at Fort Mims; of Indians by whites -- less famously, but first -- at Burnt Corn Creek. Crockett's autobiography, which we once started reading to Lizzie before we quite knew what was in it, minces no words describing one surprise attack on an Indian town. "We shot them like dogs," he (or his ghostwriter) says.

But let's leave death-by-mayhem aside for a minute. How do you introduce children to the basic notion of death itself? At what point does the word acquire significant meaning?

We didn't know. And we were, I confess, just as happy to avoid the subject.

When Lizzie was first memorizing the Disney ballad, she asked to hear the fifth verse, in which the line "fought and died at the Alamo" occurs, a few extra times. But as the Crockett fixation grew, the girls didn't actively pursue the idea of Davy's death. They didn't ignore it, but seemed to be giving it time to sink in.

This education by osmosis was fine by me, and I felt, in most cases, that the Crockett literature handled the subject appropriately. You can't miss the Alamo defenders' demise, but the narratives don't linger on the gory details. "We lost the battle, but we won the war," is how the excellent Rabbit Ears audiotape, narrated by Nicolas Cage, wraps things up. Cage goes on to evoke Davy-the-Legend's continued blissful existence in "the celestial vapors from where I speak."

Still, a historic death scene could produce obsessive interest. After Mona selected Abe Lincoln as her Andy Jackson counterweight (she was probably 3 by this time), we checked out a number of Lincoln picture books. She would stare at the assassination illustrations and ask us to read the relevant pages over and over. A bit later, she asked her mother, "Is dying real?"

None of this, however, prepared us for what happened when we got to the end of that American Heritage Jackson biography.

Lizzie was curled up in bed, with Deborah reading. Old Hickory had retired to the Hermitage, where he "enjoyed the cycle of planting, growth, and harvest." But "as spring drifted into summer along the Cumberland," it was clear that he was fading.

Deborah read on as the old man wrote his last letter to President Polk, advising him on some incomprehensible financial matter; as Jackson bid farewell to servants and friends; and as he expired quietly on June 8, 1845, "long before the late-setting June sun had sunk behind the western hills." Then she turned to Lizzie, and saw that tears were flooding down her face.

She loved Andy Jackson. His location in time was still confusing. And it had never once occurred to her that he was dead. That's right, you're not from Texas Texas wants you anyway. -- Lyle Lovett I have to admit, I got choked up too.

Not by Jackson's death, though I was moved -- as any parent would be -- by my daughter's grief. The more I'd read about the guy, the less likable he'd seemed. And not by any Disney-implanted worship of buckskinned backwoodsmen. As I mentioned, I missed the Davy Crockett craze in the '50s, and in any case, I'm inclined to agree with James Atkins Shackford, who opens his Crockett biography by calling the generic frontiersman "history's agent for wresting land from the American Indian."

Which makes Davy a historic figure by definition, but not necessarily a sympathetic one.

"History" is a word that suggests different meanings at different ages. To my children, it conjures up a universe of fascinating stories and people and events occurring in some vaguely defined period before they were alive. To me, it evokes skepticism about simple explanations and a reluctant mistrust of clean narrative lines. Not to mention a Washington-bred awareness of how truckloads of lies and distortions are daily repackaged as "facts."

The real David Crockett (he never, as Shackford points out, referred to himself as "Davy") was a kind of 19th-century Lamar Alexander: He wore a buckskin shirt only while campaigning, as an image-building device. He was a slave owner (albeit a small-time one who sold his human property to pay his debts) who died fighting for a cause that included the right (denied under Mexican law) to own slaves. And he was a political tool: After taking a principled stand against a public lands bill that would have hurt his western-Tennessee constituents, which alienated the Jackson-led Democratic Party, he allowed himself to be co-opted by the Whigs. They polished up his homespun persona, in part by helping him put together his famous autobiography, then wound him up like a toy frontiersman doll and turned him loose to undercut Jackson.

The legendary "Davy Crockett" was in large part a product of this deliberate image-making, and his dramatic death -- like James Dean's or George Armstrong Custer's -- made him really big. A steady flow of Davy Crockett almanacs, Davy Crockett romantic melodramas and Davy Crockett silent films kept him that way before Walt Disney took over the star-maker machinery in the 1950s. It's a useful lesson for those inclined to think of celebrity culture as a modern phenomenon.

The legend of the Alamo distorts reality in ways too numerous to list here. Among them: Gen. Sam Houston was not counting on the Alamo's defenders to buy him time. In fact, he'd ordered them to abandon the place, which had no strategic significance. The defenders probably didn't know, until the very end, that they were doomed. As Garry Wills points out in his forthcoming book, John Wayne's America, they had a formidable collection of artillery, they "expected a siege, not an assault, with time for help to arrive" and they could not have anticipated Santa Anna's enormously costly decision to storm the walls. David Crockett hadn't come to Texas because he was fed up with politics, but to revive (as Shackford argues convincingly) his bungled political career. And Crockett, as noted above, apparently survived the battle, along with six other men (who were executed with him) and a small group of women, children and slaves (who were spared).

All this is too much, of course, to force on a kid who's just getting over the fact that she won't ever meet Andrew Jackson in the flesh. The girls are just beginning to challenge received wisdom; they'll be parsing historical disputes soon enough.

But I suspect -- no, I'm perfectly certain -- that the Davy Crockett they know now is more alive to them than any Davy Crockett they will ever meet.

There's a great scene in the Nicolas Cage narration in which Davy, to raise the spirits of the embattled Alamo defenders, climbs up on the ramparts one night, flaps his arms, crows like a rooster and hurls "a good round of brag" into the menacing darkness. "I am half alligator, half horse and half snapping turtle with a touch of earthquake thrown in," he roars, as David Bromberg's fiddle picks up the tempo in the background. "I can grin a hurricane out o' countenance, recite the Bible from Genesee to Christmas, blow the wind of liberty through squash vine, tote a steamboat on my back, frighten the old folks, suck 40 rattlesnake eggs at one sittin' and swallow General Santy Anna whole without chokin' if you butter his head and pin his ears back . . . I shall never surrender or retreat." Listening to the tape for the first time, I was astonished to find that my eyes were moist.

What does this mean? Well, I think it means that all my notions about the complications of history are outweighed by one crucial fact. Which is that we -- and I include both adults and children here -- have a deep need for Davy Crocketts in our lives. We need emotional simplicity, uncomplicated heroes, well-defined villains and clean, dramatic story lines. We need stories that give us hope, stories that give us courage in the face of death, stories that tell us who we are. I see now, more clearly than I used to, how those stories become the very stuff of childhood. And how impossible they are -- facts and conflicting interpretations be damned -- to uproot.

This is why the catchiest song on Lyle Lovett's latest CD mocks wannabe Texans, not wannabe Arizonans or Kansans. The enormously powerful Texas creation myth, which is in no small part the story of Davy Crockett and the Alamo, helps convey a larger-than-life Texas identity that tugs at even Yankee unbelievers like myself.

This is why, when the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum tried to put on an exhibition highlighting the moral ambiguity of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, hordes of seemingly rational people denounced it as an un-American conspiracy. Americans see World War II as a heroic narrative in which good triumphs unambiguously over evil. We don't want that story line disturbed.

And this is why someone like me -- with a healthy, Vietnam-induced doubt that God or history really line up on anyone's side -- can still choke up when Davy Crockett defies the Mexican army from that Alamo wall.

As for the girls, well, they've moved on. Lizzie memorized a song called "Greenland Whale Fisheries" awhile ago, which led us to a whaling-oriented book called Seabird, which led us to a whale's-point-of-view epic called Whalesong, and now she's planning to save whales when she grows up, the only question being whether to do it by reasoning with the Japanese or by shipping out with Greenpeace. Which led us to the concept of "working within the system." Mona has been bonding mainly with fictional characters these days, especially the residents of Beverly Cleary's Klickitat Street and some turn-of-the-century chums named Betsy, Tacy and Tib. We haven't visited Andy and Abe at the National Portrait Gallery in some time.

We haven't been back to see the portrait of David Crockett there either. It's tucked away in a small side gallery, and the children never did spend much time with it. It shows an attractive, rosy-cheeked fellow in formal dress who doesn't look like he ever even saw a bear, let alone killed one before he was kindergarten age. Bob Thompson is the articles editor of the Magazine. CAPTION: How do you introduce kids to a world in which Alamos happen? An 1837 woodcut of Crockett's demise. CAPTION: Mona wanted her own favorite president, and chose Abe Lincoln. Later, she asked, "Is dying real?" CAPTION: Lizzie loved Jackson -- or "Andy," as she called him -- but his location in time remained confusing.