I'll be the first to admit that I am no spring chicken. I might as well be first in saying that in order to get ahead of everyone else who wants to make that observation.

However, I think I am still a tad too young to be referred to as "the late Walt Kozlowski."

Yet, that prospect is becoming more and more likely. (However, if it does come to pass, I prefer to be known as "the tardy Walt Kozlowski" to show we are referring to my lack of punctuality and not something much more permanent.)

However, I wasn't always living on the edge of tardiness.

In general, there are three classes of people when it comes to punctuality. The first group consists of people who stand outside the grocery store or bank a half-hour before the business opens in order to make sure they get the freshest bread or money, as the case may be.

The second category consists of those people who wait until five minutes before the business is about to close and proceed to take care of a long list of purchases or transactions.

(This is a dangerous habit if you happen to delay a bank teller or store clerk in wrapping up the shift.)

Then, there are me and my fellow almost-late comrades who arrive where we are supposed to be a few minutes - or seconds - before the scheduled time.

I think my tendency to cut it as closely as possible when it comes to being somewhere by a certain time can be traced to three factors in my childhood.

When I started consulting a dentist instead of the Tooth Fairy, I started off with my mother getting me to Dr. Squirtz's office 20 minutes before my appointment. This was not a good idea.

After hearing the sound of the old-fashioned drill for 15 or more minutes, I wasn't sure if the doctor was doing dentistry or carpentry.

By the time my turn came, my mom and Dr. Squirtz had to pry me out from underneath the leather and chrome couch where I was clutching a couch leg with one hand and a 13-year-old copy of "Boy's Life" magazine in the other.

After that, Dr. Squirtz and my mother made arrangements for me to remain outside the office building until the final moment, and then be whisked through the waiting room and into the dentist chair without a chance of me diving under the couch.

The second factor was that Philander K. Knox Elementary School was only a half-block away from our home. This meant I could leave two minutes before the opening bell and still be there with a minute to spare.

The third root of my just-in-time mentality was the fact that we lived about a block and a half from our church. Until my mother and dad wrestled my two brothers and me into our little sports coats and clip-on ties and helped our sister put on a dress, the race was on.

Holding hands, our six-member family was holding hands and racing up the hill. Often, our sister was trailing like a pennant floating in the breeze as we hurried to church. Usually, we got to our pew seconds before the bell sounded to open the Mass.

I even applied this better-almost-late-than-late technique when it came to meeting deadlines in school. But when you procrastinate, you're bound to be nearly late.

We can justify just about anything we want to do, so I convinced myself that I worked better under pressure. There was a certain thrill trying to blow dry the ink on an English lit research paper as I raced to the room of Mrs. Thesis moments before the deadline.

Ironically, I became a recovering almost-later when I joined the staff of a newspaper as a reporter. Every day consisted of a series of deadlines. It started to get increasingly harder on my nerves to race the clock.

I started doing articles as early and quickly as possible to avoid being the one getting ulcers instead of my usual role as someone who gives ulcers.

But being someone who gets somewhere somehow in the nick of time is a hard habit to kick completely.

Part of this is not my fault, though. Something strange happens when I'm getting ready to go to work, to church or to some social function.

I'm cruising along ahead of schedule and then "it" occurs - the Bermuda Triangle of time. My hopes of even being a bit earlier (or not so nearly late) are dashed when 15 minutes vanish without a trace.

Lately, I have been more nearly late than usual when I realize a quarter hour has gone and I run a real risk of being late.

And the darned thing about it is I cannot follow the lead of husbands in comic strips, movies and sitcoms where the guy is always complaining about how long it takes his wife to get ready.

Before we head to church for Mass Saturday afternoon, Jo Ann does a dozen or so chores and still manages to bathe, dress and be especially pretty in half the time it takes me loaf, shower and look as ugly as ever.

I wind up dropping her off at the church and getting a parking space not far from my homestead.

That way, when I'm dashing up the hill trying not to be late, Jo Ann is not holding onto my hand and floating in the breeze like a pennant.

(Walt Kozlowski, a freelance writer from Mount Carmel, composes "Walt's Way" for each Sunday edition.)