My children finish another school year on Wednesday, and that means my annual week of mild bitterness is about to begin.

Actually, to be honest, sometimes it lasts more than a week.

I see their smiling faces after the last day of school. Then I watch as they start enjoying their summer fun. Playing all day. Running through the sprinklers and splashing in a blow-up pool in our backyard. Sleeping over at friends' houses. Staying up later than usual.

No cares, and no responsibilities.

Frequently, especially during their first few weeks of summer vacation, they'll ask before they go to bed at night if I can do some fun activity with them the next day. To which I reply, with a wistful smile on my face, "Nope. I've gotta go to work."

As I said, I know my yearly bout of mild melancholy is irrational. I'm extremely thankful to have a job I enjoy, and one that allows me to pay the bills.

I also know that there is a time and season for everything in life. The time I am in now is one of responsibility and hard work, as fun with family and friends fills in around the edges. I cherish that time with them, whatever the season.

Still, I can't keep my thoughts from turning to the joys of summer vacation when I was growing up in the small town of Yankton, S.D.

As a young child, I remember spending hours playing every day. My friends and I would ride our bikes all around the neighborhood — and beyond — exploring and making up games.

When it was time to return to a "home base" of sorts, we usually could be found in the loft of the shed behind my best friend's house. The shed looked like a miniature barn, and the loft was a perfect clubhouse.

If I remember correctly, it was there that our club, "The Peppers," was born. (We named ourselves after the "I'm a Pepper" ad campaign for Dr. Pepper soda, although I don't remember drinking Dr. Pepper as a child. That seems strange to me now, but it never struck me as odd at the time.)

One of my favorite features of our clubhouse was the loft door that opened to the outside. We rigged a pulley just beyond that door that allowed for the delivery of snacks or other items in a bucket, without us leaving the loft.

If we weren't in our clubhouse, we were probably at the municipal pool, alternately freezing in what always seemed to be ice-cold water and baking on the hot concrete deck.

As my friends and I grew older, we found different activities to occupy our time — especially after we were able to drive. We spent hundreds of hours cruising up and down Broadway, laughing, talking and listening to music on the radio. (Or, sometimes, on the eight-track player in my best friend's red Ford Maverick. Wow, that makes me feel old!)

We'd also spend hours in the evenings playing all kinds of sports outside, even if it was still 90 degrees with 80 percent humidity. Sometimes we would start at the tennis courts at one of the local parks and play until the lights went out. Then we'd go to the high school parking lot, which had a lone basketball hoop near a dim streetlight, and play until well after midnight. I remember walking into my house, still covered in sweat, and feeling the wonderful shock of central air conditioning after hours in the heat.

We had other, weirder (and yes, geekier) nighttime activies, too. We often threw a bunch of lawn chairs in the back of whatever car we were in, drove to a random location, pulled them out and sat there, watching people drive by and stare as we told stories and laughed and drank too much caffeine. (Mello Yello was one of my favorites then. I don't think I could stomach a full can of it now.)

Probably our oddest "lawn-chairing" location was on top of the projection house of the drive-in movie theater. One of my friends' fathers had purchased the place after the theater closed, intending to build a church on the land it occupied. But until that happened, the projection house and screen were still standing. We would take a slide projector with us and show family snapshots on the huge screen. I've often wondered what people zooming into town on the nearby highway thought when they saw that strange "movie" playing at the drive-in.

As time went on, we started getting summer jobs, which cut down on our carefree time. Then we were off to college and other activities. But I'll never forget the pure joy of summer vacation as a small-town kid.

And maybe that's why I feel a twinge of bitterness at this time of year. Even though I know it's appropriate that my summer now is much like my winter, spring and fall — working in my cubicle, going to meetings, trying to earn a paycheck — I miss the days of my youth.

But fortunately, there is a cure for my malaise. All I need to do is live vicariously through my own children, seeing the joy of the season reflected in their eyes.

If I can manage that — and maybe take my turn running through the sprinklers every now and then — I'm sure to have a glorious summer.

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