Round Two: The magic of summer nights

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

Summer vacation.

As a kid, nothing compared to it.

Christmas Day? Not even close. That was, well, one day. Summer vacation lasted about three months — or 90 consecutive Christmas Days in kid time.

Your birthday? Nope. Read above.

The family vacation? Nice, but no. That was only one week, maybe two if you were lucky. And it was usually part of summer vacation anyway.

Summer vacation had no peer. It was magic, three footloose and fancy free months between one school year and the next. No more going to bed early and getting up early. No more sitting in a classroom all day. No more quizzes. No more tests. No more book reports. And best of all, no more homework, a cruel time-soaker that prevented you from doing things like … having fun. 

For nine months, school had its tentacles wrapped tightly around you and refused to let go, squeezing the joy out of your young life. There was no escape: You were at school all day, took it home with you at night, studied it over the weekends. Sure, there were breaks here and there for holidays, but they never lasted long enough — and just when you started to feel relaxed, it was time to go back again. The grind began anew.

It seemed like it would never end.

And then, on a glorious day in late spring, it was over. From the moment you stepped out of the school building, the world — or at least your neighborhood — was your oyster. Anything seemed possible.

Sun-splashed days. Cricket-filled nights. Swimming, playing, sleepovers. You had all the time in the world.

Maybe too much time. After all, the young brain isn’t equipped with the discipline necessary to handle that kind of unfettered freedom. Young minds are naturally curious, and they start searching out ways to fill all that time.

In the classic 1986 coming-of-age film “Stand By Me,” four boys in Oregon looking for something to do in the summer of 1959 go on a hike searching for the dead body of a missing boy.

In Mogadore, Ohio in the summer of 1980, my best friend Mike and I, having just finished sixth grade, were in a similar position: What were we going to do with all of this sudden free time?

Mike’s family had an above-ground swimming pool in their backyard, which we made daily use of — but it didn’t solve the problem of what to do at night. We had three basic problems to overcome: We didn’t have a car, we didn’t have money, and, at 12 years old, we had a pesky 11 p.m. village curfew that kept us homebound at night.

So we had to look for things that didn’t require a car and money. Which meant that whatever we were going to get into would have to be close and free. Easy enough. We had legs, and most places weren’t open after 11 o’clock anyway, so we didn’t really need money.

And as for that 11 p.m. witching hour, if we were stealthy enough, we could escape detection under the cover of darkness.

But what would we do? Where would we go? How, exactly, would we avoid getting caught?

So we put our 12-year-old minds together and hatched a foolproof plan. There used to be a military surplus store in the center of town, and over time Mike and I had acquired some old Army gear from the place like button-down field-issue shirts, backpacks, canteens and even helmets (yes, helmets — and I actually still have most of this stuff, by the way).

It wouldn’t cut it for storming Omaha Beach, but it would do just fine for a clandestine night operation around Mogadore.

The mission: To go from Mike’s house to downtown Mogadore and back without getting picked up by the police. And I’m not making that up. We just wanted to see if we could do it.

We needed good weather and a moonless night. And when that combination finally presented itself, we sprang into action: We filled the canteens with water, made some baloney sandwiches and put them in our backpacks, waited until everyone was asleep, then donned our military garb — including the helmets — and deftly snuck out the back of the house.

Mike went first, quietly sliding the patio door open and stepping outside. He walked a few steps, stopped, and whispered, “The coast is clear. Come on!”

It was dark, so I moved slowly. I stepped through the open doorway and onto the patio, turned around and slid the door closed, turned back around, took a step toward Mike — and walked straight into their patio grill, sending it crashing to the cement directly underneath his mom and dad’s bedroom window, the metal parts of the grill clanging and banging around for several seconds.

This was bad.

Mike and I froze, fully expecting to see his parents’ bedroom window light up at any moment. We waited. And waited. And waited.

Miraculously, the window stayed dark. Somehow, they didn’t hear the metal explosion on the other side of the glass.

What should we do? Was this an omen? Should we just go back inside and break out the Star Wars figures?

“They didn’t hear it!” Mike whispered. “Let’s go!”

The mission was still on.

So off we went, backpacks bouncing and helmets sliding across our heads as we nimbly navigated the yards and sidewalks of our sleepy little village. We crouched behind bushes and stood like statues behind trees and telephone poles while stray cars passed here and there on our journey down the quiet side streets to the center of town.

We had no idea what we were going to do when we got there. We weren’t up to no good, we were just looking for a challenge.

And then we got there. We made a break for it along well-lit Mogadore Road, crossing to the north side, then reached downtown, where we headed for the relative safety of the back side of the gas station on the corner of Route 532.

We looked around. It was about midnight, and there was no sign of activity anywhere. It was just us. We did it!

We took out the sandwiches and canteens, took off our helmets and reveled in our accomplishment. Victory was ours.

After a while, and not wanting to tempt fate, we started to head back. We crept toward the parking lot of the bank adjacent to the gas station, when all of a sudden a cop car appeared on Mogadore Road heading our way.

“Hit the deck!” Mike said, and we both instantly dropped to the ground. Fortuitously, we were right at the embankment of the parking lot, giving us natural cover to lay against. We pressed ourselves against the asphalt as we peered over the top of the embankment, watching with bated breath as the police cruiser slowly made its way toward us, drew even with us, then passed us.

Just as I was about to spring up and run behind the bank, Mike, lying a few feet to my right, exclaimed: “Uh-oh, I think I’ve got ants on me!”

I hadn’t felt anything, but apparently he had dropped right onto an ant hill on the embankment. And they were crawling all over him. Our military-issue garb was no match for angry insects.

Mike stood up, began frantically trying to slap ants off of him, then gave up. There were too many, and they had gotten inside his clothing.

“I’ve got to get home!” he exclaimed. “They’re everywhere!”

Just then, I thought I felt ants on me as well. It may have been my imagination, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

So much for stealth. We broke into a dead run all the way back to his house, covering the distance in just a few minutes. The mission was over.

We made it back into the house undetected, dealing with the ant situation by hastily removing our clothing on the patio. I don’t know which would have been the worse look had his parents caught us: coming through the door in full battle regalia, or coming through the door in our underwear.

Neither would have gotten us fast-tracked to Mensa.

But we had accomplished our mission: We made it to downtown Mogadore and back without getting caught. It wasn’t exactly the stuff of “Stand By Me,” but it filled up the time on a summer night.


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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.