The best things about family summers: no homework and the nights go on forever. Come July you won’t be mowing the lawn anymore, and there’ll be plenty of time to chase fireflies together, shoot free throws to win an ice cream prize, and jump through the sprinkler.

The summer calendar doesn’t have to be all blocked out. It sure seems that some of our best times are the unscripted, spontaneous ones. Off the clock, family fun happens: finding the juiciest tomato, checking out Kids Night Out at ADF, filling the blueberry buckets, taking a trip to Pullen Park, having picnics on the rocks and banks of the Eno, bringing home a huge stack of books from the library, exploring a new playground or a forgotten park, or just walking down the road to drop in on a neighbor to see their garden.

Over the summers, we’ve made the most of sometimes curious circumstances. Deep in the woods, a favorite oak tree blew down during a hurricane. We hauled out chairs, a rope swing and some planks, and made a cool closer-to-ground-level tree house.

I used to secretly root for losing electricity during the summer storms. It was always so much fun to grab the quilts, books, candles and flashlights and set up a base camp in the living room, invite the dogs in and weather the winds and rain all roly-poly together.

Here are some favorite family snapshots from summertimes, when the time was right:

Perseids in a pickup

The August night sky is always charged, usually with fast-moving thunderstorms. In the middle of the month, on a clear night, if the moon isn’t too full, meteors fly through the Northern sky. It’s a silent, spectacular show. When they were little, just before bedtime, bundled in pajamas, the kids would pile into the back of the pickup. We would load in a mattress, sleeping bags, pillows and blankets. This was in the magical time of stuffed animals, so Bena and Big Bunny were there, too. And the dogs, knowing something was up, would get a free ride to the North Field. (Twenty years earlier, with a tribe of friends, my wife and I had made similar visits to this wide-open space to watch for Comet Kohoutek.)

On a cloudless evening, the night sky is huge. With our backs to the city lights, we would ooh and aah at the dozens of meteor sightings. Just when we were all yawning, one child would see another, and another.

This summer, the Perseids meteor shower peaks just before dawn on Saturday, Aug. 12.

Alltel you a story

Each daughter had her first outdoor rock concert experience at Walnut Creek (aka Alltel Pavilion). Not Disney World, not Altamont. No one’s going mudsliding or wandering down a hole with the Cheshire Cat with Dad right there. While jubilant high schoolers strutted their stuff in their rock ‘n’ roll best, we toured the concessions. My then 13-year-old, wide-eyed with curiosity, soaked up every minute of the pre-show. We knew all the words to the several Blink-182 CDs we owned, and we were ready. The opening act was some ’90s band called Green Day, on their comeback tour. (Several years later when they were back headlining, my wife and other daughter hung out in the mosh pit!)

Finally, the Blinksters took the stage. Everyone rose as one–exciting stuff for a mid-week summer night. A 30-foot wall of fire rose behind the band. My grinning daughter turned to me and said, “Dad, do you see what that says?” As Travis smacked the drum kit, the flaming backdrop read F U C K. I laughed and nodded back.

We decided that that would not be the first thing we told the rest of the family when we got home.

Go Orcas! Go Hammerheads! Go Tom Cusick!

Summer swim meets are marathons for the whole family. They start in daylight and end in exhausted darkness. In between, it is a steady routine of sunscreen, snacks, heats, drinks and always waiting. But when your child’s swimming or the other team has some junior All-American, it can get pretty exciting. Shade and ice are coveted. The kids are hyper, looking cute and beautiful in their matching team swimsuits and caps. Runners are running, timers are timing. About every 20 minutes, it is guaranteed that someone, somewhere–parent, child or coach–is experiencing a meltdown. Swim meet code just says “give ’em some space–happens to everyone.”

The relays were my favorite. I loved hearing the kids cheering each other’s name. Toward the end of a meet, everyone is screaming, for victory, for his or her child, for a sit-down meal, for the meet to finally end. During a relay, the meet is always on the line. A relay, B relay, it doesn’t matter.

At most meets, the finale is the coaches’ relay, the mother of all showdowns. The beloved coaches flex, the younger kids scream, poolside is packed. At the starter’s gun, time stops, then goes fast forward. It is the loudest single moment of the summer, and you are there.

Racing Wool E.

A spontaneous family night at the ballpark is the way to leave it all behind. When the Durham Bulls are in town, the place is packed, tickets are cheap, the food is great, and entertainment is everywhere.

One night we arrived early and took our seats. Some guy walked up to my then 8-year-old daughter and asked her if she wanted to race Wool E. Bull. Her grandmother was visiting, so she had a nice dress on. I think she had her doubts about what he was talking about and whether she should even be talking to a stranger. We asked some questions and all of a sudden, she was down by the dugout getting prepped on what to do. She loved to run–still does–and she was pretty confident. The friendly Bulls’ guy turned to her and said, “I have one request, OK?” She nodded. “When you round third base, will you turn and wave to the crowd?” She gave a serious nod.

It was on. They crisscross at second base, my daughter a few steps in the lead. She must have noticed that. As she rounded third, she ducked her head and charged home–no waves, just dust. She jumped on home plate two yards ahead of Wool E. They gave her a huge goodybag and sent her off. It was on the 11 o’clock news that night as a feel-good story.

I had to ask her on the way home. “Honey, why didn’t you wave to the crowd?” She looked at me like I was dense or something. “Dad, I had to beat Wool E. I just wanted to win.”

Harry rules!

Monday, July 10, 2000. Every child in the world is reading the newest Harry Potter. The Goblet of Fire had just come out the previous Saturday and everyone wanted to read it. Harry Four was 734 pages. As a family, we savored every page, reading them out loud to each other all weekend. That Monday at the Camp Riverlea bus stop, along with a backpack filled with a swim suit, goggles, a towel, a tennis racket, some water shoes, a lunch, a snack, a poncho, a water bottle and a change of clothes, each camper was carrying their copy of Harry Potter, three pounds of glorious summer fantasy. It was quite a sight. It was the quietest bus ride to and from camp in the history of carpooling. Alas, dear Harry, the boy wizard, is sleeping in this summer.

Wilderness camping at Lake Michie

As a parent of young children, you just wish you could have a good night’s sleep. You’re not really worried about whether your kids are getting outside enough. Nevertheless, half a dozen families would get together twice a year for a group camping trip at the Lake Michie Campgrounds. No, Lake Michie is not really wilderness territory, but when half of us were hauling cribs and crayons, it got rustic real fast.

We hiked, climbed some rocks, played Frisbee and tried to stay up as late as the teenagers among us. With a stone amphitheatre and a fire pit, there was no problem getting the storytelling juices flowing. Stage fright? Forget about it! Had to be careful about the bear stories at bedtime, though.

Meals were typical camp fare. That is, whateveranyone else was eating was a lot better than what you brought. The best coffee in the world? Coffee brewed over an open fire at 6 a.m. That’s when there’s a mist on the lake, dew on the ground, and all around, families are safe in their sleeping bags dreaming of an endless summer.