WE HAD NO summer camps when I was growing up. Summer took imagination.

After the July 4 celebrations, summer always looked like it was going to be hot and boring. But we were an imaginative bunch of boys, and Labor Day usually came around much too soon.

We were too young to be allowed to wander far without an older brother acting like a sheepdog, herding us back. but we had our turf: the unfenced back yards of three adjoining houses.

And we had our eyes on adventure: an abandoned lot down the street, alongside a slow-freight railroad track.

On the first day or two of summer, my pals and I would climb a big tree and sit on thick limbs in the shade trying to realize, much like an adult on the first day of vacation, that we really didn't have to go anywhere or do anything.

But what should we do ? We couldn't spend the summer sitting on a tree limb.

There were few chores for us except a quick errand to a local store for a bottle of milk. Most of the heavy work was done by older brothers or sisters.

At first we tossed a ball around, pitched the heavy, grown-up horseshores, played marbles, which was easier, or Indian-wrestled. We never wandered far. p

But each day, as we began to feel the freedom, we moved farther away from the yard, wondering if we had been noticed, realizing we were a year older than the previous summer.

One day we went on adventure to the once-forbidden railroad tracks, with a few nails in our pockets to lay along the rails the same way we had seen our big brothers do it.

We even emulated them on the way -- by dragging a stick along a picket fence and cutting through the vacant lot, moving through the high grass in single file, bent over as if on a hunt.

We placed the nails carefully along the rail, left and climbed into an old abandoned convertible, the roof removed along with the engine ages before.

We sat inside on battered seats, taking long imaginary trips sharing the driving. The driver always had to make the sound of a purring engine while trying to explain what state we were passing through. New Hampshire sometimes was next to California.

Before any train ever came, we were found by an older brother and taken home to lunch. Each kid was given a sandwich and glass of milk at his own home, and we then sat under a tree eating and talking about the morning's adventure.

The trains never ran on schedule, and halfway through our meal we heard the rumbling of a freight. We gobbled the rest of our lunch on the run to the tracks.

Freight trains with their names painted on the sides always fascinated us. And when they had passed, the man in the caboose would return our waves, realizing he had probably just run over his millionth nail.

Grabbing our prizes, we'd return home trying to bend them into a finger ring. An older brother could do it, using plyers and a vice. He'd mold them and we watched in an effort to learn how, and we'd wear our rings proudly all summer.

It dawned on us slowly, this one day, that we had not been asked where we had been, yet we had been to the tracks twice by noon. Our rings told of hte achievement, of our escape from the yard. We realized we were growing up.

Soon, more adventure. Early one morning, big carnival trucks passed by the house, headed for the ball field a mile away for their annual summer visit.

The carnival had always been strictly off-limits. But we had to test our growing independence, wondering all the while what the punishment might be as we took off for the field.

As we had imagined, carnivals were exciting to watch being set up and we watched all day. Just before dusk, we were found by an older brother.

The punishment was severe. After the carnival opened we didn't get to make our annual visit with an adult. We had never figured on that.

What to do ? There were days when we would just go to a corner of the yard and, playing construction men, would dig a big hole knowing it would have to be filled again when the first father came home.

Sometimes in late afternoon, before dinner, we'd change to bathing trunks and refresh ourselves with a hose, or clean off when a bar of soap was tossed out to us. When we used a sun shower, our parents saved on water bills.

After dinner and before bed we played running games -- tag, ringelivo (a homespun game of two teams requiring a "captured" player to remain in a certain circle). And we'd simply race; there were older brothers willing to hold a watch and time everything we did until we were tired enough to sleep.

Rainy days never stopped us from playing. We had an old open back porch with a railing around it, and the porch became a ship at sea riding out a tremendous storm. The lookouts stood on the railing with one arm around a stanchion and the other hand over their brow for a better view of whales or pirate ships.

The helmsman always steered us to safety with an old bicycle wheel.

Most of our fathers worked a half day on Saturdays, and when they came home it was a picnic at the beach and a cool swim in the ocean.

There were few war games -- everyone wanted to be the good guy. If there was a "war," the enemy was always imaginary.

Sunday was dress-up day and church. but there were comic strips; the characters were always heavily discussed. And there was homemade ice cream after a big dinner, later a walk to the ballpark to cheer for the local team.

We wondered how much money our fathers put in when they passed the hat and knew it was enough to keep the teams in equipment and pay the one umpire behind the plate who called everything on the field.

Near the end of summer, when the evenings became shorter, women sitting on their front porches wore shawls, and we'd know school was not far off. Real baths. Haircuts. New shoes. Clothes.

We knew that the next summer we'd wander ever farther. But there was another nagging thought: With age would come the chores that our older brothers did then, and small-paying but real jobs around the neighborhood.

Responsibility was inevitable, and we seemed to sense it. CAPTION:

Picture 1, Drawing by Winslow Homer; Picture 2, no caption