For me, the first killing frost of the year has always signaled the start of a special season: fall.

Growing up as I did in northern Illinois, frost came later than it does here in Minnesota, but the changes it set in motion were somehow magical, especially for school-aged kids.

The change of seasons meant it was time to trade your sneakers for a pair of dress shoes, your tattered T-shirts and faded blue jeans for school clothes.

According to the calendar, summer was over. But the days remained almost as warm as ever, the sky as blue, the grass as green, and for most of September we felt caught between two worlds, forced to spend hours in school that we tried to offset with a frenzy of after-school games at the park, baseball and basketball and football, whatever we felt like playing, until little by little the temperature cooled and the days grew shorter and we settled primarily on football.

At school, under the supervision of a teacher, we played flag football, where the object was to stop the opponent’s forward motion by ripping a flag from his belt. It was, and is, a sanitized version of the sport, designed to minimize injury and pain.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

But after school, left to our own devices, we played tackle, and some of the games got rough. Lacking the protection of helmets or pads, we smashed ourselves against each other with abandon, collarbone against shin, skull against skull, face against knee, with predictable consequences.

Early fall found us limping and bruised and jabbering together like primitive tribesmen reliving moments of hand-to-hand glory. We played pickup games with whoever showed up at the field, sometimes as few as two against two, and came away bloodied and grass-stained and euphoric.

In the absence of supervision, we learned to settle our differences on our own, and became the closer for it. In retrospect, the memory of a Hail-Mary pass spiraling through the early evening dusk to the outstretched fingers of a leaping teammate seems somehow mythic and otherworldly, set safely above the slow decay of ordinary time.

For some hidden reason, school remained peripheral and unimportant until the first few frosts, after which I felt a sudden desire to get organized and settle down to work. By that time the World Series was right around the corner and the smell of burning-leaf smoke permeated the air.

Our town lake had taken on a chilled, metallic look, and migrating bands of geese barked their goodbyes from high above as they arrowed south. After supper, before commencing homework, we’d run around town in the cool fall night playing kick the can, working up a good sweat and extending our play time as long as possible.

There is something special about autumn days and nights, something spare and classic and elegiac. In fall, the ornaments have been removed and the structure of things stands revealed: no bugs, no birds, no greenery. The leaves have shed their chlorophyll, showing off their true colors. Even the air is stripped of unneeded humidity and touches the skin in a frank, no-nonsense way. The streetlights cast crisp shadows. The bark of a distant dog slices cleanly through the night.

As kids, after dark we had the town to ourselves. Traffic was reduced to an occasional car, so we were free to roam through the streets with no fear of being run over. Concerns about abduction at the hands of sex-crazed pedophiles were as distant as the stars, as were worries about drug dealers or drive-by shootings. To the best of our knowledge, things like that simply didn’t exist in little towns like ours.

In those magical autumn evenings, playing outside in the dark was no different than playing in the family basement except that you had more room to run, and the air seemed filled with mystery.

Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.