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My best memories of youth are of sleepovers at a place we called “the cottage.” Located on a lake near Richmond, Minn., it was a simple four-room structure that became a place of magic.

My bachelor-uncle, Rom, owned the cottage. During the summer of 1967, when I was 11, he offered me, my brother, some cousins and a few friends the chance of a lifetime: to stay at the cottage a few days a week — unsupervised for the first time — in exchange for help around the property. We would cut lawn. Rake. Paint. Pull weeds. Split firewood. Each day’s scheduled project took our gang only a few hours to complete. Then we were free to have fun until the next morning, as long as we didn’t cause trouble. We ran through the woods playing hide and seek. We fished crappies almost every day at dawn. Epic battles of volleyball and horseshoe took place until sunset. Then to wash up, we took the pontoon onto the lake for nighttime swims. Supper was either fried fish, grilled hamburgers or oven-baked Banquet Fried Chicken — followed by watermelon.

After supper, we dealt penny poker until “The Tonight Show” started at 10:30 p.m. Johnny Carson’s nightly TV party for grown-ups was a treat to watch for boys our age. We usually only made it through Johnny’s monologue before collapsing onto our cots, too tired to think about mischief.

Looking back, something magical took place that summer. Uncle Rom’s genius for coaxing work out of us seemed like a page from “Tom Sawyer” — like how Tom got the fence whitewashed. By mingling work with the glitter of unsupervised freedom for a chosen few, Rom turned the idea of work from a drudgery into something special. Almost privileged. Even fun. And I noticed that a whole new appreciation of play developed, too. Work, then play. Happiness came after self-discipline and accomplishment.

Now retired, I am grateful for the lessons learned — the magic that occurred — at a place called “the cottage.”

Mark Vogt, Annandale, Minn.