For some reason (actually because my interest was spurred by an earlier blog), the other day I asked my granddaughter if she knew what marbles or jacks were. She said she did and thought jacks were best because you could spin them. Although she knew what marbles and jacks were, it was apparent she knew nothing about playing games with either one.
I asked my wife who until recently had been an elementary school teacher (for 30 years), if her students ever played marbles. She said no. The students sometimes used marbles as visual aids for counting and once kept a tally of credits received for good behavior (there was a party when so many jars were filled), but they never actually played the game. Thinking that the powers-that-be might have outlawed (because it was competitive???) the game, I asked if playing marbles was allowed at school. She said there was no ban, but rather the kids simply didn’t know anything about the game of marbles. I found this sad.
Marbles were my reason for going to school in the third, fourth, and fifth grades—-at least in the springtime that for some reason was marble season. I remember being a sort of marble ring champion—an outstanding shooter to be feared by all.
The memory of playing marbles comes back in rather blurred flashes:
- The rings, located at the edge of the main playground, were drawn up in special plots of dirt that had been groomed to be rock-free with a powdery base of dust.
- You drew the ring by knelling down with a stick in your extended hand and drawing a circle as you pivoted around. The length of your arm determined the size of the circle.
- You collected target marbles (5 or 10) from every player and then dropped them from about a foot above the ground and watched them scatter.
- You then drew a line on the ground and from about three feet away lagged (tossed a marble) to see who could get closest and would shoot first.
- From the edge of the ring you held a marble (your shooter) so that your knuckles were touching the ground while your thumb flicked the shooter forward.
- If you knocked a marble out of the ring it was yours to keep and if your shooter stayed in the ring, you got another shot. You shot until you failed to knock a marble out of the ring.
- If you missed, but your shooter stayed within the ring, you left it there until it was your turn to shoot again.
- If your shooter was in the ring while another player was shooting, he could try to knock it out of the ring and take it.
- In the end, the person with the most marbles won.
When ready to play, you opened up your bag or pouch and chose between a whole array of different types of marbles to meet the challenge. You had the Cat’s Eye (clear with blades of color inside), clearies or puries (clear glass in different colors), and then a whole selection of marbles with descriptive names like swirls, beach balls, spearmint, spaghettis and gumballs. Then there steelies (ball bearings), agates (prized for shooters), peewees (worthless small marbles), and boulders (huge marbles that were usually banned).
Most games were with friends. When playing with guys within your circle, rules were set once and then never discussed again. The games were competitive, but not cutthroat. Over time, for the most part, marbles just rotated from one person to another and then back again. But when you faced someone in a different clique, all bets were off. All the rules (and there was of long list of these) had to be defined. No steelies. No boulders. Keepsies. No bombing from above. Shooting hand had to be touching the ground. And on and on.
In these big games, your shooter was usually on the line. This was the marble you valued most. It was perfectly chipped so it would dig in and hold in the dirt. This was the marble that defined you. More than anything, making the shooter vulnerable turned them into games for “all the marbles” (pardon the pun). The potential for loosing the “lucky” marble gave these games a “mano-a-mano” flavor. The loss of a prized shooter was the reason for more than a few fistfights.
Earlier, I said I remembered being a marble champion. Truth is, I have nothing to back that up with. I do remember loving the dirty grit of it all and the intense completion. In my mind, I have even retained a faint image of my own prized shooter; a well-worn, dark brown with swirls of yellow, aggie. But although I am sure there were many great champion games and magnificent victories, I am just as sure that these legends lasted for a very short time—for the next year it was off to junior high where flag football and basketball were so much more exciting.
It seems a shame that this game has disappeared from our grandkid’s childhood. Maybe that’s because it was too dirty, too competitive, or was played only by boys (girls played jacks), but I guess the answer may be simply that the playgrounds no longer have that area of just plain dirt and marbles just isn’t a game to be played on grass, asphalt, or cement. Again, how sad.