Simple Amusements, Part Seven – Losing My Marbles

Four Marbles


            Springtime was easy to spot at Our Lady of Hungary. At recess, the boys started playing marbles.  Marbles were easy to carry in the pocket.  Before school, at lunch, and at recess, the boys challenged each other.  All it took was two players to get started.  By the end of the day, dozens more played.  I’d go home for lunch to find my tin-can full of marbles. A quick scoop of the hand pulled a pocketful out of the can. I slid them into my pocket, ready to go. I ran back to the schoolyard to catch a game before the bell rang.

One of the more popular games involved a pot.  A pot is a small hole dug in the ground.  It is three to four inches in diameter, and about one inch deep.  The ground around the pot must be smooth, and flat without any debris so the marbles can roll easily. The edge, or rim on the pot is always smoothed out to allow the marbles to roll into it easily.  After preparing the the site, a player draws a line in the ground by dragging his heel, or stick, across the dirt. He scribes a circle around the pot about five feet away.

The best game involves several players.  Having a distinctive marble as your shooter is also best.  Most marbles are multicolored glass balls less than one inch in diameter.  An ordinary marble has a base color of white with a swirl color.  The swirl is usually a primary color. The swirls come in various shades and hues.  We bought the marbles at the little corner store across the street from the school. Sometimes it was from Kresge’s five and dime.  They packaged them in little net bags with a draw string at the top.  Ten or twelve marbles came in the bag. Very rarely, they mixed a purie into the bag.  Puries were very distinctive marbles. They were one color, and were transparent.  I could hold one up to the sun and see the light shining through it.  If I put it up to my eye, the world became the color of the purie.   A shooter prided himself on the beauty of his purie.  The color and clarity made the marble distinctly his because they were more scarce than ordinary marbles. They were valuable and highly prized.  It was a sad day when I lost a purie in a dog fight against my mortal enemy.

To play a pot game, a group of shooters lined up, toes to the line, to ‘lag.’ That meant tossing your marble toward the pot.  The object of the lag is to get your marble into the pot.  The closest marble to the pot became the first shooter and so on. Getting into the pot, or very near, is crucial to the game. The first marble into the pot qualified the shooter as a ‘killer’. Each player had to reach the pot before he qualified to shoot at another player.

To shoot, the shooter placed the marble between his thumb and his first finger. To make the marble move, he flicked his thumb in a forward movement. All the time, the shooter had to keep his hand on the ground. Either the heel of his hand or his knuckles had to touch the ground.  Lifting a hand off the ground during a shot disqualified the shot, and resulted in a lost turn.  We were all watchful of each other for this detail because calling the foul kept a player in the game longer.

After reaching the pot, and killer status, the shooter got a second turn.  That’s when the real game began.

A killer took his next shot from the pot.  Knuckles were in, and against the rim.  To score, a player with killer status would shoot at any other marble in the ring.  Naturally, the shooter went for the marble closest to the pot to make it easy.  When the killer’s marble hit a victim’s marble, the killer got another turn.  He could continue to shoot at the same marble and keep hitting it until he knocked it outside the ring.  At that point the shooter eliminated the victim from the game.  A good shooter could blast out all his opponents without any opposition because each time he shot and hit another marble he got another turn.

Marbles are similar to billiards.  The shooting marble is the cue ball, the victim a numbered ball.  When the shooter hits the victim there is a distinct glassy ‘click.’ The victim rolls away in a direction dependant upon an angle that the shooter’s marble hit it.  A really smart killer will try to hit multiple victims with a single shot.  Once a shooter misses a victim, he loses his turn until the rotation is back to him. Very often, they knocked the shooter from the ring before he got another chance.

We played this game endlessly during recess, at lunch and after school until another activity started.

Marble players riddled the school yard with pot holes for all the games going on.  There evolved a core of expert shooters who played each other. A pecking order of players descended with skills ranging from expert, amateur, and the beginner.  Each group had its players, and each rank had levels of ability.  The very skillful players always wanted to play ‘for keeps’.  In these games, if a killer knocked a victim out of the ring, he not only scored a point, but he got to keep the victim’s marble.  It was a sorry day when I was bold enough to play my purie and lost it in a “for keeps” game.  Many boys who played in “keep” games had large cloth bags filled with marbles.  The more marbles in the bag, the more prestige he carried.  It was a badge of honor to carry a large bag of marbles. Some of these boys brought an empty bag with them in the morning, and by the end of the day, the bag was full.  As with any game or sport, winning carries prestige. In marbles, the prestige came from showing off a big bag of marbles. Soon, all the players wanted to show off a big bag of marbles, and all levels of skill began to play “keeps.”

Another subtlety of the game employed ‘calling out’ a foul or a special action.  In a situation where a killer was near scoring by knocking a victim out of the ring but another obstacle, like another player’s marble, was in the way.  The shooter could call ‘knee hikes’.  If he called it first, he could shoot from his knee and thus shoot over the obstacle.  The victim could call ‘no hikes’ and if he called first, the shooter had to shoot from the ground.

The marble phase of school lasted until baseball started. Mysteriously, all marbles disappeared when the boys began choosing sides for a baseball game.

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