Shoe Column: Marbles
By Tim “Shoe” Sullivan
I’ll tell you what’s sad. Nobody plays marbles anymore. The kids are too busy playing video games.
Marbles are those little round things made of glass. When we were kids, the whole neighborhood would be outside shooting marbles. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any youngsters playing marbles in twenty years. And it’s a shame.
Back in the day, marbles came in all different colors and sizes. And there was a pecking order. Some marbles were thought to be better than others.
I’m guessing the best marble a kid could have was the “puree”. One solid color. Blue. Green. Red. You name it. Purees were king. The next best marble was the “cats-eye”. It kinda looked like a cat’s eye. “Boulders” were also high on the want list. They came in multiple colors and were a lot bigger than the ordinary marble.
Then you had the bumblebee, shooters, smashers, thumpers, bonkers, toe-breakers, tigers, and commons.
And the rarest one of all wasn’t even a marble. It was a “steelie”. Kids got into fights over steelies. They were actually ball-bearings. We always heard that steelies made Sherman tanks run in World War Two. It was quite a thrill to hold a steelie in your hand and wonder if it had been used in the Great War.
I kept my marbles in a tin container or a cigar box. It was fun to look at them. The object was to get as many as possible. You could never have too many.
Supposedly, the best way to get more marbles was to “play for keeps” with other kids. I would carefully put some of my marbles into a small cloth bag and go out in the neighborhood looking for some action.
There were many ways to play marbles with another kid. Although nobody did it, the “official” way even had rules. You were supposed to put down a string in a circle, put your marble inside the ring, carefully put your “shooting” hand’s knuckle on the ground, and try to knock the other kid’s marble out of the ring. Or something like that. It was way too confusing for our neighborhood.
So we improvised. We turned it into kinda like golf with your finger. We’d dig a small hole, put your marble a long way away, and take turns trying to flick it into the hole. Fewest flicks won the other kid’s marble.
By all accounts, I sucked at marbles. I was an easy mark. And then there was the “Catch-22.” I couldn’t wait to show off all my marbles to the other kids. The problem was as soon as another kid would see my marbles, he or she would immediately want them. And man, they sure went fast. Jack Ellenz never lost playing against me at Lincoln School. Neither did Tom Jensen. Nancy Dehlinger over on Water Street took me to the cleaners frequently. Ed Rossier was a challenge. Generally speaking, if I showed up with my bag of 40 marbles, I’d usually come home with about ten, and that was on a GOOD day.
Eventually I learned some marble strategy. I started playing against kids much younger. And I came up with a little twist. After making a bad shot, I’d tell the younger kid: “Okay, the next one counts. That last one was just for practice.” And I still lost.
I stopped using that strategy with Billy. I could tell he didn’t care much for my trick. He picked up a marble, inserted it into his sling-shot, and aimed right at my head. Before shooting, he asked: “Your shot counted, didn’t it?” I immediately said: “You bet! For sure!”
Eventually my marble collection dwindled down to nothing. Lost all the time. So, and this really hurt, I’d go downtown to McLellans 5&10 and buy some. Either there or Toyland. And then, no more shooting for keeps. Found out that marbles were great for trading.
I’d find some kid and trade three of my commons and a cats-eye for a couple of purees. Easy pickings. Then I’d trade the purees to other kids. Got half a hula hoop for two purees once. That wasn’t too bright. Or I’d trade some for a box of Snaps and a Pez gun. That worked much better.
And then…holy mackerel! A kid traded some of his baseball cards for my marbles. Got a nice Eddie Mathews card for some commons and boulders!!! That card is worth $100 today, and I still have it.
Got rid of that half of a hula hoop long ago.
Yeah, the youth of today are really missing out on some great fun. But I’m not one to talk. I lost all my marbles years ago.