The rumor went around that trains were throwing steel ball bearings from their wheels. Genuine steelies! Somebody said they saw one that a kid from Detroit brought up. So big that you couldn’t close your fist around it. Nobody else saw it, though.
Nevertheless, we scoured the tracks for endless hours, turning over every likely pebble that caught the sun. No steelies. I did amass a small collection of spikes that had worked their way loose from the ties. Never did figure a use for them. But they were cool.
The game was marbles. Way we played it in upper Michigan was to draw a chalk circle on the cement or scratch one on the sand with a stick, sometimes we even used a length of string. The battleground was set. The players approached cautiously if their stock was low or boldly if their marble bag brimmed.
One boy against one boy. Man against man. A test of skill and mental grit. Incidentally, only boys played against boys, girls against girls: this was back in the day when adults didn’t burst a spleen for kids noticing the obvious differences in the sexes. Besides, boys were daring and cavalier. They were out for conquest. Girls would sometimes—this still baffles me—agree to play to a draw! Even if one girl would outright win she wouldn’t claim her prize. Bizarre creatures.
First boy, if he was a pro, placed his middle finger against his thumb and then snapped it at his marble, aiming to smack it into his opponent’s. If he hit it, he got to keep it. No time outs, no I-wasn’t-readies, no whimpering. Newcomers and cowards could be identified by the anemic way they smacked their marble, say by giving it no more than a half-hearted push with their forefinger.
Strategy was obvious. If you were the better shooter, you attacked attacked attacked. Go right after the other guy. Intimidate him. Like Nelson, ignore all subtleties and blaze away. Cagier boys took advantage of the braggarts and only pretended to be cautious. They let their opponents open with a bold shot or two, answering with a shot away as if in retreat, then when the other boy’s shot would miss and stop close by, the jig was up.
And that was the problem. Too bold and your shots would come close, too close. Countless times the marbles would stop an inch away. It was a goner. This is why it made sense to shoot hard; over-shooting was hardly a risk. Unless you in a sudden-death match where shooting outside the lines meant an automatic loss.
Most of us neither lost too many nor gained too many. But a few kids were easy pickings. Every day they’d come with a new small bag (these were sold in grocery and ‘dime’ stores) and lose them. Rich kids.
Unless by prior agreement, only even matches were allowed. Cat’s eye against cats eye were the lowest, entry-level bouts. Cats’ eyes, for those monumentally ignorant of Americana, are the clear marble with the squiggly, colorful aberration running through the center. These were the general stock, like ten-year-old used cars; useful, but unloved. Why, you could find spare cat’s eye rolling around behind the home room teacher’s desk. What counted was quantity.
Perries, probably a corruption of puries, solid colored beauties. These were always just a shade smaller than the cat’s eyes. Perries, though coveted, had a tendency to chip, sometimes even crack open when hit hard. Clears were solid glass, no color. Steelies were polished ball bearings. I only ever saw two of them. Not the railroad kind, but small ones from who-knows-where. They were said to be unbeatable, which is why we latched onto any rumor of a source.
Then came the boulders, the double-sized version of the normal marble. One of these was worth five to ten of the regular kind, depending on availability. Boulder-on-boulder matches were always closely attended. They were rare, too, especially when they featured perries. (I have since learned boulders are called “shooters” in other areas. But all our marbles were shooters.)
We used to empty our marble bags and compare, holding our treasures up to the light for the kind of close scrutiny used by gemologists sizing up wedding rings. Oddities such as pea-sized perries occasionally showed up. These were said to be from China, then still a mysterious land.
I don’t guess kids play marbles anymore. Unless there’s a marble “app” for their cell phones. But it now makes sense that my favorite adult game is petanque.