All the Marbles

Spring’s not here
But perhaps it’s near
Games of Childhood
Played in the Neighbourhood

I remember the days when Spring was near, or at least the snow had thawed enough that the school fields were too soggy to really be played on. The fields had been frozen through the Winter or covered with snow and in the Autumn hadn’t been wet and soggy.

Those days when the Sun shone bright it felt so warm, but there wasn’t so much room to play at recess or in the school yard before classes at lunch so we brought out other entertainment besides the soccer we traditionally played.

First I should tell you that I grew up in Calgary Alberta, Canada and not on the British Columbia Coastal Cities around Metro Vancouver. That might explain the frozen ground and bright Sun in the Spring — perhaps also that we had fields that could get wet and soggy. I have noticed that out here in the Vancouver area often the school fields are some sort of fine gravel that drains well rather than grass. Gravel doesn’t turn into swamps in heavy thawing snow so easily, but grass is so much nicer to play soccer or softball on.

We also played soccer in Elementary school — in Calgary those were grades 1 – 6. I know other places might play other sports.

In any case in this time before Spring had really hit, boys would bring out toys like Yo-yos, Tops, and Marbles in addition to the usual rubber balls.

Yo-yos might seem a bit boring — two disks of wood with a string wound between them going up and down, and up and down. However there were tricks to be done with them, all the standards like “the sleeper” and “walk the dog” and more and more complicated ones. But they always seemed to be about the same, especially in school. Watching “The Simpsons” episode where they had a Yo-yo demonstration team come to their school, the tricks are still the same after 45 years. (probably more?) There was even envy between kids when some would have brand new more expensive ones.

Sometimes it seems to me that Yo-yos alternated with Tops for popularity from one year to the next at our school. A top was either wood or plastic and sort of cone shaped with a replaceable plastic tip. You wrapped a string around it in a special way and threw it down to the ground — almost as if skipping a stone. The top would gyroscopically right itself and spin. Again sort of boring, but you could do tricks with these little gyroscopically spinning tops. Again there was envy about who had the best top. Again and again we’d spin them until the sharp point on the tip would be worn round on the pavement or concrete and we would have to replace them.

I know there are modern games using small tops in a plastic arena where kids see who can knock each other’s top out of the arena. I don’t ever recall there being “Battle” games with tops being spun into a ring of string, but figure some kids might have. I think the tops were too dear in price to us to ever think of risking losing them.

There were many games played with bouncing balls, there were air filled bouncing balls for playing games like dodge ball, four-square, and two-square. The later two are games played by bouncing balls from person to person staying within a grid of either 4 or 2 squares. Small sponge rubber balls either orange or blue and red with a white stripe around the middle would be bounced, tossed, put in stockings and spun in circles around ankles in a skipping sort of game, and used for bowling with plastic pins. I won’t get into other ball games like the formal ones with soccer, basketball, football, and baseball, because I’m talking about the games normally played before the fields were decent and we played on the paved and gravel school yard.

Being a guy I did forget to mention the skipping games. Please forgive me, but when I grew up at school most often boys and girls didn’t play much together and skipping was a game that the girls played. Four-square and two-square were nearly the only games we played co-ed. Girls used ropes and actual skipping ropes. They also as I mentioned put balls into the  toes of stockings and knotted the other end around an ankle. Then they would spin the ball around that foot and jump the spinning ball as it came around and around and around. Girls tended to be the ones more often with the orange rubber balls where as boys more often had the blue, white, and red ones. Girls would also take strings of rubber-bands to use for some odd games with either single or double string games with the bands around their ankles.

Marbles were the spring playground toy that reminded me of this all though. It was always simple to put a handful of marbles in your pocket and they were cheaper than tops or Yo-yos or even rubber balls. Marbles were something you could collect as well as play with. You could buy them and trade them, but you could also gamble them.

That was where a slippery slope entered in that was a slippery as the slick, wet, grassy, muddy one at the end of the school ground by the playground. There was a very fine line between playing games with marbles and gambling. I think perhaps the Principal and teachers were a bit unsure of the line… or perhaps they weren’t?

I think, to my own now adult mind, the line is fairly simple and has to do with whether you lose your marbles or not. I mean nearly all the students think at least some of the teachers lost their marbles some of the time, but, I mean if the students went home with all their marbles after a game it wasn’t gambling, but a game. Of course this precludes swapping marbles to get one you really wanted for a collection. There also always were the issues of kids giving away something of value too — not that this often came into play with regards to marbles… at least the marbles I recollected we played with. I don’t think many kids had their hands on semiprecious stone marbles or antique marbles.

On the other hand, teachers really had to keep their eyes open. I know in the spring kids would get their ideas to take a shoe box and cut hole in them of different sizes and write numbers over the holes. If you could shoot a marble through that hole you would get that many marbles, if you missed you forfeited your marble.

Now some would say: “Game of Chance” others would say “Gambling” while still others would say “Childish Fun”. I can recall the whole side of the school with a line of different “Games of Chance” set up. It seemed marvellous to me, like a miniature fairground. Of course I was a horrible aim and too attached to my marbles to risk any of them. But it was neat to see.

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7 Responses to All the Marbles

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