“Three and your toll!  Three and your toll!” said the crier. A nearby competitor offered only two.

Akro agates, mfd. 1920-1951

“Quick decision, assess carefully,” said your mind. “Lookit how small and shallow the hole is, its slanted sides, number of trenches protecting its perimeter, and how far back the lagging line is.” Skill and derring-do matter, but no more than luck. “Can I do it? Am I good enough? Do I have enough marbles to risk? Can I win more easily at the hole with less reward?”

Ah, the fast-paced child’s game of “lagging” with marbles, and always the go-to at recess. Quick game, quickest way to build up a marble collection – or deplete it. A pretty simple game that nonetheless required some skill and confidence. One enterprising boy would dig a small, cup-sized hole and then offer rewards to those who pitted their skill against his construction. If your marble – your “toll” – tossed from a specific line some paces away (typically 5-10 feet away), rolled into and stayed in the hole, you’d win what he offered – three marbles plus your toll back. He kept everything that missed. So if it took you 15 marbles to find your range, then you needed to hit the jackpot, so to speak, five times in order to break even.  Gambling?

Refinements to the lagging hole included making it smaller — or larger and much shallower — with gentle sides, cutting little trenches in front and alongside the hole as barriers, and trash-talking the participant about his lack of skill.

Girls weren’t prohibited, but I don’t remember any in our elementary school or neighborhood ever playing. Knew better than to sully themselves with rowdy boys’ silly games? You decide.

“Marbles,” the generic category. Ringers, chase, lagging – some of the games; steelies (shiny ball bearings), cateyes, agates and log rollers (over-sized marbles), the tools of art.

Cateyes of the ’50s

Hours and hours spent on knees, wearing holes in our jeans and eventually sporting sewn-on (early days) and then iron-on patches (modern contrivances) over those holes to extend the life of the jeans. And ALWAYS a well-worn bare spot in the front yard of at least one boy’s house in the neighborhood, evidence of serious addiction.

Grimy, earth-stained knuckles on the back of the shooting hand and bulging jeans pockets were also clues of advanced involvement. We’d show up with front pockets loaded with marbles at school (or church, if parents were permissive — or unaware), ready to play before, at recess and lunch, and after. Dare not let them escape your pocket during class or church, though!  In the days of wooden floors in sanctuaries and classrooms, official confiscation was immediate and sure, along with corporal punishment and a note home — guaranteed.

Players’ rules were atop the pecking order in all marble games, though they varied from yard to yard, neighborhood to neighborhood, school to school, even day-to-day, and were based on the players’ skills and previous experience, plus their acquired knowledge of the other players’ reputations. So agreeing on “the rules” usually involved lots of haggling and protests of “not fair,” but if you wanted to play the game, you had to go by the rules, SOMEONE’S rules. If you didn’t like those rules, better use your powers of persuasion to enlist enough guys to start a new game with the critical mass necessary for fun. Not unlike the “game” of business and life in general, come to find out.

Common rules included “liners are inners” (or “outers,” alternatively), “no steelies allowed” and “no slippies!” So many times, a boy would poise to shoot, only to have the marble slip and trickle out without any force. If you hadn’t called “no slippies” before the game, then he’d yell “slippies!” and would get another chance at the shot.

Playing “chase” was a way for two or more kids to have fun with marbles. Just shoot your marble off the line and then pursue the other players’ marbles through the grass and dirt. If you were good enough or lucky enough to hit someone else’s marble with your shot, it was “captured’ and you were its new owner.

Morabito, Rocco. Concentration, a young boy playing marbles – Jacksonville, Florida, 1961. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Transportation of one’s marble stash was an issue to be reckoned with. With jeans pockets maxed out, the serious marble player found a sack or bag of some sort to tote his treasure. I remember graduating to a canvas bank bag, olive-drab in color, that had a drawstring top, courtesy of First National Bank of Fort Smith. My initials were scrawled by my hand in ink on the top. Large enough to hold about a quart in volume, the bag was originally made to carry coins from business to bank. But ideal, in a kid’s marble world, for toting the rewards of play.

“Ringers” was the game of choice in my circle of friends. We started by scratching out a large circle in the dirt with a stick.  Then each boy would have to drop in the agreed ante in marbles all at once, letting them fall where they would. If they stayed in the circle, they were fair game, but if they fell outside the circle, you had to re-drop them inside. When all players anteed up, the shooting began based upon a predetermined order reached by a separate competition like lagging to see who got closest to another line scratched in the dirt, or odd-manning by drawing straws, flipping a coin, or rock-paper-scissors.

The object: by firing his shooting marble, fixed between thumb and forefinger, from anywhere along the outside of the ring, the player attempted to knock all the marbles out of the ring, one at a time. No “fudging” was allowed –no sneaking your hand slightly into the circle to gain an unfair advantage – and if you fudged, you lost your turn. As long as you knocked a marble out, you got to keep shooting until you missed. And if your shooting marble stuck inside the ring when you knocked another out, you gained the advantage of being closer to your target. We all hoped to “stick,” and certain marbles were believed to have greater stick-ability. If you had a “sticker” and the skill to use it well, you could fill up your marble sack pretty quickly. Your sticker became your “doogie” (not the same definition as the modern Urban Dictionary). Hence, we sometimes invited play by saying, “Hey, wanna shoot some doogies?”

If you missed your shot, the next person in order would shoot, and so on until all the marbles were knocked out of the ring. Any marbles you knocked out became yours, so the object was to “go for all the marbles.”

Marbles by star1950 on Flickr

All sorts of shooting innovations were imagined and tried, always causing a proliferation of new rules designed to counter them in the next game. One such invention was to stack your shooting hand on top of your non-shooting hand elevated off the ground in spider fashion, in order to be able to shoot downward at a sharp angle with the hope of being more likely to stick in the ring. It didn’t take long for prohibitions like “no steelies” to preempt those who wanted to use shiny ball-bearings as shooters because of their extra heft and durability.

Other difficulties could be introduced through making larger rings (thus requiring harder, better shooting) and putting various trenches inside the circle to deflect shots. But if you created a circle like that, you usually weren’t going to have very many players for very long.

Child-play without electronics, … back in the good ol’ days. Get some kids in the great outdoors today, and they’ll still invent games to engage each other. Just sit back and watch the fun as they “go for all the marbles,” then consider a big reduction in screen time — yours and theirs. Just sayin’ …!

Carpe diem. Vita brevis!

© December 7, 2016, by Michael E. Stubblefield. All rights to my original work reserved.


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