The world is in bad shape, brother. The world needs help, brother. Just look to the right or the left, and you know what the Captain is hollering about between the stutters of his Woolworth horn at a Broadway stakeout. Heck, he complains, this was once a prized territory: you could always get a decent piece of cheesecake at any hour and you seldom heard the clank of coin, only the silence of bills falling gently. Well, nothing is the same anymore, even for Salvation Army captains, not to mention summer and children and neighborhood games and the quality of jawbreakers.
For one thing, summers always seemed longer and hotter, the beaches more vacant and children more like children. Kids 10 years old seldom sound their age. They sound like they're 50 and have more opinions than a racetrack tout, like "Tell him, Billy, what you think about nuclear detente." Another thing, where have all the butterflies gone? They are rarely seen in large cities anymore and are vanishing from the suburbs as well. Lepidopterists in England did not see a single black and gold Chequered Skipper in all of 1973. The world is in bad shape, brother.
All of this brings us down to marbles, not the argot for brains but the real thing: perfectly round; so smooth; brilliantly colored; as precious to generations of children as any diamond. Has anyone seen a marble lately? Has anyone seen a marble in the hand of a kid? Most likely the answer is no, for the only things kids carry these days are transistor radios, slices of pizza and tickets to rock concerts. The marble belongs to a time that now seems otherworldly, when trees lined big city blocks as far as the eye could see, when barley soup was supper three times a week, when children had secret places.
True, but not absolutely so. Nothing is absolute in the U.S. of A., not even the decline and fall of marbles. That was evident recently in Wildwood, N.J., hard by the Atlantic Ocean and only a couple of steps removed from being an esthetic blight. Now, Wildwood is not a common name in seaside language, nor will you find it on any object fished out of a penny arcade claw machine, but three things made Wildwood, N.J. a subject of curiosity the other day: it had its first earthquake (a sudden tremor), an event quickly ignored because it would only produce bad publicity; it had the largest assemblage of elderly people (known offensively as Senior Citizens) ever beheld by the human eye; and it was the site of something called the National Marbles Tournament.
July 7, 1974
Scientists easily explained the quake, saying that something out there in the ocean slipped back into place after ten thousand years. One lovely and aged lady explained the presence of the Citizens. "Nobody else wants us," she said. "Nobody likes to look at or have old people around. We have to stick together." Fine, but nobody could figure out what the National Marbles was doing there, least of all the mayor of Wildwood who—if he does not exactly consider marbles anathema—would prefer that the players take their marbles and go somewhere else to play. The mayor likes conventions, he likes people with funny hats on—the fez kind—rolling up and down his boardwalk, he likes people who buy things.
"You mean to tell me that the mayor of this town doesn't like marbles?" the mayor's public relations man is asked.
"Well, I wouldn't say that," he says.
"Then the mayor is crazy about marbles, is that right?" he is asked again.
"No, I wouldn't say that."
"Well, what would you say?"
"I say we like publicity. We don't get any publicity out of this. We just get a lot of kids shooting marbles."
"The mayor doesn't like marbles?"
"The mayor hates marbles," he finally says, his voice moving into a higher octave.
The conversation seems a splice in the middle of a dream, a hazy film of a dream, the work of Bergman or Antonioni. The day is hot, the light as harsh as that which comes from an Algerian sun, and all around you are motels of bilious green or cheap pink. The verandas are stacked with old women knitting, or just talking over tinny tables, some with artificial flowers in the center. The boardwalk is a block away, and the first thing of note there is a sign saying that the lumber used in the redecking of the walk has been taken from the reviewing stand of Richard Nixon's 1973 inauguration. The mayor, among others, can be thanked.
Go on, and the senses are mugged. Noise blasts out of shops in the form of music of every persuasion, words stream from a hundred pitchmen waving their arms in front of rows of stuffed animals and garish figurines. The smells are those of onions, of hamburgers drowning in grease, of pizza curling at the edges on the counters. Here, in the middle of all this, between two giant amusement parks on piers that stretch out into the sea, is what remains of the lost world of marbles. Below on the beach and just off the boardwalk a handful of kids kneel on the edges of raised platforms knocking marbles out of a large green circle. The sea rolls in languidly. Click. Click. The old people, their eyes watery from the white glare, squint down at the kids. Click. Click. The sound of marbles, how familiar it once was.
The kids are precise, almost grim. A winner must knock seven of 13 marbles out of the 10-foot-diameter ring. Players can shoot continuously, as long as they bang a marble out of the ring and their taw (a big marble, a shooter) stays in the circle. The players are not contemplative; unblinking, their tongues clamped by teeth, they line up their shots and shoot in seconds. The boys are taciturn, given to brooding over failure, the loss of an edge. The girls are much more social, at ease, more inclined to inhale the wonderful craziness of it all. Escorts and officials provide the passion.
Nothing much is at stake, but adults can always find something to flame their aggressiveness. The big prize is a $600 college scholarship, and what has happened to those awards is telling. Not one champion has taken advantage of the scholarship. "They would prefer money," says one official, "but we won't allow it. Their parents would only take it and spend it." That explains much about the atmosphere in which marbles is played today. The game—what is left of it—belongs to the poor urban and rural areas, where a recreation center is an island of escape in the midst of drabness. But even in these centers, the game is hardly ever played.
The kids—30 of them this year—are not used to being the point of focus, in contrast to middle-class kids, who are always aware that they are the center of an intensive effort, that their happiness is a matter of great stakes. "Some of the kids," an official says, "have never seen the ocean, never stayed in a motel, hardly know much about anything." They have much in common with the generation of the '30s and World War II, when marbles were as treasured as a tar-taped baseball, a raggedy glove and a cracked bat made usable by nails and more tape.
Families then had no recourse to Dr. Spock and were not frantically striving to produce his near-perfect being. A kid was a kid—not the future of America in bold letters. Parents watched after his health, sent him to school, tried to give him three squares a day—and left him alone; he was an individual in the best sense of the word. For a treat there were the bleachers at the ball park, or a Saturday afternoon with Gabby Hayes or Buck Jones and an all-day lunch at the movies. Parents were not entertainment directors, nor did they feel guilty for not making every hour their young spent memorable.
Ennui was seldom in the air in the old neighborhood, whether it was street blocks with a maze of alleys and vacant lots or a country field. One of the saddest complaints to be heard from a kid is that he or she is bored. If you were bored in that other time, well, that was your problem; kids without imagination were not suffered long. There were games to be played, and children who knew how to play them gloriously—by themselves, without mouthy adults nearby grappling with identity crises.
Group play then had no supervision, and very few rules, and those that did exist changed by the moment. It was usually at the shank of the dying day when play climbed to its highest pitch, as if everyone was trying to drain the last full measure of joy before dark, when voices would cut through the night: "Boy, where are you? You come in here right this minute!" There was no specific time for play to begin, but the young seemed to gather by means of the mysterious signals of childhood. One by one they would turn up, going their own ways and to their own amusements.
Streetlamps cast light over the sidewalk, and even now the shadows of the tiny figures move through the mind with a strange reality. And the singsong chants of the girls jumping rope still carry with them a sweet poignance:
I had a little brother,
His name was Tiny Tim,
I put him in the bathtub
To teach him how to swim.
He drank up all the water,
He ate up all the soap,
He died last night
With a bubble in his throat.
Any time, of course, was right for marbles, but winter was cruel. Fingers moved reluctantly into position, the wind blew stingingly across the vacant lot and one's will could be sapped rapidly; winter was clearly a time when form did not hold. Summer was the best, the time when a player's finest stock was brought out: shooters of exotic colors, looking as if they contained mysteries known only to their owners; big bags full of marbles won from previous campaigns, now to be used for a season to end all seasons. If the knees of your pants held out, if your thumbnail could take it, why, could greatness be far off?
This year Pittsburgh—always dangerous in the National Marbles Tournament—provided the finalists, Susan Regan, 13, and Larry Kokos, 14. It was the first time in 14 years for a boy-girl match, and it was not achieved without turbulence. When told of the arrangement, some male players sulked, and one member of the executive committee said he would relinquish his chair. ITT saved the day; a spokesman said the company would not be involved in any discriminatory practices. Being the sponsor (the company's range of interests is endless) ITT brooked no back talk.
Larry Kokos, tall, dark and angular and wearing a Budweiser sun visor (page 25), went on to win the overall title. He was quite proficient. He had long, lean hands, which are helpful in marbles. He could put English on his shooter, so much so that first it would do a pirouette and then go to its position as if it were on a string; a player who can gain position consistently is not to be fooled with. Larry kissed the girl, the mayor gave a speech, the few old people left continued to stare and they were still there looking out toward the quiet sea when the kids were gone.
Thoughts chase each other through the mind. It was good that poor kids could leave the gray vise of the city for a few days because of a marbles tournament. But of all games, marbles should never be organized. It belongs to other summers, filled with games like prisoner's base, kick the can, to solitary hours when you merely climbed a tree, watched a spider spin a web across a dusty window, tossed a ball aimlessly against a factory wall or took a streetcar to the other end of town. Those summers exist now only in memory, and perhaps they were not as golden as they appear from a distance. But dumb toys, given too freely, and the adult frenzy to organize everything, will never replace them, for there were no child sophisticates then, and you could get distance out of a good jawbreaker, and most of all there was a beautiful aloneness to it.