Although marbles has never been a major American sport, there are certain areas of the country that have become renowned for producing marble shooters of great skill. Sebastian County, Ark. is one of them, and when I was growing up in the '50s, the greatest shooter in Sebastian County was Bud Needham. I recall with barely diminished trepidation the day I faced him in a game of doogies (pronounced DOO-jees), as we often called marbles.
I tried to appear relaxed as Bud arched his hand slightly off the ground, took dead aim with his shootin' tall and fired a sizzling shot into the ring. He hit three of my cat's-eyes. The sound was crisp and solid and marbles flew in every direction. Two rolled outside the ring. He picked them up, and while he stuffed them in his bulging jeans pocket, he eyed the next shot.
His shootin' tall had remained inside the ring, and therefore he was entitled to another shot, this time from close range—an advantage he didn't need. J knew it was all over. Bud could shoot a doogie like a .22 rifle bullet and just as straight.
This confrontation took place back in 1956, in the first round of the sixth-grade marble tournament at Greenwood Elementary School. I'd had the misfortune of drawing Bud, the toughest kid in school and the only one I knew with hair on his chest. He had four brothers, and they were all just as rugged as Bud. They were from an honest, hard-working, coal-mining family, and my mama had taught three of them in the fifth grade and could vouch for their toughness. She also knew that Bud could shoot a marble like a bullet and that was one reason she didn't want me playing keeps with him. (Keeps was a more serious game than funnies, in which the marbles were given back after the game.) Mama didn't want me playing keeps with anyone. She was a staunch Southern Baptist and didn't like the idea of my playing what the preacher called "games of chance."
November 16, 1981
I said, "Mom, playing keeps with Bud Needham ain't a game of chance because I ain't got one."
Mama said, "Don't say ain't and don't play keeps with anyone, but especially Bud Needham."
Now if you think I might be exaggerating about Bud's being ahead of the rest of us physically, here are some additional facts to consider: In the sixth grade he started shaving twice a week. In the seventh grade he made first string on the junior high football team by putting the fear into ninth-grade halfbacks. In his sophomore year in high school he made first-string guard and was, perhaps, the only player in the history of Greenwood High to play every down of every game for three straight years.
My father, who coached the Greenwood Bulldogs for 38 years, said upon retirement, "Bud Needham was probably the toughest kid I ever had," which was saying something, because Dad had coached farm boys, hillbillies, coal miners and ex-Marines up there in the foothills of the Ozarks. (He saw some tough kids along the way, like the Powell boy who practiced football for two weeks before it was discovered he wasn't wearing socks in his hightop shoes because he didn't own any.)
So you see, Bud was special. When he played marbles he would place the shootin' tall between his right thumb and index finger and roll his wrist to the right like he was turning a doorknob. Then, with his hand palm up and the three free fingers pointing upward, he would close one eye. There would be a brief vibration in his hand, and...PING! The shootin' tall would spring across the ring scattering little specks of dirt and grass and smash into its target, knocking that marble out of the ring.
On more than one occasion Bud shot so hard the target marble exploded on impact. I swear on a sack of cat's-eyes. He would look at it with disgust, secretly proud of busting another one, while the other kids exclaimed, "Did you see that? Bud busted another one!"
My inferior ability as a marbles player was embarrassing. I hate to admit it to this day, but I shot like a girl. I couldn't seem to put any zing into my shootin' tall. I watched Bud intently, trying to figure out his secret. But no matter what technique I tried, my marble would roll lazily across the dirt ring, being bumped farther off course by every bit of gravel and twig it encountered. If by chance my shootin' tall hit the target marble, the marble usually stayed in the ring.
Doogie shooting was one of those things a kid wanted to do well in Arkansas. It was right up there with hauling hay, riding a bronco and cussing as a sign of incipient manhood. For a sixth-grade boy whose father was the high school football coach and former doogie-shooting champion of Milltown, Ark., it was downright shameful not to be able to really pop it. That's why I finally resorted to secret weapons—aggies and tater nobs.
I didn't play keeps until I discovered aggies and tater nobs. Before that, I told everyone that Mom, being as religious as she was, didn't allow me to play in games of chance, though the truth was I didn't play keeps because I wouldn't get to keep any. Then I came across an aggie, a big, heavy, agate-type marble about the size of a small golf ball. You could roll it like a bowling ball and knock marbles all over the place. Tater nobs were little mounds of dirt upon which you mounted the target marble. You couldn't miss. With the big aggie and tater nobs I started to wipe out the sixth grade. I learned to yell, "Aggies and tater nobs!" before my opponent could yell, "No aggies and no tater nobs!"
In this manner I talked Elmer Mac-Donald into playing a game of keeps and won a pocketful of marbles during the 10 o'clock recess. Then at noon I said to Kenny Bryan, a high-quality doogie player and a close friend, "Hey, let's play some keeps." Kenny was so shocked at my wanting to play keeps that he Said O.K. without outlawing aggies and tater nobs. I calmly said, "Ten up, and aggies and tater nobs allowed."
"Oh, come on!" he said disgustedly.
"I yelled first," I insisted. I rolled the old aggie like a bowling ball and proceeded to pocket about 25 new cat's-eyes.
That afternoon I walked home with the glorious sound of marbles clacking together in my pockets. They made a huge bulge in my jeans and caused them to sag. I kept pulling up my jeans and stroking those marbles.
"Son," said Mama when she saw the bulge in my pockets, "where did you get all those marbles? You haven't been playing keeps, have you?"
I had to admit that I had. "I won them fair and square," I said.
After a severe tongue-lashing, I was allowed to keep my stash. But about a week later my dad—with much encouragement from my mother, I imagine—organized the official sixth-grade tournament and brought out a genuine marbles' rule book. Just before the big game I was informed by my father that these rules didn't allow for tater nobs, rainbows, elbows and other tactics that were regarded as abominations by marbles purists. But the real killer for me was that no oversized shootin' tails were allowed. That meant the end of my aggie.
According to the book, the official ring was 10 feet across, two or three times larger than the customary Greenwood ring. I couldn't throw one that far, much less shoot it legally. So I secretly rooted for Bud to clean house so I wouldn't have to shoot in front of the crowd that had gathered.
And, sure enough, after that aforementioned opening shot, Bud settled into his routine and blasted marbles in all directions. He would shoot with such force and accuracy that his shootin' tall would hit the target and send that marble scampering across the dirt, while the shootin' tall spun in place, making a funny noise as it came to a stop. Thus, as a group of boys and a few girls looked on, did Bud Needham clear the ring.
"Aw shucks," I said, secretly relieved that I wouldn't have to attempt a shot across the 10-foot ring. Naturally, Bud won the tournament, and I later discovered that I wasn't alone in my fear of his bulletlike shots.
After that, marbles playing quietly disappeared from the scene. The guys in our class moved on to football, basketball, hot rods and girls. I haven't played doogies in a long, long time, but if I ever get the opportunity again, I shall certainly insist on aggies and tater nobs.