Brooklyn Boro

Losing Your Marbles

"In every neighborhood there was a marble king."

March 10, 2021 William A. Gralnick
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There were many a game played on the streets before electronics filled those streets with kids looking down while they were walking. We’ve recalled the ones played with a Spauldeen, or Pinky if you prefer, including stickball, the king of them all.

We’ve covered the games of imagination, mostly cowboy and Indians. There is one however the sticks out because it had no pink balls attached to them, only glass ones. It was marbles and this is about the ending of it reign as a game played in the dirt of Waldorf Court.

It was clearly a replay of David vs. Goliath, but let me take you to the stage and take you back even to the production notes that set the stage.

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On my dead-end street, Waldorf Court, Flatbush, Brooklyn, each house had a front yard, a back yard, and at least one tree that grew in Brooklyn. Between the house and the street were two things. One was the sidewalk, used as previously described, for a lot more than walking. The other was a rectangle of space roughly the length of the houses’ front yards. These held the aforementioned tree and grass. That is except for a house across the street.

Number 23 didn’t look like most all the other Victorian style homes. It had an enclosed front room added to it. And it had no grass in that space that had no name. Instead of grass it had dirt–dry, dusty, fine silt dirt. Mud when it was wet but when dry, it made for a perfect place to shoot marbles. Marbles?

Here is a game that has gone the way of many that take time, strategy, and patience to play. The game pieces were, well, marbles. Back in the day kids collected marbles. They were so popular you could buy them at the candy store—that ubiquitous neighborhood institution that sold a zillion more things than candy. They came in plastic packs and cost about a quarter. These round pieces of glass came in solid colors, clear, and swirling patterns. Like baseball cards, they were usually not bought for quantity, but for the hopes of finding the unusual, the odd, or the rare. Most prized were cat’s eyes but more than those were those that had a thin line that ran straight through the middle. They had a name—like many things it is long gone from the memory bank.

The game itself was a ground-level cross between shuffle board, poker and pool. The table was this dry, silt covered rectangle. Instead of six pockets there was one “pot,” a concave space at one end of the field. The balls were the marbles. Replacing the cues or sticks were one’s thumb and fore-finger. The object? Hitting one’s opponents’ marbles on the way to sinking one’s own marble into the pot. At the end, it was winner take all, a game of strategy to place your marble where it couldn’t be hit but in a place where it might be more likely to be used to hit the other. The winner “took the pot.” That meant winning all the marbles from the other guy—and for some reason it was always a guy. The girls, even then, weren’t often about to kneel down in the dust and then compound the idiocy by putting their hands into it.

And that you had to do. To “flick” a marble, one balanced it on the first digit of the forefinger and propelled it with a—yes—flick of the thumb. The rest of the fingers had to be held tight and parallel, seated flat, resting on the field. If they were not, you were cheating and could forfeit the match. Depending on the play, one “cunny-thumbed it,” hitting it gently, or one “let-it-rip,” propelling it far across the field of play. On a good day, one left a game of marbles excreting dust from one’s sneakers, pant cuffs, knees if wearing shorts, hands and forearms. Add hair if it was windy.

“This,” you say, “makes no sense?” I’ve just told you that two kids are inhaling dust into everything that will hold it to shoot little round glass balls with their fingers at other little glass balls for the prize of taking home more little glass balls than they started with. And you expect it to make sense? Come now.

In every neighborhood there was a marble king, a champ who most always won and whose collection of marbles was so large that on non-competition days others went to his house to ogle them. Marbles, again like baseball cards were traded both for uniqueness and for advantage. Some marbles made better shooters than others. “Nonsense,” you say? 

“See previous paragraph,” I retort.

In my neighborhood it was King George. King George had a five gallon tin trash can brimming with marbles. He also had large, strong fingers. When he deigned to play, which wasn’t often, he was near invincible. Until he wasn’t.

The set was the OK Corral of marbles. King George had called for a round-robin winner take all. Near the end of the afternoon he had taken everyone’s all but mine. How he did this was what made him fearsome.

You see there was no rule book definition of what constituted a marble. If it was round and glass it was a marble, even if you took it off the top of a light fixture and it was half again as big as a golf ball. With his strong hands and thick fingers he truly rolled over the competition. Finesse was not an issue. All one’s marble had to do was make a loud enough click to be heard and the clicked marble was yours. With “Big Bertha” all he needed to do was come close. Goliath rolled on.

I however, had other ideas. The “no definition” cut both ways. I had found a blue marble about the size of a pea, nick-named of course “Pee-Wee” after the Brooklyn Dodger short-stop of the same nick-name. In order to hit it one had to have a direct hit. Also it was so small that unless one did roll right over it one would never hear a click. David had arrived; he (it?) would rise to the challenge.

I no longer recall how many marbles were put in the center for the break. The King took at least half of them on the first roll. I had a harder time because unless well “thumbed” pee-wee would get lost in the dust, stopped by a ripple in the dirt. Flicked too hard it would take off, flying over the very marbles it was to hit. By and by though two were left in the dust ready to be battled with. 

For a while it was a dust-up. King George kept missing my pee-wee and in returning fire, my pee-wee kept drawing more dust than marble. Then it happened. The King had a near miss leaving me with a “can’t miss.” David again triumphs!

This silly but true story, dear reader, had a “be careful what you wish for” ending. King George was deposed. “The King is dead! Long live the King.” I assumed that throne. That match however effectively ended the Waldorf Court Marble 500. No one else had any marbles and for reasons of age or just plain moving on no one was going to hit the candy store for a new store of glass globes. I now had five plus gallons of marbles in a canister I could barely lift.

But lift it I did. Carry it triumphantly across the street (or as triumphantly as one can look trying not to get a hernia) I did. Schlep it up the seven steps of the house I managed. I had my treasure but I couldn’t get it through the front door so I used my knee to support it from underneath, used my arms to keep it from tipping left or right (imagine trying to round up a thousand or more marbles each looking to up-end some poor unsuspecting neighbor trudging home from work), and poked the doorbell with my nose.

To the rescue came my mother who looked at me, looked at my stash, and said, “What the hell do you think you are going to do with those?”

You know—I didn’t know. I had no answer.

For all I know now they are still in the attic of # 12, sold some 45 years ago where I deposited them just barely avoiding an early heart-attack in getting them up there.

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