TWO BAGS FULL
September 6, 2016
The day I gave my father two bags of marbles, some thought it a little strange. The gift reflected the stories he shared. It seemed exactly right, on that occasion, to give him something time had taken. Very few memories my father shared told of his own father with less than heroism. Mostly, he told Depression survival stories.
I loved the stories he and my aunts told, but I didn’t understand why his always seemed radically different than the tales of his three sisters. The sisters tended to have a more consistent recollection. There were reasons I suppose. My father was a late child and the much hoped for boy. He was born after the family migrated west in the horrid Dust Bowl drought years and before the Depression set in. He was born in 1929 in urban California fully 15 years after his oldest sister was born in Nebraska farm country.
One of his rare regrets was the story of the marbles.
He learned to play with marbles while in grade school, maybe he was seven or eight. Children could come by a few marbles even in those days. If one didn’t have glass marbles, one could use ball bearings or even carve wooden balls. Innovation in manufacturing reduced glass marbles to inexpensive toys, but they were also magically colorful.
Marbles was the same game we played later in the 1950s. Players scratched a large circle in the dirt and each player put marbles in the center on a little mound. Players would shoot with one of their marbles to see who would be first up. The shooter marbles were a little bigger than regular marbles. The player whose marble came closest to the opposing arc without crossing was first up.
The object was to shoot from outside the circle and try to knock marbles out. Any marbles knocked out the player kept. Sometimes games were played just for fun or “funsies” and then the marbles were returned to their owners. It was unlikely that my dad played many funsies games.
He and his friends must have really liked playing marbles. “Keepers” games allowed young lads to start with next to nothing and acquire lots of marbles. An enterprising boy could become “rich” despite the raging Depression with its environment full of adult worries.
I remember my dad showing us how to hold the shooter, thumb carefully tucked under the ball. There was something about the colors or the “cat’s eye” too, but I can’t recall the meanings. He showed us how to lift our hands a little off the ground and flick the marble with just enough force to knock out three or four of the centered marbles. The real importance of that trick was that knocking marbles out also earned another turn. It was important to be first up. With skill and luck, one could collect all the marbles before another player had a turn. By the time we were playing in the 1950s, the post-war economy was much better and probably many more kids engaged in the game just for the fun because I certainly remember “funsies.” Good thing dad played funsies with us because he always won.
Twenty years earlier though, the game no doubt reflected the times as well. Natural hand-eye coordination and lots of practice meant that a competitive boy was not disadvantaged for long by fewer possessions, even if only marbles counted. Team play, two-by-two, further leveraged the advantage of skillful players. According to my dad, some of the most skilled players could hit and knock out centered marbles from six or seven feet out. A few of the boys could make their marbles stop short and spin after knocking out a marble. Almost magic it seemed, but it was really skill. The games became a source of pride and ownership when certainly those days must have held little enough of either.
Back then, another version was a kind of sporting game played indoors in pubs and stores. Such games were played by men with only time on their hands without jobs, substance, or hope. Bets were placed on the shooting marble and money laid on the floor, though one wonders where players came by such coin.
One day, my father recounted, he proudly showed bags of won marbles to his father who was available, being out of work and languishing on the porch. His father admired the collection and then asked to borrow it. A pickup game quickly materialized as several other men were commiserating on the porch at the time. Soon, to hear my dad tell it, he had no more marbles. He had a wistful, longing look in his eyes and said his father had lost them all, every one of them.
I felt sorry for my dad when he told that story. It was 50 years later and we were sitting by his pool in one of the wealthiest areas of northern California, but that look still lingered. His sisters had told of their father always drinking cheap red wine, and he was a lost soul after they moved. No farming in the city and no carpentry work to be had where nothing was being built. Dad never knew or missed the farm that dried up and blew away. He was born well after it was gone.
I found a variety store somewhere nearby, bought two large bags of marbles and gave them to dad. It seemed somehow sad that he carried that loss through half a century even though he had been so successful. I wanted to tell him it was time to let that one go. As far as I know, except for showing his own children how to play, dad never played with marbles again. He never bet on any games. He never really said much about his father. But, he never stopped wanting to win.