Many different ways to lose your marbles

WHEN rain clouds vanish and bright, blue skies take over, the glassy marble makes its welcome appearance.

WHEN rain clouds vanish and bright, blue skies take over, the glassy marble makes its welcome appearance.

Years ago I buried 150 glassy marbles in my mother’s back yard and I haven’t actively participated since. It was shortly after I donned my first long pants, and I daresay the burial of the marbles was a symbol of farewell to childhood, although I didn’t realise this at the time. For all I know, the marbles are still there and I sometimes wonder what the snails must think when they are unexpectedly stymied by this unnatural hoard.

In my day, red-and-white marbles were very much in demand and were called “dobbers” or “cleaners”. They were said to possess certain powers which green and blue marbles lacked. They were exactly the same shape and size as other marbles, but were prized more than any and had a fantastic exchange rate. There was no trouble in getting two or even three other marbles for a verified “cleaner” and I once saw a small penknife and a respectable wedge or slab of toffee exchanged for a red marble without the ordinary white stripes.

Those of us who have played marbles will have little difficulty in remembering the rules, but for the benefit of those whose education in this respect has been neglected, it might not be amiss to provide a few of the elementary rules.

The game itself is played by two opponents, and though it does not always call for a referee, it is always wise to have a third party present to ensure that the rules are fairly interpreted.

First of all, a marble is “put down” by A. B stands back about 10 feet and “pinks at it”. If he hits it he wins it outright, but if he misses A may pink at his. And so the games goes on until one party is cleaned out. Even then it may be revived, because “a stake” is always expected by the loser, particularly if he has lost a large number of marbles.

There are also some rather vague minor rules, which have often resulted in fist fighting and arguments, but it is not fair to put all the blame on the participants, since by the loose nature of their construction these amendments are too flexible to be decisive. Perhaps the most difficult amendment of all is the controversial “high knee” rule, which may come into operation when A’s marble narrowly misses B’s and comes to rest a foot or two away. By its proximity, it is almost certain that B will now easily annex A. Unless A calls out “high knee” before B can shout “no high knee”. If both shout together (which is often the case), it is left to the impartial onlooker to decide who called it first.

Impartial onlookers have never been renowned for courageous decisions, and the wise witness, unless he wants a black eye, will always favour the larger or more notorious of the two opponents.

“High knee” means that the shooter has to lift one leg high off the ground and “pink” from the top of the knee; but again this rule is often flouted by a wily opponent, who may suddenly decide that he has a sore leg and cannot lift it to the required height. In fact, I remember some renowned marble players who never began the game unless both knees were well endowed with sticking plaster. To pull the sticking plaster off a boy’s leg to find out if it was really sore is worse than calling him a liar and must result in a demand for satisfaction of a physical nature.

There were also the sharks who pretended to be very poor players and would allow an opponent to win a few marbles in the earlier rounds. They generally wound up by sinking the victim.

But the worst type of all were those who accidentally won several marbles in a row and had a small brother or sister conveniently say they were wanted home immediately. They were good actors and profuse in their apologies so that it was difficult not to believe them.

There was another type who always tried to edge a few feet nearer to his opponent’s marble. There are countless ways of doing this. He might pretend that there was an imaginary obstacle like an invisible pebble or a fragment of dust between him and his target. He would go forward to remove this, but on his return he would be a shade nearer. Sometimes he would prick his ears and pretend to be listening for something. Then he would strain his eyes and peer into the sky.

“Hi!” he would shout, “look at that for a size of an aeroplane.”

Of course, there was no aeroplane, but the diversion always gained him that vital extra foot.

The reason I write about marbles at all is that my young lad came home from school the other day and asked me for the loan of a bob. He put up a strong case and told me he wanted it for marbles. He settled for a tanner and went off excitedly. Needless to say, he was back immediately looking for the price of more.

I told him about the 150 I had buried 25 years ago, and he hurried to my mother’s back yard. He has been digging for two days now and has enlisted the aid of another boy, to whom he has promised to share. Their interest, however, is beginning to wane, and I have the feeling that the next request may be for a three-and-sixpenny plastic ball.