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Marbles in the News

Shooting marbles may be a thing of the past, but principles remain the same
Original Publication Date: January 17, 2008. Published in "The Carmi Times," a Carmi, IL newspaper
I was having a conversation with Bill Collard of Carmi the other day and he was telling me all about shooting marbles when he was a kid.

It made me think that even in today's technology-saturated world, the game of marbles may be a thing of the past, but the principles remain the same.

What principles? Two come immediately to mind; competition and being rewarded for playing well.

Playing marbles dates back to at least the days of the Roman Empire and still survives in some parts of the world today where more expensive, technologically advanced gaming systems aren't as readily available.

Bill, who is 78, said he grew up on Olive Street on Carmi's south side. He can remember a lady named Mrs. Brashier who owned a large lot across from where he lived. The lot included a large barn ("Everyone, even in town, owned animals," he said) and an area that was shaded by a number of trees.

"That [shaded] part of the lot was very level," he said. "It made for a perfect location to play marbles. You know, it really hurt me years ago when they tore that old home place down."

Bill said he was still very young, but he remembers a family named Koontz that rented the house on the large lot. The "older" boys would gather in the shaded area and draw out a "pretty good-sized circle" to begin their marble game.

The object, as Bill explained it, was to put some marbles in the center of the circle, then use a "shooter" marble, sometimes called a "taw," to "shoot" at the marbles in the center. The shooter could keep any marbles knocked out of the circle. This was called "playing for keeps" or "keepsies." I suppose another term that originates from this game is "have you lost your marbles?". I suppose that the game was so popular, others considered you a little "nutty" if you didn't have any marbles with which to play.

Bill said some of the better shooters were in his day were guys like "Snuffy" Stroughmatt, Randall Anselment, "Sleepy" Marlin and "three or four of those Koontz boys."

Bill recalled going to the "Innovation," a marble-floored store with a soda fountain that hosted Saturday night dances and had a bakery that sold fresh doughnuts (something I, personally, miss in Carmi).

"If you bought a loaf of bread at Innovation, you got four marbles with it," Bill recalled. He also recalled impromptu intramural matches in town. "Sometimes, the north end boys [including 'Huck' Cleveland and others] would come over and play the south end boys," Collard told me.

Then, he laughed and added, "Sometimes, though, that just ended up in a fight."

Steelies, of course, were banned.

Jim Rockett of Enfield, my maternal grandfather, said many different types of marbles were used when he played as a kid in Springerton. "Steelies were banned there, too," he said when I told him what Bill had said. Some, he said, were called "aggies." There were many other names for the marbles, depending on the material from which they were made.

Carl McVey, who had been listening in on my conversation with Bill Collard, said he, too, played marbles as a kid growing up on the Illinois side of the river across from St. Louis.

"Marbles, early on, weren't that fancy," he said. "Then, as the fancier ones came out, guys really competed for them because they were considered collectors' items."

Carl also lamented, "Of course, you always had that one guy show up with a great big bag of marbles - just to show you how good he was." The big bag was claimed bounty from games of "keepsies."

Which was what led me to my thoughts about competition and rewards for playing well. My son got an X-Box 360 for his birthday and his Uncle Andy bought him a membership in the X-Box Live community for Christmas. The X-Box Live means my son can log on to the internet on his X-Box and play a game called "Call of Duty 4" in a rather expansive "back yard."

I must admit, I enjoy the game, too, and find it quite addictive. Back on topic, the system of reward is based on the rank structure of the U.S. Marine Corps. Everyone starts out as a private, but one can eventually work their way up to general by completing missions and, basically, killing a lot of enemies.

But it's the same principle - when one logs on to a game and sees a competitor with general's stars and you're wearing a set of lance corporal's chevrons - well - it's like seeing what Carl McVey described - that kid with the big bag of marbles, showing you just how good he is before he ever plays the game.

The other principle is competition. As some schools and recreational leagues do away with declaring a winner in a competition, it's no longer a competition. I don't think X-Box would be very successful if each round didn't end with a clear winner.

Most of the players are male, and I think that's because males are driven to compete. Taking competition out of school sports, I think, is a mistake and goes against our nature. I know it's no fun to lose, but we're not teaching kids anything about life, and just how rough it can be, if we don't let them lose sometimes.
This submission was made by Peter Caparelli (NY, NY) on February 2, 2008

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