The following is first draft text of a few stories in the middle of my memoir, not stand alone stories. Not everything mentioned is explained, or explained fully, because it would have been explained elsewhere prior. The first two stories are technical background information for the last two, which are the ones with a human angle, which is the reason for me writing the memoir. They will likely be cut quite a bit ultimately. However, the details in this draft will be valuable for my own records, at least, if not more elsewhere.
Names with asterisks* are aliases, with the asterisk only denoted upon first mention of the name.
There was no real variety to marbles in Viet Nam. All were the same sized ball of glass with similar colours inside. By contrast, marbles in Canada came in a range of designs, colours, and sizes. The different types of marbles were worth different values, which anyone playing marbles had to know in order to play.
In Viet Nam, all the marbles my friends and I had access to under Communist rule were almost identical. They were worth the same value, as a result. It doesn’t take an adult to understand why that is. Not so at Titus Smith School, and probably across much of Canada, where marbles came in a variety of looks. As a result, each type was worth a different, universally agreed upon value, the way different looking coins have different, universally agreed upon values. Marbles, in the context of the game, had its own currency.
Marbles currency was based on the unit value of what most people would think of as a typical marble. It’s a small ball of glass with two wavy, leaf like sheets of differing colours inside sharing a common central axis where they intersect almost perpendicularly. This typical marble was appropriately called a Plain, and had the unit worth of 1, like a North American penny was the unit worth of its currency system. All the other marble types were worth some whole number multiple of the Plain, like how other coins in the North American money system were whole number multiples of the penny. By this currency analogy, in the set of marbles currency I knew that was used at Titus Smith School in the early 1980s, there were the following marble types:
Typical glass with different colours inside
A Plain where all the strands on the inside were the same colour
Plain sized, white, with some red and blue paint swirls dissolved into the white background
Coloured glass without any colours on the inside
A Plain that was about 1.5 times wider than the Plain
Cat’s Eye Doughboy
Doughboy sized Cat’s Eye
A Plain that was just over twice as wide as the Plain
Doughboy sized Pretty
Jumbo sized Crystal
The Marbles Money system was a rational system up to the Crystal Jumbo. That should have been worth 300 Plains, if the valuation system for other marbles had been kept, with worth determined by design multiplied by size [e.g., Pretty Doughboy = values of Pretty x Doughboy = 5 x 10 = 50]. However, Marbles Money was a practical system since you would have to ante up a lot of marbles against a player anteing up a Crystal Jumbo in a match, if you didn’t ante up one yourself. Also, while I have zero idea of the marbles economics at the time, I suspect Crystal Jumbos were either not that expensive to purchase, or were that rare in a bag to be worth 300 Plains. In other words, economic market rules determined the Crystal Jumbo’s value in Marbles Money.
For reasons not known to me, there were no marbles of some designs in the bigger sizes, like Crystal and Cat’s Eye Jumbos, and Pretty Jumbos. I don’t know why that was. I just never saw them.
The rules for playing marbles in Viet Nam were simple compared to those at Titus Smith School, probably because we did not have that much land to use in Viet Nam.
In Viet Nam, playing marbles was a simple affair. You found a patch of flat ground two to three metres long, with some dirt so you could make a bowl like hole in one end and draw a line at the other. Two players each anted up a Plain, or two for a big risk match since we did not have many marbles in the Communist era, to decide what was at stake. Prior to the match, each player tossed a marble towards the hole from behind the line to decide who would go first in an alternating order of play. The player getting his/her marble closest to the hole decided that order. Toss do overs were done if it were not clear whose marble was closest, or if the second tossing player’s marble hit the first tossing player’s marble. This rule made it matter little who tossed first in the determination of who started the match.
The match started with the players tossing their marbles on to the ground. Players took alternating turns making shots to try and get marbles into the hole, unless a marble was potted into the hole, at which time the player doing so got another shot immediately. Shots were a quick push of the marble using the thumb side of the pointing finger’s middle or tip knuckle, with the finger curled or straight as the rest of the hand was balled up like a fist. They were made after squatting down, or bending over, to get the pointing finger used to almost touch the ground. Prolonged contact with the marble in making the shot, as if dragging your hand to guide the marble over a distance, could be protested to be done over, or nullify the match to return marbles to their owners. Otherwise, the match ended when the last marble went into the hole, with the winner being the player who shot it in, taking all the marbles anted up for the match That was all there was to it!
Rules for playing marble at Titus Smith School, by contrast, had a plethora of rules compared to the Vietnamese marbles I played. The ground space was similar, except we tended to have at least four or five metres of length at Titus Smith on the long patch of flat ground besides the school. For some matches, we had ten or more metres of space, depending how many people were playing at the time and how challenging the players wanted to make the match. Holes and tossing lines were similar to those for marbles in Viet Nam, though we did not cover up other holes in the area of play at Titus Smith. The different number of games possible in that area which could allow for many games at once meant there were many holes. It was just going to be extra work to cover up holes in your area of play, only to have others make more holes later when there weren’t enough holes for games to be played. Popular as marbles was at Titus Smith School, I don’t ever recall being cramped to space the size on which I played marbles in Viet Nam.
Anteing up marbles for the match was no different than doing so in Viet Nam, other than that we had a larger marbles currency system to use at Titus Smith School. So long as each player among two, though occasionally three or four, anted up the same value of marbles, it didn’t technically matter what marbles each used. Think of it as anteing up the same amount of money in any denomination, whether two dimes or 20 pennies. Practically, some configurations were refused for making the game too long. Imagine you anteing up a Crystal Jumbo for the match, while your opponent opted for the equivalent value using 60 plains. It would take a long time, not to mention a big hole, to sink 61 marbles!
Between turn taking and initial determination of order of play, the only difference between marbles I played in Viet Nam and at Titus Smith School was that there was no one rule for determining order of play. There were several options among which players could choose together. When more than a handful of marbles were involved, it didn’t really matter who went first. Too many marbles were in play for anyone to lose the match in going second at the start. Otherwise, courtesy was used, sometimes by history of previous matches involving the players, as to who decided order of play, or had what order of play, in the previous time the players played. The relatively vast space made it difficult to lose on the first turn after the marbles were dropped, for going later than first, and one could always request a rematch if one felt the loss was due to the order of play. That request was often granted, even if not always on the same playing session.
The objective and outcomes of marbles matches at Titus Smith School were the same as in Viet Nam. Sink the last marble of those anted up and win the entire batch. Where the game and rules got interesting compared to the game I played in Viet Nam, were with the shots required to be made. While they were properly called shots, I will call them maneuvers to avoid confusion with the second of two maneuvers in each player’s turn that was called a shot.
For each turn, a player was required to do two maneuvers, a bucksey, followed by a shot. The second was exactly like shots I made playing marbles in Viet Nam, so nothing interesting there. What was interesting was the bucksey… or at least that’s what the now adult kids told me it was called after all these years. Yet, no word spelled out to sound like bucksey that I could think of [bucksey, bucksy, bucksie, buk variations] escaped spellcheck flagging. My marbles playing friends are right, though, of course. After all, they had taught me the word they knew and used. I’m just a little surprised none had ever corrected me when I would have said it incorrectly. That’s because I had always thought bucksey was actually two acceptable words: pucksey, with the first syllable being like the puck used hockey that was the Canadian national sport; and pudsey, the last name of the teacher I had when I first learned to play marbles in Canada. Pucksey and pudsey both sounded like what my marbles playing friends said, so I thought both were acceptable. I had been newly enlightened to ice hockey and its place at the core of Canadian culture, and the fact that many Canadian last names were of things, unlike Vietnamese last names, so both pucksey and pudsey seemed plausible. I actually thought pudsey was the more plausible of the two because marbles was one of the few things that transcended, both, Canadian and Vietnamese cultures in my pre-adolescent world at the time. I thought it was a rather noble last name to have, being something in such a game I loved that was worldly!
Mullings from reflections on the word bucksey, and its actual spelling, aside, what really interested me in that marbles playing maneuver as a kid was that it used my feet. I’ll describe it using compass directions instead of geometrical concepts for ease of understanding, with assumption of footwear on feet. If you wanted to make the marble travel north with your bucksey, you either pointed your left foot east, or your right foot west, and put the outside of your forefoot next to the marble. That was your plant foot, and it was usually on the opposite side of your dominant hand, so left foot for a right hander like me. Your other foot was your kicking foot, which you lined up beside your plant foot before making the movement that generated the bucksey. You did that by opening your kicking foot leg to the south, before swinging back north to make contact with the inside of your plant foot. To get more power with your bucksey, at the furthest point of your kicking foot swing, you would turn the tip of that foot northward, and bring it to kick your plant foot at a point just off the inside of the tip of the kicking foot, rather than using the entire side of your kicking foot otherwise. You don’t hit the plant foot with the tip of the kicking foot because that would require you to turn your kicking foot north from its natural position pointing east or west, probably breaking your ankle in the process. To get more directional control, swing the point of contact as best you can along the north-south line running through the marble and its desired destination. Power control, meanwhile, can only truly learned through experience, aside from advice not to kick too violently. That’s because your plant foot doesn’t move north evenly upon being kicked, the way a plow would move north. Your plant foot swings from near your heels upon being kicked on the inside forefoot, so you to keep your balance. Too violent a kick means you will be kicking the marble west of north as your plant foot swings counterclockwise on the compass. That was unless you kicked on the west side of the ideal north-south line, in which case your marble would go east of north. Neither is good, of course. Power is nothing without control, and I learned it at a very young age through the bucksey in playing marbles… even if I couldn’t articulate it at the time.
With the power potentially involved in the bucksey maneuver that could jettison a marble past the playground fence, or into the area of another match, players had the option to request for what was called rabbit ears when they attempted a bucksey. Rabbit ears were a V-shaped feet configuration another player made, heel to heel facing you as you prepare your bucksey, directly behind the hole from your point of view. That is, if the line connecting your marble and the hole ran north, rabbit ears would be like arrow tips acting like a wall just beyond the hole. It was your control for too much power, to put the marble back into hole should you have too much. It was also your margin of error for control, keeping the marble near the hole for you to use your shot that came after the bucksey to get the marble in, if not direct the marble in like a banked basket in basketball.
Use of rabbit ears varied in marble matches. Some matches didn’t allow them, as agreed upon by the players. Other matches only allowed on buckseys, while the remaining allowed them on, both, buckseys and shots. In matches allowing rabbit ears, they were optional on each maneuver, usually out of courtesy to save your opponent from going to set up when you were not planning to do a maneuver you felt needed rabbit ears. An example could be after a bucksey of the last marble in play didn’t get that close to the hole, you opt to push it away rather than leave it close in a miss, after which your opponent would have an easy time potting that last marble and win the match.
Overall, rules for marbles at Titus Smith school were generally just more complex variations of the rules for marbles I played in Viet Nam, except for that bucksey maneuver in a turn that also came with rabbit ears to control its consequences. However, that shot, the skills required for it, the umpteenth levels of complexity added to the marble matches I had known in Viet Nam, were what really interested me in marbles at Titus Smith School. Looking back now, given my history with the game, interest was the wrong word to describe it. Passion, would have been the more correct word. But before I could play marbles, I had to figure out how to get some marbles with which to play. The cost of a bag of marbles then, one dollar for 100 Plains, if memory served, fed someone back in Viet Nam probably for a day at the time, if they ate was we did in Canada, Poor as we were, we sent what we could back to extended family still there. We were rich here, compared to them!
How do you get something without anything to give for it? At the age of nine, I knew of begging, stealing, scavenging, and hoping to be given it. Praying for a mere marble was overkill, to either the Buddha or my new Jesus option. I knew what I would and would not do among those options, but would time change my mind if I could not get what I want in time?
As the patch of dirt beside Titus Smith Elementary School became visible on a continuous basis during the spring of 1981, some kids brought out marbles to play. Long bored of playground team tag by now, and having played marbles before in Viet Nam, I opted to watch the kids play marbles rather than participate in team tag with friends I knew best. What I found was a game, and world, very different from the equivalent I knew of in Viet Nam.
The initial draw to marbles for me were the different types of marbles they had in Canada, and that bucksey maneuver the kids at Titus Smith School used to move marbles in the match. The match excitement, outcomes, players involved, and other marbles related things didn’t interest me much. I remember asking the kids to see marbles they had in their bags, and examining select marbles the way I later saw some gemologists examine the degree of perfection in diamonds. I also remember watching the kids do many buckeys, analyzing what went wrong with the bad ones, of which there were plenty. That was how I was able to explain the bucksey techniques with the precision of a manual for engineering something, and how I am still able to do it decades later today. By contrast, I don’t remember any who played, anybody who won, how anybody won, how often anybody won, or any other such details. It was really all in the marbles and the bucksey.
My interest in watching marbles was sparing at first, with my team tag friends inviting me to join in the latter when I arrived at school. As fun as they were to be with, I usually only took up their invitation so they could have an even number of players to have two balanced teams, not because I was more interested in playing team tag than watching other kids play marbles. I played team tag out of a sense of duty on those occasions, in other words. That was until I showed up at school a tad earlier than usual one day, before team tag started, and there were kids already playing marbles. I went to watch the kids playing marbles, and never got asked to play team tag. It wasn’t that my team tag playing friends didn’t care for me. Rather, they were generally respectful, and inclusive. They didn’t try to pull anybody from doing whatever they were doing, unless they looked like they wanted to play. That was how I had gotten invited initially, after all. On the other hand, they never turned down anyone who wanted to join, at any point in the game, even if that meant unbalancing balanced teams so that one now had an extra member due to the odd number of players now with the latest person, or odd number of persons in a group, joining. Those tag team playing friends were really the nicest friends anyone could have ever asked for.
As for the marbles playing kids, I didn’t really know any of them well. I knew who a few were from having been in the same class with them, or having done something together in a large group by happenstance, rather than doing anything directly with them. An example of the latter would have been kids who might have been on the same or opposing tag team of about a dozen people each, a day here or there, over the handful of months I would have played at Titus Smith School to that point. I just never got to know them well enough to call them a friend the way these other truer friends were to me.
In not having any real friends playing marbles, and not having any marbles myself, I could only watch the kids play. One needed to have marbles to ante up for a match in order to play. At first, it was fine. There were all kinds of marbles to examine, rules to learn, strategies to consider, bucksey techniques to analyze, and so on. That could only last so long, though, before the desire to play, to be included in all the fun, surpassed all the side preoccupations. But how was I going to do that without the ability to buy marbles?
I didn’t get allowance, and knew better than to spend allowance on marbles, or ask to be bought some by my family, knowing the same amount of money could feed extended family back in Viet Nam for a day. There was no way I was going to steal any, even if the kids let me examine contents of their entire marbles bags for entire matches at a time. I could have easily pocketed more than one or two without their knowledge, or noticeable consequence to them, but my Parents taught me better. By contrast, despite my Parents giving to beggars while being poor themselves, I was too proud to beg, in the manner of asking someone to give me a marble or two. Likewise, I did not want to ask either the Buddha, or the Jesus option recently introduced to me to whom I referred with a definite article like the Buddha, rather than just by name. I did not want to pray for marbles out of silliness in the concept, though, rather than pride. You asked the Buddha and the Jesus for things like to feed everybody in Viet Nam better and make it a better place, not marbles for the love of either! So the only option I felt I had left was to scavenge the marbles playing ground for marbles lost, in hope I would find one or two. Hoping was all right, in my books, because unlike prayers, the Buddha and the Jesus weren’t supposed to hear them.
I didn’t live near Titus Smith School, so I could not really scavenge the marbles playing grounds outside the times when the kids played. During such times, finding a marble while scavenging could be mistaken for stealing one that was in play, unless it was really on the far edges of the playing grounds. Still, I scavenged those areas when I could for a couple of weeks, during the middle of certain matches I was watching that were far from ending, leaving no risk of missing the outcome if I scavenged. As expected, given the limited time I had and area to be covered for scavenging, I did not find a marble. I was just going to have to keep on watching these kids play marbles, while fighting the growing urges to ask one of them, my Parents, the Buddha or the Jesus, for one… or steal one, for the love of either, as the strange expression went. Would I give in? I wondered. I even wondered when I might give in, rather than just would, as if it was inevitable, and only a matter of time.
Fortunately for me, I never got to find out when, or if, I would give in to those urges to get a marble through means other than scavenging. One day, as I watched a match, a boy in my class named Donnie walked up beside me and held out a Plain in his hand.
“Do you want to play?” he asked in a quiet, raspy voice. He had a little smile on his face, framed by slightly wavy, dark blond hair, as he waited for me to reply, wondering what to make of the offer.
“Oh, no marbles,” I replied to Donnie while shaking my head.
“That’s OK,” he replied, nodding at the marble in his hand. It seemed he knew I didn’t have any marbles. “I’ll lend you one.”
Donnie might have said loan instead of lend. I don’t know for sure because I didn’t know either word until later. What I do know was I didn’t question what the word meant, seeing the Plain being offered in Donnie’s hand.
“OK! Thank you!” I replied, as I took the marble in his hand, smile beaming on my brightly lit face. “Where do we play?”
With that question, the match was on as Donnie led me to the other end of the marbles playing area, where it was empty. Donnie suggested we use a hole and line already in the area, and that I go first. I accepted all his suggestions as if orders, being ever so grateful he loaned me a marble with an invitation to play! Several weeks without anyone noticing and then, suddenly, this!
In going first, with just one Plain each at stake, I opted to try and get mine as close to the hole as I could that about four metres away. I am guessing four metres from the more assured memory of about three and a half times my height of a short nine year old. I felt I could get my marble close enough to the hole so that if Donnie had tried to do the same thing, when it came my turn again, I could pot my marble to get to go again, and pot his on the extra turn to win the match. If Donnie chose to just drop his marble far from the hole, seeing mine being close and not falling for my first strategy, then I’d simply pot mine and the rest of the match would be a contest to see who could pot the far marble in on his turn. It was really all that simple. There was nothing at stake, of course, with both marbles being Donnie’s so they would both be returned to him at the end of the match. However, I had pride, and a little bit of a competitive spirit to still try and win this match just for fun.
With the marble I threw landing within two of my small feet from the hole, Donnie wisely threw his marble to the left side not far from the line. On my turn again, I potted the marble I threw, as planned. On my extra turn from having potted my marble, I asked Donnie to set up rabbit ears for my bucksey, since the marble was far away and I was going to have to take a real crack at the bucksey to get it to the hole, possibly overshooting it without the rabbit ears. Still, I did not get Donnie’s marble close to the hole with my bucksey. I underpowered it, having underestimated the resistance of some grass between the marble and the hole. It was my first bucksey, and power was only to be learned with experience, as I had guessed correctly while watching the other kids play for a few weeks. Not confident I could pot Donnie’s marble with the shot left on my turn, likely leaving Donnie with an easy turn to win the match, I pushed his marble far back to make it hard for him to pot it on his turn.
As Donnie walked back to his marble to set up his bucksey on his turn, I got up to form rabbit ears for him. He made good use of them, careening his marble off the tip of my right foot with plenty of power. That’s hard to do because if you think about it, being three or four metres away from the rabbit ears that are about half a metre wide, your margin of error in the bucksey hitting the rabbit ears was a mere few degrees in a circle! Hitting the rabbit ears from far away was hard, and missing them from far away was nothing to be ashamed of. Hard as it might have been for Donnie to have hit my rabbit ears with his bucksey, Donnie came very close to potting his marble with his bucksey to win the match. I swear that if my shoe had been just half a size larger, still leaving me below average shoe size of my classmates, that marble would have gone in! That was a little unfair for Donnie, and new insight for me. Play against opponents with bigger feet and request rabbit ears! The first wasn’t really a strategy for me. Everybody had bigger feet than I did. It was a matter of playing kids with much bigger feet to maximize the advantage for me. The second, with rabbit ears being optional, was a request I made sure I asked for if the other player/s didn’t ask for them, or typically played with them.
In having his marble deflect off the tip of my right foot from his bucksey, with plenty of power so it was not close to the hole, Donnie shot it back to near the line to complete his turn. Swapping places to shoot and set up rabbit ears, on my next turn, I put the marble to the left of the hole with my bucksey, so I also shot it back near the line, to that side, to make it challenging for Donnie on his turn. It was, as he ended up with a turn like I just had. My turn produced a similar outcome, as did his. Back and forth we went, executing turns with similar outcomes, just slightly different results for the buckseys. Sometimes we missed the rabbit ears. Other times we fell short. I don’t recalling either of us hitting the rabbit ears with our buckseys as Donnie did on his first shot. How many turns we had like these before one of us broke through to end the match, I don’t know. It’s easy to lose track when you are “in the zone”. For the record, though, I’ll guess somewhere between 10 and 15 turns each. It was not a short match, that I know for certain.
In the last of those turn cycles, my bucksey got a lucky break. The marble hit a small clump of glass to the left of the hole on its way to missing the rabbit ears, and changed direction to hit the tip of Donnie’s left shoe forming the rabbit ears on the right side of the hole [from my perspective]. At that range, with flat ground between the marble and the hole, I felt confident to use my shot to pot Donnie’s marble, the last one in play, to try and win the match.
With a tap of a gentle shot, I did!
“Yay!” Donnie softly cheered for me in his soft, raspy voice. Yes, he cheered, not me. I only looked up at him and smiled before saying “thank you”.
Since I was still near the ground from squatting to make my winning shot, I picked up both marbles and rose to hand them back to Donnie. My right hand was faced down to drop them back in Donnie’s hand as I smiled and said “thank you” once more, bowing a little while doing so as I customarily did in Vietnamese culture while thanking. Being able to play a match really meant a lot to me after all this time watching all the other kids play.
Donnie held out his right hand to receive the marbles, but reacted with surprise when he received them. I still remember the look on his face. Before I had a chance to react, not knowing what to make of Donnie’s reaction, he grabbed my right hand with his left and put one of the marbles he had in his right hand back in my right hand.
“No, this one’s yours!” Donnie declared.
“Oh,” I stumbled, pulling my hand back a little, but not enough to break the hold of either the marble or Donnie’s hands. It was my turn to be surprised.
“No… not mine at start,” I said, looking at Donnie and shaking my head to complete my reaction.
For a nice, soft spoken little guy, Donnie was pretty insistent on this matter. Somehow, he clarified it for me in simple English that somewhere, some rule stated that if a player borrowed a marble to play and won, that player should keep one of the two marbles. As a result, this marble he handed to me was mine, and that I had to keep it!
With limited English from having been in Canada just half a year, I wasn’t in a real position to argue. At least that’s the position I’m claiming today! Of course, I wanted that marble! It was all I had been wanting for several weeks! This was an absolute class act of kindness and sportsmanship by Donnie, even though I knew neither by concept, or name in either Vietnamese or English. I was just ever so grateful for it, and never saw it coming as to how I would get that first marble.
After a few minutes of being convinced to keep that marble by Donnie, I was convinced. I humbly accepted it with multiple thank yous, each with a few bows to boot. I didn’t know anything about formally shaking hands to thank someone, and boys just didn’t hug each other out of the blue then to show their joy and gratitude, either. Do they now? Regardless, I took my cherished marble and slowly walked off the playing area, admiring it in a daze at what just happened. The marble was just a Plain, of course. It had a blue and a teal blue swatch on the inside of the glass. It was just a Plain, but to me, it was the most beautiful Plain in the world… and I was over the moon looking at my blue marble for days to come!
I didn’t ask Donnie to play again after our match, as in a rematch, rudely mired in my joy. That said, Donnie didn’t ask me to play again, either, though I suspect he probably had far better reasons. Seeing how long our match took, he might have guessed we didn’t have time before the buzzer would ring for students to convene for classes. Matches interrupted by the buzzer were simply nullified, with players taking back their anted marbles, so that shouldn’t have stopped him. Maybe Donnie recognized my joy and wanted to leave me to bask in it rather than risk losing that marble right back. I believe he could have realized that, even just as nine year old, intuitively if not rationally. After all, he had made the gestures to invite me to play knowing I had no marbles, and offering me a marble to keep in my victory when there were no such rules. Who knows if he might have even let me win if the match went longer and closer to the morning school buzzer? Or maybe just gave me a marble to keep in the end no matter how the match turned out, knowing I had no marbles? I wouldn’t have put that beyond him, either. Donnie had that kindness in him, and the single Plain wasn’t going to deplete his marble stash by any real noticeable amount, not that the fact diminishes my admiration for his actions any.
For whatever reasons Donnie and I never played again that fateful morning, I am further extremely grateful as I got to think about how I would risk that single Plain that had been so hard to attain. When you want something as badly as I wanted a marble at that time, had to wait so long for it, unable to get it with some work and getting it in the most unexpected of ways, you don’t just haphazardly put it up for risk of loss! I knew that, and for the next while, I paid attention to who played in the marbles matches I watched, how they played, and how well they played, rather than checking out the marbles in their bags or analyzing buckey techniques. I didn’t even take time to scavenge for lost marbles when the matches got boring! No. It was going to be all or nothing the next time I played marbles with just one marble to my name, so I essentially scouted all the kids playing marbles at Titus Smith School to make sure the outcome of my next, and second, marbles match wasn’t going to be a loss! Risky as it might have been to something I prized so much, I had to. Having one marble and not playing was only marginally better than having no marbles and not playing after a week of joy for having attained that first marble.
After about two weeks, I felt I had a good enough scouting report on the kids who played marbles to risk my sole marble in a match to try and get more. Scouting report would be a metaphor, of course, as it would be many years before I knew either the term or the concept. I had just checked out all the marbles playing kids to see who I thought I had the best chance of beating in my next marbles match. Fortunately, there was a clear answer to that.
William* was a nice big kid, with big feet, and lots of marbles. Sadly for him, he lost a lot of them, often in big amounts in matches with multiple big value marbles. I would only cost him a mere Plain, if I were to win, so I didn’t feel bad about approaching him for a match. In approaching William for a marbles match, I was actually more confident I could beat him, than I could convince him to play against me for a piddily, little old Plain.
Slightly to my pleasant surprise, William agreed to play against me, with my one little Plain, without question. Nice kid, as I said! The match went as I thought, with me making use of William’s big feet for rabbit ears to win easily. I had two Plains after our match, which gave me a little more breathing room for risk taking. I also had experience and proof of someone I could beat easily to come back to time and again to build up my marbles collection. William didn’t seem to care, playing lots of people he lost to often, with big marble antes at stake. He seemed to just enjoyed playing the game, and could afford the marbles he lost. However, I felt bad for beating William at marbles in such a premeditated way that I promised myself not to ask him to play again, believing I would always win such that it was just a way for me to earn more marbles off of him. I would only play William again if he asked me, which I would never refuse to be grateful for getting me that second Plain, and the increased risk tolerance that came with it. That’s the adult me talking, not the nine year old me who only understood the concept intuitively. Furthermore, if I got the chance with some marbles to spare in the future, I would give back that Plain to William in a match, and more, by intentionally losing rather than take more marbles away from him. He was too nice a kid for me to do that to. On that commitment, to my best recollection, from the handful of times we played marbles in later years, William is the only player against whom I had a net loss of marbles in matches.
With scouting report in mind, practice, and just a second Plain obtained from William, I became completely immersed in marbles for a past time on the school grounds of Titus Smith School. On a similar strategy initially, I built up a bag of marbles comparable to that of most other kids within a few weeks. After that, it was just pure competition to become good, then better, then one of the best at the school. By the time I left Titus Smith Elementary School after Grade 6 for Junior High, I had probably close to a thousand marbles. Who cares to count after one gets that many except for maybe a megalomaniac? Further, my marbles probably had a net worth of, I’ll guess, about five thousand, because Plains were the minority type of marbles in my marbles bucket! With limited space, I constant traded off Plains and other low worth marble types for bigger ones to save space. In the same space as fewer than nine Plains, for example, I could hold a Crystal Jumbo worth 60 Plains. Regardless of total worth, even one thousand Plains in a marbles collection would have been impressive as that would have taken a lot of matches to attain! That, in turn, meant I got a lot of great times and memories from playing marbles. Not only that, those marbles provided many other kids with joy in their lives because when I moved on to Junior High, where it was no longer cool to play marbles, I gave away all my marbles to a bunch of other kids in the neighbourhood. Some may have cared for it, and some may not. I don’t know. Most of the kids I gave them to were in their first school years so I didn’t know them well at all. However, I am certain that somewhere out there, there is batch of kids with fond memories involving marbles from the ones I gave them. There may even be more kids with more fond marbles memories, pending what the kids who got marbles from me did with their marbles when they were done with them. All that positive impact, from me to others, from such a little act of kindness, was the reason why I had put so much effort to tell these stories about marbles in so much detail. They represented a lot of my childhood, among the best parts of it, and made a difference in the lives of others as well!
And it all came about because of a simple act of kindness of one boy, Donnie, to give up one little marble… Donnie’s marble.
As for Donnie, I don’t know what happened to Donnie after that fateful marbles match. Students moved, or moved on, and classes got split at the next level. I never got to play marbles with Donnie again, or recall any meaningful interaction with him again, or knew how to find him to tell him how much that kind little gesture of his turned out to impact in my life so positively, not to mention the life of others. However, I have shared that positive impact forward fairly by telling a very condensed version of this story over a few decades to several thousand students in the Nova Scotia, in talks about multiculturalism and anti-racism, as an example of what the students all could do with very little, to make big differences in the lives of others. One day, I hope to find Donnie to be able to tell him all this. In the meanwhile, I just hope karma treats him well for his kindness.
The Marbles Championship
It had to happen. Charlie* and I could not avoid playing a match of marbles against each other forever. We had to decline requests from players wanting to play us at some point, at the same time, and play at least one match to settle all the speculation of who was the better player. That day, finally, was today.
When you’re good at something competitive, everybody wants to challenge you at it. For some, it was just the privilege of having competed against you. For others, it was a chance to claim they had beaten you. It was never anywhere near that intense, at any time, with marbles at Titus Smith School, I’m glad to say. However, by the time I was in Grade 5, and Charlie was in Grade 6, his final year before moving on to Junior High, there was definitely inklings of that competition as Charlie and I had clearly established ourselves as the best players at the school that year. Charlie definitely had more marbles than I did, even though my collection was growing rapidly and was a healthy size by then. Yet, I was not going to concede that reputational crown as the best player at the school to him without a match.
On a cold, cloudy, and damp mid-spring morning at school, Charlie and I happened to have won our matches just minutes before the buzzer for classes was to ring. Even we could not beat the worst players in a match in that little time. As we saw each other walking toward the entrance where students gathered when the morning buzzer rang for class, we came together for a chat that we normally didn’t get to do. We played too much marbles during our free time at school, we were in different classes during school, I couldn’t play after school because I had to go home unless there was something in the school curriculum for which to stay later. During our quick chat, Charlie and I confirmed we really wanted to play each other, and that we should set a time and date then so it would happen since we’ve not managed to play each other for a few years now. Early the next day was set, or next day of suitable weather since Nova Scotian weather was not all that reliable in spring. That meant 8:15 am rather than 8:30 am that we usually arrived at school to play, on faith because we didn’t make family to family phone calls at that hour to confirm silliness like marbles. Excited as I was to have the chance to play Charlie at marbles, at last, I was more excited by the time recess ended that morning because it seemed all the kids who played marbles knew about it. Now, not all of them were going to come early to watch it. Some were still going to play their matches as well. Still, it was exciting that they were buzzing about it a bit.
The next morning was also cold, cloudy, and damp, as Charlie and I got to school at 8:15 am for our planned match. I wish I could remember what excuse I pulled at home to have gotten Mom to let me go to school that early, since classes didn’t start until 9:00 am. Still, I made it and the unofficial marbles championship at Titus Smith School was on! Well, it was, in my mind, at least. I never asked Charlie if he viewed it in the same way, but it was clear we were the best two players at the time, and that this was our first match against each other. I’m betting Charlie thought that match was some sort of championship, though, even if it were only in reputational rather than championship terms. Otherwise, I don’t think he would have suggested a Crystal Jumbo, the most valuable of all the marble types, for ante in the match. Embarrassed that I didn’t have a Crystal Jumbo in my marbles collection to match Charlie’s, I asked him if it were OK to use a couple of Jumbos for my ante. He accepted in a very gentlemanly manner, as if it didn’t matter one bit.
For our match, Charlie and I decided to use the majority of the marbles playing area to the side of the school, since nobody was playing marbles there at the time, and only a small bunch of kids had arrived to watch. The strip we took was probably eight to ten metres long, at least twice as long compared to the usual space in which we played. Of course, there was going to be no rabbit ears. That was for the bad players, not the good players like us, agreed upon without the sarcastic pomposity I just used to describe it. Finally, I was to go second, at Charlie’s request because I offered him the order of play decision, as thanks for letting me use marble types less than his fancy Crystal Jumbo.
Charlie surprised everyone by dropping his dark green Crystal Jumbo just in front of the line, far away from the hole. Usually, the first player tried to get his or her marble/s close to the hole in hopes of potting them easily on his next turn, before possibly finishing off the match by potting any remaining marbles that would be far away, with a little luck. Both Charlie and I knew this strategy well, so he had prepared by carrying out a twist for which he had a different plan. I had not prepared, so I was going to need some quick thinking, and a new plan on the spot, to get through this with some decent hope of winning. Assessing the long distance to the hole from where Charlie’s Crystal Jumbo laid, I decided Charlie could not pot it from there in one turn, so I tossed both of my Jumbos about half way towards the hole. Not too hard to pot, perhaps, but not too easy, either.
On Charlie’s next turn, to my surprise and concern, he potted one of my Jumbos, followed by the other with the free turn he got from potting the first. Now, only the potting of his Crystal Jumbo, on the free turn Charlie got for potting my second Jumbo, was required to end the match! Far away as that Crystal Jumbo might have been, the way Charlie potted my two Jumbos with ease, it felt like he was just going to sink that Crystal Jumbo just was easily. Distance was no factor for this guy! And if he sank it, this match could end before I could even get a chance to make a play! I could be wiped out in front of all of this small group of kids, via the most dreaded way to lose, by order of play where you never even get a turn where you could have a chance at potting the last marble! This was going to be embarrassing, especially if I couldn’t get a rematch, given it only took Charlie and I a couple of years to finally play each other. And our marble playing friends, they were going to talk for years about this, possibly forever given Charlie won’t be here to play me again next year if I couldn’t get a rematch this year! What had I just done to myself in vastly underestimating Charlie’s marbles playing ability?
Fortunately for me, Charlie’s sent his Crystal Jumbo to the right of the hole, far enough away that he didn’t want to risk missing a shot to the hole over the bumpy ground around the hole to leave me with a high likelihood to pot it on my turn. I suspect Charlie was thinking about some of the same consequences I did about losing early in this match. As a result, Charlie made a strong shot to send the Crystal Jumbo back to near the line for defense, to minimize my chances of potting it on my turn.
With my bucksey, I just went for it because the hole was so far away. I wasn’t going to be able to bucksey that Crystal Jumbo much beyond the hole even if I had wanted to, leaving me close for a shot to pot it. And there were two Jumbos in the hole to stop the bucksied Crystal Jumbo, should it go in the right direction with some excess power. Unfortunately for me, my bucksey went to the left of the hole, and fell short, so I had to rely on the strongest shot I ever made to push that Crystal Jumbo far back to near the line, in defense for the same reason Charlie made a similar shot.
Charlie’s next bucksey also sent his Crystal Jumbo to the left of the hole, far enough away so that he had to make a strong shot to push his Crystal Jumbo far back for defense. As skilled as Charlie and I were with our buckseys, that marbles hole about ten to twelve centimetres across looked very small from eight to ten metres away. There was very little room for error in aiming to hit the hole with a marble via a bucksey. On top of that, the bumpy ground around the hole kept Charlie and I from risking shots what might have been easy shots over flat ground to close out the match.
On my turn, I missed right with my bucksey, and sent that Crystal Jumbo back for Charlie, who then missed right with his bucksey, and sent the Crystal Jumbo back for me. Sadly, most of the rest of the match was basically that. Charlie and I were just taking aims with big buckseys over that long distance, missing by enough that we didn’t risk a miss trying to pot that Crystal Jumbo over bumpy ground to end the match, so we sent it back to the line with our shots in defense. For a so-called championship match, it got real boring, real fast!
As time and match wore on, more kids arrived at school and came over to watch. From lack of excitement in the match, roughly an equal number of kids watching left, so there were never that many kids watching at a time. I couldn’t have blamed them, to be honest. Even I was getting bored! I suspect Charlie was, too. It was too late, though. We were going to have to see this through.
With the analog school clock approaching 8:55 am, when the buzzer for lining up to go into classes would ring, Charlie took his bucksey and came within a tempting distance to risk a shot to win it at the buzzer. He took his time to decide, which I allowed him to, even though I wanted to get my turn in to complete the cycle, should he not pot that Crystal Jumbo with his shot. I had gone second in the order of play, so after all this, if the match were going to get nullified by the buzzer, I wanted it to have come after I had my turn to close out the turn cycle. As I took one last glance at the school clock, Charlie opted to shoot the marble back near the line.
In full awareness of school time, I scurried closely behind that Crystal Jumbo Charlie shot back to the line, rather than walking back that was the normal practice, sometimes only after the marble had stopped. Marbles at Titus Smith was usually played at golf pace. As I got to the Crystal Jumbo, the school buzzer rang.
“Wait!” I yelled out to compete with the buzzer for volume. “Let me have my turn because I went second!”
Being a gentleman and far less of a goody two-shoes of a student than I, something which I secretly admired about Charlie actually, he nodded and wound his right arm in circles to tell me to hurry and take my turn. To obey, I just set my plant foot for my bucksey, looked to the hole to aim, and gave my left shoe a mighty boot with my right shoe, to send that Crystal Jumbo on its way to the hole. It was terrible technique, without control whatsoever. Yet, whatever else was going on in the universe at the time, that Crystal Jumbo hit one clump of grass, another bump, a couple of tiny stones of gravel, and who knows what else along the way, to hit the two Jumbos in the hole at the end… and stayed put there!
I had won the championship! I mean the match, of course!
After a split second, quiet shock at the complete fluke that had just happened, there was a small group cheer of approval, and buzz of reaction exchange on what the kids just saw. Mindful of the time now after the buzzer had rung, I ran to the hole to high five Charlie, thank him for the match, congratulate him on a great match, and grab my winnings out of the hole. That was all the time I had to celebrate as I knew I had to get to the row call area where students were lining up to enter the school for class. I was a minute late, at most, from when the other students and teachers had turned to head to the row call area. However, the gap physical crowd gap was obvious, and I was deliberately late from my actions. To make matters worse for me, I realized in that moment that all the kids who had watched the match were still with Charlie and I! Oh, fuck! This was really going to get me in trouble! You see, in my Parents’ eyes, it was one thing if I engaged in bad behavior. It was a far worse thing if I incited other kids, like a couple dozen other kids, to engage in bad behavior! It was the equivalent of what a dictator might have been able to do himself, compared to what he could do with an entire army or nation with him. That’s how I had been taught. In this instance, because I had incited bad behavior in other students, not to mention leading by example of my own actions, Mom and Dad were not only going to punish me hard for this, they might never let me play marbles again!
Looking up to the row call area, I could see many of the students, and some of the teachers, looking at the group of kids Charlie and I were with. We weren’t so late that everybody was already in line. Some kids were still climbing up the little incline to get to the area. There was just a gap dividing them and us that, for some, would raise the question of what was happening that we were a tad late?
As we got in the row call area, most of the teachers just urged their class’ students to move faster to get in line up order. As usual, Mr Turner was most vocal, coming by each student who was late or misbehaving to warp their ears with his hand while uttering some high volume, choice words. When it was my turn, I averted eye contact to minimize impact as he really let it go on me, one of his star students, as I had expected.
“YOU!” Muffle, muffle, muffle. Muffle, muffle, muffle.
That was all I heard as Mr Turner gave some serious yanks on my ear. Really. How was anybody supposed to hear much when their ear where the voice was projecting was warped the whole time, usually closing rather than opening it more than regular listening configuration? When it was done, aside from a little pain from the ordeal, I actually felt joy. Finally, I knew what it was to be bad, and bad enough to have Mr Turner scold me while warping my ear! I finally knew what most of my classmates had experienced. It was like a moment of inclusion. I now felt more like them!
My elation must have shown itself because as Mr Turner moved on to warp the next ear, I looked around again. In Ms Mann’s class row to the right, Charlie caught my eyes and flashed a smile back at me. He flashed one back, not just flashed one. I don’t know how I knew that difference. I just knew.
In the aftermath of this so-called marbles championship, there was, both, joy and disappointment. However, they weren’t as I had expected, albeit for the better.
During recess later that morning, when I first got to admire the Crystal Jumbo I had won, my first one, I saw that it was damaged! There was a small ring of a gouge in it! Despite my dissatisfaction with this, I thought it petty to bug Charlie for an exchange. I didn’t think he used it deliberately. It might have gotten damaged during the match, for all I knew.
Later that day, days following, or even at Parent meetings with teachers later that term, nothing was brought up with my Parents to an extent that they talked to me about that my undisciplined. Mr Turner, it seemed, only considered that morning an aberration of my behavior, one worthy of overlooking among all the other good things I did in school. Either that or my Parents felt that way. Either way, from my world, it was as if my Parents never knew about that morning… and that was just fine with me!
As for Charlie and Crystal Jumbos, sadly, neither were ever in my marbles world again. I never played anyone else in a match with ante for one person as high as a Crystal Jumbo. I never got to play marbles with Charlie against, either, with him leaving for Junior High the next year. Lots of people wanted to play us, for whatever reasons they did, and we generally complied. Myself, I made it a point never to refuse to play with anybody, even if I didn’t play with them immediately because I usually had two or three people waiting. I really played with everybody, no matter how good or bad they were, or whether they wanted to play with a Plain or a Crystal Jumbo for ante. I remembered all the kids who played with me when I didn’t have a lot of skill and marbles to ante, and I didn’t want to be a person who would leave someone like that feeling their time and friendship was not worthwhile.