Volume 9, Number 50, 2006

by Alvin Harms

As I remember them, the winters of the southern Alberta prairies in the 1930’s, although long and often severe, were punctuated from time to time by Chinook winds, which, flowing over the Rockies from the southwest, sometimes raised the temperature as much as thirty or forty degrees in a matter of hours. Their warm caress, laid briefly on the snow, could be withdrawn as quickly as it had appeared however, plunging the land once more into icy winter.

But as surely as taxes and death, there would come a day, usually in early April, when every schoolboy knew, with an instinct as unerring as that which guides birds in their migration, that spring had come. The first patches of bare ground would emerge and this signalled the beginning of the marble season. It is true that sometimes the song of a meadowlark or the appearance of a crocus was taken for the first sign of spring. Still there was no more reliable indication that spring had really come than the sight of schoolboys on their knees playing that unique game of marbles on the first patches of bare ground.

For their mothers, sad to say, the most unmistakable sign was the sight of their sons’ jeans worn and torn at the knees. The prospect of mending these knees every few days must have dampened our poor mothers’ enthusiasm for the game considerably. Yet it was a fact of life that boys had to be on their knees to play marbles, and in the few weeks between the beginning of the marble season and the beginning of baseball, more wear could be expected at the knees than under the soles of the shoes.

I have called marbles a unique game. For one thing it was played according to rules that, I suspect, were rather regional if not local, and that had about them a remarkable flexibility, to say the very least. Another of its unique features was its unusual, even esoteric, terminology, the mastery of which was essential in order to play successfully, or even unsuccessfully, so much so that I have felt compelled to include on another page a glossary of the most commonly used of these terms.

It is important, to begin with, to be clear about the term marble. I have heard words such as alley, agate, and who knows what other names. But for us the proper term always was, and probably will forever be, marble. A marble was a spherical object that could vary in diameter from approximately a quarter of an inch to an inch. Let it be said here and now, however, that no self-respecting boy would use anything as small as a quarter-inch marble and rarely one as large as an inch. The next point to set straight is that marbles fell almost naturally into three categories: dibbs, steelies, and glassies. Dibbs were definitely the proletariat of the marble world. They had a claylike or earthenware type of composition and were regarded with something approaching disdain. You did not play with dibbs, although you could use them for trading. The terms steelies and glassies, I assume, are self-explanatory with respect to the material of which they were constructed. Steelies, although enjoying greater prestige than dibbs, were somewhat heavy and clumsy. This leaves us with glassies, the aristocrats of marbles, coming in beautiful multi-coloured glass, often with elegant swirly designs. This was the type of marble meant to be used for actual playing.

Now that we have established the instrument used for playing, we pass on to the next step, which is to describe the game itself. To begin with, I believe it is in order to point out that a player’s skill in the game depended largely on his ability to shoot accurately in order to propel his marble the necessary distance and in the required direction. The shooting technique was not really complicated. The marble was held between the tip of the index finger and the thumbnail. At the appropriate moment a quick forward movement of the first thumb joint propelled the sphere ahead. A beginner was easily recognized by the fact that he held the marble, not at the tip of the index finger, but near the inside of the first joint of that finger. A second sign that would immediately stamp a player as inexperienced would be his unwillingness or inability to shoot with higherings.

The last word in the preceding paragraph alerts me to the necessity of supplying without further delay the glossary promised earlier:

1) clearings - removing obstacles (blades of grass, twigs, etc.) between the shooter’s marble and the target.
2) expand - the distance between the tip of the thumb and the tips of the fingers when the hand is fully expanded. After the shooter’s marble has entered one of the holes, he is entitled to take his next shot from the edge of the expand; that is, from the spot to which the fingertips extend when the thumb is held at the edge of the hole.
3) fudging - in legitimate shooting, the hand and arm are held still while the propelling force comes from the thumb. Fudging designates a forward motion of the whole arm at the same time as the thumb projects the marble, a procedure usually not acceptable.
4) higherings - raising the hand to shoot from any height desired. Without higherings the shooter would have to keep his knuckles on the ground as he shoots.
5) lagging line - a more or less straight line scratched into the ground, serving two purposes: (a) to determine who shoots first. All players stand a little distance away and each tosses his marble toward the line. The one whose marble comes to rest closest to the line shoots first. (b) to serve as the starting point from which players take their first shot.
6) peakings - placing the target marble on a small mound so as to raise it.
7) placings - placing the target marble in another position but without changing its distance from the shooter’s marble.
8) poison - (a) When a shooter’s marble has entered all four holes of the playing area it is said to be “poison.” If it hits another player’s marble, the latter is said to be “dead” and the player is out of the game. (b) the name of the fourth hole.
9) rounders - shooting from a position different from the original lie of the shooter’s marble but without changing its distance from the target.

Before attempting to describe the actual game of marbles, let me mention two other ways in which boys sometimes played with marbles. I hesitate to call them games; perhaps infra-games might be a suitable term. One of these went by the name of “chase,” and it was usually played by two players. The player who shot first would simply shoot his marble a certain “safe” distance from an agreed upon starting point. The next player would then try to hit the first player’s marble. If he missed, the first player would shoot at the second player’s marble, making sure that if he missed, his marble would not come to rest too close to his opponent’s. The game would end, of course, with victory to the player whose marble finally struck his opponent’s. All in all, this whole exercise had a certain dullness and lack of sophistication about it.

Another game that we regarded as lesser required a circle scratched on the ground. Each player (and almost any number could participate) was obliged to “ante in” by placing a marble into the ring. For this purpose he would invariably choose one of his least desirable ones, usually a dibb or a chipped glassie. Players would take turns shooting from the circumference of the circle. The object of the game was to knock marbles out of the ring. If a player succeeded in knocking one out, he was awarded another shot and could continue until he failed to drive out a marble, whereupon the next person took his turn. Usually it was stipulated beforehand that the game was “for keeps.” This meant that a player was entitled to keep as his own any marbles he knocked out of the ring. Some of the better players would go home at the end of the day with their marble bags bulging. It may be useful to add here that part of the basic equipment of a marble player was a small bag with drawstrings, in which he kept his marbles, and which he carried with him in one of the pockets of his denim jeans.

It is time now to talk of that special game of marbles that we considered to be so much better than all the others. What was needed for this was a patch of ground, dry or at least partially dry, and large enough to allow four small holes to be dug, usually three to four inches in diameter and in depth, spaced roughly (and here my memory may no longer be entirely reliable) six to eight feet apart. The first three were usually in a more or less straight line. The fourth, called “poison,” was often at a greater distance than the others and not necessarily in line with them, the most frequent variation being to place it at right angles to the alignment of the others. There had to be a lagging line scratched into the ground at right angles to the first three holes and at a distance such that the first hole was in the middle between it and the second hole. The preparation of the terrain required only a few minutes’ work by a group of boys equipped with pocket knives with which to make the holes.

Ideally the game was played by two to four players at a time. The participants, standing at a roughly equal distance from the lagging line, would toss their marbles toward the line. The player whose marble came to rest closest to the line would have the right to shoot first. Thus the distance between a player’s marble and the lagging line would determine the order in which he shot. A player’s object was to shoot his marble into all the holes. If he could accomplish this, his marble was said to be “poison.” If it subsequently struck another player’s marble, that marble was considered to be “dead” and its owner was eliminated from that particular game.

Let us see how a typical game might unfold. The first shooter, whom we could call A, positioning his hand at the lagging line, would shoot toward the first hole. Unless he was unusually skilful or unusually lucky (or unless the hole was unusually close, a possibility not to be entirely dismissed), he would be unlikely to sink his marble with his first shot. It would now be player B’s turn. He might be no more successful with his shot than player A. However, let us suppose that A’s marble had come to rest between the lagging line and the first hole. It would now be possible for B’s marble, on its way toward the hole, to strike A’s. Should that occur B would be awarded another shot. In fact this happy circumstance could open several options for him.

He might, now being close to the hole, simply shoot toward it. If his marble entered it, he could take an expand and shoot again, this time toward the second hole. (If he was larger than the other players or had a richer father, or was in some other way dominant, he might even take a double expand). He would lose his turn whenever his marble failed either to enter a hole or to strike another marble.

A second option, especially if his marble was close to player A’s, was to shoot hard at his opponent’s marble. This manoeuvre, when correctly executed, would drive that marble far away, where its chances of entering the hole at A’s next turn would be greatly reduced, while leaving B’s marble still close to the hole. Having just struck A’s marble, B would get another turn, allowing him to attempt everything described in the first option.

There was a third option. This required skill and a subtle streak of sadism. Successfully executed, the chain of events I am about to relate could lead to player B’s marble entering every hole, becoming poison, and killing A’s marble before B relinquished his turn. He would thus be in a position, already poison, to lie in wait for the relatively helpless C and D, if there were four players. Here is how this technique worked: player B, having struck A’s marble, and assuming it to be fairly close to the first hole, would now actually knock it into the hole. He would get another turn, shoot his own marble into the hole, and having taken his expand, he would be entitled to place A’s marble at the edge of it. What happened next required a special technique, known as “riding.” B would place his marble immediately behind A’s, and in shooting toward the second hole, he would make his thumb propel the marble more with a pushing motion than with the more elegant snapping release. The result would be that both marbles travelled at about the same speed and in the same direction, so that they would come to rest near each other and the second hole. Now B would simply repeat what he had done near the first hole. He would follow the same sequence until he reached the fourth hole; that is, poison. However, he would not knock A’s marble into poison, but after he had shot his own marble into poison, he would find A’s marble a “sitting duck” close to the hole. B could now strike A’s marble with his own, thereby eliminating A from the game.

I have tried to describe what could happen ideally in the third option. However, it is unlikely that a player could execute all these manoeuvres perfectly. At some point he would in all likelihood lose his turn and then allow the next shooter, player C, to begin from the lagging line. After all players had had a turn, it would again be A’s turn, and so forth. It could happen that one player’s marble could be poison and kill all the others before they had a chance to become poison. As we can see, many possibilities existed. In any case, the winner would be the surviving player, the one whose marble had not been killed by any other.

A variation of the game was to “play partners.” Players A and B, for example could form a partnership against C and D. Needless to say, option three, already described, could be used by any player to help his partner along toward becoming poison.

What was especially remarkable about this game was its linguistic dimension. I have left this feature to the last for fear of not being able to meet the literary challenge of conveying with sufficient accuracy this most unusual and complex element. It is still a mystery to me how boys could pronounce (if one is not too particular about the meaning of the term), in a fraction of a second, a series of five or six polysyllabic words intelligible to all the others, yet would hesitate before, and stumble over, the simplest one-syllable words in the classroom. It was as if the game temporarily lent incredible linguistic facility to every marble player, a facility that abandoned him strangely at the entrance to the classroom.

Most of the terminology accompanying the game had to do with some special privilege or advantage the shooter would proclaim for himself when his turn came. In fact, every shot was accompanied by a kind of ritual, the shooter announcing what privilege he demanded and all his opponents articulating their denial to him of these rights. It was a question of who could speak faster. If, for example, the shooter announced “rounders” before his opponents could manage to say “no rounders,” then he had won the right to take rounders. Should his declaration have been too slow, and the “no rounders” pronounced more quickly, he simply could not take rounders.

In order to clarify what must seem like a very confusing situation, let us consider an example or two. Suppose player A wished to shoot at B’s marble. Let us assume that there was a little hollow in the ground between the two marbles, so that the unevenness of the terrain might spoil the accuracy of A’s shot. Or suppose there was a small twig in the way. Now there were a number of ways in which A could overcome these disadvantages: he could use higherings, in which case his marble would not even touch the ground before reaching B’s marble. He could use rounders to shoot from a different position, where the terrain might be more favourable. A third possibility would be to declare placings, so that he could change the position (but not the distance) of B’s marble to achieve the same advantage as in the previous manoeuvre. Another possibility, especially if B’s marble happened to be in a small hollow, would be to use peakings; that is, to put something under it, a tiny mound of dirt, for example. Finally, if A’s concern happened to be a bit of twig or some blades of grass between the marbles, he might ask for clearings and thus simply remove the obstacle.

In actual practice, however, a marble player seldom declared individual privileges. He would declare them globally, thus: “rounders, higherings, peakings, placings, clearings!” At the same time his opponents would deny them equally globally, thus: “no rounders, no higherings, no peakings, no placings, no clearings!” For an uninitiated observer this must have appeared vaguely like some sort of religious rite, with one boy, the shooter, on his knees, making the same invocation on each such occasion, while all the others would proclaim their negative litany. One might think that saying all these words would slow up the game. Not at all! And the reason was simple. Players developed a kind of shorthand. A special kind of articulation was required to convey the sense of all these words without actually enunciating every syllable. In fact, the casual observer might not understand a single one of these words. “Rounders, higherings, peakings, placings, clearings” might, in reality, sound to him more like “roun-higher-peak-plac-clear,” or even “rou-hi-pea-pla-clea,” while the opponents’ utterance might approximate “no rou-hi-pea-pla-clea.” All this could be, and was, articulated in a split second, and of course every marble-playing boy understood exactly what had been said.

You might think that some sort of referee would have been essential to decide whether the shooter or his opponents had completed their declaration first. This was not the case. Rarely were there any disputes, even more rarely any fights. The shooter usually won (after all, he had less to say), but not always. If he had the type of personality that made him a leader, or if he was stronger and tougher than the others, he invariably won. If he came from a more well-to-do home and might give his opponents a grape, a candy or even a bite of his wax paper wrapped pie at lunch time, his chances of winning were also much enhanced.

I cannot abandon this part of my account without some mention of a rather extraordinary term sometimes invoked by players, and that was the word “slips.” It is not difficult to understand that on occasion a marble might actually slip out of the grasp of the shooter just as he was about to shoot. He might then declare “slips,” and if his opponents were convinced that his case was genuine, if furthermore they were inclined to be sympathetic to him, and if, finally, it was felt that he would not win in any case, he was sometimes awarded another shot. But the term “slips” lent itself to abuse. If, for example, a player’s shot did not achieve the results he had hoped for, he might occasionally declare “slips,” hoping for another shot. In such circumstances justice tended to prevail, and the shooter trying to obtain the privilege of “slips” illegitimately not only met with little success but also made himself rather unpopular with his peers.

The years have passed inexorably and no doubt there are details of the game I have attempted to describe that are buried forever in my octogenarian memory. But time has not dimmed the image of that annual renaissance of boyhood springtimes. In April, when the first breath of soft Pacific air begins to clear the land, I see again the boy I was once, kneeling on the ground, my whole being involved in this game as if no other reality existed, and in my mind I hear the echoes of “rou-hi-pea-pla-clea” and “no rou-hi-pea-pla-clea.” My world is transformed. I have a temporary glimpse of the magic of boyhood but also a keen realization of the vast distance that can never be truly spanned in the search for what once was but never again will be.