The Mountain Eagle
Whitesburg KY

Playing marbles

The subject of playing marbles that I brought up here last week has produced a flurry of questions, but they are coming from an age group that surprises me.

Points East

I’ve heard from numerous people I know to be in their late 40s or 50s as well as a couple or three that are past 60 years of age, who tell me the only marbles they ever played with had to do with Chinese checkers, which is not really what I would ever consider a marbles game even though little round pieces of plastic or glass, shaped like playing marbles, are involved.

Then, last night, I posted the column on Facebook after it had run in your favorite newspaper and a virtual gob of old “mibsters” (marbles players), mostly over 60, crawled out of the cyberwork.

I recall one of my favorite grade school teachers, Willy J. Back, affectionately referring to the student body at Blair Branch Grade School as his “mibsters” but it was somewhat later in life before I discovered that the term was generally applied in Merry Olde England to an assembly of marbles players.

I have also discovered that playing marbles was common on school grounds, front yards and even in the middle of rural dirt roads all over Kentucky until the 1960s, when most small, rural, schools were consolidated into much larger facilities.

Since playing marbles necessarily involves getting down on one’s hands and knees and literally playing in the dirt, I imagine that might have been one reason the various marbles games were not encouraged at the larger schools. The fact that most marbles games could not accommodate more than half a dozen players at one time may also have played a role in their demise as did the emphasis on “team” sports. At least I’ve never heard of any school with a “marbles team“.

The basic skill in playing marbles involved gripping a “shooting” marble called your “taw” in the crook of your index finger and flipping it with your thumb in an attempt to make it hit another marble or land at a very specific destination. Some players learned to grip their “taws” between the tips of their index and middle fingers to generate better leverage and accuracy, but every shot had to be taken with “knuckles down” (at least one knuckle of the shooting hand touching the ground) and “no fudging” (moving the “taw” or your middle knuckle from exactly where the “taw” landed when it was your turn to shoot again).

One of the most popular marbles games at Blair Branch was called “Christmas Tree” because several games could be played in a 15-minute recess period. An approximately equilateral triangle of about 18 inches from base to apex was drawn on the ground with a “leg” that extended from its center to eight or so inches below the base. “Ducks” marbles were placed on all three corners of the triangle as well as at the top of the leg in the middle, its intersection with the base and at the tip of the leg. Each duck was worth a certain number of points with the one in the middle double that of the ones on the corners, etc.

A start-shooting line, some 10 feet or so beyond the tip of the tree, was drawn in the dirt with a stick or whatever lay handy . Players stood by the tree and “lagged” their “taws” toward start line to determine the shooting order. Points were scored by “knuckling down” (no fudging) and either hitting another player’s “taw” to knock him or her out of the game and by knocking “ducks” off the tree. You had to knock the middle one out without your “taw” staying inside the triangle. If your “taw” stayed inside the triangle, it became a target for other players who acquired the points. The game was actually more complicated than that but Christmas Tree was considered one of the most basic and “simple” games.

We don’t have space here to describe “rolly hole” (think golf ), “bull’s eye” (think target shoot) or “rounders”. The latter involved placing numerous “ducks” in the middle of a circle some five to 10 feet in diameter with a fairly complicated set of rules for knocking them out. “Rounders” was often played for “keepsies” which was strictly against the rules at Blair Branch and throughout the community among parents who equated the game with gambling.

As my old friend, Richard Smith, of Letcher, recently noted in a Facebook post, getting caught playing “keepsies” was a good way to get your “hide tanned.”

In the meantime, I’ve tried explaining marbles to my grandsons while they were engrossed in the latest Pokémon stuff on their computer tablets.

Their reaction of “borrrrrrrrrring” should not have been unexpected but I kept thinking, “If they only knew.”

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