IT'S SPRING and I haven't seen a single kid playing marbles. Yo-yos, yes. The kids still swing through the neighborhood "rocking the cradle" and "walking the dog." Some of the girls are even playing hopscotch out in front of the house.
But marbles? As far as I can tell, there isn't a kid within eyeshot hunkering down with a favorite aggie to play "potsies," "chasies," "ringer," "poison" or "shoot and stick," to name just a few of the most popular marbles games when I was a kid.
What killed it for today's kids? For one, gravel school yards and vacant lots gave way to blacktopped shopping centers. Then TV and Little League came along.
Now, says Michael Cohill, owner of the American Toy Marbles Museum in Akron, Ohio, "there are very few children across the United States who even know how to play marbles."
They don't know what they're missing. Until I discovered girls, I used to shoot marbles from early spring to late summer. In fact, summer vacation didn't officially begin until my best friend, Rat, showed up on my doorstep wearing his St. Louis Cardinals cap and lugging a two-pound coffee can full of marbles.
Rat was a consummate marble shooter. A champ of champions. Yet the game for him wasn't a test of manhood, a Hemingway-esque mano a mano struggle. It was simply a means to an end.
Rat shot marbles like Minnesota Fats hustled pool. He barnstormed from neighborhood to neighborhood amassing a small fortune in captured marbles, which he promptly swapped for the necessities of life -- candy bars, cream sodas and Batman comic books.
What made Rat such a good player was his shooting style. He was a "blaster," while I was a "thumper." I held the marble between the second and third joints of my index finger and flicked it with my thumb. Rat in some mysterious way managed to grip the marble with two fingers. His shots were like baseball line drives.
He was also a great improviser. Once we were deep into a game of "shoot and stick" when Rat's shooter left the circle. Under the rules, a shooter continued to shoot as long as he knocked at least one marble out of the circle and his shooter remained or "stuck" in the circle.
A certain amount of finesse was involved. The idea was to hit the other player's marble just hard enough to knock it out of the circle, but not so hard that it also knocked your shooter out, causing you to lose your turn.
Since Rat's shooter left the circle, I reasoned, he lost his turn. Not so, said Rat, who "forgot" to tell me we were playing "double-circle shoot and stick."
"Double-circle" turned out to be two circles about six inches apart. Naturally, the second circle, which Rat carefully drew around the original circle, encompassed his shooter. "So, I get to keep on shooting," he explained.
Rat moved to Washington in the eighth grade and we lost touch. But I've always wondered what became of him. I have this sort of mental image of his body, weighed down with marbles and riddled with bullets, lying on the bottom of the Potomac.
But he probably went into politics.
John F. Kelly writes from Baltimore.