A haven for lovers of a waning pastime

Forty-five young marbles champions do battle at the 82nd national tournament in Wildwood, N.J.

June 23, 2005|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,SUN STAFF

WILDWOOD, N.J. - On the boardwalk a few feet behind Ricky Brode loom amusements built for 10-year-old boys: funnel cake stands, the curving spine of a roller coaster, a haunted mansion overrun by the undead.

But Ricky is transfixed by the polished stone resting against his right thumb knuckle. Patience, he tells himself: A great mibster can take 30 seconds or more to set up a shot. Finally he flicks the marble across the concrete slab, and as it skitters it spins on its axis, like a tiny world.

Which is a good way of thinking about the 82nd National Marbles Tournament.

Forty-five young marbles champions are battling for the American title this week on the beach here, where 10 of the country's best marble rings are raised on wooden bases above the sand.

And as always, Marylanders like Ricky are among the contenders. In an age when kids are more commonly shackled to their Xbox, Maryland is one of the few states that maintain a legitimate marbles tradition. The first national champion was Bud McQuade of Baltimore, although the state's locus of marbling has long since shifted to the mountain region that borders West Virginia.

"It's mostly the remote areas," said Beri Fox, whose West Virginia-based company, Marble King, co-sponsors the tournament. "It's the places where you go back to more simple lives and more simple things."

In Depression-era tournaments when thousands of spectators burdened the Wildwood boardwalk, city and county champs flocked from as far away as California; today, the vast majority come from along the Appalachian Mountains: West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Western Maryland.

But even in the mountains, the tradition eroded. The glass factories where fathers used leftover slag to make "end-of-day" marbles for their children have closed, and so have many schools in the rural west, as families relocate to find work in the face of a struggling economy. Cumberland, once America's most formidable marble power, hasn't produced a national champion in 15 years.

Ricky, who lives in Cumberland and learned to play on his great-grandmother's carpeted floor, is the region's red-headed hope. After dinner Monday, the first day of the tournament, he practiced footers and lag shots with his father in anticipation of today's finals. He sheltered the spinning stone with his hands to protect against ocean breezes that might blow it out of bounds.

This is how the last marble-lovers treat their tournament, cupping it protectively, as though a strong enough wind might carry away their game - their little world.

The Beach Terrace Motel, where four floors of 8- to 14-year-old mibsters - or marble players - are stashed with parents and coaches, is a haven this week for the marble minded, as is the little set of beach-side bleachers overlooking the marble rings a few blocks away.

Here, for the duration of the four-day tournament, it's OK to do and say certain things that might be considered quaint, if not a little peculiar, elsewhere.

It's OK to introduce yourself as a "marble man" (or "ma'am") and to admit that you had your wedding pictures taken in a marble ring.

It's OK to wear marble earrings and sling an official National Marbles Championship towel over your shoulder, to have license plates identifying you as the 1973 national marbles champion. Here no one bats an eyelash if your minivan makes a loud tumbling sound as it turns corners, thanks to the dozens of loose marbles on the floor.

Here, too, it's perfectly acceptable to sidle up to a stranger and - nodding at your innocent-looking 13-year-old daughter who is working on her tap shot nearby - whisper:

"Watch her, no emotion. She don't do anything except beat you. No smile, no frown. She don't do anything except silently tear your arm off and beat you to death."

But Dan Nees of Mesa County, Colo., should be forgiven this fearsome speech. His son Aaron won last year; he's on the verge of a legacy.

What marble aficionados lack in numbers they make up for in intensity, and much of their pent-up passion finds release this climactic week of the national championship. Where else would anyone care whose fingernail is on the verge of splitting from excessive training or whose thumb is being iced after preliminary rounds?

Yet the giddiness and gossiping of parents don't seem to have much effect on the kids, who are playing ringer - a standard variation of the game - as American mibsters have always done: knuckling down to knock little spheres of glass out of a 10-foot circle. Coaches may fret over the young bruiser from Standing Stone, Tenn., with the wicked backspin, but ask Ricky Brode whom he's playing next, and he will answer, calmly, "a boy."

`That kid is sick'

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