Playing for Keeps

Pete Hymans
Contributing Writer

Hidden in the aging process are some strange beauties. Many things get richer, instead of fading. Some great childhood experiences remain – like a faithful dog – ready to jump at any twitch that looks like “Let’s go!”

Just yesterday, I was doing a mindless, repetitive task, and I must have nudged one of those microscopic folds in my brain, because the image of a special marble from 5-decades ago snapped into my mind’s eye! Right behind the marble, came the face of “Tyke” causing a vengeful competitive sort of gut wrenching to rise-up within me. Tyke was a “bastard!”

b3_cowboy-peter3Crisp memory reminded me that each of my 4th grade buddies had a cloth bag brimming with marbles. We had all kinds of marbles with names like puries, agates, steelies and boulders. One kind was called “cat eyes;” the swirly shape inside the spheres looked a good bit like a cat’s eye. Swirls, shapes, colors and textures somehow rendered our marbles sacred.

To shoot a marble (much like flipping a coin) is an art. The object is to traject your marble on the ground so it hits one owned by an earlier shooter. We’d play Roshambo (rock, paper, scissors) to establish the shooting order. The earliest shooters prayed hard their cherished marbles would not be hit so they would “live-on” to shoot again.

We played “For Keeps.” That meant that if one boy’s marble hit another’s, then boy 1 kept boy 2’s marble – forever – no matter how much boy 2 loved it.

At least once every couple of days, we’d all bring out our most sacred sphere and put it at risk. It was way-scary to be the first shooter even more so if Tyke was playing. That meant almost certain death.

Tyke had the best shot at Loyola School, and, the most prized marbles in his bag. Tyke knew he was gifted and he was an in-your-face predator. On rare occasions when he’d lose, the victor got a stare-down that felt like a death sentence.

When we lost, we could never cry – like babies – begging for another chance or pleading for the return of a prize. No! We learned early-on, playing for keeps, to suck it up and cope with life, without that treasure. And, once we could get beyond pain of loss, we lusted for vengeance.

b3_hymansmarbleThe “special” marble of my flashback was a maze of transparent and translucent swirls and color blending that took me on a journey through space when I gazed at it. It was the last marble I had won in my career. It was the best I ever owned.

During one November lunchtime, dark storm clouds sneered at us and an ice-dagger wind stabbed through sweaters and parkas. Six of us marched out to risk our best marbles. Tyke was onboard and Tyke was, of course, being a piss-head.

I cannot remember every surreal detail. I do feel the tension of Tyke marching around like he’d already won the lot. His gloating deserved a blow. I see the ultra-self-assured Tyke looking at me just before he was about to take away my best sphere. It’s as clear as day how his marble went straight and true towards mine and stopped … three inches short of clicking against mine.

I remember it as though it happened earlier this morning: the look on his face when he saw the meager distance between his beautiful SPECIAL marble and my own treasure.

I got big lessons from playing marbles. Taking the risk and losing something of great value can – for some fortunate boys – shape shift into that force that leads them to invest in doing the work and acquiring the skills. Such a transformation shapes us in boyhood and forges us into courageous men. Where the risks are great, so are the spoils.

Hey Tyke! You smug dipshit! I owned you and your marble. Thanks for being that jerk so I never became one. And, hey, thanks for the schooling. I hope you learned a lesson too … playing for keeps.

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