Jacob Lawrence, "The Marble Players" (1949)
Jacob Lawrence, The Marble Players (1949)
Can a Game Be Literature?

Mark's Pages

January 7, 2003:

Marbles, tetherball, antlions.

Blistering hot day, San Diego, desert weather. Kindergartners lined up in ranks, marching to recess on the playground. You've got your jacket on.

"I'm cold!", you tell everyone.

"You're really weird", says a little girl.

Yes that's likely. You want to be different than all the other little kindergartners, marching in lockstep. Even this young you have a jealous sense of the unique individuality of your personal identity.

Marbles were for keeps. Hit the other guy's marble, keep it. Our goal was a huge and varied collection, particularly the prized pureies and steelies.

I've seen cartoons of kids playing marbles inside a circle drawn on the ground. I wouldn't know how to do that: it's not what we did. We played all over the field, sortof like golf on an endless open course. One player shoots, the next tries to hit his marble, you play in turns. Game theory: there are advantages to going first or second. If first: how far to shoot, to make it hard to be hit, yet give yourself a chance to come back. I could play either way: could hit from yards away on broken, sandy ground.

"Let's play again. If you win this time, I'll bring a steelie boulder from home and give it to you tomorrow."

Wow. Steelie boulder. You've never seen one of those but, they must be great. OK. You beat him easily. Next day he avoids you. Memory says: he never spoke to you again. First lesson in faithlessness. The rest of your life, every time somebody jilts you somehow, you think of this kid.

I began with a small mixed bag my mother bought for me for starters: ten cents or something from the local five and dime. By the time we moved away I had a half dozen coffee cans full of the things.

Scale the chainlink fence. Tall fence, ten or twelve feet maybe. Drop onto the blacktop on the other side. The tetherball courts are reserved for the older kids, perhaps because the authorities fear us young 'uns might be injured. You're fascinated by the mechanics of the sport: your goal is to wind the ball around the pole in one direction so that its chain becomes ever shorter, until at last the ball itself has no more play and rebounds against the pole. Instead of four-square with the first graders, you want to play tetherball with the big kids. You stay after school to practice.

Memories: vibrant but doubtful. The adult playground monitor sees you every day, but tolerates you, whether from confidence in your ability or from the sheer charm of your overwhelming enthusiasm. The older kids losing to you gracefully. Both of these things seem unlikely today, but, there they are.

One day in 1963 there's an announcement over the school PA. President Kennedy has been assassinated. Our teacher asks us to put our heads on our desks for silent prayer. I think it's because she's crying, doesn't want us to see. I cry a little. My mother loves Kennedy: she has his "ask not" speech on a record at home. She'll be sad. I'm six years old.

Ever seen antlions? Strange, tick-sized insects living in loose sand. They dig shallow burrows that look exactly like someone's pressed their finger into the sand and pulled it out again: cone-shaped, like funnels. Ant scouts would slip and slide down these things, loose sand carrying them to the bottom where the antlion would gobble them.

They fascinated us because they were designed to look backwards. That is, the side with their eyes and mouths looked like their backside, and vice-versa. As ants would scurry around to avoid their jaws, they'd walk right into them. We loved the irony.

Scoop a handful of sand, a few inches deep. Sift the sand through your fingers until you find the antlion, like panning for gold.

Calisthenics. A gym full of grammar schoolers training for war. Jumping jacks, bicycles. That's what they told us: training to fight the Russian invasion.

Sometimes they let you call the next exercise. Can't remember why. Invariably you picked the bicycle. You loved it, the other kids hated it, they'd all groan. You lived to be different.

Rolando Park Elementary School, College Grove, CA, 1962 to 1965.