September 14, 2013. My son Jude and I went to the National Rolley Hole tournament in Standing Stone State Park, Tennessee. We did this a few years back and you can revisit those musings below. Some things change and I’m good with that; other things are just fine the way they are. Marbles fall in the latter category. So does the park.
This year, however, Jude was three years older, a fact not to be underestimated. This year, we happened upon a girl named McKinley, about his age, who I think had a little bit of a crush on him. He was oblivious, but I noticed how she always appeared wherever he happened to be; remembered his name and spoke it ever so slightly as if gauging the way it sounded leaving her lips; and made sure to include and engage him whenever playing a game…of…marbles. She was a pool shark of marble players, very good and to hear her talk, it was as if she lived and breathed marbles. Jude’s a good player and held his own, but she pumped him up beyond his abilities. It was fun to watch this from a distance. We always have more clarity from a distance.
For the rest, enjoy the repeat musing below.
GEORGIA ROLLEY HOLE (SEPTEMBER 2010)
This latest adventure begins with me digging the latest copy of Tennessee Home and Farm magazine out of the mailbox. Don’t know why I’m on the list, since I’m a city boy who has to live within walking distance from the nearest grocery store, can’t tell a sheep from a goat, pines for diner food, and is perpetually amazed that seeds actually grow into plants. Nevertheless, I aimlessly flipped through articles about “gorgeous gourds” “father nature,” a “year in dogwoods” and “breakfast for supper”, until I stumbled across a sepia photograph of a hand flicking a marble into soft, brown, pastoral dirt. The caption read,“Top Players from Across the Country will Compete in the National Rolley Hole Marbles Championship in Hilham , TN” Intrigued, I googled the event and discovered this was no small potatoes (or gourds), but rather, the super bowl of marbles, the one and only 28th annual tournament as immortalized by everyone from CNN to Charles Kuwalt to Charles Schulz, a one day 12 hour marble event in which novices and experts from the world over “knuckle down.” Better yet, Hilham was near Cookeville, only two hours away.
Now that looked cool. I got pumped just reading about it. Perhaps I’d lost my marbles.
“Are you up for it Jude?” I asked.
Of course he was. He’s always up for it.
When I was a boy growing up I saved all my Peanuts books (dozens), thinking I might have a son someday who would love them. And, he does. And, as he reads, he sees the Peanuts gang playing baseball, skating on ice rinks, flying kites, and shooting marbles – simple, organic games. One of Jude’s favorite DVDs is “He’s a Bully Charlie Brown” an episode where Rerun (Linus’ little brother) loses his marbles to the camp marble shark, before Charlie Brown (with the help of his coach Joe Cool) saves the day. I didn’t play marbles too much as a kid, it was more my parents thing, but marbles goes way back, before my parents or their parents. The game of marbles as we know it dates back to the 1500s but the British Museum contains marbles used by Egyptian and Roman children. Two thousand years ago, the Greeks and Romans recorded use of marbles; and marbles from the same time period have been found at ancient burial sites in the Americas. Personally, I know that even further back in time Fred Flintstone lost his house gambling on marbles with Arnold the Paper Boy.
Driving to Hilham for the Rolley Hole Championship was like going back in time, but not that far back.
We arrived at the park as things were just getting rolling, no pun intended. Cathy the Marble Lady gave Jude and another boy a lesson in ringers. American rules call for two players, each with one shooter, and 13 target marbles. The game is played in a 10-foot circle, on concrete. The kids lag to see who goes first and then play so many innings. Jude lost by a point, but did admirably for his first try. Cathy the Marble Lady also spearheaded the Marble Hunt, which after the count of three, found Jude and dozens of other kids running through the tall grass in a manic frenzy, collecting hundreds of marbles. Next, Jude got a free shooter from Dr. Jabo the World Famous Marble Collector known as the Marble Buddy. We watched the proprietor of Mad Man Marbles blow-torching beautiful big and small marbles on the spot, like a marbled Chuhily. A few yards away, an intense craftsman put flint to the wheel, carving stone marbles.No nickname, but submit Stone Cold Marble Man for consideration.Jude made his own marble, balling together different colors of clay into a multicolored sphere that was cooked in an oven. Then, he engaged in Marble Art, picking out globs of paint to be thrown into a box with a blank piece of paper on the bottom, over which he rolled marbles around and around, creating a marble made masterwork, which is now framed, and hanging in our house. There were marble races (mine against yours), marble ring toss, marble swap meets, marble cookie making, and tournaments in all styles of marble – Tennessee Square, Rolley Hole, Ringer, and British. Indoors and out, we watched folks bend over, flick their thumb, and match marble wits.
But there’s more…
Next on the program was a Georgia Rolley Hole demonstration. For the uninitiated, it’s like this – a large playing area filled with soft dirt, clay, bordered by wooden slats or fending. Three main holes are laid out in a sort of visual triangle. Each player sets out to go from hole 1 to 2 to 3 and back again, flicking the marble across the dirt. But, at the same time, if you hit the other guy’s marble, he has to go back to the beginning. It’s like some weird combination of marbles, croquet, and pool. A marble is “alive” if it has passed the first hole and his on to the next. So, the idea is to move forward while hitting your opponents and making them go back.
They called it a demonstration, but Jude and I soon found ourselves drawn into the middle of a heated competition. The first player was pure country, late 50s, skinny, with a trucker’s cap and a scraggly beard. He reminded me of Levon Helm, the Arkansas-born drummer of the band who sang “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down.” Levon, as we’ll call him from now on, grinned a lot and had to ease himself down to the ground to shoot, like he’d been playing marbles so long his knees were arthritic from all the crouching. His main competitor was a younger fellow, late 20s, with army camouflage shorts and sleeveless sweatshirt. Army smiled less, was mild-mannered, and steadfast in his focus. They knew each other, maybe from past tournaments. There was a third player, younger yet and possibly Levon’s grandson. He was good, too, but not quite up to their league.
It took Jude and me about half an hour to get past the first hole because Levon did not pass up an opportunity to knock us back to the beginning, usually while moving to the next hole at the same time. Sometimes, in fact, he’d knock two of us back, say me, and 18 year old or Jude and me, or Jude and 18 year old. Jude started getting a little bit upset. Sometimes he has trouble with things he doesn’t master immediately, but this time I couldn’t blame him. These guys were slick. They’d drop the marble in the dirt, pick it up, and put backspin on it, so it would die right in place. Put their thumb in the dirt, and span their fingers forward, like making a snow angel, to see where to shoot from. Levon warmed a little and at one point said to Jude “Don’t give up, little man.” And, I was proud because Jude wasn’t giving up. And as the game went on and on, he got better and better.
In the meantime, Levon and Army guy continued to go head to head, with Levon Jr. occasionally getting in the mix. Things were intense. No one was winning, really. Levon took a smoke break to collect his thoughts. More players came to watch. Soon, there was a small crowd forming. Jude kept hanging in there.I wasn’t far behind. The old-timers started to respect us a little – they didn’t let up, but they complimented us from time to time on a particular shot. We must’ve been playing for over an hour, when suddenly I noticed Jude was ahead. Levon and Army guy had effectively knocked each other back to the beginning in two consecutive turns. So, Jude was the closest player to the final hole, he’d flown under the radar. In a great show of sportsmanship, Levon gave Jude a little lesson on the best way to knuckle down, for the last hole. I thanked him. Jude knocked that last marble in and he won the game.
What a blast…
It was a great day. The event was free, but the merch was cheap, so I got Jude some shooters, an extra bag of marbles, a t-shirt, and a book by the Marble Lady.Jude and I have played a lot of marbles since, ringers, double trouble, ducks on the pond, and 21. He got a jar for his marbles and he keeps them by his bed.
It’s my guess that every parent utters the words “in my day” at some point in their lives, comparing their experiences to their child’s and too often, deeming their childhood superior. It’s all perspective you know. There’s a lot to be said for computers, space travel, the global village, civil rights, a longer lifespan and many other things Jude’s generation will enjoy. But, I do have fond memories of playing wiffle ball in the street ‘til all hours, or throwing the ball against the wall, making up games in my head. I have fond memories of making giant forts out of cardboard boxes, and playing games inside. I have fond memories of typing up home made newspapers with my dad in the basement, which I called the Blessed Basement Buddy Gazette. These are things I remember, things that stay with me, things that cost nothing, and yet are priceless.
I’m not trying to raise Jude to be a Luddite, but I am trying to give him those memories. We have one TV in the house, in a corner upstairs, where it’s used primarily for Pizza Party Movie Night. No video games, no hi-def, and no on demand. Even the words “On Demand” make me wince, in the literal sense.. Every Thursday is game night, and batteries are not required, because it’s something like Battleship, Clue, Beatles Monopoly, Bridg-It (a game I played with my dad), Chess, Passport to Culture, Senet, Triple Triumph, or even a game Jude invents. Sometimes Jude creates “museums” in the house, or teaches me how to draw cartoons, or makes up a song on the piano. I bought an old manual typewriter that he loves to tap away one. He makes little books and staples them together. We fly kites, play catch in the front yard, do science experiments, and look at the stars. Sometimes we sit together and listen to music. Sometimes we sit together and read. Sometimes we sit together and talk. And, now, of course, we play marbles.
So, what I’m saying is I know I haven’t lost my marbles when I say that some day a long time from now, when I’m gone, he’ll look back and remember the fun we had in Hilham, and at home, playing marbles. And, I bet he teaches his son how to knuckle down.