I was a real tom boy growing up, more interested in climbing trees then in playing with dolls. I remember getting a Barbie doll, once, and it was a real novelty at first as I tried to slip tiny little shoes on tiny little feet, and tight shirts over not so tiny hard plastic breasts. However, I quickly lost one of the shoes, and I wasn’t particularly enamored with female physiology then and now so Barbie ended up in a box of unused, discarded toys. I believe one of our dogs eventually found it and took it off somewhere to chew.
There was a succession of rather disgruntling Christmases where I was given dolls that cried and dolls that wet their diapers and dolls that drank out of bottles, while my brother was given really cool stuff like a mini-car racing set and a BB gun. I was especially envious of the BB gun until Mike accidentally shot his best friend in the head with it and that was the last we saw of the gun.
(Mike was also was given a Boy Scout knife, which he promptly lost when he played Mumbly Peg with it in the ground by my feet one summer afternoon and the knife bounced and ended up point first in my thigh.)
My parents weren’t dummies and they eventually realized that girl toys held little interest for me, so they started giving me things I really could enjoy — a trike, a bicycle, a toy doctor’s kit, balls, musical instruments, and a tape recorder. One Christmas, after not so subtle hints on my part, I got my own bag of marbles.
Now, the year I got the marbles, the really big thing among the kids of my crowd (my crowd being the entire fourth grade class of the town’s one and only elementary school) was playing marbles. Whenever we weren’t running around playing hide n’ seek, or runaway, or tetherball, or swimming, we were playing marbles. It was mainly boys that played, but there were some other girls besides myself who liked the game.
I kept my marbles in a soft carry bag made of blue plush, with a gold drawstring closure my mother had made for me. We all had our favorite marbles, the ones we really hated losing during play, and my favorites were an orange colored aggie and a blue swirly. I’d take them out at night, polishing them against my nightgown and holding them up to the light, gloating over the rich color and sparkly surfaces.
In spite of the color of the aggies and the sparkle of the shooters and the mystery of the cats-eyes, the real prizes were the steelies — marbles made of steel rather than glass. However, the kids in our town didn’t have your average, every day steely. We got our steelies from the Blacksmith.
The Blacksmith had a shop downtown, close to the general goods store we called the Candy Store (because that’s where we bought our penny candy), and across the street from the Post Office. The shop was a bit rundown, with a grubby looking tree out front, and had a large door that opened big enough to allow a car to back in. Next to the door was a small dirty window with a sign proclaiming type of business and hours of operation. To one side was a bunch of bushes that grew by chance, and between them and the tree, you’d pass the shop if you didn’t know it was there. Of course, we all knew it was there.
When the Smith wasn’t busy, he and one or two of his friends would sit in chairs on the sidewalk in front of the shop, sometimes talking, sometimes just sitting and looking out at the cars passing.
I do remember the afternoon I went to get my steely quite clearly: the shop, the warmth of the sun reflecting off the sidewalk, and the Smith sitting out front, wearing a jeans coverall darkened with soot and grime, red and dirty white handkerchief stuffed into his back pocket, fanning himself with a folded newspaper. I don’t remember the Smith’s face, but the hands — I can still see the hands. Skin permanently darkened, calloused and scarred from years of work at the forge.
I was a bit hesitant at approaching this man who was so dirty and large and unknown. I had to be egged on my best friend, whose name I can’t remember. When I did get the nerve to approach the Smith and ask if I could, please, have a steely, his quiet, thoughtful eyes resting on my face a moment; then, with slow, deliberate movements, the Smith turned around and walked into his shop, not saying a word. When he returned, his hand was in front of him, fingers curved around something I couldn’t see. I held out my own hand, much smaller, delicate in comparison and only slightly dirty from summer dust, and into it the Smith dropped this perfect silver globe, surprising me momentarily because of the weight.
I rolled the steely around my hand and felt the fading warmth from the Smith’s hand, the smoothness of the surface, the deep glow of the metal. Looking up to thank the Blacksmith, the sun was behind his back and his face in shadows. I squinted against the light as I mumbled out my thanks, and I thought I heard a rumble of laughter in reply, or maybe it was a car going by at that time. Hard to say. But I had my steely, and I and my friend went running off to the playground to try it out, see what captures I could make with my new prize.
Over the summer, I never lost my steely but I did lose other marbles, including the orange aggie and the blue swirly. However, I also won new favorites, and everything tended to balance out. We were all friends, after all. Well, most of us were friends.
There was one boy my age who was a bully, plain and simple. His older brother used to beat up on other boys and this kid looked to follow in the same line. Surly, I remember that about him. Surly, tow headed, a bit stocky, and just plain mean. He scared most of the kids except for the few that were bigger then him, and they were scared of his brother. Between them, the two ruled the playground.
The bully and I just didn’t like each other and hadn’t for years, calling each other names, shoving each other around. Once, in third grade, when I was perched up on a cement wall above the steps leading into the school he pushed me off, and I fell on my back on the steps. I had the breath knocked out of me and scraped my arm real bad. When the teacher came out to see what the fuss was, I couldn’t find the air to push out the words to tell her what had happened and she assumed I had fallen on my own and sent me to the nurse to get my arm taken care of. Since in those days the worst scum on earth was a tattle tale, the bully never got in trouble.
It was towards the end of summer just before I started fifth grade and we were playing marbles one early evening when the bully showed up. He started taunting me as usual, but he seemed meaner that day, if possible. I tried to ignore him because I was having too much fun playing, but this just made him madder. Finally he kicked my pile of marbles scattering them about, including my favorite steely. As I watched it roll off and get lost in the grass, I jumped to my feet to run after it. When I stood, the bully kicked me in my privates.
Being kicked in the privates when you’re a girl isn’t pleasant, but it doesn’t have the crippling effect that it does on boys. The bully’s kick really didn’t impact on me that much and I remember brushing it off and started walking, quickly, towards him, determined to make this guy pay, once and for all. I’d wrestled with boys before including my best friend, and I wasn’t afraid to roll about in the dirt or get a little cut up. Might say I was a bit used to it by then.
As I got closer I noticed how much taller I was then the bully, me coming from a tall family and being a girl and girl’s getting their height sooner than boys. When I was in fist throwing distance, he moved back slightly, which surprised me a bit. I looked into his eyes and it shocked me to see that he was scared of me! The boy who terrorized the playground was afraid of me!
Now, I don’t know if I was an overly bright child but I was shrewd, the shrewdness that comes with just being a kid and trying to survive childhood. It dawned on me that he wasn’t scared of me because I could hurt him — he was scared because he realized at that moment there was a possibility I could beat him. And I was a girl. Being beaten by another boy would be bad, but to be beaten by a girl…well, that would ruin the bully for sure.
I’d like to say some noble instinct came over me, turning me away from the fight, but no such thing. Some kid’s parent showed up at that point and stopped it, telling us all to go on home. I wasn’t too happy about it, either, because I was really looking forward to putting that kid on the ground and driving his face into the dirt. I could taste the dirt in my mouth, feel his head under my hands, so real was the vision.
That was the last summer I played marbles. During the next year, I climbed trees less and danced more, discovering the Beatles and other rock n’ roll, spending more time with other girls, becoming more awkward around my best friend and the other boys. I was growing up. My bag of marbles began to collect dust and eventually my mother gave it away.
I never did find my steely that one summer day. As for the bully? He never bothered me again