I remember a long time ago reading a book called Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing, by Robert Paul Smith. It was his recollections of his youth, about the silly things he did as a child growing up in a small Midwestern town in the Twenties. It struck me then and even more so now how like my own childhood his was.
When I was about eight or nine or ten (one of those magical years) spring was always heralded in by a certain smell in the air, the smell of recently thawed earth. One day it was there, and little boys’ noses turned up simultaneously, led as by a piper to an open field. It called us eight- or nine- or ten-year-olds to migs, marbles to the uninitiated (“immies” to Smith, although I know I never called them that). After school or on weekends we would find a vacant lot (not hard to find in the early Forties) and mark out mig pits or mig squares to use for the winning or losing of our stashes of marbles. As I recall, the pits, shallow holes dug out with heel or toe of a shoe, were used for lagging. Each player would put one or more marbles into the small hollowed out place in the ground and then each of us would take turns from a distance of about ten feet trying to lag our shooter into the pit. Whoever managed it won all the migs in the pit. This game didn’t require much talent, just a feel for lagging. The game with the square was more difficult because it required an ability to shoot a marble with thumb at a target, one of the marbles we’d put at the corners of the square or another’s shooter. Whatever marble the shooter hit was his to keep. The players would never put one of their really good marbles on the corners of the square, and they’d never use any of their true favorites as a shooter for fear of losing it. The difference in skill levels was considerable. There were boys (never girls) who could hold a marble between tip of index finger and thumb and rifle that marble very accurately at another marble, some at distances of five or six feet. The shooter marble would travel through the air like a bullet at its target, often smacking into the target with enough velocity to send the target marble awesome distances (awesome to eight- or nine- or ten-year-olds). I was always wary of these experts and seldom played migs with them. I was one of those who held the marble in the crook between the first and second joints of the index finger with thumb under it. And I almost never held the marble very far off the ground, preferring to roll it on the ground at my intended target. This was the sissy method and loudly scoffed by the experts. But for the majority of us, rollers rather than shooters, we never referred to it as sissy. To each his own. We let the experts play against each other. We had our own game. The shooter kept his turn as long as he kept hitting marbles, pocketing each won mig as a comfortable trophy. And when the one whose turn it was missed he left his shooter marble as a potential target for those who followed in turn. When all the migs in the square were gone, that round was over. Marbles came in all sizes and colors. Some were called “steelies” because they were like large ball bearings, shiny silver and metallic. Some were called “cat’s eyes,” for obvious reasons. Cat’s eyes were rare and coveted by us all. Some were called “aggies” (short for agates) and were swirling browns and tans and grays. Most marbles were standard size, about half an inch in diameter. Some were larger, about three-quarters of an inch in diameter, and called “boulders.” Marbles smaller than the standard were called “peewees” or “pebbles.” In the early days of migs, marbles were not mass-produced as they were after WWII. The early ones were lovingly crafted by glass artisans who made each one individually different—creamy solids with swirls of various colors, transparent glass of varying colors and also streaked with contrasting colors. The later migs came out like thousands of clones. If the machine made clear with orange streaks, it made hundreds of thousands of exact duplicates. How boring. How uninviting. The season for migs seemed to us to go on and on, but it usually petered out as spring passed into summer. And the number of seasons seemed greater in memory than in actuality. I’m sure that I quit playing migs around ten.
Other games that came and went seasonally and lasted for only those magic years between eight and ten were jacks, hopscotch, and jumping rope. Jacks was mostly for girls, although my wife and I enjoyed playing jacks for a short while soon after we got married. We played on the kitchen floor of our first apartment, and she beat me with regularity. Hopscotch was also mainly a girls’ game, but some of us boys, unafraid of being called sissies, also played, although this too, like migs, had to be abandoned after age ten. Otherwise, the sissy brand would be simply too appalling and too permanent. I remember how we all searched for special glass pieces for the game. It was vitally important that the glass be a special shape and color, thus giving us with the most unusual piece a decided magical advantage over the other players.
Kids these days wouldn’t know what I was talking about, nor would they care. They’re all too busy with video games, expensive video games. I think it’s their loss, not knowing about the games of my youth.