Post Thanksgiving thoughts

We were fourteen around the table. With kids’ and grandchildren’s homes no farther than Sammamish, the clan manages to assemble for most holiday feasts. Any need for highchairs is long past. Our youngest grandchild looked wistfully at the black olives before popping one into his mouth. Alas, his pinkies had grown too big to wear olives. They grow and change so fast that I’ll never see them again as they were that day.

After being excused from the table and before the call for desert, the youngsters headed for the basement to plug in ancient Atari games. How odd that Playstation and X-Box aces never lose their attachment to Pac-Man, Centipede, Asteroids and Frogger. Immediately they’re whooping and hollering and fighting for the controller as though Atari were the newest and hottest game system around.

Meanwhile, we adults listened from above, wondering about this love for retro-entertainment and whether it should bear on our Christmas shopping. What would kids do if pricey toys weren’t plentiful? Might that be a reasonable pre-Christmas question to help guide parents’ and grandparents’ choices? Might memories from the Great Depression find some usefulness in this deep-recession Christmas?

Time was when Santa left a mesh-sack of marbles in every boy’s Christmas stocking. Wonderful crystal orbs with colored swirls! A jumbo marble known as a lagger was included in deluxe mixes. No game of marbles could be started without lagging to fix the order of play. But getting marbles for Christmas was like getting skis in July. It would be March before schoolyards were warm and dry enough for the games to begin.

A game of marbles starts with marking a course for lagging. Scribe two lines in the dirt about five paces apart. Contestants toe up to one line and lag toward the other to establish a playing order. Next, scratch a circle in a flat place in the dirt. Each player drops one marble inside. The size of the circle isn’t fixed and depends only on the skill of whoever might be playing.

Crook your index finger. Then bend your thumb inside the crook so that the end of the thumbnail is caught partway behind the finger’s first joint. Place a marble in the pocket formed between thumbnail and finger joint and you’re loaded and ready to fire. But wait, there’s a rule: The outside of that first knuckle has to be touching the ground when shooting. Any air under the knuckle and your competition shouts, Knuckle-down!

The object is to hit a marble in the circle hard enough to knock it out. A good shot blasts both the shooter’s marble and the target marble out of the circle The shooter gets his marble back plus the one he knocked from the circle. If neither the shooter’s marble nor a target marble leaves the circle, tough luck. A marble is lost. Both stay in the circle as targets for the next shooter.

Miss Russell, my 4th grade teacher, lectured us on the evils of gambling, lumping in playing marbles because some boys, she said with an accusing glare, were said to play for keeps! It was because some wimpy kid went bawling home to complain that we’d taken his marbles that Miss Russell prowled on marble-patrol during recesses. Though marbles accumulated in front of hot shooters like chips around a roulette table, she couldn’t hover over us long enough to witness winners stuffing hem into pockets. So she forbade us to bring marbles to school.

In the waning years of the Great Depression, marbles were wealth to boys as cattle are wealth to the Massai. Losing them hurt. After a player had a bad run of luck and shuffled back into the classroom all agitated and unable to concentrate, a catch-phrase was born: He’s lost his marbles. Could it be that “knuckle-down” and “playing for keeps” had origins in marble games?

Considering the state of the economy, simple pleasures like playing marbles might make a comeback this year. Like Atari’s Pac-Man, Monopoly, jigsaw puzzles and Chutes and Ladders, cost-effective simple games don’t lose their appeal. When gold is short, give a goldfish.

Should the economic downturn be a signal that rampant consumerism has, in fact, run its course, look for a return to simpler pleasures. How about getting together for hearts, pinochle or bridge? If the weather holds, let’s canoe across to Jetty Island. Or if the forecast turns grim, come on over with your guitar. We’ll work up some Christmas music. And while you’re here you could help me patch some photos into my Christmas letter.

The trick lies in trying not to dwell on lost income, job or opportunity—if you can manage it for moments at a time. While we adults wrestled with such thoughts, our carefree youngsters whooped it up in the basement. A mile away, a paid sign-waver on 88th Street announced the close-out sale of another shop at Seattle Premium outlets. Another roster of jobs terminated.

On the up-side, Marysville isn’t a bad place to lose a job. We’re surrounded by good people. Like the generous-hearted leaders I meet in planning sessions who invariably put the needs of others first. The safety-net might not be perfect but one way or another we’ll get through this. Possibly to a better, simpler style of life.

Comments may be addressed to: rgraef@verizon.net.

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