Old Rusty

bola-aceroThere is always something rolling around in my buddy Stan’s truck.

Whenever he steps on the gas, something goes thunk and whenever he hits the brakes, it’s…rumble, rumble, thud!

I don’t mind the little stuff skittering across the floor, but the big stuff slamming around in the bed of his truck… that bothers me.

Especially the stuff that goes…whup, boom, or wham!

One day while we were riding together something went ding, ping, pong and hit my foot. I reached down to pick it up and was overcome with a wave of nostalgia.

“Is that what I think it is?” I asked.


“Old Rusty?”


I held up a gleaming chrome-plated steel ball bearing and marveled at the fish-eye image reflecting back at me. Its weight, heft, and size convinced me it was what I thought it was. Even a little dimple on one side confirmed it

I had not seen Old Rusty in sixty years.

The thing is… Old Rusty was never rusty. We called it that because it was the opposite of what it was, like Tiny being the biggest kid in school and Fats the skinniest.

I don’t know why we did that but nicknames were all the rage in grade school. It was a fad and fads periodically swept across our youth like epidemics.

The first fad was hula hoop mania, which gave way to yo-yo madness and eventually Frisbee frenzy and with each successive fad came an insatiable craving that raged like a fever.

Whatever it was, we had to have it.

The worst was marbles.

When the first kid showed up with a bag of glass marbles, we shrugged it off. But after the next kid appeared with a sack of even more colorful marbles, the effect was like rats flowing off a Venetian plague ship.

We were infected.

And who wouldn’t be?

These marbles were a wonder to behold.

There were Aggies with patterns that corkscrewed and spiraled and opaque Oilies that flickered like rainbows. There were mostly clear marbles containing Swirls of color or a single Tiger stripe – but the most coveted marble of all were the Cat’s eyes that glowed iridescent orange.

Everyone had to have them.

To boast a full collection of marbles rocketed a kid to the pinnacle of fourth grade status. To have none – meant a status less than zero, therefore marbles were a gotta have.

Keep in mind in those days it was impossible for a normal kid to begin a conversation with their parents using the words “I want” and if they started a sentence with “I need”, it darned well better be something they actually needed.

So what do you do if you lack what you have to have?

Well, you devise a way of getting it.

Kids would trade whatever they had for marbles – but that only went so far and there was no way to keep up with the rare kid whose parents responded to “I want.”

So once you bargained for a meager starter collection of marbles, you were forced to compete for more and better ones – by shooting marbles.

Shooting marbles went like this: you positioned two shooters on opposite sides of a big chalk circle. The challenger laid their marble anywhere within the circle and the opponent who stood outside the chalk line, bowled their marble at the challenger’s. If it hit, a marble was won. If not, the challenger had a go and each took turns until a marble was won.

It was a game of skill and chance that worked for everyone.

Until Mort Morzinski got into it.

To describe Mort as a bully would be wrong for mere bullies were terrified of him. Mort was in a class all by himself. He possessed a physique like a refrigerator, a skull that cracked concrete and a disposition that could make bulldozer back down.

And he was really good at marbles.

He was the first to show up with a Shooter.

A shooter was a specialized marble whose only function was to win at marbles. Mort’s was the size of a golf-ball and scuffed to the color of a thunder cloud. It rarely bounced, never veered off course and had an uncanny radar-like ability to hone in on an opponent’s marble, hence it was undefeated.

To be honest, most of this was due to Mort’s skill – but there was another dimension to it.

If a kid’s marble happened to glance his shooter, Mort would stare at them the same way a wounded bull glares at a matador.

If the kid were brave enough to suggest, “I hit your marble.”

Mort would growl, “think again.”

At that point, the only way the kid could escape with his life would be to say, “On second thought, you’re right, I missed.”

So why would anybody shoot marbles with Mort?

If you have to ask, you were never a fourth grader. In the social sphere of playgrounds and prison yards, there are simply some things that one must do.

So despite the fever of marble mania, Mort was able to suck all the joy out of it.

Until Stan showed up with Old Rusty.

Stan was the only kid on the playground who as not scared of Mort. He was a head shorter and thirty pounds lighter and though he could hold his own in a playground brawl, Stan was no match for Mort, but Stan had something no one else had. He simply lacked the capacity for fear. It was like being tone-deaf or color-blind. While others trembled in the presence of Mort, Stan was oblivious.

So everyone begged Stan to do something about Mort and Stan promised that he would, but as the days ticked by and the entire collection of playground marbles found their way into a canvas bag that Mort lugged around, Stan did nothing.

Then one day during lunch when Mort was on the prowl, Stan calmly walked up to him and ask casually if Mort had his shooter on him.

Mort acknowledged he did.

“I got a steely that can beat it,” Stan told him.

Steelies were rare but not unknown. Mort had a couple of these steel shooters in his collection and was not particularly concerned about them. He felt he could use one more, so sight unseen, he challenged Stan to a game.

That’s when Stan revealed Old Rusty.

Stan’s ball-bearing was bigger than his hand. It had come off a rock-crusher and its polished chrome plating shone brighter than any mirror. As Stan rolled it around in his hand, Old Rusty snatched the very sunlight out of the sky and shattered it into a billion pieces.

Mort was dumbfounded.

He gawked at Old Rusty as if trying to make sense of it. For a moment he looked almost afraid – but then he grinned a sly reptilian grin.

Mort figured, one way or the other, Old Rusty would be his.

If Stan hit his shooter, he would force Stan to lie and say he didn’t.  He would then use his glass shooter to take Stan’s steely and once that happened Mort would become invincible.

He licked his lips at the prospect.

“Let’s do it,” he said, laying his glass shooter on the edge of the chalk circle.

By now a crowd had gathered.

No one had ever seen anything like Old Rusty and though they were impressed, everyone knew Mort and simply could not see how Stan would come out on top.

Stan shifted Old Rusty from hand to hand, measuring its heft like a major-league pitcher tests a baseball before a pitch. He studied the angle and the distance for a moment then wound up and launched Old Rusty like a ninth inning reliever fires a fast-ball.

Mort’s shooter vaporized into a cloud of glass dust.

There was no arguing about who won.

“You wanna put down another one?” Stan asked.

Mort just stared at the shimmering dust of his shooter.

You could almost read the thoughts going through his head. In a matter of microseconds Mort ticked through his options. He could cheat. He could lie. He could bully. He could do all three – but everyone saw what happened and everyone knew the score.

He couldn’t sustain that.


“So you kept Old Rusty?” I asked.

“Why would I do that?”

I didn’t know.

I didn’t think Stan capable of nostalgia but as I rolled the ball-bearing around in my hand, it scratched my skin every so slightly. As I looked for the cause, I swear I saw the tiniest chip of glass snatch a ray of sunlight out of the sky and bounce it off to goodness knows where.

Author: Almost Iowa


57 thoughts on “Old Rusty”

  1. Kids still have all those “must have” fads, which explains why I still have a bin full of Beanie Babies in my basement to this day. (My kids claim they don’t have room for it in their own houses, but God forbid I should throw them out.) And there are still the “I want” kids who make life so hard for the other kids and their parents, not to mention bullies. That’s why I loved this story so much….definitely a David and Goliath theme. I would have kept Old Rusty too!

    1. Jacks were not as popular with boys and thinking about it, I can see why. You don’t want to get tackled or slid into base with a pocket full of jacks. 🙂 🙂

  2. I never knew how marbles was played – never knew which name meant what – just loved those shiny, roly things. Nice to catch up at last. And fun to see Old Rusty win the game! Loved this story.

  3. Haha, brilliant! This made me remember playing marbles with my older brother (let’s just call him Mort). He ALWAYS had the biggest and best marbles (God knows where he got hem from), while I had chipped cheapies. I unfortunately didn’t have an Old Rusty to ever beat him, but boy, did I wish for one! A great read.

    1. Perhaps marbles lost their luster when our younger siblings started getting hand-me-down marbles. Back then was the age of hand-me-downs and second and third hand everything.

  4. That was a really, really fun read! Although I wouldn’t call them a fad at my school, I definitely played marbles and had a big collection of them at home. Jacks was also a thing when I was really little. And way to go, Stan!!

    1. Ooooooo, jacks. I almost forgot about them. They caught on with the girls more than the guys. Talk about nastalgia, do you recall all the jumping rope chants?

      1. Hmmm…. I didn’t play much jumping rope except in gym class when they made me 😦 But I do know the one about Lizzy Borden!

    1. Glow in the dark skateboard? Whoa, that must have been cool. Skateboarding just caught on when I was in eighth grade. We cut off a 2X4 and raided a pair of roller skates for the wheels.

  5. Greg, this took me right back to 5th grade and playing marbles in a sand pit. Can’t remember if I was a winner or loser. It was a neighborhood thing, and I probably was a loser or I’d remember more. So much fun with hula hoops and all that, too many years ago! 😃 Christine

    1. Oooooooo, slinkies. They were a had-to-have, right after sling-shots and wrist-rockets. Do you remember building binder guns? We would fashion a grip and barrel out of wood. Use a clothes pin for a trigger and cut binders out of red automobile tubes. Lots of fun, a few causalities though.

  6. Fabulous story – it took me right back….. I was one of the kids whose parents never came through so I just watched from the side lines. But those marbles sure were pretty and the game was played just as you describe even here in New Zealand, sixty years ago 🙂

  7. What a pleasure to read about Old Rusty. I had a bag of marbles with a great shooter. In third grade I ruled at marbles, but by fourth grade I’d changed schools and the kids there were more into 4 square than marbles so I lost interest in marbles. *le sigh*

  8. Delightful story, reminiscent and childish in a way similar to “The Sandlot.”

    At the same time, I can’t get over the thought, “F*ck those ‘I want’ parents for screwing it over for the rest of us kids.”

  9. A trip down memory lane, Greg. I didn’t have a “Rusty” but I sure did have my collection of marbles that I’ bring to school – 4th grade, I recall. We’d dig a hole in the schoolyard and take turns shooting our marbles into it. Whoever got all theirs in first, won. My favorites were the clear ones – like crystal balls. 🙂 Great story. Oh, and thunking stuff in the truck bed? *Sigh*

    1. I looked up a list of marble types for the story and only named a few. It is incredible how many different types there were. We used to have book backs made out of thick clear plastic and we would carry around our marbles in them. Kids had several pounds of marbles by the time the fad ended. I think the yo-yo fad came next.

  10. I knew you’d get to Steelies eventually. The day my dad brought me a Steelie from his factory was the day I moved a rung or two up the marble-playing ladder. It was only about an inch-and-a-half in diameter, but it was a beauty. I loved the Clearies for their color, and the ones with the swirls inside for their patterns, but that Steelie was danged useful.

    One of my favorite old family photos shows some of the boys from the part of the clan that moved to Saskatchewan c. 1920 or so playing marbles: in the dirt, in front of the shacks they called home.

    1. As Michael mentioned in his comment, one way of playing the game was to knock the opponents marble out of the circle. Thus the mass of a steely makes sense, but we played on a rough surface and the density of a steely affords the shooter more control.

  11. You’ve taken me on a trip to the playground of my elementary school, where playing marbles in the mud was a spring ritual. I still have my marbles, and I can prove it! They are nestled in a Buttercup Farm Chocolate box in my dining room cupboard. We didn’t have a Mort or a Stan to intimidate us. I must introduce my grandsons to the joys of playing with marbles. Maybe they can be the trendsetters of a new fad – ‘the effect was like rats flowing off a Venetian plague ship.’

  12. Wow, it’s been forever since I’ve played marbles so thank you for this trip to something fun in the past. The paragraph describing the game – isn’t marbles more than just hitting the other marble within the circle but actually knocking it out of the circle? People always give me weird looks when I say that I like Curling but I think the reason I like that sport is because of playing marbles as a kid.

    1. I was trying to think back about how we played the game. I have seen kids play in a small circle where you knocked the opponents marble over the line, but then I remember winning (and losing) marbles after a glancing blow in a large circle.

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