There 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.
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.