Origins of the Steelie King


I grew up in the small central California town of Atascadero.  In the 3rdh and 4th grade, marbles were a popular boys' game at school recess.  It was not unlike the recent Pokémon craze, in that we cherished our marbles and also traded them and gambled with them  --- you could 'win' marbles from other kids in marble games.  Two games were popular.


In one game, a circle was drawn in the dirt, from two to three feet in diameter, and each player put a few marbles into the circle.  Then by turns, each player would have the opportunity to use his favorite 'shooter' marble from the edge of the circle, at ground level or raised up, trying to knock another marble out of the circle altogether.  If you knocked one out, that marble was yours, and you got another turn, from where your shooter lay (or from the edge again), until you failed to knock one out. If a marble got knocked close to the edge, but not out, then the next player would have an easy shot.  Turns continued until all the marbles were knocked out, then the next game began.  The winner of a game was the one who knocked out (and won) the most marbles, although the 'quality' of the won marbles was generally more important (and bragworthy) that the quantity.  In that sense, everyone might 'win' in a game. 


Naturally, everyone would put marbles into the circle that they didn't mind losing, but if you weren't good, then pretty soon some of your nicer marbles were going to have to go into the circle, because you wouldn't have any others left.  However, it was common practice for the big winners to eventually "sell" a handful of marbles back to the losers, for a nicer marble or candy bar or other treat (money never entered the picture).


Everyone had a marble pouch of some kind, often made by their mom.  But a store-bought leather pouch was pretty special, and kind of a status thing.  The marbles themselves were even more of a status thing.  Everyone would have their own special "shooters" which they prized, and which would be coveted (hopefully) by other kids. There were a wide variety of marbles, with older "agates" (aggies) made of various kinds of stone and coming in an incredible variety of color mixtures and appearance.  But "purees" (pure colored glass) were the hot new item, and some 'cateyes' were also prized.  At every opportunity, we would prowl the kid section at the local Woolworth's five-and-dime store, hoping to be the first to latch onto a new batch of purees or cateyes.  Aggies could only be obtained from older relatives or friends of your parents.  Marble sizes ranged from "boulders" (up to 3/4" in diameter) down to "peewees" (less than 1/4").  


In addition to the 'circle' game, there was the game of 'chase' -- the game of the Steelie King.  In this game, it was máno-á-máno, with two people squaring off, 'chasing' (shooting at) the other's marble until striking it (thereby winning the marble).  In this game, each marble was shot from where it ended up, so the idea, if you missed hitting your opponent's marble, was to try to get safely beyond it, so he would have a hard shot.  You could shoot from ground level or higher, and because of the distances involved, and the weeds, it was common to shoot from waist level while standing.  You could also toss the marble like a dart. The most risky move was called the "bombsie". If you called "Bombsie", you picked up your marble and marched forward, held your arm straight outward at shoulder height, in position over your opponent's marble, and dropped your shooter like a bomb.  Miss, and your opponent would win, since his next shot would be only inches away. A bombsie was very difficult, and total risk.


'Chase' required a great deal of skill, and also some courage and daring.  Should you use your best shooter?  You might lose it, remember --- and you wouldn't likely get it back.  But if the other guy was using a shooter that you coveted, then maybe you should use your own 'best' one, to increase your chances.  It was also considered a mark of bravery to lay your 'best' on the line.  In 'chase', it was not uncommon for  'hits' to be made, by skillful players, from more than 10 feet away.  Three feet would be just about a sure thing.


The game was made interesting because of the terrain it was played on - a dirt field of weeds and gopher hills and holes (which sometimes housed wasps).  This was also was our flag-football field and, in the summer, our baseball field.  The field was pretty flat, very hard (giving a good roll), but there were lots of pebbles and irregularities, so a 'true' (straight) roll was not the norm --- hence the gyroscopic effect of "spin" was important.


I had a favorite shooter, which came to me in a bag of marbles from an aunt.  It was an agate, about average size, a little smaller than most people used.  It was partly clear colorless, and partly cloudy in an off-white color.  In the colorless parts there were some air bubbles, a very unusual inclusion, and I imagined that these were a system of little worlds inside there.


There were four of us that were pretty good at marbles.  Bill Strom was hefty, chubby and happy, not a competitor on the surface, but deadly at marbles.  In keeping with his size, he favored a boulder for a shooter, and his fingers could accommodate it nicely.   Mike Atchison (we called him "Hatch") was tied with me as the shortest kid in class, but he was much scrappier.  He did not like to lose at anything, and was very hyper.   But Johnny Robinson was the best.  Tall, wiry, wild and fearless, he was one tough and talented kid.  He  had bright gray-blue eyes, a generally ragged and scruffy appearance, a quiet demeanor, and a cocky laugh.  It felt good to best him.


One day, Johnny Robinson showed up with a new shooter.  It was slightly larger than a peewee, heavy, packed a real punch, and held a 'line' like no other marble we'd ever seen.  It created awe and consternation, because he became even more unbeatable.  Johnny's eyes gleamed with power when he let us hold it.  Naturally, we all had to find that same kind of marble.  In a few weeks Hatch showed up with one, a little bigger than Johnny's.  Then Bill got one, and so did I.  Then we outlawed them, because in a sense they weren't real marbles.


What Johnny Robinson had shown up with that day was a ball-bearing --- a 'marble' of shining steel.  Naturally , we  called them "steelies".  Johnny Robinson and his "steelie" was the origin of the ballad of the Steelie King.





Ballad of the Steelie King  Writing of the Ballad   Steelie King -- the Path Not Taken 

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