A Pocketful of Gumballs

Growing up in the 1950s, I was a member of the first wave of baby boomers, an elementary school child whose young family moved to the suburbs and learned to thrive in the emerging cold-war culture.  My parents purchased their first home in a new Federal Housing Authority neighborhood of starter homes for returning veterans and their young families. I was the eldest child, six-years-old in 1956 in Racine, Wisconsin, the Belle City, home of Case tractors and Johnson Wax.

During the remaining years of the fifties decade, I attended Henry Mitchell Elementary and Junior High School beginning in first grade. The school was constructed in 1937 as a WPA project and named after Henry Mitchell whose wagon works later became Mitchell automobiles. I walked the ten or twelve blocks to school, sometimes past the brick Tudor home a block from school on the corner with the overgrown hedges and thorny trellises whose lone resident was rumored to be a gray and grizzled witch. We would dare each other to open the creaky wrought iron gate and run through her yard and if we were lucky enough to not be snatched up, we’d emerge on the other side. Sometimes we would see the gauze curtains open slightly by a wrinkled hand with long finger nails, the apparition at the window watching us.

I loved school. I was smart, enthusiastic and curious and adored my young female teachers, my first mentors, and now as an adult when I look back, my first crushes. I enjoyed learning, often the first to raise my hand to answer a question or volunteer to be a teacher’s helper. Yes, I admit, I strived to be the teacher’s pet, often engaging my mother’s help.  In the spring she would grab her scissors in the morning before school, take my hand and walk me outside and ask which color tulips would I like to bring my teacher that day.  She’d wrap three tulips in wax paper and I’d proudly carry them to school.

Making friends was more of a challenge for me. I was not the prettiest of girls, though my parents dressed me well and my mother often curled or braided my long ash blond hair. I preferred pony tails, though I knew the boys would tug at them when they teased me. I was a tomboy. I had three or four close girlfriends who I ran with every day like a little gang, but more than anything, I wanted to win over the boys, so I could play rough and tumble school yard games with them at recess. The boys however, didn’t like me because I was smart, and because I was a girl. I would sometimes be the victim of their bullying, a punch in the stomach, or verbal name-calling and teasing.  All that changed in the next two years as I entered second and third grade.

In the fall of 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik, the first radio satellite to orbit the earth. By spring of 1958 Sputnik bubble gum arrived in the candy aisle. They were large round, aqua blue, gum balls, with a bumpy surface mimicking an asteroid, covered with crystalline sugar which sparkled.  The gum balls sold for a penny and became popular currency on the playground for trading and wagers on games like marbles.

Sputnik Gum

Armed with a cache of Sputnik gumballs in my pocket and marbles in my leather drawstring pouch, I approached the third and fourth graders shooting marbles at the edge of the concrete playground where the grass was thin and the ground flat, and a marble hole the size of a bird’s nest was dug into the dirt then carefully dusted free if obstructions from twigs or debris.

I loved marbles, not only playing marbles in the neighborhood where I was the reigning champion, but I loved to collect them, to buy new marbles with my allowance at Snyder’s Five and Dime, or trade them with my sister and friends. I would periodically pour them out of their leather bag or retrieve the cigar box from the window seat toy box in my bedroom and look at them, sorting by color, kind and size. I had steelies, purees, cat’s-eyes and swirlies, tigers and aggies.

During recess that day, I approached the regular players, all boys who congregated during recess and after lunch before the bell rang to return to class. They laughed when they saw me coming, pointing their fingers at me, taunting me in their sing-songy voices, “Why don’t you play hopscotch with the girls, f-a-t-t-y, or are you to fat to hop?” They slapped each other on the back, full of themselves. I looked deadly serious with my furrowed brow and steely gaze I shook the contents of my marble bag. I shot back, mimicking the characters I watched on TV, “Put up or shut up, I’m here to play marbles, and play for keeps! I also have some Sputnik gum in my pocket that says I can beat every boy here!”

Clearly, I got their attention, but I realized I may have overstated my ability. I had been practicing with the both the boys in my neighborhood and my girlfriends, plus prior to this challenge, discreetly observed today’s opponents from a distance to gauge their talent, but now I had to prove myself, or forever be the butt of their jokes and teasing. I searched my bag for my favorite shooter.

We established the ground rules, deciding the number of marbles we would drop, how many players in each round, agreed we were playing for keeps, no “quitsies,” which was only for sissies, and how to establish the order we would shoot.  As word spread there was a girl challenging the boys, the group swelled with spectators. Some of the boys didn’t bring marbles that day, and play-off rounds with the new champion were scheduled for the next day, everyone hoping they’d get a crack at beating “the girl.” We played in flights of six players. I would need to win this first round to proceed further. We agreed we’d play until the bell rang, and whoever was winning would claim all the marbles still in play, In addition to the marbles already captured. Side bets of Sputnik gum were made. I matched as many bets as I had gumballs.

During the first game, I was both tense and shaky, not a good combination. I tried to relax my shoulders and twirled my neck in circles like I had watched the men warm up at softball games at Humboldt Park. I placed my hand on the ground, fanning out my fingers to create a balanced shooting position, hooked my thumb behind my index finger, ready to shoot. I focused on the opponent’s marble I was trying to hit, and scanned its path to the marble pot. I drew an imaginary line with my eyes of where I wanted my shooter to travel, and precisely where it would make contact with my target, and propel it in the required direction it needed to take to land in the pot.

The first four players lost all their marbles, both figuratively and literally. They were besides themselves that girl had beaten them so easily. I had quickly found the sweet spot of my shooting game and played faster and faster, forcing the boys to keep up with the pace I had set. The boys rushed and began missing shots. The laughter and chatter grew silent.  There was only one player left, the reigning Mitchell Elementary School Marble Champion. We continued to shoot. The bell rang. Gasps went out as the moment of truth had arrived. We each counted the marbles we had won. I was declared the winner by a single marble. Sputnik gumballs exchanged hands, so in addition to the marbles I won that day I had gained seven more gumballs.

I was the talk of the schoolyard for the next few days, as I accepted each new challenger. Soon the girl’s brought their hula hoops with them and joined the throng as my cheerleaders, twisting and twirling, as I got down on the ground getting my knees dirty as I continued to shoot and win. At first the boys were angry, their pride bruised by being beaten by a girl, but soon I earned their respect.  I started to be seen as one of the boys and it seemed at least in my imagination that the girls began flirting with me too, giggling and averting their eyes when they saw me, like they behaved with the boys.

My fame was short-lived however. It came to a crushing halt, when on a fall day as we sat in our third grade class, a Ford Estate Station wagon with wood trim pulled up to the curb and parked at the front entrance of the school. Tied to the top of the wagon was the biggest black bear I had ever seen in my young life, each limb tied to a corner of the car’s chrome bumpers.  As we ran to the windows to get a closer look, the boys called out, “Cool!” and began bragging that their fathers’ had shot bigger bears than this one. The girls shrieked, some covering either their mouths or eyes in shock and horror. I now became yesterday’s news, but that was okay too. I was growing weary of both the attention and the pressure to win. And, lastly, I still had a bag full of marbles and a pocketful of gumballs.

A vignette from the memoir, Perfectly Flawed by Linda Lenzke.

 

 

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