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The Night We Lost Our Marbles

For a good number of my younger years I spent Christmas Eve in the chilly backwater parts of Tijuana, Mexico.

I was part of a group of young people who volunteered to bring Christmas joy to a group of disheveled kids at a dirt-poor orphanage. (Note: as in many countries, an orphanage is simply a term for the place you stick unwanted kids, few there were true orphans.)

We lived a mere twenty minutes from the border so it was easy to pack up a fine Christmas dinner of hot dogs, chips and cold sodas (a treat these kids never got tired of) and get to the orphanage while the dogs were still hot.

Of course we would also load our vans with sacks of donated gifts and as we buzzed through the tourist zone of Tijuana we would snatch a huge piñata and pack it with goodies while bouncing on the rough dirt roads that webbed the back hills.

I had been to the orphanage a week or so previous and while goofing around with the kids in the dirt play yard, had noted that apparently marble season had come.

Younger readers may be unaware, but for many years in kiddom the activity on a school playground was governed by some odd and inexplicable calendar that would, without fanfare, usher in some new and temporary fad.

In their turn marbles, clackers, tops, yo-yo’s, super balls, trading cards and their ilk would appear out of the pocket of every well trained boy.

Recess games such as dodge ball, four square, or “King of the Mountain” were abandoned when the fad season hit it’s peak and instead of squealing kids the playground would be filled with small virtuosos Duncan yo-yo’s in hand performing feats such as “walk the dog” or “around the world”. Or in the case of super balls where the bathroom would be filled with a dozen boys who in unison slammed the super ball on the tile floor and then tried to avoid getting whacked in the head by the ricocheting results.

And as with all fads, many kids could not contain their enthusiasm to the playground and thus the desk drawer of every teacher was full of confiscated  yo-yo’s, super balls and marbles.

Marble season had burst upon the boys in the Orphanage with the same vengeance that it did in the American grade schools. At every chance they could these miniature gamblers would kneel in the dirt and draw the timeless game circle for the gladiatorial fight of cats’ eyes, purees, jumbos and pee-wees.

The main difference was that for the kids in Mexico, access to marbles was tougher. With no purchasing funds they played with a limited collection chipped, war weary glass balls…and it was only by victory in the ring that they could hope to fill their marble pouch.

As a college age helper that Christmas Eve I was driving a van full of High School students south of the border and as we pulled out of the church parking lot I remembered what I had observed a couple of weeks previously.

“Hey, you guys want to do something really different this year?” I asked my crew and then explained about marble season and the absolute frenzy that had gripped the boys of the orphanage.

So on the way we made a detour to a local toy store where every kid in the van loaded his or her pockets with marbles (and we bought a bunch of jacks as well for the girls).

That was the night we all lost our marbles.

I gave the crew explicit instructions NOT to give away any marbles but to play against the kids. “Make them earn them” I said, “That’s the fun of the game!”

Some of the guys smirked with joy – they had been marble shooting hot shots in their playground just a few years back. They would teach these kids a thing or two.

And some teaching took place for it was a slaughter, the Alamo revisited in marble form. The Yanks stood no chance against even the youngest foe. They were marble shooting sharks and we were hapless guppies.

None of the orphan boys cared about the hot dogs, the Christmas gifts, the piñata or anything else but emptying the marble filled pockets of my inept students. The trouncing they were getting lit the competitive fire in many of the Americans as well but it was to no avail, they all got cleaned out.

I got cleaned out too. Smeared by a kid who obviously suffered from some kind of defect, perhaps he had been a drug baby or child of an alcoholic mother.

He had a small and sorry collection of marbles when we started the play and by the end of the evening his marble pouch overflowed.

We returned home late Christmas Evening to the cornucopia that is American with our pockets empty but hearts filled.

Losing had never been so much fun.

Perhaps Jesus understated the point when he said “it’s more blessed to give than to receive” because forced bankruptcy by a group of marble mercenaries made us feel more than blessed…it made us feel terrific.


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Rick is a writer and illustrator who serves as teaching pastor at Kauai Christian Fellowship. He lives with his wife, kids, a weenie dog and a quiver of surfboards in Poipu, Hawaii.