THE GREAT MARBLE CAPER
P. J. Malat
Vacant land or "empty lots", as they were commonly referred to in the fifties, could be found within walking or biking distance in most neighborhoods…typically near the "haunted house". If an empty lot wasn't commonly accessible, a "swamp" (an undeveloped, over-grown wetland) probably was. These were places kids congregated. Crudely built forts and tiny club-houses and swamp tree houses dotted these nearby, but uninhabited landscapes in Minneapolis.
Games embracing the outdoors and the contours of the land were devised. Games of choice were capture the flag, war, Cowboys and Indians and the deadly? dodge ball (yes, the ball hurt). Add a bat, stick, ball, hoop, rope, pulley or abandoned wheel…and the number of games became infinite.
Certain lots would be designated as baseball diamonds; and no construction permits were ever granted for that priceless real estate. Squatters would not be tolerated and would meet with behavior that would have made political "dirty tricksters" envious.
Playing ball in public parks was not an option. Older ruffians and thugs looking to make a name for themselves would stake a claim to the park. They'd strut near the community pool in the hope of impressing young ladies with their Ducktail haircuts and cigarettes rolled up in their
short sleeved tee shirts. They never paid any attention to parents who brought their kids to the park, but uninvited younger new comers could expect a visit from these future mafia hit men.
Tree houses and "empty lot" structures could also be used as hiding places from the older kids or to secure and store contraband. Precious items like marbles, yo-yo's, comic books and baseball cards would require the greater security of home hiding places.
A transistor radio (the only form of portable music) was a necessary appliance and would be brought to any and all gatherings. A transistor radio would repeat on a kid's Christmas or Birthday list, until either Santa or mom and dad came through with the goods. The most clever or wealthiest kids had them first. The proud owner of such precious equipment could find himself courted by all. Attempts at bribery abounded with "no trade required" baseball card offerings, exclusive and even in some cases, unlimited club house privileges might follow. Resistance was difficult, if not impossible.
Our group befriended Clifford Cummings, a straight "A" student and an electronic genius by our standards. Clifford secured his radio through hording every penny he could. He had no interest in baseball. Clifford thought it made no sense engaging in an enterprise where the deck was stacked so heavily against him. As a result, he had no baseball equipment and could save all the bubblegum and baseball card money the rest of us squandered. He also placed himself on a strict Popsicle, candy bar and comic book budget. Suspicion surfaced, though never confirmed, that Clifford secured the difference between the cost of the radio and what he had saved through some very delicate negotiations. Rumor had it, that Clifford blindsided his father with the argument that the radio would provide greater safety and protection for his son. Clifford supposedly convinced his old man that a radio would alert Clifford before the Russians
dropped the "big one" on us. Thus, Clifford argued, it would provide him with greater time to reach the bomb shelter before being incinerated. This line of rational secured Clifford not just a radio, but the Cadillac of all transistor radios…a Zenith Royal "500"an upgraded model of the Regency TR-1.
Clifford immediately modified his radio making it, one of the most prized possessions in the neighborhood. He customized his radio, so it could jump from KDWB ,630 on the dial, to WDGY, 1130 on the dial, and back again, using a push button type device like that of a car radio (unique for the day). We couldn't get most of the other stations on the dial, but we didn't want the old-fogy stations anyway. Ever after, Clifford was revered in high esteem and reverence within our group. Clifford would probably be referred to as a nerd or geek today. Back then he would have been called an "egghead" or a "dweeb"…we just called him Cliffy.
Cliffy also proved to be a valuable strategic planner. He possessed strong problem solving skills helping to engineer "The Heist" which still lives on in the annals of St. Charles Borromeo grade school.
The plan was conceived on a beautiful spring day in the privacy and seclusion of our "empty lot" shack. It had been a long winter and we were anxious to get our "property" ready for the active spring and summer campaigns. I was the first to arrive at our hollowed fortress after school. As others straggled in we began a discussion on "home improvements" for the upcoming summer season. That discussion came to a screeching halt when Mark arrived. He was almost in tears. His marbles had been stolen… "steelies"…"glassies"…"brassies"…"aggies"… "shooters"
"cat's eyes"…artificial leather bag…everything! This news was almost as devastating to us as the loss of a Willie Mays baseball card.
Marbles was a serious business! Kids would practice for hours mastering and perfecting rolling technique, flick shots, skip shots, home shots and whammies. Quality, variety, size, and material of these "precious gems" were a significant source of pride to kids…and their fathers. A small initial purchase of marbles was always viewed as an investment in future growth. But after the initial investment…marbles were NEVER purchased. They could be gifted, won, or even inherited…but NEVER purchased! Most were won in breath-taking contests of skill. Loss of a "steelie" or a particular "cat's-eye" or an "American flag" at recess, could spread like wild fire through the halls of St. Charles. A kid's marble bag was his stake in the world, his badge of honor, which often provided him with additional peer adulation. The stealing of such a possession, while uncommon, was clearly a declaration of war. A plan was needed.
Mark said his marbles had been lifted by a sleazy scoundrel, named Danny Danuchi. He had a reputation as a finagler and a fink capable of violating every rule known to kid etiquette. He was a tattler who took pride in believing that no one ever learned he was the snitch. He took brown nosing to an art form while working at perfecting his con games. He could have been Eddie Haskel's twin brother. Sadly, he had the nuns totally snowed. They thought he was the nicest little guy. We knew he would grow up to be a shyster but none of us ever thought he'd stoop this low.
The seriousness of the crime demanded an "Eye for an Eye". We needed to retrieve Mark's stolen marbles, but we needed to impart a soul-changing lesson. We would confiscate Mr. Danuchi's marbles and present them to Mark. This act would be conducted as if it were Devine Retribution. Danuchi was to never know where his marbles went. He must never know for sure, who took them. But how?
Cliffy said a diversion should do it. After he explained to the rest of us what a diversion was, we thought it was a pretty good idea. Cliffy then cautioned that it had to be a normal diversion…something that wouldn't be out of the ordinary. A surprise or staged diversion could leave us vulnerable to suspicion. Then Mike hit on it…a fire drill at school. That would be perfect. Indeed it would.
In the fifties students did not move from classroom to classroom in grade school. All subjects were taught in the same classroom by the same nun all day long. Classes were large. Each grade had three classrooms with between 45 to 60 students. The desks in the classroom had lift up writing surfaces with storage beneath. Valuable possessions, like marble bags, were also stored in desks during class. During a fire drill, Danuchi would be separated from his marbles. Our plan was to elevate Mr. Danuchi's spiritual awareness by securing his marbles (Mark's marbles) during the fire drill.
We now crafted our strategy. We determined that it should be executed during the orderly, single-file exit from the school. One of us would move very quickly to Danuchi's desk, lift the top, remove his marble bag and drop the bag into one of our desks on the way out of the classroom. This was the most delicate part of the operation. It was so dangerous that we needed a particularly crafty and gutsy commando to pull it off. We determined that would be Jeff Wilkins, because his last name starting with "W" which meant he could position himself as the last student to exit the classroom during the drill. Logically, he stood the best chance of snatching the marble bag without being spotted (so much for crafty and gutsy). Jeff wasn't thrilled with this "honor". Triumphant…he would be a legend…a hero. Caught in the act… he'd be in a "world of hurt." Jeff gave his begrudging consent to give it a try.
Our next problem…logistics. We never knew for sure where Sister Roseanne would be during a drill. Sometimes she stayed behind in the classroom until the last student exited; sometimes she moved into the hallway to make sure traffic was being properly directed. We needed to get her into the hallway. We planned that three of us would turn the wrong way in the hall after exiting the classroom. This would force her into the hallway and away from the classroom door to collect her charges, effectively removing her from the scene of the operation. We knew these sacrificial decoys would suffer a "Class-3" ear-tugging attack by Sister Roseanne but then all successful military operations involve some regrettable, but acceptable casualties. The alternative of having our commando hide in the classroom until the fire drill was over was deemed much too risky. He could be discovered missing. There was also the tricky return to the classroom and his ability to blend-in as if he had returned with the class from the playground.
Now we needed to come up with a way to make certain a fire drill would be forthcoming. Cliffy thought that the school was required to run a specific number of drills during a specific period of time. We figured one had to be coming because we had very few due to an extremely harsh winter. This was one element that was out of our control and therefore provided extra anxiety. What we planned to do was wait a week to see if a drill was called. If it wasn't, then Cliffy would work through his rigid rule-following, but pliable father, to see if the school was in compliance with the regulation.
Everyone had their orders. Jeff would remove the marbles and drop them in John's desk on the way out of the classroom. John, Mike and I would sacrifice our earlobes in making sure that Sister Roseanne would be busy in the hallway (the good sisters of St. Joseph always taught that Martyrs become Saints). Upon returning to the building, John would quickly, but quietly,
remove the marbles from Danuchi's marble bag into a near empty bag brought from home. Danuchi's bag, once empty, would be flattened and hidden by John. We determined that Mark should have no role in the caper beyond its planning. He needed to be free to execute his role as grieving victim without suspicion. Any discovered involvement by Mark would likely cast suspicion in our direction…his club mates and best friends. Everything was set. Well, nearly everything.
Two days after drafting the plan Cliffy announced that he thought one aspect of our strategy was flawed. He said a key component to our success would be how we dealt with Danuchi's uprising when he discovered the missing marbles. Cliffy theorized that if discovery was too quick, John might not have enough time to make the bag transfer. We all agreed Danuchi would immediately scream bloody murder, telling Sister Roseanne that his marbles were missing. How she might respond could vary from telling Danuchi to, "Be still", to outrage followed by a search reminiscent of the pantry-key search for the missing strawberries aboard the U.S.S. Caine. Cliffy concluded that we had to be prepared for a search conducted in the best paranoid tradition of Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) on board The Caine. This was an unacceptable risk that could spell doom for John. Cliffy had a plan to eliminate this risk.
What he proposed severely jeopardized the whole operation…it was almost scrapped entirely when he said we needed the services of one of the GIRLS in the class. At the mere suggestion, Mark said "Let's just forget it," a motion that Jeff enthusiastically seconded. "You want to trust a GIRL ?! "How do you know she won't Blab?!" "Do you want to owe a GIRL?!" Heated discussion ensued and a near mutiny of our own almost occurred.
When Cliffy regained the floor, he continued his explanation as to how we would have to deal with the worst case scenario. If it is safe in assuming Sister Roseanne will conduct a search, then it is safe to assume that she will not waste precious class-time searching the GIRLS. Sister Rosanne knows GIRLS don't know or care about marbles. It's a given.
Cliffy then felt it necessary to rally the troops and restore moral with a patriotic pep talk. He was in rare form...a combination of General George S. Patton and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. He pointed out that this would go down as one of the most remarkable feats in Catholic school history. More importantly, we will not only be helping our friend but securing "truth, justice and the American way" for all…Amen. Cliffy noted that, "God is on our side." "We need to stay the course." He added, "We just need to find the right GIRL." For the first time a real wave of fear came over all of us. A GIRL? After a number of stirring slogans, Cliffy finally got his consensus. It convinced me that the rumors surrounding negotiations with his father for his radio must be true.
This GIRL had to be carefully selected. If we screwed this up it would make a bad marriage look like a day at the ball park. We began our search by examining which GIRL might hate Danuchi the most. One by one, we eliminated names from the roster, retaining those with the biggest grudges. Some were eliminated for perceived flaws from, "She's a scatter-brain" to, "No guts", or she's "Sister's pet."
I was then able to make a significant contribution to the search by further defining the GIRL's assignment…How was she going to get the marbles out of school? This changed our focus entirely. Who could we trust that had some means of concealing the marble bag? This temporarily stymied us. Then Cliffy said, "I've got it…either Mary Louise or Sandy." His
selection was based on the fact that they both had dance class right after school and therefore, had to carry bags for their shoes and other paraphernalia. They could stick the marbles in their dance-bag and simply walk right out of school. Great…now, whom shall we choose; and who among us was going to make her an, "Offer she couldn't refuse?"
We chose Mary Louise. She was more sophisticated and polished...had a cool demeanor. She never had any disciplinary problems with the Nuns. No one would ever suspect her of being involved in anything like this. Sandy could find herself in trouble for talking too much in class and, needless to say, we could not afford to risk such a sensitive undertaking on a "blabber mouth". Finally, my parents were friends with Mary Louise's parents. It was determined that a girl of her stature wouldn't be caught dead talking with anyone in our group, but based on family friendship…I might at least be able to approach her.
The playground at recess was divided between boys on one side and GIRLS on the other (as we knew nature intended). There weren't any rules against crossing the line, none were needed…it just wasn't done. Recess was the only time I could approach her without drawing any real suspicion. After exiting the building, I walked up to Mary Louise as everyone else dutifully divided by sex and moved to the appropriate side of the playground for morning recess. We stopped right at the line of demarcation. I detailed the caper and emphasized that we were offering a true path to heaven and sainthood by doing this work of the Lord. She could help us strike a blow for righteousness and against evil and Communism in the world. She was being given the opportunity to right a serious wrong while seeing to it that justice prevailed. I figured Cliffy's evangelistic subterfuge was my only hope of convincing her to participate.
Mary Louise was outraged, insisting she would never be involved with anything so "Tawdry". I had to ask Cliffy what "Tawdry" meant. I made a final appeal by saying she knew what a louse Danuchi was and how she must know I am telling her the truth. Turns out she hated Danuchi too, something we didn't know. She still refused to give us any help on moral grounds. It was at this point I first realized that politics would not be my chosen profession.
I just couldn't bring myself to tell the guys I had failed. So I gambled. After all, the Lord hates cowardice (He loves the coward, but hates the cowardice). I told them to go ahead and put the marbles in her desk. I needed to force Mary Louise's hand if we were to prevail. Either, she would give the marbles to Sister Rosanne, saying she had no idea how they got into her desk (she couldn't admit she knew anything without incriminating herself) or maybe, just maybe, she would smuggle them out of school. It was a risk I thought we had to take. She was our only hope. Life itself is risk.
Anticipation created unbridled excitement. For the first time, we all enjoyed going to school. Would today be the day? It was exhilarating and grueling at the same time. One day we were anxious and excited about executing the strike, and the next we were fearful and hesitant, wanting to call it off. Jeff was a wreck, but he also knew he was in total control of the entire operation. No one would blame him, if he scrapped the mission. But if we pulled it off…WOW!
It was a Wednesday afternoon, about half way through afternoon classes. The fire alarm went off! The adrenalin was pumping at break-neck speed! Cliffy had to fight the irresistible urge to stay behind and direct the operation. Great Generals never liked being secure behind the lines. Mark was praying no one would get caught helping him obtain simple justice. My
head was spinning as I stayed focused on the Nun. Mike and John performed admirably. They went to the left instead of going to the right in the hallway. Then a miracle occurred. Big mouth Myra, the biggest snitch in the class, immediately alerted Sister Roseanne that the boys went the wrong way. This was proof that God was on our side.
When I hit the hall Sister had both Mike and John by the ears and was marching them back in the right direction toward the classroom where the door remained open as other students continued to file out. I winced a bit…battle scenes were often upsetting. She looked away from the door just briefly which provided me with the opportunity I needed. I darted left instead of going right. I didn't want her in the vicinity of the classroom where Jeff might be exposed. She was forced to release Mike and John to pursue me. I managed to get a good distance down the hall before she caught up with me. This took her even further away from the classroom. I knew when she reached me by the tug to my right ear which was followed by a slap to the back 0f the head that rivaled my old man's clout. By the time she had restored order, everyone was out of the classroom. She closed the door and followed her class outside to the playground. But something was amiss. Where was Jeff? Where was Jeff?!
A head count was seldom taken during a fire drill, but it was possible. I prayed for the "all-clear" bell to ring quickly, before anyone thought about initiating a count. If Jeff was discovered missing, everything would be lost. The all clear bell rang in fairly short order and the first crisis was averted… there would be no head count.
Now concern shifted as to whether anyone outside of our commando unit noticed Jeff was AWOL. Where was he; and if he was still inside, how would he blend with returning students? Was there a stray Nun lurking about that may have detected Jeff? Had Jeff been
immediately banished to the principal's office where he was taking a licking? No, no, not Sister Gabriel?! She had ways of extracting information that the German Gestapo didn't even know about.
The usual confusion and bustle was occurring once we were back in the classroom with everyone milling about trying to return to their seats. As I glanced to the back of the room I saw Jeff! Was I mistaken?! Had he been outside?! How?! Oh well… "Plop, Plop, fizz, fizz...oh what a relief…" Crisis number two averted.
Once we were all in the room Sister Roseanne closed the door. She was furious! She demanded our undivided and immediate attention! She expressed her supreme disappointment at having morons for students. A moron, we learned, was a student that didn't know which way to turn in the hallway during a fire drill. She made it clear that we always go to the right, never to the left. She asked John why he went to the left. John said he thought he turned right. She then asked Michael where he thought he was going. Mike said he was just following John. Then she asked me what in the world I was doing. I told her that I really needed to use the boy's room and thought it would be okay to do so during the fire drill so I wouldn't miss any of my studies. She then informed me that I would be provided with all the study time I needed after school.
For the next twenty minutes she continued with our geography lesson before instructing us to put our geography books away and take out our catechisms'. "What are you doing down there Mr. Danuchi", asked Sister Roseanne? "Sister, my marbles are gone, replied the now panicked Danuchi! "What are you talking about Mr. Danuchi?" Just take out your catechism." from the exasperated tone in the poor nun's voice it was clear she'd had enough for one day. "But Sister, someone took my marbles", pleaded Danuchi! The time had come to face crisis
number three. "Has anyone seen Mr. Danuchi's marble bag?" she asked. I shot a quick glance toward Mary Louise who was sitting with her catechism on the top of her desk. I thought, Holy Cow! It looks like she's playing ball. Crisis number three averted.
Just as Cliffy predicted, a search of every boy's desk was conducted by the beleaguered Nun. Some girls underwent light scrutiny, because of their close proximity to Danuchi's desk. Danuchi also searched the entire cloakroom. Sister Roseanne finally concluded that Mr. Danuchi had to be mistaken as to where he had last placed his marbles. Either that or they had "Sprouted Wings."
The shack at the "empty lot" was a beehive of excitement that evening. The guys put off meeting until the evening to allow for my extended study period. We all wanted to know why Jeff didn't make it outside during the fire drill. He said he changed the plan because he wasn't confident that he could avoid being seen. He wasn't concerned about Sister Roseanne but rather, about other classmates. So he hid in the cloakroom until the classroom door was closed. He said he waited a couple minutes and then went to Danuchi's desk, took the marble bag out and put it in Mary Louise's desk. He was safe in making the switch because he was alone in the classroom. He then waited in the cloakroom for the class to return. At the height of the returning commotion he got down on his knees with his back to the classroom as if he were collecting something off the floor. Then he stood up and went to his seat. Brilliant…simply brilliant. We all were beginning to believe that Cliffy's brilliance was having a profound effect on all of us.
Now the transfer to Mark needed to be arranged. Cliffy cautioned that the hand off should be nowhere near the school. This meeting was to be clandestine and preferably after
dark. It was also determined that both Mark and I would meet with Mary Louise for the pick- up, so Mark could properly thank her for the return of his precious property.
We thought this would be an effortless task…easiest part of the operation, but Mary Louise had other ideas. She knew she was in possession of a real bargaining chip and wasn't about to give the golden goose away.
We met again at the line of demarcation on the playground. This was getting really risky for me. People might begin to talk. The last thing I needed was even the hint that I had any interest in a GIRL. That kind of razzing could boarder on cruel and unusual punishment. So I wanted this to be a quick chat. I told her we were grateful and that we now needed to make the exchange. She then said she needed something as well. She said she wanted a lifetime embargo against all spit balls and ink well shenanigans for both her and Sandy. She assured me that she had not, and would not breathe a word of any of this to Sandy or anyone else…but that she could have a change of heart, if we weren't willing to be reasonable. I implored her to be to be fair. Lifetime is extreme. I told her that we might be able to reach some agreement for a portion of the next school year, but lifetime won't work. She said it was non-negotiable…lifetime for her and Sandy or no marbles.
An emergency flashlight meeting was called that evening. With Cliffy's radio playing Elvis, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, Jerry Lee tunes we discussed the pros and cons. In the end it had to be Marks decision because they were Mark's marbles. While we felt the demand was harsh and unreasonable, we also had to put ourselves in our buddy's place. What would we do if they were our marbles? In the end we gave the GIRLS what they wanted. This
was our first lesson in how problematic and complex relationships could be with the often unreasonable and irrational opposite sex.
Danuchi never suspected us. Cliffy says that's because no one ever approached him on the theft of Mark's marbles. Danuchi thought he had fooled everyone and gotten away with his felony. There were many suspects over the months that followed, but most were those who expressed their disdain for the little creep...but never us.
Our little group eventually disbanded. We left St. Charles and pursed individual interests in sports, the arts, broadcasting, wood-crafting, auto mechanics, and some, like Cliffy, pursued science. The separation wasn't a sweet goodbye but a slow process that simply evolved. Just as the era seemed to slip away so did the closeness of our friendships. There is a cruelty in the way years scurry by. It never dawned on us that those days would someday be gone…days that would be lost forever. Cliffy probably would not have found companionship with us today, as he did in the 50's. Cultural and educational changes don't allow children to grow-up free to wander their neighborhood developing camaraderie and deep friendships such as those that could be developed in that wonderful era. We were lucky… for "one brief shining moment" we could all unite under a common "Kid" banner to learn and grow together in ways that would serve us well for decades to come.
Mary Louise also demanded that no one ever learn of her involvement. That request has been duly honored until now. Either I am having the last word or I'm in huge trouble. If Cliffy were here, I suspect he would recommend that I begin sleeping with both eyes wide open.
Bio: Phil Malat worked in the broadcasting industry for more than 20 years. As an on air personality he hosted various music formats and programs from early rock to News / Talk. Phil also taught in the broadcasting department at Brown College. Phil continues to live in Minneapolis where all three of his grown daughter also reside.