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The Great Marble Caper

by Phil Malat

part 1 of 2

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 where 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 newcomers 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 clubhouse 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 hoarding 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 reasoning 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 device like that of a car radio, which was unique for the day. We couldn’t get most of the other stations on the dial, but we didn’t want the old-fogey 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 hallowed 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”... His artificial leather bag. Everything! This news was almost as devastating to us as the loss of a Willie Mays baseball card.

Marbles was 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 wildfire 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 Divine 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 was 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 had very few due to an extremely harsh winter. This was one element that was out of our control and therefore provided extra anxiety.

We planned to 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 his 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 clubmates 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 — played by Humphrey Bogart — aboard 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 to assume 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 morale 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 would 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” and “We need to stay the course.” He added, “We just need to find the right GIRL.”

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2011 by Phil Malat

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