I saw a bag of marbles at the grocery store yesterday and it got me thinking about my life, filling me with amazement that I’m still here after all these years. Not that I ever tried to ends things early… well not intentionally, but I think that’s the thing about the adolescent and teenage years, we all sort of try without really thinking we’re trying… meaning we don’t really make a lot of educated guesses at that age about what we’re doing and if it’s safe. Actually we might, it’s just that we don’t have a lot of education on what we want to try, and usually when something is cool, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s smart. I don’t know about you, but when it came to doing something cool verses doing something safe, 9.9 times out of 10 I was going to be doing something cool.
Yep, marbles are responsible for today’s reminiscent Smirk about life, but more than that, about surviving life. I grew up about three blocks from the high school, and two and a half block from the high school wood shop, which was in its own building close to the high school. Starting in grade school up until I left town, I would spend a lot of time at the shop, thanks to my dad being the shop teacher. Next to the high school shop was the big field that all the school buses lived in during the summer months. Now, when I was in grade school, the bus field wasn’t always the bus field.
At that period in my life the field was the schools dump. It collected piles if random waste, broken desks, old books, retired chalk boards, etc. However, the field did have one additional thing that made it one of the most magical places in town. It had a huge enclosed outdoor fire pit. The whole thing was made out of sheets of ½ think steel welded together. Three walls were around five feet high and the forth wall, the mouth of the pit, was between two to three feet high. That way the janitors could easily feed it whatever they wanted to, and at the same time once the fire was well under way, they could keep piling things on. It looked a bit like an outdoor fireplace for the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk.
On this particular day, all of the boys were at the shop, and it turned out dad needed some help spray painting a few things. I always wanted to help out when I could, but when you have little fingers attached to little hands, getting a good hold on a spray paint can, while trying with all your might to push that damn nozzle piece down far enough to get some paint to come out, took a lot more effort than I expected it would. About five minutes later my spray finger had more paint on it than the wood I was trying to paint, so I stopped helping and started playing instead. I do remember being fascinated by the rattling noise each spray paint would make when I shook them up, it was like I had my own set of metal maracas. I’d shake them up and do a little cha-cha-cha dance around the shop. It was my oldest brother Dave who unraveled the rattle mystery when he showed me that very day a spray paint can marble. It was a marble making all that noise… who knew?
I wanted one, but my dad said it was too dangerous to try to get marbles from a pressurized empty can of spray paint and that he’d get me some marbles sometime soon. As an adolescent “sometime soon” equates to about one minute shy of forever. If he wasn’t going to help, I was going to have to take matters into my own hands.
As I walked outside of the shop I noticed that there was a faint stream of smoke coming from the pit, and started heading that way. The closer I got I noticed that the pits guardian, the janitor, was gone. Apparently, he had finished burning the piles of trash he was assigned to and had disappeared while the hot coals continued their journey into cool ash. That is when I had a brilliant idea… I could melt the cans and get the marbles out of them once they’d melted. How easy and safe was that? I ran back to the shop and started filling my arms with the empty spray paint cans sitting in the trash. Realizing that I could be more efficient with the number of cans I could take with me, I got my “go to” partner in crime Mike, my brother who is just a year older than me. He liked the idea of free marbles too and together with our arms full of empty cans we headed toward the giant’s fireplace full of smoldering ashes.
Having no idea what to expect, we opted to do a test run and threw only throw one can in to see what would happen. For a few minutes there was nothing. Mike even grabbed a stick and started poking at the can. Shortly after that the entire pit started to hiss. In looking back it was probably the plastic nozzle melting and letting out the left over compressed air, but at the time it was the sound of an awakened fire snake hissing as the foolish adventurers that had wandered into its pit, ready to strike its magma filled fangs into whoever it was that woke it up. We ran from the noise as fast as we could. Then, half way between the pit and the shop, we heard a loud bang.
We skidded to a stop, well Mike did, I inadvertently chose to drop to my butt, and then skidded to a halt. We turned and looked back at the pit… had someone just blown up the fire serpent? Then, out of what must have been sheer dumb luck because it couldn’t really have been anything but, a marble fell past my head and thudded to the ground about three feet away. It was mostly gold, the same color as the paint in the can we had tossed into the ashes. I picked up the marble, it was lingering between warm and hot, and some of the paint came off and stuck to my fingers. “It’s the marble from the can,” I yelled, as we both started running toward the pit. When we got there, we peeked over the edge and looked in. Sure enough, the bottom of the can was gone leaving the remains completely empty.
The prospect of having more cans explode for our amusement while marbles fell from heaven got us a little excited. Soon three cans were in the pit, cooking up a little “boom” where a marble would pop out to let us know it was done. At least we had enough sense to not stand in front of the mouth of the pit while we waited for the cans to pop. With three explosions in the making, we knew we needed to take cover. When the first can blew we were hiding behind a few old broken desk tops, we heard a ping and then a shattering sound. The marble had failed to escape. It shot against the inside wall of the pit and disappeared into a cloud of tiny glass shard snowflakes… and I bet no two glass flakes were the same.
The second and third blew at almost the same time. One shattered and one shot out of the open top. We both lost it in the sun, but as I started walking back to the pit Mike yelled, “Don’t move.” I stopped, though not sure why.
“Shhhh,” Mike insisted, listening with the same intensity as a hungry baby watching Baywatch.
Then I heard it, a thud about twenty feet behind the pit. We raced towards the noise and began searching fervently for the little glass ball that had just hit the ground. Ten minutes of crawling through the grass resulted in two little boys empty handed and heading a back to the pit for another go. We only had three more cans, and I didn’t want to share my marble. So the last three cans were thrown in one at a time so we could focus on finding only one marble after each can popped.
The first one… “boom, shatter”. Damn. The second one… “boom, ping”… that was new. We waited for sound of the thud, once it hit we ran toward the sound. Surprisingly, this one was just lying on a small mound of dirt. Turned out the noise was the marble skinning against the edge of the pit wall on its way to freedom, it knocked out a small sliver of glass, but it was still whole and counted as one for Mike. The last one sounded a lot like the first one, but when we walked back to the pit we noticed that half of a marble was sitting just outside of it. Mike called dibs. His logic was since he had two pieces that were both missing bits then he should get the two damaged marbles to make up for the one whole one that I had. I wanted to argue his logic, but at the time I really could find no flaw in it.
With the cans all gone and each of us with a trophy, we headed back to the shop to see if there was anything else we could throw in the “still very active and ready to burn” pit. There were no more spray paint cans left in the trash, but we did manage to find one can of WD-40. The spray nozzle had broken off sending the can to the trash way before its time was up. The best part, the can was almost completely full. I felt a little like the first time I fed my dog Peanuts peanut butter, he had no idea what it was, but he sure enjoyed the hell out it. Since the can was almost full, this meant only one thing… run as fast as possible once we threw it in the pit. We had even set up some cardboard boxes to hide under with eye holes cut out so we could watch what happened in safety.
It took about five minutes for the magic to take place, which, when hiding in a cardboard box, waiting patiently is equivalent of spending three hours looking at a spreadsheet on an Apple IIe full of someone else’s tax receipts from the 1970’s. Three minutes in, we were talking about it being a dud, suggesting to the other to go check it out. It wasn’t until we had gotten out of our cardboard fortress of protection and took a step toward the pit that the can’s hard metal shell breached and its contents blew.
A fireball filled the entire pit and shot about fifteen feet out of the open top. It wasn’t terribly loud, but the flame and cloud of black smoke that billowed out was anything but stealthy. It was time to get back to the shop and hang out with an adult that would vouch for us being good kids in the event anyone showed up asking questions, because someone was bound to show up. In fact, in less than a minute of us getting back to the shop door we saw a the janitor, the one that always scared the bejesus out of me by just looking at me, walking toward the pit with a very angry look on his face.
As he stood next to the pit, his hands on his hips, he looked around for some evil doer to come out and fess up. This was our cue to walk back in the shop and find something else to do… like clean the paint off our new round shiny treasure. As we were drying off our hands and marbles with the course brown paper towels that all wood shops at every high school is required by law to use, we both agreed that the day had held the coolest thing either of us had ever seen, and made a pact not to ever tell mom or dad about it, and we haven’t to this day… well, unless they just read this Smirk, in which case… Mom, Dad… it was all Mike idea, I swear!
Sadly, ever since that “marble in a can” day the pit always had supervision whenever we would go check it out during “burn days”. It was like the trying to get past the Black Gate to get to Mount Doom. In truth it probably saved us from at least a handful or eyebrow grow-back sessions, and possibly the loss of a digit or two. So to the scary janitor that was assigned to keep an eye on the burning trash, thanks for keeping us safe… from ourselves. Eventually, they took out the old burning station and converted the school dump into the bus storage field… but the buses had all sorts of treasures in them, so it was a pretty good trade off. Of course, that’s an entirely different story.
This was one of many bad for the sake of “cool” experiences I’ve had during my life, and I’ll admit, when I look back, I’m impressed I’m still here… and thankful as well. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss a thing.
I’m convinced everyone has at least one, “… and I’m still here” stories from their youth, I’d love to hear one of yours.
Google Images, keywords: marbles, spray paint can marbles, kid searching in grass, burning trash, kids in cardboard box, and the Black Gate.