Dirty knees, a sore thumb, a piece of chalk (or even a shoelace) and keepsies marbles (maybe along with a few pennies) bulging in a boy’s (or a girl’s) pocket are every bit as much sure signs of spring here as are vibrant green leaves. Or at least, they used to be! That was especially true for Southern West Virginia, where the game of marbles became a ticket to fame, if not great fortune.
I mention miners and mountains in the context of the game of marbles because of several things. West Virginia is marble country. Hard scrabble kids with little money to spend for gear to play with, looked to the simple game(s) of marbles for entertainment in the spring. They found a way to compete and take their show on the road, so to speak, as they headed for the National Marbles Tournament in Wildwood, NJ each year in June.
The marbles you see in the photo were given to me by none other than Raymond Jarrell of Naoma , (some say Whitesville), West Virginia, years ago when I interviewed him for a story I decided to pursue when I learned that Raymond was the 1972 National Marbles Champion—the very best in the country. I drove quite a way in 1976 when I did the interview. It’s a long drive from here JOTOLR to Raymond’s neck of the woods. He’d won the national championship as a 13-year-old. Beyond that, growing up, he’d given a lot of time to coaching several local aspiring mibsters toward their championship quests, teaching them the skills of knuckling down.
I remember Raymond as very soft-spoken and not much for beating his own drum. Mostly I remember the 20-gallon garbage can filled with marbles he’d won over the years, occupying a corner of the service station, owned by his family, where he worked. When I peered into the trash can, nearly filled to the top with colorful glass orbs of every stripe and swirl, he said, “Here. Help yourself!” So, I did. He must have given me a carry-out container because I certainly had not brought my own! Today, a half-gallon Kerr-Mason jar sits on the shelf in my office, and represents a precious memory for me, of the day I interviewed the National Marbles Champion of America, right here in the mountains of West Virginia.
The thing is, Naoma and Whitesville are tiny towns in Coal Country, tiny, in the sense of numbers, but peopled by big hearts of hard-working, God-fearing, kindly—even gentle—folks. Just before I retired, I worked eight years for The Pampered Chef and I did many “kitchen shows” for miners’ wives right around Whitesville and Naoma. These are tightly bonded communities, supportive of one another and unexpectedly warm and welcoming of strangers.
I’m sure you’ll remember hearing the names of these townships most recently in connection with the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, where 29 miners lost their lives. Yes, that’s the place. It’s where families gathered to await news of the ultimate fates of their loved ones. It’s where media and law enforcement, rescuers and regulators were all made to feel right at home.
Raymond Jarrell still owns and runs the service station in Naoma. I have to confess I haven’t been back. Life travels on. Nobody plays marbles much any more. On the other hand, some things do stay the same…mining disasters continue and we’re told by industry that we should simply accept this as a fact of life and a part of doing business. The powerful manage the media to ensure a favorable light on their stories and offer $3-million to each family who lost one of the 29—probably in return for their silence. The public soon forgets, as focus shifts daily from 29 lost miners to a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a bomb in Times Square, another too-big-to-fail bank fighting against regulation and possible criminal fraud charges, defended by one of the richest men in the world, Warren Buffet. What’s new? And, of course, there is the busyness of daily living for the rest of us. As the saying goes, “Life moves on.’
Tomorrow, on a much lighter note, I’ll tell you all about the game of marbles as it was played, right here, deep in the Appalachians, just off another one-lane road. For today, I continue to mourn the loss of so many things...lives, the environment, and simpler times when games of marbles were a source of joy, excitement and challenge.