Oh, Internets! I just spent an hour discussing marbles (the game, not the popular sculpting material) on a message board. I hadn't thought about marbles in years. Playing marbles was one of the great pleasures of elementary school, but also the source of much disappointment. The disappointment was partly the result of my not being very good at most of the games, but also because in the course of them I often discovered unpleasant truths about many of my friends.
The way a kid played a game, and his (I never met a single girl who played marbles in those unliberated days) attitude in victory or defeat could be quite revealing. Marble games, demanding neither great physical prowess nor great intellectual gifts, were in a way much more revealing of the individual player's character than were any team sports or competitions such as chess. Also, there was never a teacher or coach monitoring the play, so we tended to be entirely ourselves. Some of the selves I saw emerge from some kids in the course of marble games were not very attractive. I learned a lot about people from playing marbles.
Of course, the disappointments were more than compensated for by the pleasure of the games themselves. Plus, the dirt we invariably got all over ourselves kneeling on the ground felt good and smelled good, especially on those warm days when the soft dust would rise from the ground with each shot, giving each streaking marble something like a vapor trail which would ascend into the air or settle back to earth in parts. I like to think of the escaped dust we had risen still floating somewhere in the atmosphere, or now part of some other place far from the playgrounds of my childhood. Maybe somewhere, some bits of it will be raised again by the thud of a pitched marble today.