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Fire: Seducer, Destroyer

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Like many children I was fascinated with fire. We didn’t have many opportunities to see it in all its chaotic glory: our house had no fireplace and my mother rarely lit candles. The exception was at Thanksgiving and Christmas. There was the central candelabra and four candles that spelled out NOEL, shaped like either snowmen or reindeer (I actually can’t remember). Each kid had one that also was a letter in their name. We all had N and E in our names. My sister and I only had L and I was the only O so it was m letter. These were reverently lit every Christmas but preserved for many years.

The only other time we would see a live fire was when camping in the summer, which we did pretty much every year as that’s an affordable vacation for lower middle class families with not a lot of spare cash. Marshmallow roasts and s’mores and of course, staring into the flames, watching all those fire sprites dance and caper about.

Perhaps it was these tantalizingly slim glimpses that tempted my brother and me to more dangerous games. My parents hadn’t separated yet, which meant that matches were readily available because my father smoked.

It might have started with finding a stub of a candle. I was probably eight or nine and my brother six or seven. We would come home from school for lunch and sneak downstairs to play before going back. Obviously my mother was otherwise occupied or we would have received a good whooping just for lighting the candle. But hiding out in the cement playground, the rumpus room, we would light up the candle, then take the papers straws absconded from the kitchen and light the ends. Ah, the role models of smokers. That’s what we did. We pretended we were smoking those paper straws, always putting out the fire when we were done. This was the more guilty of the two activities that involved fire, but one we were never caught at.

On the weekends we would get up early, as kids are wont to do, and go down to the rumpus room to play with dolls and trucks. There was a spare bed in there that we would sit on and dress the dolls. One morning we dropped a piece of doll’s clothing below the bed. Of course we had the candle lit because we could. My brother took that stub of a candle and looked under the bed for the clothing. The flame licked at the under structure of the bed and before we knew it, things were beginning to smolder. We could see the smoke rising and kept running to the bathroom filling cups of water and pouring them on the mattress. But the smoke grew thicker…and thicker.

Finally, realizing this was getting out of control, my brother and I did the walk of doom, up the stairs to my mother’s bedroom. We had a right to fear because her punishments were often harsh and heavy with wooden spoons and leather straps. I awoke my mother and said, “We were just playing… and all of a sudden the bed caught on fire.”

She was up in moments, and had awakened my older brother downstairs (he would have been about 16/17) He got to haul the mattress outside and house it down. Surprisingly, my mother soundly scolded us but didn’t beat us, laying the blame at my feet, saying, “You should have known better. You’re older.”

I was so ashamed for years about this incident that I didn’t tell anyone until I was in my later twenties. That scold was way more effective than a spanking would have been. My brother and I never repeated our firebug ways and got off light, in terms of punishment and destruction. I have candles now, have had other dangerous dances with fire but I’m very careful about candles.

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Childhood Games: Marbles and More

We live in such an era of media overload that the childhood games of yesteryear are all but forgotten.Video games and TV still predominate to such a degree that childhood obesity is now a problem in North America. Sure there are some sports but perhaps not enough.

And with all the media inundation, children have forgotten often how to play or to create a game out of nothing. Back when civilization consisted of making everything by hand a child was lucky to have even one toy. It might be made of clay or wood, or perhaps scraps of cloth though early clothing construction consisted of no leftover bits. The toys would be tools to imagination and the child would have to create their own games.

Years ago I went with friends to their cabin in Clinton, BC. The little nieces were out in a rustic wood cabin with no electricity, no TV and no games. They started to whine about being bored. So I said, come on, grab a towel and let’s go outside. The three little girls followed me and we ran around like superheros or jumped out of the crabapple tree. Before long, they’d forgotten about their store bought toys and were enjoying make-believe in nature.merrygoround1

There have always been complex games and simple games. Chess is a complex board game, checkers, not as much. When I was a kid in elementary school there was the usual playground equipment: teeter totters, monkey bars, a merry-go-round (the foot powered style) and that would be it. Swings were for the parks but not amongst unruly kids during recess.

But we also played another game. I think it was around grade 3 that the kids would line up against the wall of the school and play marbles. You needed a few marbles to begin. Other kids would sit with their legs in a V, with a marble or marbles lined up. Then you would stand at the predetermined line and roll your marble toward the other one. If you hit the marble you got to keep both. If you missed, the other person kept both. Some people would line up three or more, or like a bowling alley so that you would have to hit the ones in front before getting the more prized marble at the back. Some people even built cardboard arches to set their marbles in.

Cat’s eyes were the commonest type of marble, but sometimes there would be a more interesting color combo. catseyesThere were the larger sizes; I can’t remember what we called them but I think either boulders or jumbos.  Next in marbles were the sold colors, opaque or with a marblesswirl through them. And there were the clear marbles, either blue or white or green, or some other color. I remember taking some of these and frying them in the frying pan, then dropping them in water. These would form crackle marbles. They too were prized but somewhat fragile.

But the most coveted of all marbles were the steelies, ball bearings really but their silvery perfection was what every kid aimed for. You used your cat’s eyes first to hit the other marbles and tried to get more prized marbles. If you ran low on the lowly cat’s eyes, then you set up your prize marbles (but not usually your most favored) to gain more marbles. It was about collecting the coolest marbles and about the most.seagrams I even had a clay marble at some point. It was very old but not worth much to the other kids.

Almost as precious as those steelies were the bags to carry your marbles in. And the best bag of all was the purple, Seagram’s Crown Royal whiskey bag. I managed to get one. Maybe it came with some marbles, maybe from an older sibling, but it was definitely the choicest bag.

When talking recently with my siblings, my older brother and sister and my younger brother (a span of eleven years) we all remember shooting marbles and the Seagram’s bags. My younger brother said it was uncommon for girls to play, yet I remember doing it but also being unaware of whether I was in a minority of girls to boys. But it seems we played through grades 3-5. Grade 1 was too young and by grade 6 we were on our way out to junior high (grade 7 in Alberta). It was probably the most popular playground game in school.

My younger brother is a teacher and says no one plays marbles anymore. It’s too bad. It was cheap and simple and taught kids numbers, how to trade and value. I don’t remember any fights breaking out over marbles. Maybe they did from time to time but it was still a way to keep kids occupied that didn’t cost hundreds of dollars. I still like marbles as pretty pieces of glass. Perhaps, as the economy continues to slow, people will go back to simpler pastimes.

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