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Dissecting is the passion of little boys. Later they learn to build but their first impulse is destruction. With curious fascination Byron dismantled one of his father's shot-gun shells. He even tapped out the little metal primer with a cautious hammer and nail. Then he smashed it with a rock. He waited a moment but the poping, cap-like explosion drew no comment from within the house. The gunpowder trickled through his fingers like hourglass sand, dropping onto a paper with a steady, pattering noise. Succumbing to temptation he peaked the minute, shiny flakes into a pyramid on the garage floor and touched the point with a match. The, sinister incence flashed into smoke, his eyes stung and to his hair, to his clothes clung the smells of brimstone and war. The air hung with a blue tint but the magic was over.

The other parts of the shell sparked less fascination. Tattered by the operation, the wadding and the casing had to be discarded. The tiny beads had some potential. Byron knew they killed birds, having spit them out of pheasant and duck at the dinner table. He began rolling them around, pushing them, and shooting them like marbles and an idea gradually took form.


Tetherball and cornerball were left to the girls for the duration of marble season. Even soccor was suspended for the spring. Much of the asphalt playground was commandeered for imaginary kiosks in a carnival atmosphere. The boys shot for fun and profit, the girls remained disinterested and usually wasted their shots wildly when allowed to join. Catseyes were the medium of exchange -- no one ever bought marbles, they were just transacted -- shooters and hucksters traded them as frantically as brokers do paper. Exotic items were the biggest attraction but you had to be willing to pay. A line of crystal cobs, for instance, would spawn a squad of a dozen or so anxious shooters, but from ten feet back. Accuracy was the nexus of success. Pee wees drew the crowds too. And any type of steely, whether cob, shooter, or pee wee, could easily divert all playground attention from common catseyes.

Byron discretely, timidly set up a line of five or so of the shell shots. "Pee wee steelys," he said in a quiet shout. The impact was instant. Nothing so tiny had ever been seen. Word spread. A queue started. And everyone missed. Invariably some flaw in the surface of the tarmac caused the projectiles to swerve from the intended line of fire. Succumbing to pressure he allowed the shooting line to creep forward to within two feet; he lost a few of the tiny balls but a torrent of catseyes came his way.

Attention was even more concentrated at lunchtime and by afternoon recess he began putting limitations on the shooters: "only cobs" he would declare and the line would shift. His pockets bulged. Every moment of free time that week attention centered on Byron. The very sight of him touched upon a fervent desire for pee wee steelys. "Only pearls," he shouted, boisterous with success, and a fussilade of the opaque spheres hurled towards his line. "Pee wee catseyes," "crystal shooters:" he need only utter the words and his coffers swelled. He had a shoe-box brimming with riches at home and had only lost half of the BBs. Even the girls paid him special attention, though he remained respectably aloof: "want to touch my crystal cob?" There is a responsibility that goes with wealth.

Eventually one of the sharper-eyed shooters discovered that his trophys could be crushed when stamped upon. "Hey, these aren't steelys," he declared in dismay. The playgruond paused nervously, shooting thumbs froze; even the skipping girls suspended their play for a poised, awkward moment. As the truth of the statement was absorbed the cheated, poorer shooters moved silently away leaving Byron alone in the midst of the crowd. At lunch-time he set up again, generously this times "hit the cob, win twenty pee wee steelys." Coldly he was ignored. He tried to take part in the shooting but an attractive cob offer would close whenever he lined up. And steelys, of any description, had ceased to have the same regal value; whole fortunes were wiped out at a stroke. Byron still had his accumulation of glass marbles but they were useless, tainted with the smell of deception. Playing with them at home alone wasn't fun.


Fortunately for Byron his classmates tired of marbles, adopting softball with equal enthusiasm in a few short weeks. Byron was able to join them but played outfield for the remainder of the spring.





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