Eighteen years ago, Junior B. Strong, had his picture taken with the Queen of England. Just recently a copy of the photograph appeared in a book entitled A Stone’s Throw, which tells the story of how Strong won the World Marbles Championship in the U.K. After reading the book, WPLN’s Kevin Bouldin traveled to Moss, Tennessee, to meet the accomplished marble player and his brother, Malcolm, and has this story.
Junior B. Strong is missing the tip of his right index finger. It’s gone, vanished off the bone just above the top knuckle. He lost the fingertip when he was in his early thirties. He’s now in his sixties, and as he sits outside of his brother Malcolm’s marble yard, he explains how he lost the finger while trying to replace a fan belt on his car, “Well, we was putting oil or something on it and I was checking the belts to see if it was tight enough and he hit the starter and it kicked it and rolled around that…”
Junior B says the shortened length of his finger permanently altered the way he plays marbles. “Yeah, it really makes a lot of difference. I can’t get the spin on a marble now that I used to could.”
But he still plays. Nearly every week, he and a crowd of local men congregate at his brother Malcolm’s to play a marble game called Tennessee Square.
They play inside Malcolm’s barn, and everybody who meets there freely testifies that the Strong brothers are two of the most formidable Tennessee Square players in Tennessee. Even if they aren’t the most famous.
“Let’s all go down to Dumas Walker’s…”
In 1989, the Kentucky Headhunters recorded a song paying tribute to another marble player from Moss, a man who owned a store there in town. Out back of his place there was a marble yard, and when the Strong brothers weren’t playing at Malcolm’s, they visited Dumas’s.
“Yeah we’re headed to the drive-in on a Saturday night
Just me and my baby and a six-pack of Lite
Got a pocketful of money, and I’m rarin’ to go
Down to Dumas Walker’s right after the show
They’ll be shootin’ marbles in the back of the store
And laying money down on the floor”
(Kentucky Headhunters – “Dumas Walker”)
Junior B. says the song skews the truth. He says, no one laid money down at that other marble yard. But even if they did gamble at Dumas’s, like the song says, they don’t at Malcolm’s. It’s a clean game there. No betting, no drinking. The only beverages to be found are cans of RC cola. And during the summertime, the men usually stand around slicing watermelons with pocketknives while a large metal fan blows constantly over the yard.
Tradition holds that Tennessee Square is played on a court of carpet with nine large marbles. The Strong brother’s carpet is a dull pomegranate-color, tattered and well worn from dust. They bought it from a man named Billy Buck Brown in 1981. But the marbles they shoot, they make those themselves.
“That’s an inch and a quarter. That’s two and a quarter.”
Malcolm measures two marbles with a digital caliper. Each one resembles a miniaturized moon or a massive pearl. These marbles aren’t made of glass; they’re carved from flint, which the brothers gather and carve themselves using a series of grinding wheels. Junior B says the finest flint can be found near water.
“The best rock you find comes off Dale Hollow Lake. Just take a hunk of it and we’ve got a diamond tipped blade that we cut it out, and then take a grinder and grind those corners off and get it to where it’ll turn in that…in that stone and make it that round,” he says.
Junior B says it takes about forty minutes to carve a marble, forty minutes of holding the rock against the wheel by hand. But as Malcolm has discovered, the process can be automated. “I’m setting it up to go…to turn right now.”
Using a crude clamping device, Malcolm demonstrates how he traps the rock against the wheel using a metal dish, thereby freeing up his hands. “See you set that right against that there. And clamp it down. And go off and leave it.”
The rock tumbles and scrapes inside the dish as Malcolm walks across the marble yard to relight his pipe and listen to Junior heckle the crowd of players.
“You better get it. Larry, did hear you what Billy said? He said, he’d thought we’d really done something the other night. We’d beat you’uns, and there wasn’t nothing to it.”
In 1992 Junior B and five other local boys went undefeated in the World Marbles Championship held in England. But that’s just history. On a Thursday night at Malcolm’s, there’s no talk of England or a world title. And if you ask Junior B about his trip to England, he won’t say much. But if you ask Malcolm about his brother’s missing finger, he’ll tell you Junior B. started playing better marbles after he lost the fingertip.
This is Kevin Bouldin for Nashville Public Radio.
“Yes, I played marbles all day
Baby, you know, I never win game
I never win a game….”(Bud Garrett – “I Been Playin’ Marbles All Day)
This story is part of occasional storytelling series called Upon First Meeting.
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