Clarence Adams was always one of my favorite local history story tellers and writers. He talked about his times growing up in this area and in the mountain country. Many of his articles were written with a bit of humor yet always truth and he always included the day to day life, of what it was like growing up here, in his day.
Following is an article I ran across that he had written for “Vision Magazine,” dated Oct. 3, 1997, reminiscing about the activities going to school at the old Berrendo school in the 1930s.
Hope you enjoy:
Living in the Bitter Lake and Pecos River area during the 1930s allowed me to have some of the best times of my life, notwithstanding the sad time when my 2-year-old brother died from that terrible disease, diphtheria. That was hard to forget, and even today I recall how it affected me, my brother Jake and my parents. It was indeed a sad time. But I often heard my mama say, with tear-filled eyes, “It’s hard to bear, but God doesn’t make mistakes.”
Although bad times often came, there were some good times, too. I think of the two good things that I enjoyed during those years. One was when I was a cowboy, herding my daddy’s cows and the other was my being able to go to the old Berrendo School. Now some of you will say, “What, you mean you really like going to school?”
Well, I can only answer that one way. There was no other school in the country (or city either) that had the fun things that the old Berrendo Elementary had. And believe it or not, I learned “the three R’s” too. But that was the “topping on the cake.” I’ve often informed folks that I learned more during my years at Berrendo than most kids learn after spending 12 years in the city schools. And that’s no bull!
But we did other things at Berrendo, too; we had recess. It was a couple of times a day. And during those recess times we played games that you wouldn’t believe. We kids at the Berrendo didn’t have much in the way of recreation during our before-school time, or recess periods. We did have an old basketball goal post down on the prairie (playground), but every time a kid took a shot with a basketball, and tried to put a ball through the hoop (I don’t even think we had a net on that hoop) the ball would roll around, finally hit the ground and roll towards the creek.
Of course this is just what the kid wanted; now he could make a dash for the ball, then he’d soon find himself crossing the fence. (or crawling under) and oh, what a time he’d have, “down on the creek!” There was always plenty to do and see down there. The teacher would be lucky if the guy didn’t stay until time to go home. Then of course it might be ‘Katie bar the door!’ As some teachers-and parents –– my parents included –– just wouldn’t listen to excuses, if you had any!
Also, we played Kick the Can, Hide and Seek, Red Rover, Drop the Handkerchief, and a few others of those most exciting old time regulars. Some of us who were braver than others would sneak off to our cave that we had dug a couple of hundred yards from the school building. Here we also had an access tunnel that led to the creek. In other words, when we wanted to go fishing, we’d run to the cave and crawl down that tunnel to the river. So we kids at the Berrendo made do with those “thrilling” activities as they were about all we could muster in the way of games and sports.
And we played marbles. Now, for you who don’t know how to play marbles, let me tell you it can be fun. First, of course, you had to have marbles. There were big marbles, little marbles, agate marbles, crock marbles, “Tiger’s eye” marbles, “steelies” and several other kinds of marbles. And any kind would do as long as they were marbles.
I even made some marbles by rolling up some red Pecos River Clay, which I baked and took the school to use as “anties,” but when the guys shot into the circle and hit one of my clay marbles, it busted wide open, making red dirt in the circle.
Now in your bag of marbles you’d have a TAW, your shooting marble and you might also have a special marble to “lagg,” with. To lagg meant that a line was drawn some 10 or 12 feet from the circle, and each person who was to play the game used his special marble and tossed it toward the line. The “shooter” whose lagger marble landed the nearest to the line would have the privilege of being the first one to shoot at the marbles in the circle.
By the way, the circle to which I refer was drawn in the dirt, and was about 6 or 7 feet in diameter. Of course everyone had to “ante,” which meant he had to put a marble in the circle, and when each shooters time came to shoot, those marbles were up for grabs. In other words when your turn came, you did your best to shoot the marbles out of the circle.
Your turn was over when you missed. However, you could keep all the marbles you knocked out. This all sounds quite exciting, and it really was a fun game. The only bad part about it was that my mama insisted that playing for keepsies was gambling, and I would not be a part of it. She had a long salt cedar switch to back up her statement.
My brother Jake and I always looked forward to Christmas, and usually received the same kinds of presents every year. Among the usual gifts were Barlow knives, handkerchiefs, harmonicas, spinning tops, and marbles. I’ll never forget that one special year I attended Berrendo, because that Christmas in my meager presents I found a small bag of the most beautiful marbles you could imagine, and I could already feel “temptation,” sneaking into my evil mind.
I was quite proud of that little bag of marbles. I could hardly wait to show the guys at school and as soon as marble season began, I knew I would have trouble with my conscience. Why, in my bag was the most beautiful “Taw,” which was a little smaller than a ping-pong ball, then there were a Tiger’s eye, and an Aggie, (agate) along with several others –– perhaps seven marbles in all. I could just see myself cocking that big taw between my thumb and knuckle and knocking all the marbles out of the circle. I’d really “clean em out!”
But then I’d think about Mama’s threat, too, and I’d wonder if the punishment would fit the crime. It took me several days of looking on before I made up my mind about playing “keepsies.” Finally, (you guessed it!) I decided to play –– no matter what!
There were two or three shooters standing around the circle that fateful day. None of them seemed to be “hot shooters;” I figured I could play with the best of them. When I opened up my bag of new marbles, I could almost see envy in some of those fellows’ eyes. And you could hear “ooh’s” and “ahh’s” all around the circle.
“You going to ante them marbles in the ring?” several shooters asked. “You do and you won’t ever see ‘em again,” someone bragged.
“Well, I figger I’ll only have to put one in, because I’ll win it back with the rest of em,” I said. And all the time I was trying to find the sorriest looking marble in my bag for an “ante.” When I found it, I tossed it into the ring. Then I picked out a big marble to use for lagging.
“I’m ready to play,” I called out, kicking my conscience in the teeth and standing in line with about four other fellows.
When we lagged, it turned out that Peter Goldsmith’s (not his real name) marble landed right on the line, giving him the first shot. I guess I’d forgotten in former games how well Pete could shoot but he soon showed me. That guy took an nice looking “state of the art” agate out of his pocket, along with a piece of sheepskin. He laid the sheepskin on the ground, and, very delicately, placed his fist on that soft stuff. Then he laid that little sphere-which glittered like a diamond-on his knuckle and fore-finger, and ole Pete shot.
““Pow! Crack, Snap, Pop, snick, snack, bang!” and each time he shot, a marble “zinged” like shrapnel, landing a foot or more outside the circle. During the rest of the recess period Pete flat took all my marbles along with most of everyone else’s. And all the way home my conscience kept telling me, “I told you so!” Are you gonna get it! You lost your marbles! Your Christmas marbles, and you ain’t gonna get ‘em back!”
Well, I guess it’s none of your business as to what happened to me when I arrived home that evening. I figured I’d just walk in and calmly tell Mama what had happened. Maybe she’d just pass it off and not make a “big deal” out of the situation.
“Mama, I lost my marbles today,” I said, as nonchalantly as I could. I hurried on through the house, trying not to slam the screen door as I went out the back.
“That’s nice, son; I hope you had fun,” I heard her vaguely say, as though she wasn’t the least concerned. “Now run along and do your chores.” I suppose it didn’t register with her right away, as to what had really happened. She didn’t even look up from what looked like a bowl of cornbread she was mixing. (Cornbread and milk was often our table fare at supper time).
I had hardly reached the irrigation ditch in the backyard when the screen door slammed; I mean it really slammed! “You lost your marbles?! Well, you just get yourself back in this house, and I reckon you know what’s waiting for you!”
I won’t tell what happened during the next few minutes, and as I said, it’s none of your business anyway, but it wasn’t pretty. It not only hurt, but the harder she hit, the madder I got at ole Pete. And all the while I kept thinking about how to get even with that robber.
I tried to forget about losing my marbles, but I vowed that someday, somehow, I’d either get my marbles back from Mister Goldsmith, or get something equivalent. To make matters worse, every time ole Pete got a chance, he’d rub it in, and it got to be sort of a joke. Kids would laugh at me and say something like this: “Ha, ole Pete shore took you for a cleanin’ didn’t he? Got all your marbles?”
Well, to tell you the truth, he got most of theirs, too!
Winter rocked on; slowly, but surely the spring season eased in. But it was still a long time before school would be out for the summer. Well, about the time “kite” season arrived, “top” season came onto the playground, too; you know-spinning tops, the kind you use with a long stout cord, stretch the cord around the top until you get it “wound up,” then you throw the thing as hard as you can, and it unwinds, spinning like crazy –– if you throw it right.
In fact, if you throw it hard enough, you can split another top wide open. And what ole Pete and the other guys had never discovered was that I was known in the other circles to be the best top spinner in the country –– or city either!
So everyone started bringing their tops to school, and, of course, I brought mine. I had several, for I always received a top for Christmas, and I had accumulated a dozen or so good ones, too. And I hope you don’t get the word out that I was somewhat sneaky about those tops, but I usually bored a small hole in the center of my main “throwin’ top,” and pounded a piece of lead into the center. Then I filed the spindle down to its finest point. That made the top double heavy, and it had a razor sharp point. You can bet when my throwing top hit another top, that sucker went sky yonder!
As I suspected after we had smarted around, on the playground, showing off our tops, as well as displaying our skills, I acted as though I was pretty “green” about the whole thing. Then Peter G. and some of the other guys started hollerin’, “Let’s draw a circle and ante a top and play “Keepsies.”
Ole Pete looked at me and said, “You’ve got a good lookin’ top there, you got one to put in the ring?”
By this time all the guys knew that my mother was against anything that resembled playing for keeps. I also knew I’d get into trouble if she found out I played, but I just could not forget the marble situation. Ole Pete didn’t know that I was a “sharp top,” and I knew I was going to be the one to clean him out.
Well, we drew the circle, and I threw in an old top that had seen better days. Then we drew straws to see who would have the first shot at the tops in the circle. There were a half dozen or more in the ring and the guys who owned them were standing around waiting to get a shot. The game was like marbles; you had to knock a top out of the circle to be able to keep it.
Ole Pete had never seen me play tops before. I suppose he figured I was the fattest good with the top as I was with marbles. However, he soon got the shock of his life, and to make this story a little shorter –– let me tell you what happened during the next 15 or 20 minutes of that recess period.
I don’t recall who threw the first top, but nothing was very spectacular, and no one even hit the top. In fact, most of the guys’ tops barely spun. I could see that they were not winding their cords around their tops tightly enough, and the top landed in the circle all right, but it didn’t have the “zing” to it. I knew what mine would do though.
My dad had to come up with a heavy duty cord –– not one of your thin little twine strings, but a strong cord, one, that when I wound it tightly around my heavy top, that thing “would spin like nobody’s business.” (That’s a term my daddy used.) He had shown me how to aim that top and throw it straight and deadly.
So my time came, I was ready. I had a big button on the end of my top cord, and when I wound up my top, I pulled the cord until I could feel the button tight between my two middle fingers. I had already noticed that most of the other guys had spun their tops “right side up,” and I knew that any good top spinner must always aim at his quarry with his top upside down.
That’s just what I did that day, too. I started with the prettiest top, aimed at it, and let fly. My heavy top hit that beauty, “pow!” It shot out of that ring and landed across the prairie about 10 feet out of the circle. I secretly hoped it wasn’t damaged too much.
And so it went. “Bang, pop, pow!” It reminded me of a past event when I saw my marbles go skyrocketing out of that circle, ultimately going into ole Peter Goldsmith’s pocket. Needless to say, before the week was out, I had an impressive collection of tops; some nice new ones, some battered up ones, and some that would make good “anties” but not very good spinners.
There was one thing which kept preying on my mind; I didn’t have my marbles back –– my Christmas marbles. Then a sneaky little idea begin to take shape in my evil mind. So one day after I had “cleaned” them out, I told ole Pete that when we play tops, anything would do for “anties.” “It doesn’t have to be a top,” I said. “Any kind of old pocket trash will do, why even marbles would be okay. You got any marbles?”
Pete was quick to answer. “Yeah, I got a bagful in my desk; I’ll go get ‘em.” Like a shot, that ole boy went up the hill to the school house, and in seconds he was back and was tossing a marble into the ring. It just happened to be one of my Christmas marbles. Oh, was my mama going to be proud of me when she saw my pretty marbles back –– even my tiger’s eye, and my aggie, even my big taw!
Well, in spite of ole Pete’s enthusiastic spinning, he just couldn’t “hack it.” He had turn after turn –– as did all the other guys who dared to pit their skill against me. Most of the times when it came my turn to spin, I took someone’s top, marble, or whatever piece of “junk” that spinner might have in his possession. And when I finally took all my prizes home and hollered to whomever was in the house, “Hey, everybody, I got my marbles back, and I ain’t gonna play for keepsies anymore!”
You won’t believe this, but when my mama had me lie down across the old Apple box to land that salt cedar pole across my you know what, I swear I saw her grin a little, and when the thing landed, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the usual “bustin.” But, of course, the entire situation taught me that gambling, certainly didn’t pay.
And yet, maybe it did!
Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.