17 March 2008


She cheated. She must have. Perhaps Mrs. Belcher, our 4th-grade teacher, in an act of premature feminist activism, slipped Bonnie Belle the contested words the night before the 1956-57 Central City [KY] Grade School Spelling Bee. Surely I was sick at home, so the competition was down. Cousin Kirk Stone, later a PhD, and political editor of the Fort Wayne, IN, daily newspaper and later on the U.S. Senate staff of Sen. John Glenn and now professor of communications at Charleston College, came in second. He never forgave Bonnie Belle her luck. Not even Charles Frank Winkler, who would become an oncologist and surgeon, could beat the advantaged competition that day. He must have been preoccupied with his Elvis the Pelvis imitations.

Fifty years later, Bonnie Belle stills gloats over her triumph. Not that I care, but when I saw her last, I wanted to test her orthographic acumen by quizzing her on the word “charlatan.”

One reason I did not win the Spelling Bee was that I was concentrating on the highly coveted school marbles championship. The mental discipline it requires to devise on-the-spot winning marbles strategies is suited for only the most superior exemplars of humanity. Marbles is a cerebral sport. It’s gruelingly physical, too. The kneeling and crawling on the Good Earth and pacing around the marble ring eyeing and calculating all possible trajectories, collisions, and caroms—not to speak of tactics to psyche the competition—is part Zen walking meditation and part bullfight, with the only weapons the brain and opposable thumb and curled index and middle fingers. Marbles is a masculine primal sport.

I won that day and went on to finish runner-up in the county marbles tournament to a boy who went on to win the State championship, in Louisville. I know because my father was in charge of the county championship, for the American Legion, and took the winner to State and then to the Nationals, where the boy finished fourth. In my losing to a marbler who finished fourth in the Nationals--those were my glory days.

I know my loss to a champion marbler at the county championships was due to my concentration wavering that day under Sputnik skies, not for fear of the Russians, but because of the eerie prescience I experienced of one day standing before Bonnie Belle half a century in the future and hearing her declare that spelling is a patrician contest not for those plebeian marblers who sport soiled knees. I want to ask her whether she can spell “haughtiness.”

Mrs. Belcher always liked Bonnie Belle better. I’ll take my marbles and go home.

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