The all-day finals began on Saturday morning at Standing Stone. Well shaded by hickory and beech trees, the park's yard was flanked by bleachers that accommodated part of a crowd of about 100, including rolley-hole lovers like 79-year-old Theron Denton, who recalls playing marbles as a boy at night by the light of bonfires. No doubt about it, he said, today's shooters are better.
The dirt is the same, though. About the color of butterscotch and as fine as sifted flour, it's dug up near riverbeds, rolled as hard as a clay tennis court and periodically dragged smooth with the traditional grooming tool: a tire rim. After a couple of games the all-important top layer of dust is often dragged with a push broom. This dust acts like the felt on a pool table or the grass on a golf green: It absorbs the backspin put on a settling shot and cushions a marble lofted like a spinning top near a hole in the hope that the marble will spin right in and stay there. Dancing the marble, this is called. Dust is also essential as an omnipresent rosin bag. Junior B. Strong, a member of the local team that won in England, brought over his own dirt in tied-off sections of pantyhose. Says Fulcher, "Those Tennessee farmers, they look at dirt the way other people look at fine wine."
Strong, who operates construction vehicles, was hard to miss. He was easily the dirtiest player on the marble yard. Like Pig Pen in the Peanuts comic strip, he was covered in dust, from his slip-on sneakers to the brim of his blue cap. Folks say his is the most powerful thumb in the state.
Strong and his partner, Junior Rhoten, who edges lumber at a local sawmill, had won the tournament the previous year, and at 11 o'clock on Saturday night they were one game away from repeating as champs. Their opponents were two cousins, 11-year-old Nathan Thompson and 15-year-old Wesley Thompson, who would have had to face their fathers in the finals had the elder Thompsons beaten Strong and Rhoten in an earlier round.
Experience prevailed early, as the kids fell behind and valiantly played catch-up. About 50 minutes into the game, Strong and Rhoten each needed only the bottom hole to win. Nathan needed four holes to go out; Wesley needed three. The kids hung tough, though. Waiting for the proper opening while defending the out hole, they took turns darting off to catch up on the holes they still needed. At about midnight Fulcher announced, "They're all for outs."
A few shots later the kids had maneuvered both their marbles close enough to go out. Rhoten blasted away one marble, then the other. Momentum changed hands. Soon Rhoten and Strong lay within span, about four inches apart. The match was on the line. Wesley, who was about eight feet away, had to hit one of those marbles. Nathan, having been sent to the perimeter, some 20 feet away, was too distant to try for anything but a miracle saving shot on his turn.
Wesley kneeled, pressed his palm in the dust and, as allowed, spanned a handprint closer to his target. He knuckled down and shot. His marble passed between Strong's and Rhoten's. He hung his head. Rhoten spanned in. Nathan failed with his Hail Mary shot at Strong, who then spanned in too, sealing the successful defense of the national rolley-hole championship.
"The kids played tough," said Rhoten afterward, acknowledging what perhaps pleases Fulcher most: With young players like the Thompsons mastering its ways, rolley hole should be in good hands for years to come.