In Brooklyn in the late 1930s and early '40s, people were pretty poor, and in the German-Irish section of Flatbush, where we lived, our sports reflected that condition. We played stickball, of course, and we would spend hours sanding down broom handles, which made the best bats. It wasn't so much that the sanding made them easier to grip, or even that—as some aficionados insisted—you could hit a ball truer if the "stick" were perfectly smooth. It was rather a matter of pride: if you were a serious stickball player, you would sand your bat, and that was that. A good worker takes care of his tools.
We played marbles and Three Steps to Germany and ring-a-leevio, and we flipped war cards, the favorite ones being the terrifically gory scenes of the civil war in Spain, the Boxer Rebellion in China and the Russo-Japanese war. We also cared passionately about the somewhat esoteric game of bottle-cap shooting. Boys in dirty knickers with garters dangling and socks around the ankles spent many a long afternoon on the sidewalks and in the alleys of Flatbush huddled along the shooting line with bottle caps.
Shooting bottle caps was an art, and there were several ways to do it. First of all, you needed a good shooter. A shooter was simply a smooth bottle cap, one that had not been bent at all in the opening of the bottle. We would continually scavenge local and not-so-local candy stores for used bottle caps, looking for both variety and quality. Most of us had complete sets of caps from every brand of sarsaparilla, cream soda, cola, ginger ale, black cherry, orange, root beer, vanilla and chocolate that was available at the time. But because you could always lose them in a game, you needed to keep searching, and besides, there was always the possibility that a new brand or a better cap of an old brand would turn up. So we did a good job of stripping the stores clean of bottle caps.
One of the best sources was an Italian candy store on Quentin Road, known in street parlance (and undoubtedly in many of the houses, too) as "Woppie's store." I no longer remember the owner's name, but he was a patient and long-suffering man. The first time I went in there, at age 5 or 6, I went up to him and in my ignorance asked, "Please, Mr. Woppie, do you have any bottle caps?" He stared at me for a long time. I didn't think this was strange, though, because at that age I didn't think anything grown-ups did was strange. After a while he went behind the counter to the cooler and scooped out a handful of caps for me. Being polite, I naturally said, "Thank you, Mr. Woppie," and ran out clutching my treasure. When I repeated this story to my parents they were furious, but I didn't find that strange, either.
The first thing to do with the bottle caps was to sort them, singling out a few of the best ones to be made into shooters. These would be painstakingly rubbed with steel wool until they were shiny silver. We thought that the steel-wool treatment would make the caps more slippery, so that when shot, they would travel swiftly and cleanly on target. Looking back, I rather doubt that scrubbing off the brand name had any effect on the performance of the caps at all, but you never know. It was particularly hard to get all the color out of the grooves along the sides, but it was important to do so. Kids with sloppily cleaned shooters had trouble getting a game: it wasn't worth the risk of losing a good shooter to a kid with a beat-up one. A carefully prepared shooter could be the difference between winning and losing, and part of the value of the game was determined by the time put into the preparation. It was also difficult to pry out the cork that lined the inside of the caps. While sometimes it would just pop out, often it was glued and the cap had to be scraped meticulously clean with a knife before the next step in proper refinishing could be begun.
After you had half a dozen caps properly shined, you would light a candle and fill the caps with wax, scraping off the excess with a knife until the wax was perfectly level. Horsing around at school, we would sometimes shoot with empty bottle caps, but the real contests were always performed with wax-filled shooters. The wax made the caps heavier, so they traveled farther than the unfilled ones and were useful for butting an opponent's shooter out of a favorable position.
After the wax hardened, usually overnight, we would hit the streets armed with our shooters and a pocketful of empties (if you were particularly prosperous, a bagful). There were two main places to play.
The first, really for beginners, was in the alley. The people who lived nearby encouraged the bottle-cap shooters and frequently would bring out ice water or lemonade and check how we were doing. They preferred us in the alley to the older kids, who would smoke and swear and break bottles and play handball against the wall.
As the game was played in the alley you simply stood with one foot against one wall and tossed your shooter toward the other wall. The shooter closest to the wall was the winner. You could play this game with from two to five players. Because we became adept at the game, and because the wax-filled shooters wouldn't normally bounce back too far from the wall, playing with more than five participants made the frequency of extremely close calls very common and led to many arguments as to exactly who was really closest. This necessitated an umpire, usually an older boy or one of the unemployed grown-ups in the neighborhood.
If you were a winner the prize was customarily the other shooters, but when a boy (in those chauvinistic days, bottle-cap shooting was strictly a masculine affair) was down to his last shooter, he could put up as collateral anywhere from two to six unfilled bottle caps, depending on their condition and relative rarity. We thought of these empties as our infantrymen, generally expendable; the shooters were our captains.