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Although marbles has never been a major American sport, there are certain areas of the country that have become renowned for producing marble shooters of great skill. Sebastian County, Ark. is one of them, and when I was growing up in the '50s, the greatest shooter in Sebastian County was Bud Needham. I recall with barely diminished trepidation the day I faced him in a game of doogies (pronounced DOO-jees), as we often called marbles.
I tried to appear relaxed as Bud arched his hand slightly off the ground, took dead aim with his shootin' tall and fired a sizzling shot into the ring. He hit three of my cat's-eyes. The sound was crisp and solid and marbles flew in every direction. Two rolled outside the ring. He picked them up, and while he stuffed them in his bulging jeans pocket, he eyed the next shot.
His shootin' tall had remained inside the ring, and therefore he was entitled to another shot, this time from close range—an advantage he didn't need. J knew it was all over. Bud could shoot a doogie like a .22 rifle bullet and just as straight.
This confrontation took place back in 1956, in the first round of the sixth-grade marble tournament at Greenwood Elementary School. I'd had the misfortune of drawing Bud, the toughest kid in school and the only one I knew with hair on his chest. He had four brothers, and they were all just as rugged as Bud. They were from an honest, hard-working, coal-mining family, and my mama had taught three of them in the fifth grade and could vouch for their toughness. She also knew that Bud could shoot a marble like a bullet and that was one reason she didn't want me playing keeps with him. (Keeps was a more serious game than funnies, in which the marbles were given back after the game.) Mama didn't want me playing keeps with anyone. She was a staunch Southern Baptist and didn't like the idea of my playing what the preacher called "games of chance."
I said, "Mom, playing keeps with Bud Needham ain't a game of chance because I ain't got one."
Mama said, "Don't say ain't and don't play keeps with anyone, but especially Bud Needham."
Now if you think I might be exaggerating about Bud's being ahead of the rest of us physically, here are some additional facts to consider: In the sixth grade he started shaving twice a week. In the seventh grade he made first string on the junior high football team by putting the fear into ninth-grade halfbacks. In his sophomore year in high school he made first-string guard and was, perhaps, the only player in the history of Greenwood High to play every down of every game for three straight years.
My father, who coached the Greenwood Bulldogs for 38 years, said upon retirement, "Bud Needham was probably the toughest kid I ever had," which was saying something, because Dad had coached farm boys, hillbillies, coal miners and ex-Marines up there in the foothills of the Ozarks. (He saw some tough kids along the way, like the Powell boy who practiced football for two weeks before it was discovered he wasn't wearing socks in his hightop shoes because he didn't own any.)
So you see, Bud was special. When he played marbles he would place the shootin' tall between his right thumb and index finger and roll his wrist to the right like he was turning a doorknob. Then, with his hand palm up and the three free fingers pointing upward, he would close one eye. There would be a brief vibration in his hand, and...PING! The shootin' tall would spring across the ring scattering little specks of dirt and grass and smash into its target, knocking that marble out of the ring.
On more than one occasion Bud shot so hard the target marble exploded on impact. I swear on a sack of cat's-eyes. He would look at it with disgust, secretly proud of busting another one, while the other kids exclaimed, "Did you see that? Bud busted another one!"