The Endless Creativity of Youth


I must be getting nostalgic of late as my last post got me thinking about another memory of mine from my childhood.

After needing to be creative in a city (and all the trouble that comes with that potentially toxic combination) moving to the burbs brought with it a need to find a totally new dimension of inventive thinking. Thankfully I’ve always been able to respond to that challenge and before long my brother and my friends and I were frolicking about the neighborhood doing things none of us ever imagined.

One of the more interesting endeavors came about as a by-product of our new driveway (though new is a bit of an overstatement as it’d be far more accurate to refer to it as our “first” driveway). You see, the driveway was not only almost perfectly level across its width but also nicely inclined downward to the street along its length. We’d already figured out that this configuration made for a great Wiffleball setup but we wanted something totally unique. Something we could call our own. It was then that I thought of the handful of superballs we owned.

I grabbed the ones we had on hand and carefully rolled a few down from the top. They rolled along effortlessly staying more or less in the center of the driveway, crossed the sidewalk and then down the final incline of the driveway into the street. A new sport was born—Superball Racing. ESPN was still a ways off but we’d be ready when they came calling.

SuperballsWe decided a “season” would consist of 125 races with just a single winner being named champion. The rules were very clear and concise. The starting line was a separation depression at the top of the driveway (purposely placed across every driveway at set distances to help limit cracking) and a ruler was used to push the entire lineup out of the depression and off down the track. The start of the street was the finish line. I, having thought the game up, took the plush job of “starter” while others acted as “stoppers” (literally throwing themselves prone on the street to block the finishers from getting too far into the street). We’d all ultimately end up walking quickly down the driveway screaming encouragement to our balls and trash-talking against the others.

That first season included just a few entrants and each one had its own personalized name. My entry was a ball I’d dubbed “Lefty Orange” (because it was left-handed—or maybe it was because it was orange….. I don’t recall which). With two-thirds of the season run it was clear that Lefty was going to outpace “Big Red” (my best friend John‘s ball) as the overall winner. I was already starting to gloat.

At this point my brother Dave, totally disappointed by being entirely out of the running, made a change for an obscure light-blue colored ball he quickly tagged as “Big Blue”. Well, Big Blue started dominating nearly every race. By the end of the season Big Blue, in just about a third of the season, passed Lefty Orange for total wins. It was stunning. I got so upset that I grabbed the ball and heaved it into the garage behind us where it proceeded to bounce around like crazy—as superballs are apt to do—and…. it VANISHED.

Try as we might, (and boy we tried) we couldn’t find that damned ball. My brother was devastated in only the way a little brother can be which included an immediate b-line for my parents to rat me out. So, I not only had no championship but I also had a nice long time to think about not having that championship during my punishment.

We all, of course, decided to hold another season (which took at most a few weeks to run start-to-finish) as soon as time, and the conclusion of my punishment, permitted. It was then we started getting obsessively serious about this new-found hobby. We scoured the surrounding neighborhoods and found a Wawa (a local convenience store chain) several neighborhoods over that had a set of gumball machines including one with superballs. They were 5 cents and we were, or course, all short of cash since none of us would have a real job for another 5 years or so. We scrounged every penny we could and stored them away until we could all go to Wawa together. It was just like a professional sports draft day. We’d take turns inserting our nickels and twisting the dial to see what ball each of us got. It was, to be frank, mesmerizing for a child with any hint of imagination. We’d return home with our pockets overflowing (carefully) with superballs and then jockey and plead for time on the driveway to “trial” our latest acquisitions.

Believe it or not superballs all have a personality. It’s not like trying to figure out the countless variables of a race horse but for a child the combinations were nearly as vexing. The first thing to know is that superballs are actually created in halves. Why this is, I have no idea, but each ball has a seam around its diameter essentially making up two distinct halves. This is important because if a ball wasn’t perfectly combined it wouldn’t ever roll reliably making it worthless. In fact, through some manufacturing challenge beyond our comprehension no blue ball in existence ever had its two halves flawlessly joined together. (Big Blue was actually different. It was light blue whereas all the ones we’d since found for sale were always dark blue.) This, of course, meant no blue ball could effectively compete and instantly made the blue ball the worst possible loss of investment. God forbid you ever got two or three in a row. A run like that was enough to push an owner into a chocolate milk frenzy—or worse. Much later our small group of friends all got a great laugh when we first heard the term, “blue balls”. It seemed perfectly fitting to us. No other color could better fit the condition.

We decided each “owner” would be able to enter up to four balls per race (which required the procurement of a new starting stick as a ruler was no longer long enough) and each of us agonized over which four balls would make our starting lineups. It was at this point that I tagged along for a trip with one of my family to a store outside our normal biking reach and hit upon something new. The store had a machine stocked with balls but this one included not only the normal stock but also clear balls filled with glitter. I had maybe 25 cents on me and started praying. One of the pulls included a glitter-filled ball—but could it race?

Upon getting home I secretly tested it out and it easily out-classed my other balls. I immediately gave it a spot in my starting lineup and named it Starlight. It reminded me of images of the universe with each speck of glitter representing a distant star all encased in resin in the palm of my hand (insert evil laugh here).

In that second season of 125 races Starlight won 100 of them. It was simply no contest. Lefty Orange was also there but it was clear his best days were behind him and that a new breed of prospects was on the horizon. In fact, we also found out that superballs emulated living entities in another way in that they seemed to have a very finite life cycle. When they were “young” they were fit and solid and ran reliably. After time in the sun and the real wear and tear of rolling endlessly down (comparatively) rough cement day-in and day-out the balls would soften, discolor a bit and become rough slowing them just as a race horse slows with age.

The third season started much like the second with Starlight dominating the field. Then one day I reached into my bag to get the race day started and as I removed Starlight a small divot fell off its bottom into my hand. My world came crashing to a halt. I demanded answers. Upon interrogation my brother and a friend admitted to taking a hammer and nail to it. Sweet revenge! I actually tried many methods to patch the hole with glue or anything I could think of but of course it never dried in the essential round shape. Starlight had run his last race.

By the start of the fourth season yet another new twist (literally) showed up. A new style ball that was clear on one half and with the other half partially filled with different combinations of what looked like wet paint shaped like custard on top of a cone (twisted to a point at the top). Over time we found these balls to be the most curious. Some were blisteringly fast while others teetered off the starting line like a drunk out of a bar after last call. I found a winner in my cache and called him Aqua Top (because it looked like a circus big top resting on top of a clear ocean) and the name stuck. From then on all such balls were called “aquatops”.

Things went on like this for a few years. The biggest shock came when we showed up at Wawa for another pilgrimage only to find that the superball machine—and only the superball machine—had been raised in price from a nickel to a dime—a 100% price increase! Clearly the owner of the machine must have felt like he had lightning in a bottle with us and it was time to cash in. Unfortunately we really had no choice but by then we’d started mowing lawns, washing cars or, under duress, perfected our begging techniques.

One of the most memorable moments involved a non-descript green ball. My brother was pressed for a 4th starter one season (my stepmother, having found his balls haphazardly left on the stairs, made the cardinal mistake of throwing out his entire starting rotation much to his complete devastation) and put in a ball on a lark he called Groggy Green. Good old Groggy never won a race and then, one day, the planets aligned and Groggy Green pulled out in front and held off the competition. We were so amazed by this that the “stoppers” neglected their duties and didn’t stop all the balls as they crossed the finish line. Groggy Green escaped into the street where Mr. Baker (the father of one of our friends) promptly drove over him with his Ford Galaxy and shot him 50 feet in the air. When Groggy landed in the grass on the other side of the street he was still intact, but cracked all the way through several times. You couldn’t have written a more amazing script.

So here we were seemingly in our own little fishbowl living out another experience that would provide us with years of great memories thinking it was entirely our secret. One day I’m sitting in history class in 7th grade which just happened to be taught by my next-door-neighbor, Mr. Van Dusen. He stood up and announced to the entire class that we play this game with superballs and tells them how original he thinks it is and how impressed he is. He tries to convey to everyone how novel it is. Picture that. There I am desperately trying to impress fellow classmates and especially deal with my new-found interest in girls and this guy exposes me to all of them. So now I’m the biggest geek in school. I didn’t fully live that one down for quite some time.

Six years later we’re out cleaning up the garage and I reach up to clean off the top of the circuit breaker box when I feel something. I reach in and pull out a superball. It’s Big Blue! Mystery solved.

To this day I still have all my balls (and many of the others) in a box stored away in my garage and I’m amazed that every few years when I take them out I can still recall the names of many of them. Whirlpool, Tornado, Hurricane, Lady Perfume Perfect Pink, All Colors, Aqua Top Jr. and many more. I may have to be cremated with them at this point as I can’t bear the thought of someone finding this bag of random, somewhat run-down looking balls and just tossing them in the garbage.

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