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The Fifties Kid's Favorite Toy... Dirt!

I was flipping around the channels the other night and stopped for a moment on a kid's show - actually, a kid's show commercial. You notice how they never mention price? They get the kid all hot and bothered for the latest version of whatever and leave the poor parent to (1) go right out and buy it, or (2) explain why he can't go right out and buy it.

I bet if some enterprising toy maker found a way to package and sell every 1950 kid's favorite toy, they'd make a bundle.

In the 1950's Mama had a rule that my brother and I couldn't go barefooted outdoors until the daytime temperature hit 75 degrees or so. By May it was usually warmer than that inside our un-air-conditioned schoolroom, but inside didn't count. It had to be warm outside. It took a long, long time for that magic number to arrive but, oh when it did! Shoes and socks got left at the front door of our house and we ran outside to wiggle our toes in the dirt. It's amazing how many kids think playing video games inside is more fun that running around barefooted outside, playing in the dirt.

Dirt is such fun. You can find a wide variety of dirt around here, some tan and sandy, some orange, gooey or slippery when wet, and some black and crumbly like dark chocolate cake. Plain brown was the most useful kind for kids. Us girls could sketch out excellent hopscotch blocks in it, using a long stick of course to keep our knees relatively clean. Boys spent lots of time playing marbles, kneeling on the ground totally unconcerned about getting dirty. Then there was stick ball, tag, hide and go seek, and after a neat rainstorm leaving mud puddles an excellent game of tug-of-war, all with that requisite playing field, good old dirt.

Mumbledy-peg (otherwise known as the knife-throwing game) required really good packed down brown dirt, not too much sand, not too much clay. Once in a while if the boys were in a kindly frame of mind, they let me observe.

I bet not one out of ten guys under thirty know what mumbledy-peg is. In the 1950's, every boy had his trusty pocketknife on him all the time, either the cheap single-blade dimestore variety or the complex multi-blade Boy Scout variety. There were several versions of the game but here's the one I remember: Draw a large circle in the dirt and divide it into sections like a pie. As the game progresses, divide some sections further. Take turns flipping your pocketknife in such an expert fashion that the blade sticks straight up in your designated section. Knife flips increased in difficulty and dexterity until finally only one player could put his knife in the little sliver of dirt where he wanted it to go. Lots of yelling, jeers and cheers accompanied this endeavor, and if Mama or Mimi heard the commotion and came to see what was going on, lots of a different kind of yelling: "Are you crazy? Don't you know you can cut yourself? Give me that knife this minute!" Out-of-sight locations helped the guys avoid "worrying" the grown-ups.

I wondered how this game got its unusual name so naturally I went online to see if I could find out. I found an article by a fellow who remembers playing this kid's game of skill in the 1940's. I'm going to tell you what he wrote but I have no idea if it's true or not.

He claimed that the winner took a wooden peg about two inches long and pushed it into the ground. Each player whacked at it with the back of their closed knife until it was driven down to the surface, or better yet, below the surface of the dirt. The loser had to lie on his stomach and pull out the peg with his teeth, thus the mumbledy part of the name. It involved considerable spitting out of dirt and was a "masterpiece of humiliation." I guess so!

I don't remember any of the kids I knew ever doing that. I do remember the gritty sand that soon felt like sandpaper between my toes, or the sensations of slimy clay that orange-stained skin and clothes alike, or the cool crumbly black dirt that brushed right off. Ahhh, spring! Spring, bare feet and playing in the dirt!

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