Magnethead the Champion

by Hani Sallum

During the early, untroubled times of my youth, when life had no purpose that plagued my mind and days were long to the point of actually being an annoyance, my friends and I would entertain ourselves out in the special world of the streets and sidewalks.

Much to the surprise and approval of our parents, we did not concern ourselves with music or television (or music television, which had not come out yet); we had more interesting occupations outside. This was back in the days when parents didn't worry that their child's succeptability to drugs went up with the square of the amount of time spent in the neighborhood, so I played an eight to six day, often staying out for overtime.

What did we do? There were no Super Soakers back then, no GameBoys, no remote-control anythings we could afford, we were too old for Big Wheels and too young for ten speeds, and our banana-seated runabouts just did not swing it.

They say necessity is the mother of invention. In my mind, it has always been much more complex than this. However this is paraphrased, it sums up the birth of what we, as a group of eight to ten year olds, considered the single greatest sport in the history of Creation: Manhole Cover Tiddlywinks.

Nothing came close.

No free ball game at Fenway could drag us away from a even-odds street tournament; even-odds meaning even side of the street versus the odd side. No road race, plane show, or three-car pileup could sway us from the Big Tiddlywinks.

Just getting set up for a tournament was exciting in itself. Naturally since none of us in the neighborhood had a manhole in our house, nobody owned a manhole cover. To rectify this small detail, we would borrow, key word here because we always returned them, our ``Chips'' from the city. Most of the time this would take place at about ten o'clock at night when we should have been in bed. Three of us would be assigned to a certain manhole that we knew the location of, we would converge in the darkness on this unsuspecting manhole (two of us with our father's crowbars, one with their younger silbling's Radio Flyer wagon) and remove the cover. Unfortunately, these manholes were often on some major street, so whenever we could we would cover the manhole with plywood or corrugated iron. Once my friend Danny down the street, while on one of these missions, covered a manhole with one side of a cardboard refrigerator box. The next day a garbage truck lost its suspension driving down that same street. We pretended that the two events were not connected.

Once the manhole cover was lifted up onto one side, the wagon would be brought close and the cover lowered slowly onto it. The manhole would then be covered with plywood or whatever and the ``chip'' then quietly wheeled to our stockyard (which was usually under someone's porch).

Preparation began early Saturday morning. Notes were attached to appropriate windows to remind certain players of the competition, colored chalk (seized during commando raids on the faculty supply closet at school) was stockpiled and accounted for, an inventory was taken of the ``chips,'' a chart was drawn out with single and group players seeded accordingly, and non-players decided what they wanted to do for the tournament.

Saturdays, when not spent on preparation for the upcoming tournament, were also days where a completely green novice could learn the basics of the game. Usually, this was done in pairs, as most beginners needed a partner to successfully manipulate a ``chip''. A pair of beginners were introduced to the basics of stance and delivery, as well as the ability to cooperate and work together. There was really a lot more to the big Tiddlywinks than people thought. Aim, of course, was always important, but the methods at which you approach and deliver the blow to the ``chip'' are as diverse as those involved in pool. For instance, depending on the distance away from the edge of the manhole cover where you bring down the cover you are holding, you change the angle at which the cover initially leaves the ground. The harder you hit, the further your chip will go. Also, depending on the angle to the cover you deliver the blow, you can add the Tiddlywink version of ``English'', which doesn't do much except add a little flair and spin to your shot. Really experienced players know all the neat tricks; how to make a chip curve in the air, how to make it spin around it's vertical axis for longer time in the air and less bounce, how to make the chip roll through an exact number of turns to control direction of bounce, and so on.

Our tournaments were always on Sundays. We needed every single square foot of playing area possible, and the nearby park area didn't work so well. Not only did we make huge divots in the grass, but the noise scared the little children and their parents away. Manhole Cover Tiddlywinks was not a quiet game; think about it. During one tournament we had to abandon the pile of ``chips'' we had brought to the park just so the Police riot squad wouldn't catch us. Oh yeah, more than half of us had Police profiles by the time we were twelve. It was almost something to be proud of.

Sundays were the days when the space we needed was available. A level, hardtop surface protected from the traffic was what we needed, and during the school year we kept mostly to supermarket parking lots. But during the Summer, when Tiddlywinks season was at it's peak, we were able to use the ideal public space for our tournaments. Most of us lived near the river, Charles River, and we had ready access to the best Tiddlywink court around: Memorial Drive. It was always blocked off during the day for public recreation, and we all knew that that meant us. At first some people tried to revoke our rights as citizens of the People's Republic of Cambridge since we would sometimes come close to denting their cars, (especially the novice pairs), but after a while they just dealt with us and stopped calling the Police. In fact, some people even spent a little while sitting on the grass, watching the tournament progress through its elimination matches (moving back a little whenever a novice team was playing, of course).

There were three classes of people in a tournament; the scorekeepers, the ``chip'' fetchers, and the actual players. A tournament usually began at about ten in the morning, after about an hour of last minute seeding discussions and prep, and would progress sometimes until four or five. Then the actual playing would start, and the streets would be filled with happy clanging sounds; the dull clang of chips hitting the asphalt street or the ringing clang of chips hitting their mark and landing in the large metal City Works trash can that was the goal. Sometimes the novices were allowed to shoot at a dumpster for less points since a lot of them still didn't have aiming down to an art.

And such went the Sundays of my childhood. I was always one of the other two classes of people besides the players, most of the time a scorekeeper and/or organizer. My voice mingled with the assorted cheers of those around me after a good play, and I would laugh along with everyone else at the occasional yelp of ``Oh SHIT!'' from a spectator to whom a chip landed a little close.

Now, every neighborhood has a kid in it that's the best at something; Bill Cosby played ``Buck-Buck'' with Fat Albert on his team. In our neighborhood we had Ben Breaubeater, quite possibly the largest ten year old in existence. Ben had biceps that were thicker than most everyone else's legs. He could carry around a chip without breaking a sweat, he was reputed to almost know how to drive a car, and was indisputably the best Tiddlywinks player around. Sometimes we made him play with a pair of scratched sunglasses on to make it fair for everyone else. No one quite remembered who invented the game or who introduced it to our neighborhood, but Ben was definately the master.

But to this day, Ben has had a nickname that has stuck to him his whole life, a nickname which came about from a series of events one fine Sunday during Summer Vacation: Magnethead.

I think you already know what's going to happen.

It was about two o'clock in the afternoon, and Ben was taking on two group teams by himself. A lot of kids from the neighborhood were still off visiting places with there families, so the tournament was very laid back. In fact it was rather comical since most of the other players were novices, and watching them try to keep pace and score with Ben was enough to make anyone laugh.

It was a simple ``best two games out of three'' competition that had quickly become a ``best three out of five,'' ``best four out of seven,'' and so on. Ben was on a roll; he always was. And when he was playing a tournament like that one he would often strut his stuff.

When he could. During this round we, the judges and scorekeepers, had introduced the condition that he had to bounce his chip off at least one vertical surface before it landed in the goal. Ben liked a challenge.

So, we were well into the fifth round of the tournament, and things were going smoothly when Ben, after ricocheting a chip of his off sides of two adjacent buildings which faced each other into the goal without the chip even hitting the sides, deicded to just go all-out ridiculous and give the novices a chance. Plus, Ben liked to make people laugh.

Ben played his next chip purposefully so that it knocked over the goal. It was really quite amusing to see a manhole cover suddenly shoot straight above the ground and demolish a perfectly innocent trash can. And it launched a lot of the spectators into hysterics, including me.

Between fits of laughter another trash can was found. The two teams went, neither scoring goals, and Ben was up again.

This time Ben hit his chip so that it shot almost straight up at least forty feet before coming back down again. He got more laughs as he scampered out of the way of the falling manhole cover in a manner reminiscent of an early Keaton short with a feigned look of fright on his face. Ben was a ham as well as a master of Tiddlywinks.

Once again the other two teams went, one person actually scoring a goal, and Ben was up.

Ben swaggered up to his chip, bringing more giggles from the spectators, and stood over it dramatically. He held another chip in his hand, ready to be used. He looked to his left, then to his right, where the other teams were waiting to see what he'd do, then behind him at the spectators who were sitting on the grass by the road. He made a face at them and received more laughs. He turned back to the chip.

I could tell he was looking for something spectacular to do, and knowing Ben, it would be. And when I saw that grin spread across his face, I knew he'd thought of something incredible, amazing, and potentially dangerous to anyone in the general vicinity.

He hefted his chip, looked down at the chip in front of him, and very anticlimatically hit it with a relatively small force.

The chip only went about eight feet in the air and for a split second I thought that maybe Ben had screwed up. But then I saw him do something I've never even seen him do: Ben dropped the chip he was holding at his feet, and grabbed the other chip out of the air.

None of us even had time to gasp in amazement. In one fluid motion he neaty snagged the chip from the air, stepped back the slightest bit, and brought the chip down onto the chip he had just dropped.

The clang was loud and harmonious, as if in celebration of the impossible feat Ben had just pulled off. It was surprising, though, when we heard a second dull clang immediately following the first.

The chip sailed through the air with a rather haphazard spin on it, and it almost missed the goal, bouncing off the rim as it went in. But it went in! Thunderous applaused erupted from all around, and it took us a second to realize that Ben was out cold on the ground.

We all understood what had happened; the chip, after being hit, had flown right up into Ben's face and bounced directly off his forehead. As we all got up and ran to his prone body, I marked one score under his name for the round. Hey, Ben's forehead was technically a vertical surface.

As it turned out, Ben was quite alright. He drank about five gallons of milk a week; we figured his skull was at least an inch thick, and probably bulletproof. That's our Ben.

The only injury Ben received was a nasty abrasion on his forehead which said ``TAW EGDIR'' (part of the lettering ``Cambridge Water Dept.'' on the manhole cover imprinted backwards). This became the source of many jokes, all of which made when Ben wasn't around (one of the novices at the game, after Ben had been revived, jokingly said that he should be called ``Big Ben'' becuase of the ringing noise the manhole cover had made against his head. Ben was not amused).

After that day, Ben always wore a helmet. He was sometimes kidded about it, but he shrugged it off saying it gave him more confidence to try the ``crazy stuff'' he'd always wanted to do.

And that, everyone, is how my friend Ben got the nickname ``Magnethead,'' and it was a nickname he answered to with a surprising amount of pride. And to this day, those abrased letter can still be faintly seen on his forehead, a reminder of a time long past when a child could be a champion.

That's our Ben.