It's the flint that shines inside the Monroe County Marble Club Super Dome - home to one of the most devoted groups of game players around.
Inside the Monroe County Marble Club Super Dome, a little slice of history is dying.
Chances are you've never heard of the guys who gather here daily, with baseball caps perched on their heads and some with their names embroidered on the patches of their work shirts. And it's rather unlikely that you'll weep or even feel a twinge of sadness when they turn out the lights for the last time. But 150 years of tradition is slowly being silenced by video games and modern conveniences. • Saying goodbye to the past wasn't on my mind when I went to Tompkinsville, Kentucky. I wanted to hang out with the guys who, day after day, fill the Marble Club Super Dome with bad jokes, friendship, and some of the hardest-hitting marble shots I ever could have imagined. • Marble Club Super Dome. The name conjures up visions of a palatial state government building or a Louis XIV-inspired monstrosity to sport. To get there, you turn off Highway 163 North in Tompkinsville (population 2,600) onto Armory Road (it looks like it's a one-lane road, but you can squeeze two cars on there) and drive about a minute past the Monroe County Fairgrounds. On the far side of the parking lot sits a large wooden shack that looks less than super and nothing like a dome. But what goes on inside is as grand as the name implies.
This is where they play Rolley-Hole Marbles, a tradition in Monroe County that stretches back a century and a half, to a time when James Buchanan was president.
"You shot him out of the hole."
"Get your hole and come on."
"What a shot! What a shot!"
"That's a dandy."
"They're nervous, ain't they?"
"Yeah, they see the end is near."
The tension builds as four men step around the marble yard, a 20-by-40-foot packed-earth floor with three marble-size holes running down the center, about eight feet apart. A string, staked into the ground, marks out-of-bounds; wooden boards stand ready on the outskirts to keep marbles from skittering away. The dirt floor, groomed smooth with the edge of an old wooden wagon wheel, holds on to the footprints of every step of the game. Sifted fine, the dirt is powder-soft. The white-flint marbles are scattered around the holes, most exactly where the players meant to land them. Shiny glass marbles of childhood don't have a place at the Super Dome; they would split in half at the first thwack.
Every day, the players usually start to filter into the Super Dome around four p.m., once the work on the farm or at the factory is done. The outfit of choice for most is jeans, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap. While the club membership has fallen from its high of about 60 in the early 1990s to about 20 now, there is still a devoted lot - members and nonmembers - who show up daily to jaw with friends, tease some more than others, and play the harder-than-it-looks game of Rolley-Hole Marbles. Most evenings end by eight. "There aren't too many night owls around here," says Paul Davis.
"If we got everybody to pay their dues, we'd probably have this [place] bricked," says Timmy Walden. It's pretty clear that collecting dues is not at the top of anybody's to-do list: The membership-dues list on the wall went six years without an update. Instead, the walls are covered with silvery sheathing; players feed boards to a hulking metal wood-burning stove to fend off any chill in the air, and the furniture looks like it was discarded from a frat house. But nobody's complaining.
Built in 1988, the Super Dome is part clubhouse, part sports stadium. Monroe County is dry; there's no local bar to belly up to, so for the Marble Club regulars, the surest way to find their friends - and their regular attendance makes it clear that most want to find one another every day - is to frequent the Super Dome. Though there are a few younger players (the sons or grandsons of the regulars), most are in their 40s to 70s. "We can't hardly get the young people to play. I'm afraid it's going to play out," says Rondal Biggerstaff.
It's as though the Little Rascals stayed together for life and just kept adding on to their clubhouse. And for three days in March, I got to be their Darla.