In Brooklyn in the late 1930s and early '40s, people were pretty poor, and in the German-Irish section of Flatbush, where we lived, our sports reflected that condition. We played stickball, of course, and we would spend hours sanding down broom handles, which made the best bats. It wasn't so much that the sanding made them easier to grip, or even that—as some aficionados insisted—you could hit a ball truer if the "stick" were perfectly smooth. It was rather a matter of pride: if you were a serious stickball player, you would sand your bat, and that was that. A good worker takes care of his tools.
We played marbles and Three Steps to Germany and ring-a-leevio, and we flipped war cards, the favorite ones being the terrifically gory scenes of the civil war in Spain, the Boxer Rebellion in China and the Russo-Japanese war. We also cared passionately about the somewhat esoteric game of bottle-cap shooting. Boys in dirty knickers with garters dangling and socks around the ankles spent many a long afternoon on the sidewalks and in the alleys of Flatbush huddled along the shooting line with bottle caps.
Shooting bottle caps was an art, and there were several ways to do it. First of all, you needed a good shooter. A shooter was simply a smooth bottle cap, one that had not been bent at all in the opening of the bottle. We would continually scavenge local and not-so-local candy stores for used bottle caps, looking for both variety and quality. Most of us had complete sets of caps from every brand of sarsaparilla, cream soda, cola, ginger ale, black cherry, orange, root beer, vanilla and chocolate that was available at the time. But because you could always lose them in a game, you needed to keep searching, and besides, there was always the possibility that a new brand or a better cap of an old brand would turn up. So we did a good job of stripping the stores clean of bottle caps.
One of the best sources was an Italian candy store on Quentin Road, known in street parlance (and undoubtedly in many of the houses, too) as "Woppie's store." I no longer remember the owner's name, but he was a patient and long-suffering man. The first time I went in there, at age 5 or 6, I went up to him and in my ignorance asked, "Please, Mr. Woppie, do you have any bottle caps?" He stared at me for a long time. I didn't think this was strange, though, because at that age I didn't think anything grown-ups did was strange. After a while he went behind the counter to the cooler and scooped out a handful of caps for me. Being polite, I naturally said, "Thank you, Mr. Woppie," and ran out clutching my treasure. When I repeated this story to my parents they were furious, but I didn't find that strange, either.
The first thing to do with the bottle caps was to sort them, singling out a few of the best ones to be made into shooters. These would be painstakingly rubbed with steel wool until they were shiny silver. We thought that the steel-wool treatment would make the caps more slippery, so that when shot, they would travel swiftly and cleanly on target. Looking back, I rather doubt that scrubbing off the brand name had any effect on the performance of the caps at all, but you never know. It was particularly hard to get all the color out of the grooves along the sides, but it was important to do so. Kids with sloppily cleaned shooters had trouble getting a game: it wasn't worth the risk of losing a good shooter to a kid with a beat-up one. A carefully prepared shooter could be the difference between winning and losing, and part of the value of the game was determined by the time put into the preparation. It was also difficult to pry out the cork that lined the inside of the caps. While sometimes it would just pop out, often it was glued and the cap had to be scraped meticulously clean with a knife before the next step in proper refinishing could be begun.
After you had half a dozen caps properly shined, you would light a candle and fill the caps with wax, scraping off the excess with a knife until the wax was perfectly level. Horsing around at school, we would sometimes shoot with empty bottle caps, but the real contests were always performed with wax-filled shooters. The wax made the caps heavier, so they traveled farther than the unfilled ones and were useful for butting an opponent's shooter out of a favorable position.
After the wax hardened, usually overnight, we would hit the streets armed with our shooters and a pocketful of empties (if you were particularly prosperous, a bagful). There were two main places to play.
The first, really for beginners, was in the alley. The people who lived nearby encouraged the bottle-cap shooters and frequently would bring out ice water or lemonade and check how we were doing. They preferred us in the alley to the older kids, who would smoke and swear and break bottles and play handball against the wall.
As the game was played in the alley you simply stood with one foot against one wall and tossed your shooter toward the other wall. The shooter closest to the wall was the winner. You could play this game with from two to five players. Because we became adept at the game, and because the wax-filled shooters wouldn't normally bounce back too far from the wall, playing with more than five participants made the frequency of extremely close calls very common and led to many arguments as to exactly who was really closest. This necessitated an umpire, usually an older boy or one of the unemployed grown-ups in the neighborhood.
If you were a winner the prize was customarily the other shooters, but when a boy (in those chauvinistic days, bottle-cap shooting was strictly a masculine affair) was down to his last shooter, he could put up as collateral anywhere from two to six unfilled bottle caps, depending on their condition and relative rarity. We thought of these empties as our infantrymen, generally expendable; the shooters were our captains.
But when you got to be 8 or 9 years old and had been working hard perfecting your skills, playing alley bottle caps was not enough of a challenge. The topflight matches took place out on the sidewalks. There we would stand behind the line of a sidewalk square and shoot toward the edge of another square, usually the third, about 9 feet away. Some boys played that the winner was the one who tossed his shooter closest to the line, on either side, but we tended to sneer at them. The real art was getting close to that line without going over it: over the line was out for us. The perfect toss, which happened more often than one might think, was putting the shooter right up to the line. This was why the polished and wax-filled shooter was so important. You couldn't control an empty bottle cap in this game; it would simply roll away.
The preferred methods of shooting the caps varied enormously. There were a few hot dogs who made some neat shots by simply arcing the cap in an underhanded throw, the way you might throw bird seed out on the lawn. This method had the advantage of clearing the sidewalk cracks, but it was very hard to control the cap and it would often roll into the gutter. Sometimes the wax was jarred out of it by the hard landing, which was a foul. But like basketball players with the soft touch, some bottle-cap shooters did very well this way. The orthodox manner of shooting caps was basically the same as shooting marbles: crouching down, holding the cap on your index and middle fingers and flicking it out with the thumb. The trick was to get it over the first sidewalk line with enough force to skid over the second sidewalk line and slide to a stop just before the third. It was a delicate operation and required as much practice as any other athletic feat I can think of.
In the summer of 1941, when I was eight years old, I was involved in a Great Championship Match. It had begun as a challenge match—the boys of East 32nd Street, where I lived, against the boys of East 33rd. (A year or so later we would have more serious confrontations, including scaling tin cans flattened for the war effort at one another.) But in the course of a long day, it became a contest involving the whole neighborhood, with the losers gradually dropping out empty-handed. We must have been out there six hours under a burning sun, the crowd of spectators growing as the match proceeded. My shooting was in the groove that day; I had that wonderful feeling, that gift sport sometimes bestows, that I could do anything I wanted. My shots—orthodox style—were consistently sliding to within one or two inches of the line. I had beaten almost everyone. At the end of the day there were just two of us left, and we had so many bottle caps that someone brought each of us a grocery carton to keep them in.
The other player was a tall boy named Martin. I don't remember his last name. I don't think he was even a regular bottle-cap shooter, just one of those remarkably coordinated athletes who could do everything well. He threw his cap underhanded and had that special knack of tossing it so softly that it would take one or two small bounces and stop near the line. He could also pitch it so it landed flat, much like a good horseshoe player does.
So at the close of day, it was just the two of us. We played one-on-one, with our respective friends cheering wildly, for about an hour, with neither of us getting the upper hand. Occasionally he would make a weak throw, and I'd feel he was losing concentration. (Concentration, as in most sports, is the key to shooting bottle caps.) But then he would immediately come back and bounce one a half inch from the line. We even upped the ante and played for 20, then 30, then 50 caps at a time, and still neither of us could win the necessary three times in a row. There was clearly only one way to settle the championship: a one-game shootout, winner take all.
An older boy flipped a coin to see who would go first. It was generally an advantage to go last, though it could be a disadvantage, too: if the first player made a bad shot or went over the line, the second player had an almost automatic win. On the other hand, if the first player made a good shot, he put a lot of pressure on the second player, who often went over the line trying to pass the first cap. Heads, Martin would go first; tails, I would go first. It was heads, and I had the advantage. There was complete silence as Martin leaned over for his throw. His shooter landed off-center and rolled crazily over the line as all my friends jumped and roared. But the shooter didn't stop rolling. The cap turned around in a circle, headed back toward the square and shuddered to a stop right on the line. A perfect shot! The 33rd Street boys whooped and cheered. There were vague mutterings from our side: while it occasionally happened that a thrown cap would circle back like that, to decide the championship on a fluke just didn't seem fair. But there it lay, apparently unbeatable.
I didn't look at it very long. The crowd receded from my vision and Martin's shooter grew in my eyes until it was the size of a washtub. I crouched down and shot. My bottle cap slid across the sidewalk like a torpedo in slow motion. It just cleared the first line, skidded over the second with a little "tick" that sounded very loud and clicked against Martin's shooter with just enough force to push it over the line.
It was a triumphant moment. To this day I don't know whether it affected me for good or ill, my career peaking so early. At any rate, no one talked about anything else for three days, until the stickball game in which Eddie Hanratty hit a ball so hard that it rolled all the way to Avenue R.