Marco Polo, Ouija and Snickers

As I passed by a pool filled with kids on a muggy day, I realized that they were playing the game Marco Polo.  I had played this game as a kid, but thought it was perhaps a faddish or very local thing, but here it was again a generation later.  Marco Polo is an aquatic version of blind man’s bluff.  One poor sucker is the “it” person who is supposed to swim around in the deep end with his eyes closed.  When he yells out Marco! the rest of the swimmers are supposed to yell out Polo! to give him some sort of chance.  I don’t know why we were calling out Marco! Polo! and not, say, John Wayne! Gacy,! and I certainly did not know who Marco was.  In fact, when I did eventually learn that he was an explorer, his identity was so wrapped up in water, I just assumed that Marco Polo was a sailor.   It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered that he spent 24 years walking across Asia.  

The sounds of the kids voices made me smile, because I positively knew that every kid playing that game was cheating.  There was no way that anyone could tell if you opened your eyes a crack under water, and you would be the biggest sucker in the world if you didn’t peek just a little bit.  When I played, I remember looking through the eyelashes of my eyes, opened just enough to see the shadowy forms of arms and legs treading water.  Quite frankly, there was no way you could possibly catch anyone unless you cheated, and the real talent of the game was not to be too obvious about peeking.  If you caught someone too quickly, you would be roundly accused of cheating, but if you flailed around just long enough, everyone accepted the pretense. 

As I thought about Marco Polo, it occurred to me that this might be the first time that many kids learned that you can cheat and get away with it.  I am not talking about the big guilt-laden moral compass here – the one that keeps you from being sent to the principal’s office, or keeps you from shop lifting more than once, or the one that keeps neighboring moms welcoming you into their kitchen with milk and cookies.  I wouldn’t even call this a compass, but more of a personal list of rules that we are willing to break.  My husband Nick did not grow up near a swimming pool, so his introduction into rule-breaking was more abrupt.  He has a very distinct memory, at age 7, of driving with his mother in a Ford sedan.  At the corner of Lake and Greenbay, right next to the Kentucky Fried Chicken, she made an illegal right hand turn.  Nick had been carefully trained to follow all rules, and this wanton disregard for authority threw his well-ordered world into chaos.    

“Mom, you just made an illegal turn,” he gasped.

“Oh, honey, some rules are made to be broken,” she said.

“But how do you know the difference?”

“Honey, don’t worry about it, I just do.”   

Our own personal list of breakable rules probably fall across a spectrum ranging from rules that can be broken with no consequence, to rules that seem petty and finally to things that are downright illegal.  The no consequence rules include things like cheating at solitaire.  As I kid, I remember overhearing my younger brother Tim saying under his breath, “On Mondays, it is okay to move a ten into a space.”  Minutes later he looked up beaming and said, “I won!”  I sometimes cheat at solitaire by peeking under a stack of cards to determine which king to move into a space, but I would never do something as egregious as moving a ten into a space.  But I respected Tim’s creative rules. 

Moving along the spectrum you have of course the example of Marco Polo, but I also remember a period of time in High School when Ouija Boards were in vogue.  You sat around a game board consisting of letters and you all put your hands gently on a triangular device with a little peep hole in the apex called a “planchette,” which slid along the Ouija board.  You would attempt to call forth some sort of spiritual element and then ask questions, and the planchette would spell out the answers.  Forget the spirits, I found that it was easy enough to imperceptibly push the Ouija board around, and soon I was wisely advising friends on love lives, future professions and other particularly thorny issues.   

Yes, I cheated on a Ouija board, but let’s be honest, this is the only way it could ever work, i.e. you need a group of gullible believers and at least one skeptic to push the planchette around.  In fact, the directions of a Ouija board advise that you should never use the board alone (duh!) and that the Ouija board is not good at picking lottery numbers.  Much like Marco Polo, Ouija skill involves maintaining a pretense by intentionally garbling some answers.  There were some occasions when the planchette was difficult to secretly move around – I felt some reistance.  Believers would say that this was due to the real presence of spirits, I think that is more likely that there was another person like me, trying to impose their will on Ouija.   

Moving further along the slippery slope you have the example of my mother who routinely fudged on age restrictions at both ends of the spectrum  – in order to get the child’s lift ticket for her grandchildren on the ski slope, and for her to qualify for the senior discount.  There are plenty examples of petty rules involving cars.  When you rent a car, you cheerfully sign a document that attests that you will not drive on dirt roads, and that you will be the only driver.  Forget it.  Now we move into illegalities.  Like Nick’s mom, annoying traffic lights are rules meant to be broken.  Even if arrested you could always claim ignorance – i.e. “I didn’t see the ‘no left turn sign’.”  And of course there is a certain comfort in numbers.  When you are stuck in a traffic jam, that open shoulder begins to look very inviting, and as soon as someone starts scooting up the side, plenty of drivers will follow.  In fact, you can probably divide drivers into those who are willing to be the first to use the shoulder, those who are willing to follow, and those who stubbornly refuse to take advantage of the newly opened “lane.”  Personally, I am willing to be that first shoulder pioneer.  I justify this move as a public service and am fulfilled when I see other cars quickly fall in behind me, appreciative of my leadership.  Nick is a more reluctant follower since he claims that he actually saw someone get arrested in the midst of a traffic jam.   

At the end of the spectrum, there are things that are deliberately and definitely illegal – like shoplifting.  My father might have been the only child never to have cheated at Marco Polo, but in his 80s we caught him shoplifting.  It was really an innocent mistake, but there he was eating an illegal Snickers bar.  The scene was a gas station attached to an Arby’s restaurant where we had stopped during a long road trip.  He had picked up the Snickers in the gas station, presumably thinking that he would pay for it as part of his Arby’s lunch. 

I said, “Did you pay for that Dad?” 

His face turned ashen.  We told him he could go back to the gas station, explain his innocent mistake and pay for the Snickers but he flat out refused.  My father was more concerned that the cashier – a pimply farm girl – would think that he was a shoplifter.  Basically, in his mind it was better to be a shoplifter than to have someone think that you might be a shoplifter.  It was consistent with his reluctance to enter a police station, which he was periodically required to do to retrieve wayward dogs.  He didn’t like to go in broad daylight, because people might see him and then assume that he had done something illegal.      

The next day Nick called my father and in his best disguised authoritarian voice said, “Mr. Brown, we have video taped evidence of you shoplifting a Snickers bar in Abrams, Wisconsin.  What are we going to do about this situation?”  My father’s panicked spluttering was so distraught that Nick immediately revealed the ruse.  I don’t think that the poor man was ever the same.  After all, he had to revise his list of rules that he was willing to break,  a list that had served him well for over 80 years. 

The missing letters in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, stop, post) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters.  One of the missing words will rhyme with the previous or following lines.  Your job is to solve for the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

I think that we all have a mental ***** of rules that can be broken,

Cheating at Marco Polo or solitaire are examples of which I have spoken.

Only the most obedient soul or complete chucklehead

Has not run a ***** yellow light or even one that is red.

And driving on the shoulder should not bother you in the *****

Particularly if there is a traffic jam and the highway is lightly policed.

But to ***** something, like shoplifting as a kid,

Should only happen once, since guilt will make your regret what you did.

So one of our favorite *****  involves my father and his mistake

He stole a Snickers and never recovered from angst and heartache.







Answers:  slate, stale, least, steal, tales

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