Playing by the Rules

When I was a kid, we played in the streets –Ring-a-leevio, Uncle Sam May I Cross Your River? Red Light-GreenLight, Hide-and-Go-Seek. And marbles. Before a game, we made up ourown rules. Once everyone agreed to play by the same rules, thecompetition was fierce. If the rules were broken, the game was heldup by a call of “fins.” The problem was resolved, and the gameresumed. If the problem couldn’t be resolved, the kids took sides,and a fight broke out. And then a truce and a new day.

Every borough in New York had a different way toplay marbles. My brother and I were the marble kings of 86th Road inQueens. The journey to marble royalty was the same one traveled byeveryone in the neighborhood, but we reached the top. Once there, wehad to defend our position, but, as is due kings, we had a turfadvantage and the respect of our challengers. Sometimes, we made upour own rules. Since we possessed almost all of their original marbleholdings, kids were forced to buy new ones if they wanted to get usinto play. They were also subjected to the power of kings.

When we retired, there were Maxwell House coffeecans filled with puries, pee-wees, and the treasured scaboldas — theoversized marbles used to slam an opponent’s marble out of the pot.We passed on our legacy to the next generation of marble players,whose season was short-lived, since television brought kids insideand summer camps provided them with rules.

Had Bill Clinton lived on my block, he might havebeen the marble king. He might have beaten his opponents because hewas the best. And maybe he would have beaten them so skillfully thathe would have received a grudging respect — the kind that engendersresentment, revenge and, in some disgruntled minds, hatred. We usedto call them sore losers. We had some on 86th Road.

It seems to me that the real hatred directedagainst President Clinton is unprecedented, unrelenting since thebeginning of his first term. From my perspective, it can’t be becauseof the big issues. None of our sons died because he sanctioned anunauthorized war. He did not create an environment where bias andprejudice were acceptable. He never profited financially as a resultof his high office. But whatever that hatred is about, the events ofthe last week show signs that it is out of control.

Recently, a young man I’ve known since he was 7,told me that he had a four-year close friendship with MonicaLewinsky. He has been approached by television networks, newspapersand a tabloid that offered him $10,000 to talk. I wanted to writethis story too.

“What will happen if I tell you what I know?” heasked me. I told him that there were no rules in this game. That thepeople whose hands were on the controls had no respect — not for theoffice of the presidency or the country that it governs. I advisedhim to read the newspapers, watch CNN and carefully analyze how thecoverage was going and think about what purpose was served if herevealed what he knew.

In one of our conversations, I commented that heknew more about this young woman’s history than those who accepted astruth what she said in taped conversations and used it against theleader of the free world. He also probably knew more about her thanthe leader of the free world.

What I admire about this young man is that he is,it seems to me, struggling with doing the right thing in anatmosphere where there is a rush to justify a $30 millioninvestigation of the president; where book contracts are rewarded tothose who lose and tell; where immunity from prosecution is given tothose who break the law and tell; and where a jail cell awaits thosewho refuse to talk.

Anyone who grew up playing by street rulesunderstands that no one can have any fun when chaos reigns. Maybeit’s time to call “fins,” agree on some rules, and begin a new daybefore fairness is completely destroyed and winning becomes a trialrather than a triumph.

My brother and I were the marble kings of 86thRoad in Queens. Photo from”The Best ofLife.”

Columnist Linda Feldman is the co-author of”Where To Go From Here: Discovering Your Own Life’s Wisdom” (Simon& Schuster).