You’re It!

A late 19th century stroll through the open spaces in German towns may have brought you face to face with a group of laughing children engaged in the fast-paced game of Iron Tag. This is according to the writings of philosopher, teacher, and folklorist William Wells Newell. Newell, who is best known for founding the American Folklore Society in 1888, had a particular interest in the habits of belief he found among children.

His book Games and Songs of American Children published in 1883 explores the persistence of folk beliefs that have leaked into the imaginations of children and manifested as imaginative play. Among the discussion is a description of the classic game of tag pretty much as we all know it still today in which a selected “it” must chase and tag the other children, whose job it is to stand on base and relentlessly tease their hot and sweaty pursuer.

Nederlands: of uploader heeft geen info achter...
Children’s Games (1560) by Pieter Brueghel. I think I can see an intense round of toilet tag in there. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Newell traces the origin of the game to the “original form” of iron tag, which according to him was still common through Germany and Italy in his day (apparently American children had already moved on to the highly advanced “Toilet Tag” version).

Iron tag, as the name suggests, declares that the pursued children are safe as long as they are touching something made of Iron. This is of particular interest to a folklorist because of an ancient superstition that iron is a great source of protection from evil. The belief is prevalent across many cultures probably because the highly useful element occurs naturally in large quantities in the earth, because blood (the life force) contains and smells of iron, and because the wearing of an iron suit powered by a fictional inexhaustible energy source makes one a virtually invincible superhero.

The Mark III armor as featured in the 2008 fil...
I don’t know about you, but I feel safer with Iron Man around. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to Newell, the “it” in a children’s game of tag represents an evil spirit from which the pursued children must escape, mostly because he is quite the risk taker given that he recently caught a tiger by the toe leading his mother to sock your mother right in the nose.

Newell’s point is a good one, I think. Folklore, he argues, is not merely the realm of adults, but also influences the lives and creativity of children, which we can see in the history of the way even silly games (except of course for “toilet tag” which is serious business) have developed over time.

Where I think he’s wrong is in his assertion that “iron tag” was the original form of the game. It turns out it’s not actually so easy to trace the history of tag. I suspect this is because the game is more or less innate (kind of like Monopoly). We can see lots of young animals engage in tag-like play as they are learning life skills like pouncing, escaping, and irritating the adults in their lives. Human children, too, seem to play versions of tag as soon as they are old enough to chase.

Lion cubs Serengeti
You’re it! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And I have it on good authority that the assassination of Julius Caesar and the eventual fall of Rome was really just a byproduct of a game of tag gone wrong. If you want details, you can check out the insightful and thorough treatise on the subject by The History Bluff (who’s blog is nearly as authoritative as this one) here.

But however the game began, it has persisted through the ages and emerged as just plain old fashioned fun. There’s even a group of ten friends from Spokane, Washington who have been engaged in a single game of tag for twenty-three years even though they are now in their forties and living all across the country from one another. The men say the reason they still do it is because it keeps them in touch with one another and fosters lasting friendships among them.

While the rest of us scrape by making the occasional comments on photos of our growing families on Facebook, these men actually fly across the country in order to tag the next “it,” thereby turning this childhood game into the great force for networking and relationship building it was probably always intended to be.

I say this because I recently had the honor of being tagged in a similar game. No one caught a plane and hid in my trunk awaiting my arrival so that they could hand off the terrible burden of being the slow kid. Instead I was “tagged” by a fellow blogger and writer with some questions to answer and pass on to three lucky new “its,” specifically writers who have blogs.

First I’d like to say a big thank you to Donna Volkenannt who is the winner of 2012 Erma Bombeck Global Humor Writing Award and the genius behind the blog Donna’s Book Pub, which is a great resource for writers. Donna claims that she just brushed my arm with her finger tips, so, you know, whatever. I guess I’m it.

English: Children playing a variant of tag. In...
Okay, okay. You got me. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Questions:


I am in the process of seeking representation and publication for my first historical novel, the story of a fortune-teller from 19th century New York State with a troubled past, a unique talent, and a secret with the potential to unravel one of the most successful deceptions in US history.

In the mean time, I have returned my attentions to short fiction and essay as I research my next novel which will center on a movement among some American abolitionists to establish the nation of Liberia.


I’ve found there is a lot of variance in historical fiction, but that it basically boils down to two ends of a wide spectrum. On one end are the novels that closely follow the life and story of a known historical figure. The other end of that spectrum would be novels that take place in a particular time and place, but that include only wholly fictional characters that are drawn from the details typical of people from the era in which the author has placed them. My first novel fits between the two. My main character is entirely fictional, though throughout much of the novel she interacts directly with a known historical figure and her experiences include actual historical events and people.

I chose this approach for this particular project because my character has discovered the “smoking gun” in a historically significant conspiracy theory for which there is no known resolution in scholarly writing. Since I was faced with offering an explanation that history itself has never revealed, I thought the best vehicle for doing so would be a character who is a representative of her era rather than a real-life participant in it.


I write the kinds of things I like to read. I most appreciate fiction that re-introduces me to a world I thought I knew and makes me look at new details that draw connections I never suspected before. I think that’s why I’m so drawn to historical fiction because it immerses me in this world that is familiar, but that I’ve typically considered only through the lens of my own contemporary perspective. When I experience it through a cast of fictional characters, suddenly I find myself immersed in the era and attempting to bridge the gap between my experiences and knowledge to that of a person (whether based on a real person or simply drawn from the era) who approached the same story with an entirely different set of circumstances than I did. My favorite fiction makes me want to do my own research. I write what I write because I would love to inspire that desire in others.


I think the hardest part for me is generating that first, terrible rough draft. Most writers, I think, will agree with me that the real work on a story begins when the rough draft is over and the revision starts, but you never get to that part if you don’t first get the thing written. It can be really uncomfortable to return to an unfinished draft to forge ahead with the story when I know darn well that what I’ve already written is full of obvious holes, lazy word choices, and even the kind of bad grammar that would embarrass me right out of the industry. Still, forge on I must, because until I’ve written that overly sentimental ending that I will most certainly change later, I don’t stand a chance of completely restructuring the first chapter.

Corona Typewriter
If I had to use one of these, I’d be in trouble. (Photo credit: alonso_inostrosa)

And now it’s time to tag three more writers so we can all benefit from what I am sure will be their insightful answers to these questions. So…

Chelsea Brown (The Jenny Mac Book Blog)

Samuel Hall

Michelle Ule

I totally got you! Oh, and, of course, no tag backs.

Here We Go!

This morning I sent my youngest son to his first day of first grade. He’s a smart boy, usually pretty well-behaved (or so I hear from other people), friendly, and very funny. I know that he will do well with school this year. But for some reason he is incredibly nervous about this venture into first grade.

The poor kid ate very little breakfast and wouldn’t say much. When I asked him what he wanted to wear for his big day, he thought for a while and then chose a camouflage tee-shirt because he wanted to be able to hide if he got scared. I gave him a hug and told him he would be a great first-grader. Then I told myself he would be fine. And I told my husband (apparently several times) that our little guy would be just fine.

I have to hand it to the brave little man. When it came time to go, he looked slightly panicked, but he shouldered his big blue backpack and went willingly into the building. I found myself whispering, “Here we go” and, once again, “he’ll be fine.” I started thinking back over this summer’s many adventures and smiled to realize that these were almost the same words I had whispered to him as I sat next to him on his first roller coaster ride.

In 1850, at the tender age of twelve, LaMarcus Adna Thompson successfully built his own butter churn and ox cart. But believe it or not, this was not the height of his mechanical prowess. After a time, young Thompson grew up (as all young men must), apprenticed as a carpenter, and designed a machine used for the production of ladies’ stockings.

English: LaMarcus Adna Thompson, the inventor ...

He soon founded the Eagle Knitting Company in Elkhart, Indiana. Alas, as the well informed (which no doubt means you) will likely already realize, the ladies’ stocking industry is incredibly stressful and really is no place for a young man destined for greatness. For the sake of his health, Thompson took some time away from his growing company for a doctor-prescribed trip west.

He then apparently disregarded his doctor’s advice (or he was not a particularly competent map-reader) and found himself in Pennsylvania where he observed the Mauch Chunk, Summit Hill and Switchback Railroad. The railroad was a clever way to cart coal from Summit Hill to the Lehigh River at Mauch Chunk (today that’s Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania).

What Thompson saw was a cart full of coal and a couple of bewildered mules, rushing on a track through a series of switchbacks down the mountainside as fast as gravity would carry it. At the bottom, the cart was unloaded so that mules could haul it the long way back uphill.

Switchback R.R. (railroad), Mauch Chunk, from ...
Switchback R.R. (railroad), Mauch Chunk, from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And an idea began to form in the inventor’s mind. Perhaps he thought about the mules (likely more stubborn than stupid) that willingly took the carts back up the mountainside to repeat the process. Or maybe he observed them carefully as they flew downhill and noticed that though they screamed they also threw their hooves in the air and smiled as though someone might snap their picture on the hairpin switchback turns.

Whatever the reason, Thompson thought the railway looked like fun and he hatched a plan to design and build something similar for people. His “Switchback Railway” opened at Coney Island in 1884 and was an immediate success, giving LaMarcus Thompson a claim to the title “Inventor of the Modern Roller Coaster.”

Mind you Thompson doesn’t have a great claim to the title. Russians started slipping down huge ice slides as early as the seventeenth century and the French built the first wheeled coaster by 1817. Still, Thompson can take credit for the first successful introduction of the roller coaster to the United States, where it’s been soaring to higher, faster, and “upside-down-er” heights ever since.

Thompson's Switchback Railway, 1884.

And I, for one, am grateful for his contribution. I experienced my first roller coaster as soon as I was tall enough to pass the safety precautions and once I started, I never looked back. On more than one occasion I have arrived at the entrance of an amusement park in time to be among the first through the gate for the sole purpose of running to the back of the park and riding the best coaster two or three times before the rest of the crowd caught up and the line got long. I have also been the kid who chose to ride the coaster back-to-back-to-back many times over as the park neared the close of the day and no one else was left in line to take my place.

So I was thrilled to take my two sons to Six Flags this summer and introduce them to the rides that defined many of the summer days of my youth. My eight-year-old is tall for his age and would qualify to ride any coasters he cared to try. My six-year-old, though too short for some, seemed determined to conquer any rides that frightened him.

It turned out that they weren’t as brave as I had hoped. I did get my older son on a few rides, with mixed reviews (for some reason the feeling of his heart thumping in his ears and his stomach turning somersaults doesn’t especially appeal to him). My six-year-old took a long time to get up his nerve, but he surprised me in the end, choosing to ride one of the smaller wooden rollercoasters, one with a large hill and a dark tunnel.  I admit I was concerned that he didn’t know what he was getting himself into. Still, once he had decided to give it a try, I doubt he could have been dissuaded (smart as he is, he is easily more stubborn than a mule).

As the lap bar lowered, I held him close and whispered, “We’ll be fine.” And as the train began to roll, “Here we go!” He did conquer his fear and though I don’t think he would say that he loved the ride, he is pretty sure he will try it again someday. I just hope he feels the same way about first grade.

Backpack fashion
Backpack fashion (Photo credit: aka Jens Rost)

Why I Don’t Trust Underwear Salesmen

Last week I got a call from a friend I hadn’t seen in a while asking me to substitute in her Bunco group that Friday. Because I haven’t been in my new community very long I don’t know a lot of people yet. So even though my friend lives on the other side of St. Louis (about an hour drive from me) I was flattered she’d thought of me and I readily agreed to join in.

Of course if I had been thinking of my history, I might not have been so eager. In May of 1885, Joseph Ramsden arrived in New York on vacation from Manchester, England. A successful businessman, Ramsden set out to explore the city and was delighted when just a day into his vacation he was recognized on the street. A gentleman claiming to be the nephew of the captain of the ship Ramsden had recently arrived on, told the flattered businessman that the captain had spoken well of him.

The new acquaintance, himself a successful manufacturer of women’s undergarments, offered Ramsden a guided tour of Broadway. The two found they had a lot to talk about (I’m guessing mainly women’s undergarments) and Ramsden (unwisely) agreed to accompany the captain’s nephew into a small second-floor office where he claimed he needed to buy a train ticket.

Ladies' underwear advertisement, 1913

As the man dug around in his bag for the money he used to pay the ticket salesmen, he also pulled out items necessary to his business (perhaps samples of women’s undergarments?) to show a fascinated Ramsden. Then at the bottom of the bag, the man happened to discover that he also had a deck of cards. Logically, he showed his latest and greatest card trick to a suitably impressed Ramsden and ticket-salesman.

So the next step was for the ticket salesmen to ask the two new friends if they knew how to play three-card monte, a popular gambling game of the time, sometimes played with a combination of cards and dice. Ramsden (wisely for once) declined the ticket salesman’s invitation to play the game, which prompted the salesman to suggest that perhaps Ramsden didn’t have enough money to play (he may have also called him a chicken). Still Ramsden was (again, wisely) reluctant to play, but as his pride was at stake he (alas, unwisely) took ₤50 from his pocket to prove his worth. That’s when Ramsden’s new acquaintance (who it turned out was neither the captain’s nephew nor a manufacturer of women’s undergarments) snatched the money and ran.

A photo of American confidence and bunco man J...
Do not agree to buy underwear from this man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ramsden pursued the man to no avail and when he returned to the ticket office, he found only an abandoned room. Joseph Ramsden had been swindled by one of the most famous bunko men of the age, variously known as William Howard, John Astorhouse, Henry Post, Louis Alcaser, Charles Clayton, and most often as “Hungry Joe” Lewis. And Ramsden was in good company with military and political leader John A. Logan and poet and writer Oscar Wilde, both also bunkoed by Hungry Joe.

The game of bunko as it’s played today descended from a game called 8-dice cloth that was a popular social pastime in 18th century England. When the simple dice game arrived in the United States in the 1850’s, it had become a swindler’s game. At first referred to as Banko, the simple dice game merged with the Spanish card game “Banca” (called Monte in Mexico) and became a vehicle for elaborate set-ups designed to swindle money from gullible marks.

It wasn’t long until “bunko” came to refer to any con designed by a “bunko man” and perpetrated on the gullible who found themselves “bunkoed.”Seedy Bunko parlors sprang up all over the nation in the late 19th century and were resurrected in the speakeasies of Prohibition. Bunko men were common and city police departments maintained regular bunko squads to counter the problem.

But even though the bunko of today is essentially a game of chance, it really is more of a social outlet for (primarily) busy ladies (“bunko babes”) who for one night a month can pay $5 to leave their husbands in charge of the kiddos and enjoy a margarita with other busy ladies. If they are the big winner they may even get to take home a kitschy prize.

I am happy to report that my friend has never claimed to be a manufacturer of women’s undergarments (apparently an untrustworthy group of folks) and the invitation I received to play bunko wasn’t an elaborate set-up. I was not, however, the lucky winner when I played. After stringing together more than a dozen low scores in a row, I guess you could say I lost my shirt.

But Bunko has become a much friendlier game over the years. My spectacular loss meant that I went home with a prize, too. Actually as a substitute, I didn’t even have to pay $5 for dues. I think my friend’s group may have been bunkoed.

English: Four coloured 6 sided dice arranged i...