Williams column: The Magic-8 Ball
By Mack Williams
For the Salisbury Post
One day at a local senior center in Danville, I observed a game of billiards being played. Although the men participating were in their late 70s and 80s, they reminded me of teenage boys by each one’s highly boastful remarks about his individual level of pool prowess, coupled with equally disparaging remarks as to the lack of pool-playing prowess of his comrades.
While watching the game, one of the billiard balls brought back to me the memory of a toy which I received for Christmas in the late 1950s from Santa. Since it was the late 1950s, the gift was definitely from him (MW’s D.O.B =1951. 1959-1951=8 years, still the “age of Santa.”) Although I later learned of Santa’s non-existence, it is still logged into a part of my mind that the gift was from him. In my case, this is either due to the mind’s well-known aptitude for the compartmentalization of conflicting concepts, or to some as yet undiagnosed, lifelong, personal cerebral pathology. The memory-inspiring billiard ball was the “8-ball,” and the toy dredged up from my memory by its sighting: “The Magic 8-Ball.”
One of the most popular toys from the late 1950s and the early 1960s was the Magic 8-Ball. Questions were asked of it, and answers were given by it, but not in the same manner as those given by the Ouija Board. The answers from that board supposedly came from the great beyond, traced by the answering device upon the letters of the board. The content of those answers was much more open than were the ones of the Magic 8-Ball. Its replies were individually, factory-scripted upon a series of little triangular plates on the outside of a quasi-spheroidal shape, sunk within the mysterious dark liquid which filled the 8-Ball.
Whereas the Ouija Board has sometimes been billed as a way to communicate with the dead, back then I imagined that the answers to my Magic 8-Ball inquiries were selected by some helpful “energy” floating within the ball itself, not from some departed soul on the opposite bank of the River Styx. Questions could be asked of the 8-Ball pertaining to the desired toys of Christmas morning, outcomes of school tests, boy-girl crushes of the grammar grades, etc. Its “magic” was only appropriate to the years of elementary school, however, for if a grown man were to be seen making inquiries of it, certain questions of psychology could then be asked of him.
To use the Magic 8-Ball properly, one would hold it in his hands with the numerical side facing up, state the question, then turn it upside down. On that side was a small, clear plastic window through which the answer would be displayed. It always seemed to me that rubbing that little window would make the reply appear quicker, but I suspect it would have appeared just as quickly anyway. The act of rubbing the window probably served the same purpose as that of a magician passing his wand over a hat and saying: “Alakazam.” After repeated rubbing, the little window had a greasy feel to it from the natural oil from the skin of my fingers.
The answering device of the Magic 8-Ball lay beneath the dark liquid of the sphere. The answer would always appear on a singular triangular segment, surfaced from the liquid, with the edges of a couple of other adjacently-attached and partially-submerged segments showing around it. The Magic 8-Ball predated the Rubik’s Cube, but looking back, I can imagine something beneath that mysterious liquid, resembling a sunken Rubik’s sort-of “orb,” made up of triangular segments (just now, an image of a 12-sided, solid plastic calendar on Dr. Frank B. Marsh’s desk from the early 1960s pops into my mind. Besides the months, the name of a medicine was printed, so it was probably a gift to him from some pharmaceutical salesman).
Many times, answers would be most positively or negatively given by the 8-Ball, but a certain percentage of my questions back then would be answered with the non-committal reply: “Ask again later.” I think that my old Magic 8-Ball has become lost during several relocations, probably residing now in a landfill somewhere. Ecologists tell us of discarded items in landfills sometimes lasting in fairly pristine condition for many years, so my old 8-Ball could still remain operable.
Just for the sake of hypothesis, if my old Magic 8-Ball were unearthed from its “grave” of discarded things and placed once more within my hands, it would again be subject to my questioning. At that point, I would have to especially strain my mind to recall some of my original inquiries, but on the slim chance that I were able to, I might test its accuracy by asking some of those questions to which the answers have already been provided by the passage of time, then make a comparison.
If by some chance, I could recall those particular questions, yet unanswered, to which the reply “Ask again later” had been given to me over 50 years ago, I might ask them again, hoping at long last to receive a definitive reply, but only if there were no witnesses. (Please remember what I said a few paragraphs back about a grown man making such inquiry of the Magic 8-Ball.) If the answer “Ask again later” were to re-appear in that clear little plastic window for any one of those previously unanswered, re-posed inquiries, then this “8-year-old boy” of 61 years would know that the answers to some questions are a very long time in coming.