Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Crack Top and The Origin Of Mitch Maglio's Comic Collection

Why would a grown man allow himself to accumulate 17,000 comic books? Why would ANYONE for that matter bother to collect and collect and COLLECT a huge number of books that they will almost certainly never get the chance to re-read? Think about it. If I were to sit down and read every comic book that I own it would take me 236 days (given an average reading time of 20 minutes a comic)…IF I did not eat, sleep, bathe, raise a family, or (gasp) take a Star Trek break.

I love reading comics …but not THAT much!

So why the 17K? Value? Investment? Well sure my collection IS worth quite a bit, but MOST of the value resides in less than 10% of my books. In fact it costs me more to keep the vast majority of my comics than it would to just give them away. I have to bag them, board them, RE-BAG and board them every five years, and store them. It’s more costly than you might think!
Bottom line is that I keep them for sentimental reasons. I am lucky enough to have most of the comics books that I have ever bought in my life. MY mom was not one of those moms who tossed out all my old comics when I moved out.

Thanks Mom!

So, for me, my collection is sort of a time line of my life. I can go into any box, flip through books and create a flood of memories. Events from thirty or forty years ago, that I would certainly have forgotten become vivid memories once again when I happen upon a comic that I was reading at the time.

So let’s cue the fog effect and that wavy screen thingy as I take you back to the summer of 1966 …

THE YEAR OF THE GREAT COMIC BOOK COLLECTING QUEST!!!! (pat. pending, us.reg pat. off.)

An earth quaking (or even shaking) event that lead to my adding over 300 comics to my collection during the summer of 1966, in the mythical land known as Brooklyn N.Y. . This event was so world altering that even today, those who lived through it only speak of it in reverent whispers of awe (shucks) and wonder (bread). Even now the very fabric of space/time struggles to recover from the blows of these mind numbing confrontations.

(I give great hyperbole, don’t I?!)

It was of course was the epic CRACK TOP CONTEST. It was no holds barred. It was no quarter given. A fight to the death with riches untold for the winner and lifelong humiliation for the loser! The payout was to be (cue dramatic music cue please Waffle) THREE HUNDRED (Slightly read) Comics!

Like most of the world changing tests of skill held over the years on 102nd Street and Flatlands Avenue in the Canarsie section of my ancient homeland, this one was arranged by the neighborhood hustlers (each 12 years of age …making roughly 24 years of con artistry between them!) Howie and Henry…or as we knew them…”The Brothers”. (In fact they ARE brothers and as far as I know STILL con artists) As near as we could figure it The brothers had tons of everything. They were always on the look out for toys, games, candy, ice cream, and yes, comic books. No junk yard was safe from the prowling of Howie and Henry. They were the hustlers by which all hustlers are judged. The well spring!

Henry was the neighborhood genius (more on that at a later date) whilst Howie was the muscle. Or as much muscle as you could be after getting beaten up on a regular basis by my cousin Cindy (the toughest kid on the block).

Word of the pending Crack Top contest moved like wildfire through the neighborhood spreading as far as the distant land of 101st street! All the best players were shining up their spinning tops in preparation for the gladiatorial spectacle set for that Saturday! There was Jimmy “No teeth” Weaver, Bunko Bill Stevens, Mark “the Hammer” Levy and many others.

Inevitably though it would come down to a battle of will, skill and moxie between me and my nemesis, arch enemy, and all around pain in the nether regions, Alan “Hail Mary” Baker.

Many had been our confrontations with no clear winner. He was the leader of Thrush whilst *I* was the head of U.N.C.L.E.! Our gangs would square off and taunt each other relentlessly….Alan would save his most crushing taunt (BUGGA! BUGGA!) for the coup de gras! Few were those who could easily recover from a well placed *grr* Baker “Bugga! Bugga!”, but balance was maintained by the fact that my second in command was the aforementioned Toughest Kid On the Block. One glance at Cindy’s Clint Eastwood type stare would freeze the blood and quicken the pulse of any miscreant…and boy was Alan miscreanty! (Is that even a word?)

But I digress. The long and the short of it is that my ONLY real competition for the golden pile of four colored goodness was the aforementioned *grrrr* Baker.

(To this day I cannot say the word “Baker” without a mental *grrr*…which often confuses the people at my local bakery by the way).
We were the undisputed masters of the hallowed game of crack top.

You see, Crack Top is a game of skill, aggression, planning and plain blind luck. Masters of the game can stretch their lineage all the way back Ancient Times (also in Brooklyn) and the teachings of the greatest Crack Topper of them all , Harry Donnenfeld. (Actually I can’t back that up. There is no evidence that Harry Donnenfeld ever actually even handled a spinning top but I like to get his name into my stories whenever possible. Hi Harry!)

Crack Top involves the use of spinning tops. It was, is a toy that is shaped more or less like a triangle with a metal or plastic point on the narrow end. You wrap a string tightly around the body of the top and, with a flick of the wrist the top unravels and (theoretically) spins. It requires great technique and nuance to do well. If NOT done well the consequences can be…dire. (I would tell you about the great Spinning Top fatalities of 1898 but children may be reading this column. )

Contestants start their tops spinning in a circular arena drawn on the ground. The last one spinning has the opportunity to “CRACK” a top or tops out of the circle. The player, if he is particularly skilled, can even break a top right in half thus “cracking” the top. Said top destroyers are the best of the best.

Alan *grr*Baker was the best….

I was better.

(Another dramatic music cue…Come ON Waffle, wake up! You just can’t get good help these days!)
Back and forth we went, cracking tops. The low whine of the gyrating toys filled the air. Hands trembled.
Brows were furrowed with sweat.

(As an aside Alan could sweat like no other. He was clearly the neighborhood sweating champion. This has been attributed by experts to Alan’s unusually furrowy brow. What furrows that guy had! We could often hear his mother commenting on this as she hung out the wash. She would say to no one in particular, “That $#@#$ Boy can really sweat!”)

One by one the other players fell by the wayside. They lost their tops to Alan or myself. Even worse others suffered the humiliation of watching my nemesis or myself blast their tops to microscopic pieces. The day was hot…it was long. Popsicle sticks littered the concrete. Yoohoo cans lay in silent testament to the grueling battle. Even Saturday morning cartoons went unwatched as all eyes were riveted to the battle of the Top Titans. (It is said that the idea for the Superbowl sprung out of this particular Crack Top contest but I cannot verify that…yet.)

Finally the only men left standing were Alan and myself. It was a dead heat.

Now here is where the rules and etiquette of Crack Top get muddy. In a strict tie the players each spin their tops and the last one spinning wins. But for legendary players (and brutal enemies) like Alan and myself this would never be enough! There had to be more.
There had to be death.

We quickly huddled with Henry (Howie and Cindy keeping watch over the skittish crowd that could riot at any second! They would be our only protection if things got ugly.) and decided to use the dreaded Donnenfeld Protocols.

Even today , some four and a half decades later, I wonder how any of us survived the Donnenfeld Protocols. Clearly it was foolhardy on all our parts. We had no idea about the forces were about to release. All I can say is that we were young and foolish.

Anyway, the D.P. called for Alan and I in turn to lay our BEST top in the center of the ring, giving the other a chance to CRACK his prized weapon n half. The first to successfully destroy his opponent’s top would win and claim the prize comic books.

And so it began. The tie breaker. There was more at stake then mere bragging rights. More at stake than even the pile of pulp wonder gleaming in the sunshine. This was a battle for honor! Pride! If I could win…if I could emerge triumphant never again would the words “Bugga! Bugga!” strike fear into the hearts of the innocent. No Klingon Warrior had ever fought for a more noble cause! (well maybe the great Tribble Hunt, but I digress.)

Henry flipped a coin and all eyes were on the silver disk as it flew up, caught the sunlight and came back down into the hand of the neighborhood genius. Heads. Alan would get the first shot.

It is no easy thing to strike a top no bigger than a nine year old’s fist with the point of another top. So it was no surprise that he missed on his first attempt. So did I. back and forth we went. Just missing by a hair. The stress in the crowd was palpable. You could FEEL the thumping of hearts as *grr* Baker and I battled back and forth . Half an hour went by, then an hour! Wrists flicking….tops spinning. Near miss after near miss. Something had to give.

One of us would have to crack first. Then on Alan’s tenth attempt…time slowed as he brought his wrist down, freeing his deadly crusher of a top. I could actually see the point rotating as it plummeted towards my prized weapon. A top known to one and all as ”The Penetrator”. The point of Alan’s top scored a deep gash along one side of my top….a collective gasp went up!
Henry bent down and he examined The penetrator with the eyes of a surgeon.

“NO BREAK”!, he declared. I would get another chance but my top was badly damaged. The scoring would surely put the balance off and if I failed to get the top to spin I would lose by default. I could not style the spin even though I was KNOWN as a fineness player. The top would have to be POWERED into a spin. I was literally going to have to THROW it. This technique was almost unheard of. Only the Great Donnenfeld was said to have mastered it. But I had no choice.

I knew what Superman would do. I knew what Cap would do…and I knew what Harry would do.

I wound the top as tightly as I had ever done before. I would need the added torque! I called upon the Zen of Top spinning and focused my gaze to a single spot on the body of Alan’s evil toy. And then I heard the voice of Donnenfeld…
“Use the Force, Mitch”

Not really. This was 12 years before Star Wars came out but I couldn’t resist. What I actually “heard” was the “Bugga!Bugga!” I would get if I lost.

I brought my hand down like a sledge hammer and released the top. It was Ali against Liston. Mantle hitting a 500 foot drive. It was Kirk making out with a green chick!

My top hit the ground spinning serenely. On either side was precisely one half of Alan’s “top.

A collective roar went up. I had won. I had won for truth, Justice and The American Way. I had won for the little guy and Klingons everywhere. But mostly I had just won THREE HUNDRED COMICS!

I turned slowly to my opponent, humbled in defeat, his broken top in his hands .He looked , silently acknowledging his defeat…and I said

“Bugga! Bugga!

That’s 30!