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April 22, 2003

Much has been written and spoken by the parties interested in a proposed state lottery. Those favoring the proposition say that it would make up the woeful lack of funds missing from our state's public education institutions. Those on the opposing side say the same claim was made years ago when the repeal of prohibition was OK'd, but that did not happen. Likewise, the horse racing legislation was supposed to solve our fiscal woes, but that also did not happen. No one denies that money for schools must be found somewhere, but there's a difference of opinion about the propriety of legalized gambling (the lottery) as a means, of accomplishing that. I'm not choosing a side to write about, but all this debate on the pros and cons of gambling brings back memories of a similar controversy that once raged in Oklahoma.

Remember those ubiquitous cardboard punch cards? They really seemed to be everywhere. And the "marble machines" that once took up floor space in so many unexpected places. All of them seemed to vanish, at least temporarily, as new legislation was devised and their respectability was yanked away. They fit the definition of gambling, and that is forbidden in state statutes. No more punch cards. Marble machines seem to have made a comeback, even though a player can earn merchandise or other gifts if their score reaches high enough.

The reason I remember them so well is because our family business, the City Drug Store on the north side of the square, had punch cards and marble boards when such things were at the height of their popularity. That would have been in the late 1930s or early 1940s when the Great Depression had all of us in a choke hold. They offered a quick, cheap trip to the land of instant riches. Actually most of the marble machine prizes were aluminum tokens good for free games, and the punch card prizes were like five-cent candy bar or a package of Wrigley's chewing gum. Those were not depression-busters, but what the heck, they were "prizes."

In our store, the punch cards were kept on top of the cigar counter, right beside the cash register, where men could see them and pay for a punch with the loose change that followed the purchase of a good ten-cent cigar or a ten-cent package of Wings cigarettes. Men were the usual punch card or marble machine users. Most women considered the devices evil and eschewed them even though for a while they were perfectly legal or else they would not have been found at the City Drug Store.

Eventually, those who opposed they use of punch cards and marble machines prevailed and the devices disappeared except for a few in private clubs. Today you can still find marble machines in arcades that appeal to youngsters, but somehow they have been rendered legal and are considered OK. I don't know about punch cards, but they are not greatly in evidence. Maybe they have just gone to that great cigar counter in the tax-free casinos.