Whatever happened to tops? You know, tops, the kid’s toy; you wrapped a string around it and threw it at the ground where it spun around frantically and serenely until friction, gravity and precession caused it to slow down and finally spin to a stop and roll across the ground. I mean real tops, not those big silly metal things you pump up and turn loose, but the little ones with no moving parts and driven completely by human skill and power and the laws of physics. Kids don’t play with tops any more, indeed, they don’t play with lots of traditional toys, but it’s tops I miss the most.
Every kid bought a new top at the beginning of the season (every toy had it’s own season), and the kids all seemed to know when each one ended and the new one began. One day every kid was playing with yo-yos (or kites, or paddles, or stoop balls ) and the next day, as if by some mysterious signal, everyone brought out their tops. Tops were cheap, available in every store, and all pretty much the same. There was no one-upmanship with the equipment; it was all about skill.
Your basic top was about the size of a small orange, just the right size to fit a kid’s hand, and roughly conical in shape, except the upper end was rounded and topped off by a circular flange surrounding a flat upper surface. It looked like a miniature hot air balloon. At the bottom end, where it came to a point, was a sharp galvanized nail with a little metal collar that anchored the string. They were turned from a single piece of a very hard wood, probably oak, so they were perfectly balanced and were pretty much identical except they were painted in different colors. The other required piece of equipment was the string, a thick cord actually, several feet long and always made of several braided strands of cotton yarn. It had to be acquired separately and it wasn’t sold in stores but Mom always seemed to have some lying around the house. With the advent of synthetics, monofilament, cheap tape and plastic ties, you can’t find it anymore. I don’t think they even make it these days. The string was critical, only the right string would work and a good one was hard to replace. You usually had to cut off two or three until you got one that was just the right length. You tied a loop at one end for your finger, and a stopper knot at the other to keep the yarns from unraveling. The string would last all season, although it did get pretty dirty.
With the top, attaching the string was everything. You put your right hand ring finger through the loop and held the top in your left hand, the point facing away from your body. Then, you laid the other end of the string near the flange (the end opposite the nail) and held it secure with your left thumb and took one turn of the string so the first coil went between the nail collar and the body of the top. You continued coiling the string AWAY from you (clockwise as viewed by an observer standing facing you) until it was all used up, and just your stopper knot was showing, with it’s little cometary tail of loose fibers poking out from underneath the coils. All the while you wound it up, the string was kept as tight as possible, so tight the anchor piece held down by your thumb was barely detectable from the slight bulge under the coils. Several times during this process, you grabbed both top and coils and twisted them with a motion similar to removing a jar lid so the string would be as tight as possible. When you were done, you transferred the entire assembly to your right hand, still keeping the cord as tight as possible and pointing the nail end of the top up. The whole thing was now tightly gripped by index and middle finger on one side, thumb on the other, and little and ring fingers curled out of the way against the palm.
Now comes the hard part, the throw. The top is thrown at the ground at about a forty five degree angle, as hard as possible, like a fast ball, and during the throw the hand is whipped back and with a flick of the wrist the line uncoils and the top, somehow, miraculously, flips over so the nail hits the ground while the top is spinning furiously. Gyroscopic forces do the rest. You had to be careful, sometimes the line would tangle while uncoiling and the top came back at you like a bullet. Other times it hit the ground at too shallow an angle and went skittering off, still spinning furiously, into the bushes or under a car. It’s not easy, and even the best top men sometimes screw it up, but when it works it is a wondrous thing to behold. The little spinning demon hits the sidewalk at the speed of sound, lifting a little bit of dust off the cement when it makes contact, and then sits in one spot, a blur of circular motion. Sometimes, if you’re just a bit off, it moves around slowly, precessing slightly. The sound is indescribable, but it makes you feel the same way the sound of a ball hitting the sweet spot of a bat makes you feel. If you’ve done it right, you know it’s a good throw before the string stops uncoiling and before the top hits the ground.
You can play games with your friends, too. Who could keep one spinning the longest was always fun, if you had a pal with a wristwatch! About a minute and a half was the max. Another was taking turns trying to hit a small chalk circle on the sidewalk, with extra points if the top remained within the circle till it ran down. Some guys knew how to throw the top and catch it, still spinning, in the palm of their hand. No, it didn’t hurt, and I was never good enough to do it, but I swear I’ve seen others do it. Another game was taking turns throwing the top while your companions tried to hit it with theirs. A good hit could split the target top in two, or unbalance it by taking out a chunk of wood. It was about the only way you could damage one, they were damn near indestructible.
I haven’t thrown a top in over 50 years, and haven’t seen one in about the same length of time. But there isn’t the slightest doubt in my mind that if I had one now I could still throw it perfectly.