For Christmas, a friend gave me a throwing top, as it is officially called, as a gag gift. It was much more than a gag to me. Many years ago I was given two of them by my grandfather. Those old tops are long gone, but the new one is almost identical, except the point is now plastic rather than metal.
While my grandfather was still living in his home in East Lansdowne and I was about 10 years old, I discovered two throwing tops in the storage space under the seat of his garden bench. He showed me how to wrap them with string, then throw them so they spun as they unwound, and said I could keep them. He could not spin them himself (he only used them to push holes in the soil for seeds), but he assured me it was easy, and many boys my age could do it (none of my friends ever heard of them). I could never get it to work, either, and I am probably writing this blog now as compensation for that early failure. I did, however, develop a lifelong fascination with gyroscopes and other forms of tops. And, I was always sure I would someday learn to spin them.
The instructions that came with the new top held the key: Left-handers (like me) have to wind the top in the opposite direction (counterclockwise when looking from the point, opposite that shown in the photo). Very important tip. Not knowing that, I was doomed to fail. Sometime over the years, I discarded the old tops in frustration, an action I often regretted. If I had only waited 70 years, all would become clear thanks to my friend’s gift.
In the photo, it looks like the end of the string is tied to the top, but it is not. It just happens to be lying in the grove. Tie it and it will wind back like a yo-yo and hit you in the face. The string has to come free from the thrown top.
The instructions also warned against pulling the hand back at the end of the throw to give the spin an extra snap (which I was doing). The throw should be a smooth, level (not down toward the ground), side-arm throw with the top held point up, as wrong as that seems. Apparently, it flips over in the throw. This, they said, was the preferred form developed in the 1960s. They also referenced a YouTube video showing the technique. There are several YouTube instruction videos, and they all feature shy, adolescent Asian boys who obviously spend serious time spinning tops. (You can find the videos by searching for “throwing tops.”)
I can now get it to spin—most times—but I need a lot of space. I spin it on the garage floor with both cars backed out, but it still often bangs against the closed, double-wide garage door. If we get a warm day, I will try it on the street. It is called a “throwing top” for a reason. You are throwing it, and the unwinding string doesn’t slow it much. Expect it to land about 20 feet away. Throw harder and it will be 30 feet. It is an outdoor toy.
My goal is to get good enough to demonstrate one at Longwood Gardens as an example of how Pierre’s nieces and nephews spent their time back in those days. Maybe not actually demonstrate it, but good enough to do so if asked.
Next, I’ll learn to roll a hoop. If I can find my old cap and gown, I could join the Wellesley College graduation in May. I would blend right in (maybe).