Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Magic of Pinball - December 2004

Back in March my boys and I were struggling with what to get my husband for his birthday. He’s a guy who’s happiest when he has some problem to solve, some nut to crack, some bit of business to perseverate on. So we made arrangements to visit Mike Knudsen’s basement.

Mike Knudsen is a fascinating guy with a wide range of interests: writing and playing music, collecting and repairing antique musicmakers, old radios, early electronics and more I probably don’t know about. In his basement he has a dozen pinball machines in various stages of repair. So one Saturday morning the boys and I drove over to test-drive the games while enjoying the tunes from his terrific old jukebox filled with classic rock and roll 45s. We had a great time bouncing from pinball to pinball all built between the 1940s and the1980s. We took digital photos to show Scott so he could choose the one he wanted us to buy for him.

Secretly the boys and I had our hearts set on a 1964 Williams game called, for no apparent reason, Wing Ding. The theme is, really and truly, water skier girls in modest one-piece bathing suits. It has a cool feature that allows you to win an extra turn when you rack up nine little tiny balls in the backbox by getting the ball stuck in various holes on the playing field. Wing Ding is loud in a mechanical sort of way with lots of bells and boings and the sound of the score board spinning its wheels as you rack up points. Scott was enthusiastic about the idea of buying a pinball machine from Mike, but there was no way he, Mr-Experiential-Learner, was going to decide by merely looking at some photos.

A month passed before we were able to set a time to invade the Knudsens' house again. I must confess that until last spring I’d never given any thought to pinball. None at all. I’d played occasionally in arcades on the boardwalk in Ocean City, but the payback never seemed worth the loose change I would have to part with. Back at the Knudsens', I realized it was a mistake to allow Scott entry into this hobby heaven. After a loud and lively hour, he and Mike had agreed that we would buy two pinball machines: Wing Ding and High Speed, a electronic game from the mid-eighties that has a real police light that flashes and a siren that blares. What had I started?

Thus began several months of pinball widowhood, not the playing - we couldn’t actually buy the games until the addition to the house was finished and we had a place to put them - but the internet searches and ebay scouring. Books like “How to Repair and Restore Pinball Machines,” issued, spiralbound, by places like Joe’s Garage Publishing Co., kept arriving in the mail. Finally on Fourth of July weekend Scott announced that he had conned our friend Michael into driving to Worcester with him to pick up a broken machine built in 1979 called “Flash.”

“What?” I complained. We were hosting a lobster feed the next day for 40 of our closest friends and relatives. “You’re driving eight hours in one day to pick up a broken game no one knows how to fix? And pay money for it? Are you nuts?”

“Flash is one of the five great games.” The Love of my Life informed me as though any fool knew this. “Fixing it is the fun.”

So Flash, with its “artwork” of scantily-clad blond women, arrived in our garage, dirty and broken and sad. “Look at those women!” I shouted when he set it up. “We have young boys! Those are very nearly bare breasts!”

“They are not bare-breasted,” he defended his prize sniffily and pointed to a halter top on one buxom lass. I thought of the wholesome Wing Ding with its prim water skiing girls. How can Sandra Dee compete with Stevie Nicks?

Every night for the rest of the summer, Scott was out there tinkering with the girls in the garage.

If I can trust in anything in the universe, I can trust that home construction projects always take several months longer to complete than promised. Ours was no exception. When the dust cleared, Mike Knudsen delivered Wing Ding with our promise that when our pile of money recovered from construction we would purchase High Speed, (one of the other greatest five pinball games, I’m told). Within a few days of Wing Ding’s arrival, Scott was able to discover his last glitch in Flash and now we had two working pinball machines. Flash, with its electronic pizzazz, was loud in a synthetic way. But four people could play at once, and it had a third flipper mid-way up the playing field that made the action much more exciting.

Plus there was the added benefit of not having to put money in to play. You can play again and again, unless someone is waiting in line (an early house rule established after an fracas between the boys).

It's addictive, sort of.

Because I often work at home, Wing Ding and Flash have become for me over the last month, what a game of Free Cell used to be…a little interlude between projects…an short inter-chapter between the finished pages of the web site I’m working on. And it’s more healthy. It offers more opportunity for exercise in that I must run upstairs from my office to the new game room in order to play. I have to use body English to nudge the ball around the playfield. But like Free Cell, like Lay’s potato chips, it’s hard to stop at one game. Especially because it’s free.

I’ve found myself playing multi-player games on Flash with people who aren’t there. I do my best for everyone. I play with my three siblings mostly, trying to play extra hard on behalf of those who’ve had some hard knocks in life. I don’t mind losing when it’s my turn when the others do well. I’ve found that with Wing Ding the maxim “Them that has, gets” rules. If you win extra turns by skillful play, you have more chances to meet the extra turn point threshold, thereby winning an even higher score. We decided early on that we would keep a running total of our personal bests in dry erase marker on the backglass. With no inter-family competition, we can cheer for one another’s amazing saves and console one another at unfortunate moments.

I hear the words, “Bummer, Mom” a lot.

I doubt I’ll ever decide to learn how to restore and repair pinball machines, but there is something fun and cheery about these two pieces of pop culture escapism we’ve invited into our house. I like them, despite the clothes-challengedness of the Flash girls, because it’s hard to worry about every single thing in the world when you’re battling to keep the ball in play.

Copyright © 2004 All rights reserved.