When I was a teenager in rural Appalachia, there wasn’t a whole lot to do. In those days we liked cruising, which amounted to making a loop around the city square, then driving down the river road to McDonald’s to complete another loop that would take us back. Repeat 20 times.
We really did enjoy this. Still, sometimes we’d look for ways to break the monotony — a bonfire, a house party, or, for me and my high school boyfriend, pinball.
We must have spent a few thousand dollars, two quarters at a time, at the Par-Mar gas station on the edge of our town. There was a single pinball machine there, and I can’t remember it enough to describe it well; it had no movie tie-in or memorable theme. I remember, though, that it had two bottom flippers and one on the right side higher up, and I do have a fondness for machines that offer more than the requisite pair.
Mark and I gave those flippers a workout, simultaneously killing time and putting the Par-Mar owner’s children through medical school.
We were together for a relatively long time, Mark and I, and we would later graduate to billiards. He could really trounce me in pool — the guy had a keen eye for a combo and could work the rail like a champ, and though I countered with a wild arsenal of top, bottom and side English, a skill I remain proud of, my tools were insufficient to best him.
This was not the case in pinball, though. We were very evenly matched there, and both quite good, and I suspect we would have spent less time outside the creaky swinging door of a gas station men’s room if it were not for the driving need to break our perpetual tie.
This past Friday, I took my kids to check out RetroZone in downtown Marshfield. It’s a cheap outing, with unlimited play on video games for a $5 entry price, and it is also a wholesome one. There’s frozen custard, and on this particular day there was even a puppy. Everyone was so friendly, and we had a wonderful time.
Of course I was drawn to the pinball machines, which required coins to play, and I performed credibly on a Jurassic Park model of fairly recent vintage.
Up front, though, I found a real gem: a Bicentennial-themed “Spirit of 76” model with two flippers and mechanical scoring.
To my delight, this machine gave out free games like candy, in exactly the way at my teenage gas station machine did not, and I’m ashamed to say that I studiously ignored any 12-year-old who approached for a turn. I could happily have stayed there all night.
In re-trying pinball, I remembered a few lessons from the game.
Each shiny silver ball offers a new chance to shine — just like each new day, or even each new moment of a day.
Sometimes your shining opportunity trails right down the center alley and into the hole, and you never get a chance put it in play.
Sometimes, however, you hit a seat sweet spot, and through no effort of your own, the ball caroms between bumpers like lightning from cloud to cloud, and your score goes up and up, and you watch in fascination, hardly believing your luck.
That’s when pinball really takes you back.