Under the spell of pinball wizards

Tommy_Album-CMYKAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, July 24, 2016.

My brother Rob and I watched with envy as a white-haired man waved his metal detector over the fine sand, like a wizard with a wand. Rob was 12 years old and I was 9. It was early evening in July, and we were standing at the boardwalk rail in the shadow of the stone pavilion at Scarborough Beach in Narragansett.

“I wish we had one of those,” I said, referring to the white-haired prospector’s treasure-finding device.

“Beats our technique,” Rob replied.

He was referring to our practice of combing the beach for money with the only detectors we possessed: our eyes. When we were lucky, we’d glimpse an occasional nickel or dime amid sand-crusted Popsicle sticks and pieces of dried seaweed.

Not on this night, though. With empty pockets, Rob and I started back to our grandfather’s cottage just up the road — until I stopped at a pay phone outside the pavilion to fish the coin return slot. To my surprise, a forgotten dime slid beneath my finger.

“Score!” I said.

“No way!” Rob said.

We headed directly to Adam’s, the variety store and arcade across from the beach, to indulge my latest obsession: pinball. In 1969, the zinging, jangling games were in their heyday. The Who had even released a rock opera earlier that year telling the story of a pinball wizard named Tommy.

But not everyone was enamored with the electromechanical precursor to modern video games. Though rarely enforced, laws banning pinball were still on the books throughout much of the United States. Before the introduction of flippers — the levers that give players a measure of control over the ball — many had believed the machines promoted gambling because they were games of chance, not skill. In New York City in the 1940s, Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia crusaded against pinball, saying it robbed schoolchildren of their lunch money.

No such prohibition was in effect in Rhode Island in the late 1960s — at least not at Adam’s. And the nightly scene in the arcade dispelled any notion that pinball was merely a game of chance. The brightly lit, cacophonous room drew would-be pinball wizards from Point Judith to Narragansett Pier and beyond. My older cousin David was among the best players. He had, to borrow Pete Townshend’s words, “crazy flipper fingers,” and I marveled at his ability to nudge or bump a machine to his advantage without tilting and suspending play.

The most popular game at Adam’s was Hayburners, and when David dropped a dime in its coin slot, kids gathered around to watch. It was only a matter of time before the machine’s clicking digits rolled past the free replay mark, sounding the sharp, distinctive knock that every pinballer coveted.

I waited for the crowd to thin before placing my dime on Hayburners’ glass to reserve the next game. Unlike The Who’s Tommy, I rarely played “a mean pinball,” and figured the fewer the onlookers, the better.

But a funny thing happened on this particular night: I found the magic touch. I finessed shots to high-scoring rollovers. I hit targets again and again. I made deft flipper saves to maintain play.

“Only 100 points to a free game!” Rob said, as I launched my final ball.

It would have been my first time. Heart pounding, I made another flipper save. The ball ricocheted from a rubber kicker to a slingshot pad, then arced toward the right-hand out lane. I was a split second away from seeing my dream vanish — if the ball continued on its path, the game would end!

Instinctively, I gave the machine a hard sideways jerk. Hayburners instantly went dark — I had tilted. The ball rolled over my lifeless flipper and disappeared.

“You were so close,” Rob said, making the knot in my stomach clench tighter.

Someday I’d be a pinball wizard, I told myself as we walked home to Papa’s beach house. I just needed more practice — more dimes.

Early the next morning, my brother and I scoured the beach for coins.

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