beach

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.

Saying goodbye to the family beach house

elizabeth_road001_rw1

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, July 19, 2015.

I spent my summers as a boy at Scarborough Beach in Narragansett, thanks to Henry Ford’s assembly line, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s efforts to get the country out of the Great Depression, and my Auntie Tina’s powers of persuasion.

The popularity of Fords and other automobiles prompted the paving of Point Judith Road in 1928, easing access to the shore. FDR’s Public Works Administration developed the beaches at Scarborough and Sand Hill Cove in the 1930s, accelerating the transformation of Point Judith Neck into a popular summer vacation spot. Modest cottages sprang up in increasing numbers.

As for Auntie Tina, her husband, Frankie, purchased a tiny house three blocks up from Scarborough in 1951, and she convinced her brother-in-law, sister, and uncle – my grandfather – to buy adjoining lots. (Technically, Tina was a first cousin once removed, but that translated into “Auntie” in my mother’s large, close-knit family.)

My grandfather built a three-bedroom cottage on Elizabeth Road in 1957, three years before I was born. It was a study in funky woods: vertically grooved plywood siding (known by its trade name, Texture 111) and knotty pine interior walls. The house, painted vibrant red with white trim, faced south, allowing sunlight to pour through its big picture window. Relatives and friends poured in, too – the front door was always open.

Going to Scarborough as a kid meant curling waves and salty skin, hot sand underfoot and frozen Charleston Chews in hand. Someone would invariably ask Uncle Harry if he was going to swim to League Rock, which juts out of the ocean almost a quarter mile off the shore.

“Water’s too cold,” my uncle would say, as if that were his only reason for deferring.

Lifeguard whistles turned my head often: Was someone being swept away by the perilous undertow that my mother and aunts warned me about? Crackly PA announcements sounded a common refrain: “Attention please, we have a little lost boy …”

Fortunately, I was never that lost boy. At the beach, I always had family close by.

When it rained, we played cards back at the house – rummy games on the porch for the kids, canasta in the kitchen for the adults. My cousin Anne usually won the penny pool, while Auntie Etta was forever ruing the cards she was dealt: “What rotten paper!”

On August 2, 1975, temperatures in Providence reached a record high of 104 degrees. My grandfather closed his baby clothes store on Federal Hill, and just about everyone in the family streamed to Elizabeth Road. At 10:00 that night, some of us were still down at the beach, soothed by the cool caresses of the ocean, like a great, moving well of ink beneath the hazy moonlight. Amid invisible splashes, I tried to block the opening scene of “Jaws,” the summer’s blockbuster movie, from my mind. It didn’t work.

The entire family came together again the following Sunday to celebrate my grandfather’s birthday. Papa stood in the backyard, smoking a cigar and smiling as the party swirled around him. I never asked, but I was pretty sure this is why he had built the cottage – to have a place at the beach where his children and grandchildren (and, someday, great and great-great grandchildren) could gather.

The house stayed in the family through 2014, when we lost the last of a line of legendary matriarchs, sweet Auntie Marie. A “For Sale” sign went up, and someone from New York bought the property in a blink.

This past June, I headed to Narragansett, and Scarborough, for the first time since the sale. When I turned the corner at Elizabeth Road, I gasped: the house’s familiar red paint was gone, covered now with grey vinyl siding.

My reaction surprised me, and then I chuckled. What had I expected – for the cottage to stand unchanged forever, like League Rock out in the swells off a beloved stretch of beach?

It will always be my grandfather’s house to me. Vinyl may have buried its grooved wooden siding, but it can’t obscure the memories I have of summers spent there.

What a blessing they were.

%d bloggers like this: