Extra ball

by Brian Clarey

This week’s cover story brought me back. Researching the story on pinball, “The Silver Ball” (page 28), required lots of studying on the game, hours of actual pinball play — sweet! — and a trip through my memories that was as comforting as a big plate of warm meatloaf and mashed potatoes with gravy, with a side of mac and cheese.

I played a lot of pinball in many venues throughout my life. Around 1980, I pumped hundreds of quarters into the machines at the Garden City Bowl on Long Island in between league games — in that time and place, weekend league bowling was something a lot of kids did. It was the advent of the video game, and the GC Bowl did a brisk business in the side area that held these novelties. It was there I saw my first Donkey Kong console — all the rage in 1981, with a cachet that still endures. Before that it was Pac-man and Dig Dug and Centipede and Missile Command. The bowling alley also had one of the first tabletop games, a version of football that pitted Xs against Os, controlled with a trackball and a blinking red button.

But I was drawn to pinball. I remember when the Indiana Jones:

The Pinball Adventure machine came in, a wide table, wider than the others, with a soundtrack from the movie and more ramps and playing fields than I had ever seen.

I also played at Time Out, the arcade at the Roosevelt Field Mall near my parents’ house, before they phased out the machines in favor of video consoles, and at Nathan’s, sort of a Chuck E. Cheese for grownups, where bikers and birthday parties shared the back gaming space after noshing on hot dogs, fried clams and the worst French fries in the history of fast food up front.

Nathan’s, a franchise born on the Coney Island midway, remained dedicated to pinball long after the video-game craze took hold, and throughout the 1980s and ’90s a long row of tables dominated the center of the space.

I played pinball in movie theaters and highway rest stops, too, and when I got older I found them in bars and I played them there, too.

At TJ Quill’s, on Maple Street in New Orleans, my roommate and I would spend the early part of the day — from about 3 p.m. until nightfall — harassing the Riverboat Gambler machine with quarters he cadged from his girlfriend, who worked as a waitress down the street. This one featured a working roulette wheel on the backglass, activated by hitting multiple ramps, and allowed the player to bet on red, black or, if he was feeling lucky, green.

We got good at that one. Real good. After a time, a couple of bucks could carry us until it was time to engage in more serious drinking — if it was working properly. When it wasn’t, there was another machine just like it at Franky & Johnny’s.

Years later, when I worked the graveyard shift at Igor’s, I’d spend the mornings taking the Monster Bash machine to task with Scottish Bryan, beginning at the end of my shift at 10 a.m. and sometimes working the flippers until sundown.

I always loved the game, but it wasn’t until I wrote this cover story that I remembered my first taste of those flashing lights.

I spent a lot of time with my grandparents in New Jersey when I was a kid. One summer, when I was maybe 6 years old, my grandfather took me with him to his bowling night — the game was a big deal among adults, too, back in the 1970s. He gave me a couple bucks for Cokes and snacks, and I put a few of them into a pinball machine. All I remembered about it was that it had some sort of outer-space theme, and that it had curved flippers. And I remember I was good at it — it was the first time I ever popped a machine for a free game. It made me jump; I remember thinking I had broken it.

A quick bit of research shows that only two pinball machines with curved “banana flippers” were ever made. One was called Disco Fever, a Williams machine from 1978 that I have never seen. The other, another Williams product from 1978, was called Time Warp, and came in models with straight or curved flippers.

A trip through the Internet Pinball Database — yes, there is such a thing — confirmed that this was the source of my first memorable pinball experience.

Bu today’s standards, the machine was primitive: a digital scoreboard, much open space between features, a vaguely futuristic sans-serif font. But I’ll be damned if I don’t remember standing in front of that machine like it happened yesterday.

On Friday I got to the Lost Ark just as it opened, and I brought my 9-year-old son with me.

“A lot of younger people, teenagers on down, they’ve never actually played pinball,” Lost Ark owner Daniel McMillan told me.

My son is an old hand; he’s been playing since he was 4. I brought him to the Iron Man machine, a far cry from the old Time Warp table, with realistic voiceovers, an enemy that rises from the floor of the table, another that shoots the ball back at you. When it’s rolling, all lit up and pinging and dinging, it looks like a spaceship.

My boy stood astride that table, moving his tiny body with the action of the ball, mesmerized by the lights and the sounds and the movement, racking up the millions.

I wonder if he’ll remember this when he gets further down the road. I hope he does. I know I will.