The Real Pinball Wizard

The Millers had pinball machines the way raisin bread has raisins. It was a given. But when Dad brought the first one home, I thought he'd lost his marbles.

"Why on earth would you buy something so weird?" I didn't really expect, or get, an answer. "You could've gotten us a color TV set, like JoAnn's father, something the whole family could enjoy. But noooo...."

Dad picked the game up cheap because it didn't work. As usual, he took the phrases "doesn't work," "out of order," and "broken" as a direct and personal challenge to his abilities as a repairman.

Sure enough, before you could say "SPECIAL POINTS WHEN LIT!" he was calling us in to try it out, no dimes needed. I glared at the electronic baseball game, my eyes flicking over the ugly peeling legs.

"I'll pass," I said, my words dripping teenage disdain. "That's definitely not my thing. I'm going to go read or something."

Dad just grinned. "I'll tell you what: Try it once, and I'll never ask you again."

Once was enough. My teenage memories are a blur of bonus points, home runs, score comparisons, and "Tilt!" signs. I developed ropy little "flipper muscles" from frantic button-pushing. A tremendous cacophony of bells and buzzers and whistles erupted continuously from the gadget. Our family room became a mob scene of kids flipping and muttering, "One more game and I'll go home," or "If I break a thousand, I'll go do my homework." Dad's contraption did wonders for the Miller kids' popularity.

Unique words and phrases crept into our vocabulary. "Tilt!" meant "You're wrong." "On replay" equaled "on second thought." "Buzz, ching, ching, ching!" was the same as "You're making bonus points!"

The pinball machines brought even the silly Millers to a new level of giddiness: games played with eyes shut, or backs turned, or with all of the silvery balls in play at one time. There were even shared games, with one person manning each flipper, both teammates screaming, "Get that - hit it, hit it!" and "Oh, no! Sorry!"

I was away at college when Dad casually mentioned over the phone that he'd sold the baseball pinball machine.

"What!" I shrieked, my college "cool" lost. "You sold our first pinball machine? Why don't you give away my baby pictures while you're at it?!"

"But I got another one, even better," Dad said. "It's called 'Cross Town.' You're gonna love it."

"I've only got one thing to say to that," I said grimly. "Tilt!"

"I'll tell you what: Try it once...."

DAD'S grandbabies achieved the customary milestones, plus one: each learned to crawl, then walk, and then play pinball. "Look!" They'd howl. "I beat Grandpa!"

When the adults didn't want to play, "Cross Town" was quite the electronic baby sitter, teaching coordination, math skills, and perseverance. Not to mention social arts, such as taking turns and winning/losing without gloating/pouting. The clamor of bells and shouting of "Oh no!" or "I can't believe it!" pinpointed the kids' whereabouts and what-abouts.

It had never occurred to me to wonder why Dad suddenly acquired the first pinball machine. But not long ago, my brother's friend told me what Paul Harvey would call "the rest of the story."

"Yep," Dave said. "I was about 12. Your dad took your brother and me to the Reno Air Races. Somehow we ended up at a hotdog stand playing pinball for hours! Before I knew it, you guys had one." He went on to say: "I wonder how many hours your brother and I flipped those balls rather than committing petty offenses, riding skateboards, and otherwise entertaining ourselves in a questionable adolescent fashion. Your dad was a wise man."

"Let me set the record straight," I told him. "I'm not knocking Dad's wisdom, but he bought that game for one reason: so he could play with it!"

Later, though, I got to pondering. A friendly competition of pinball was just the right common ground for an introverted, solitary reader of a teenage girl and her outgoing, sociable athlete father. Nothing could lure me out of my room like the "ching-ching-ching! BUZZZZZZZ" of the machine turning on. And, at an age when brother and sisters would rather die than hang out with each other, it was definitely OK to spend an evening or a rainy Saturday morning battling siblings for the top score.

Maybe Dad's toy racked up bonus points I can only tally on replay.

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