Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The game of misfits

Posted By on 02.29.12 at 07:09 AM

Pinball art by Dave Christensen
  • Eric Kantor
  • Pinball art by Dave Christensen
The first time the world said no to me because I was too young, what I was too young to do was play pinball. The playground around my new school, Prince Charles Elementary in Sudbury, Ontario, was covered with pebbles, but at its westernmost end there was a dip into a dirt field where older kids played football, and beyond that field, beyond the magisterium of the principal, Mr. Carlaw, a tiny general store offered a pinball machine. I think it was the first one I ever saw. I’m not sure what age I had to be to legally put a nickel in the slot, but it was an age I was nowhere close to. I was seven.

So I waited. When we moved from Sudbury, a hard mining town, to Kirkwood, a cozy suburb of Saint Louis, pinball machines were no longer a temptation because Kirkwood was too respectable a place to allow them. But eventually I went off to college. My choice of schools was dictated by the nation's cold war needs: it was the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy located in Rolla, Missouri (proud gateway to the Ozarks), where the only co-eds were a handful of town girls and a mysterious cluster of Cubans.

I was at Rolla on an alumni association scholarship, and to further lighten the financial load my father had helped line up a place in a co-op program run by the company where he worked, McDonnell Aircraft. It would take five years of grueling work and study but I’d come out of it with a degree in mathematics and a good job in the only field that mattered in that post-Sputnik era, the field of reestablishing cold-war technological superiority over the USSR. Writing was not in the picture because writing was something I enjoyed, and I’d been led to believe that adult life was not supposed to be enjoyable. “Some people believe your senior year of high school is the happiest year of your lives,” our principal, Mr. Moore, had told us as that year came to an end. We waited for the but. There was no but. Mr. Moore believed it too. Some of the girls cried and some of the boys wanted to, those of us for whom even the happiest year of our lives had been sort of miserable.

And so off to Rolla. Trying to do the town justice years later I called it a place “where students loped around tidy as creek banks, enlightened as brick walls, and opened slide rules for half of life’s answers and beer cans for the other half.” It turned out there was no degree in mathematics. Plans to introduce one had fallen through. So there I was at a school where I didn't want to be pursuing an education it didn’t offer. Fortunately, for every hillbilly gracing Rolla's streets, the town was equally graced by a pinball machine. With nothing better to do, and with every other form of dissipation beyond my budget and still beyond my age, I played pinball relentlessly. The machine at the Wee Chef, which was the popular choice of dorm rats like myself for Sunday dinner, was too easy. The machine at the bus station was a cut above but out on the edge of town. My friend Dale James and I would usually head over to Tucker's Drugstore, where there were two machines side-by-side just inside the door and the one on the left was the best test in Rolla. We played relentlessly, five balls for a nickel, and nickel after nickel. The machines were only nominally electronic. Their boinging and clunking was a mechanical racket, the sound of gears grinding behind the backboard to ratchet up the score. Tucker's Drugstore is where I heard the White Sox go down to defeat in the 1959 World Series, because the games played in the background as I played pinball, and it was on the way to Tucker's one evening that Dale James said something that has stuck with me ever since. “Death,” he said thoughtfully, “is the ultimate inconvenience.” That was not something I wanted to hear, but when he said it I rolled it around in my mind, and I concluded that he’d pretty much nailed the subject. And thus passed my freshman year.

At the end of the year the committee from the alumni association called me in and explained why they weren’t going to renew my scholarship. They made three main points. My grades had slipped below the level they required, and when they’d written me to ask if there was a problem, I hadn’t answered. The third point was that I hadn’t enrolled for my sophomore year.

This was absolutely true. I was off to the University of Missouri to study journalism. I’d decided that if death was the ultimate inconvenience, college shouldn’t run it a close second. At Missouri and thereafter I didn’t play much pinball because I actually found things to do in my life I enjoyed and somewhere along the line the cost of a pinball game stopped being a nickel and became a dime.

But in 1974, when I was named a staff writer on the Sunday magazine of the Sun-Times, I gave myself an assignment: head over to the Bally Manufacturing Company and learn everything there is to learn about pinball machines.

Miles Raymer’s cover story on pinball in last week’s Reader notes that Chicago became the pinball capital of the civilized world — a virtue I was well aware of when I moved here—that Bally and all other manufacturers but one, Stern, have abandoned pinball, but that pinball design enjoyed a “golden age” in the 80s and 90s. So my story was pre-golden age and caught pinball at a time of uncertainty, when video games like Pong (1972) were beginning to divert the melancholy idlers of America from their traditional distractions. I paid tribute to the immortal Harry Mabs of Gottlieb, inventor of the pinball flipper in 1947, and the immortal Ted Zale of Bally, father of the asymmetrical pinball game and “captive ball.” (For more on Zale, here's coverage of his induction into pinball's hall of fame in 2008.) I engaged Zale’s young protégé, Jim Patla, in an extensive conversation. Patla offered a global perspective. “It’s more competitive in France and Germany,” he said. “They like four players, but they like to play all four at the same time. In Italy it’s more of a one-player market. Italians are crazy. I should know I’m married to one. The Germans, French, they like to listen to the bonus countdown — ding, ding, ding, ding. It shows they achieved a high plateau of success on that ball and they want everybody to know it.”

Artist Dave Christensen impressed on me the importance of backboard design. “I’m one of the few guys in the city who’s drawing broads on the glass,” he said. “The great one died. Leroy Parker, he’s the guy who used to draw all the bikini stuff. He was the absolute king in the ‘50s. He could draw girls! He knew where all the curves were…

“That’s what I try to do. I try to stick them in every time I can. There’s a problem. A lot of the shopping malls are putting in the machines and you have to tone them down. In the olden days they were mainly in bars. You know, it seems to me if you look at the stuff going out there’s a hell of a lot of circus stuff, animal stuff. What the country needs is another great pornographic artist like Parker and I’m trying to fill his boots. Don’t quote me.”

At the time, pinball games were illegal in Chicago. I hadn’t seen one in years. But in the Bally show room, I wrote, “they glitter like showboats on the levee. I ask Patla if their days are numbered. The new electronic video game is silent as a moonscape. It pits man against man, viciously, and ends in a cold whiff of existentialism, the blip caroming endlessly across a void.”

Inspired by Mabs and Zale, by Petla and Christensen, I was fearlessly pushing the rhetorical envelope. And so I continued, “But as long as moody strangers must . . . drink cruddy coffee and wrestle with their garish, indifferent fate, repressed students must take something in their hands and shake it, and Frenchmen must dance before admirers as a machine ding-dings and chunk-chunks their glory, there should be a place for pinball.”

To my surprise, that whole passage was published as is. When you write with an air that is confessional yet rings with bold authority, stamped with the hard-earned wisdom of a misspent youth, even the best editors sometimes forget they’re employed by a family newspaper.

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