We were pinball wizards!

Game was an outlet for youngsters who experienced the "trauma" of the 1950sPosted Online 26 September 2006Growing up as a young boy in the 1950’s was a traumatic experience.There were those polio shots every year in school and the Russians were going to “nuke” us so we had to drill crawling under our desks.
And to top that off was the pressure of your parents warning you if you didn’t get better grades, you were going to flunk and spend another year in school.What was a young fifth grader to do?Well many of us found “green pastures of relaxation” in the form of a machine. A machine that stood on four legs and, for a dime, gave you five silver balls and a lot of action. It was called “Pinball.”In the 1950’s there were three main Meccas for pinball action in our big town. One was the Candy Kitchen — better known as the Palace of Sweets — on Clark Street. Another was the Forest Lanes Bowling Alley, which was located across the street from today’s Forest City Foods.And if you were older, Goldy’s Mobil, north of today’s VIP Lounge on Highway 69, was the place to be. (Unfortunately, that was off limits for me because that was where the older “Gearheads” hung out. They were the guys with the white t-shirts with the cigarette packs rolled up on their shoulders. They drove the cars with furry dice hanging from the rearview mirror and with spinner hubcaps.)Pinball players had different styles of play. When they fired the ball into play, some players would pull the pin all the way back and release. Others would pull it back to a specific spot while others slammed it with the palm of their hand.Once the ball was in play and the action started, some players stood like a frozen statue with only their fingertips and eyeballs moving. Then there were others where every muscle from head to foot twisted and turned — almost working up a YMCA-like sweat.Whatever the style, the goal was always the same: Rack up the points to win a free game.Pinball teaches its players many things like how to come up with eye and finger coordination, how to lose gracefully and how to win humbly when you beat an older player on a two-man machine. But what happened to Elliott and myself on a fall afternoon in the late 1950’s taught us much more.Both of us worked on Thursdays at my uncle’s Don Food Market located where Flora Lynne’s is today. One Thursday we got finished at 5:30 and decided to do a little pinball at the Bowling Alley.Upon arrival we found a new machine installed that was a four-player model.So we put in four dimes and went to work. Our skills weren’t very good as we were on the last ball of the last game and weren’t even close to winning a free game.But then we noticed that the first three players score had ended with an “8.” As we ended the fourth and final game, that score also happened to end with an “8.” Now everyone knows pinball machines at the end of play will post a random number 0-9 on the board. If the last number of your final score matches — you win one free game.And then it happened. The machine flashed an “8” match. We figured four free games, right? The machine’s loud distinct wood banging sound was music to our ears as our free game numbers were posted in the lower right corner.First it was one, two, three, four games. All right, we thought! Then what was this? The numbers kept adding up — seven, nine, 14, 17, 19 — and our eyes got even bigger. At an unbelievable 21 free games, it stopped!We had hit the Pinball Lottery!!The machine had made such a noise that the owner, Mr. Bess, came running over thinking we tilted the machine on purpose with a stuck ball to get the free games. But when he saw our pathetic scores, he knew it was a grand slam number match that he had never seen!But we were in trouble — big, big trouple.We had hit the jackpot in pinball, but the clock said it was ten to six and both our parents expected us to be home at six when the auditorium whistle blew.Here we were in “pinball heaven” with 21 free games and good times ahead of us. And time had run out! We left the alley with 18 free games on the machine for someone else to enjoy — complements of us.But reflecting back on that afternoon in the late 1950s, I now realize we not only had a pinball experience but we also had a “life experience.”On that day, two young boys found out what it was like to win big yet at the same time not to be able to take advantage of the rewards.It is a predicament that is repeated many times in life when people win the lottery, get a big job promotion or get ready to enjoy a well deserved retirement only to find out like we did — the time is ten to six.Riley Lewis is a Forest City resident who writes a monthly installment looking back on the heritage of his hometown.

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