Pinball Wizard

Life without electronic babysitters

My generation was probably the last of the older generations that grew up without electronic babysitters. The very first device (Pong) would probably bore today’s kids to death within a few rounds of play. On Duncan Station Road, the kids would gather in the morning and make plans for the day. Sometimes it would be a hike down to the coal valley, sometimes our energy would be towards making a fort out of branches and leftover wood form family projects, and sometimes we would play war. This was in the early sixties when war was still a reflection of the glory days of World War 2 and Viet Nam had not brought home the realities that made war an ugly thing and not worth glorifying.

Fall 2011 074

We were a typical suburban community and the closest place to hang our was the Dairy Store and even with all the wonders it held, there were no pinball machines inside. Not that we noticed of course. Frankly, other than going to Kennywood Park for our annual school picnics, I had never actually seen a pinball machine in person.

kennywood arcade

Frankly, I had no idea how to use one of the coin eating machines until one fine day in September 1972. I was at Great Lakes Naval Training Station for Machinist Mate A school. After a particularly boring day learning about steam valves I needed a break and the barracks was not a comforting place to be.

Theses were the days before sailors had individual or even quad rooms.

Snipes Castle and Enlisted Mens Club 2

We stayed in a place called Snipes Castle which had a cafeteria and break rooms. I  learned the lesson quickly about not taking a shower and leaving your locker partially locked. Some guy relieved me of my monthly pay but at least had the decency to return the rest of my wallet (including the picture of my girlfriend) via the US Postal Service. That was kind of fortunate since it also had my all important ID card in it. After the experience in Boot Camp where no one stole anything no matter how open you were, this was my first big reminder that sometimes words like honor are only repeated when the Chief was watching.

On that September day, I had to get out of the barracks and right next door to Snipes Castle was a Rec Hall where you could buy burgers, fires and slide quarter after quarter into one of the blinking machines with the little steel balls inside. I ate and just watched the guys who had arrived before me work the machines. The music and bell sounds plus the steady cha-chinging of the points being racked up was fun to listen to. Seeing guys go through the whole range of emotions as they tried to steer the metal balls through the maze of bumpers and rails was even more encouragement to pony up a quarter and give it a shot.


Four hours (and a whole lot of quarters) later, I finally decided I needed to get back to the barracks and get some sleep before the next day’s lessons. But for the next few weeks, I came back on the nights I didn’t have duty and played to my hear’ts content. I had one particular machine that I like since of all of them, it allowed me to run up some pretty good scores. I would even wait if some other joker got in front of me and just kind of hover enough to scare him off. Those machines got me through a lot of loneliness that comes from being away from home for the first time. As I grew up and moved on. I rarely ever played them again. But I am honestly glad they were there for that part of my life.


I didn’t know any of this at the time, but the first pin ball machines go back many centuries. The modern day coin operated machines came to exist in the mid 1930’s and eventually became a large part of Americana. During this time, electricity was added and the bells and counters were added to give people a reason to keep playing. People quickly learned that you could lift the machine or move it to control the balls so a “Tilt” function was quickly added to public machines. The next big step was the addition of a glass covered back was added to display the score and flashing lights. Bumpers and disc bumpers added another level of excitement for the skilled shooter.

A historical note: modern day pin ball machines made a giant leap in the mid seventies (1975-76) with the addition of solid state electronics to replace the older wired systems. Plus it was not until the mid 70’s that most pinball machines adopted the longer 3 inch flippers we play with on today’s modern machines. The ones I played in the early seventies required a lot more skill, luck and faith.

Wizard 1975

Playing pinball is a lot like life I suppose.

When you start out, you have the illusion of control. Place your quarter in and watch the slate go clean. Every good and bad thing that happened up to that point goes away and you have a chance for a fresh start. Its what we call a “do-over these days. The first ball pops into the shooter slot and you are ready to make your first effort at influencing the outcome. A rookie will pull the plunger back with no thought to the consequences and let the ball fly. It races up a short inclined path and starts its journey around the head of the playing board. Some games are designed to discourage overanxious shooters. The ball races across the top of the board into a slot on the left side that channels the ball down to the hole, completely bypassing the flippers  the spinners, the bumpers, the targets, gates and all of the other places where a score can be racked up. You get zip and you lose your ball.

Lesson one: The first step in winning is keeping the ball in control. Wild and erratic shooting have their penalties

As I said earlier, although my machines’ were electrified, pre-75 machines were not as sensitive to the tilt mechanism. It didn’t take long to figure out exactly how much you could “nudge” the table and help to steer the ball once it was in play. But you had to play it cool and only use that maneuver when really needed. Even these machines had their limits and in the heat of a good string it was all too easy to drive right to the edge of that envelope. The saddest thing in the world is to watch a ball fall helplessly down the playing field with your paddles dead in the water. Especially as the ball limps off of one of those dead paddles before sinking into the hole.

Lesson two: Play the game the way it was designed. Too much deviation will bring failure

There really is nothing sweeter than having a properly launched ball get into a rhythm in the upper field of play. It hits the posts and bumpers and you can see and hear the points being racked up. On some machines, enough of those bings and bongs will get you free shots. The ball happily dances between all of the bumpers and speeds up as it goes. This is where experience really makes a difference, The rookie will get caught up in all of the noise and joy of rapidly increasing points and be totally unprepared for the ball’s next move: right down to the lower field of play. The ball will race towards a dangerous spot and if the rookie is not ready, his flappers will be flipping up and down in a vain attempt to regain some semblance of control. In most cases, they never do.

The experienced player will anticipate the unexpected. Waiting for just the right moment to hit the flippers can mean the difference between success and failure.

Lesson three: Keep your eyes on the ball and anticipate its next move… only count your winnings after all the shots are taken.


Too much caution will not win the game either. A ball that is launched with no intensity at all will almost always fail to excite the upper field. It may be able to be salvages in the lower field, but more often then not, too cautious of a play is just as bad as too aggressive. You may have an amazing record of keeping the ball in play but if it isn’t scoring, what have you achieved?

Lesson four: There are times when taking measured risks is the only way you will score.


Just as in life, ultimately control is mostly an illusion, but not trying at all means you have absolutely no control

You have to use the skills you have to try and influence some of the outcomes. In reality, once you have made your decisions on how to move forward, many of the things that happen are beyond your control. How you react to them determines success or failure. But in the end, you play your whole game the best that you can and pass the flippers on to the next player.

It will be interesting to see who gets to play next at the biggest pinball machine of all: The USA


If you look at the candidates on the Republican side, which player is more likely to score bigger against player number One?

Mister Mac

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