A fistful of quarters jangled in my pocket as I strode toward my destination.
When I was ten years old, there was simply no better place in the world than the humble campground store I knew as Barney’s. It was the hub of a Michigan lakeside resort that my family frequented during the seventies. Every summer, we drove up north with the Monfort family, rented a pontoon boat, and shared a cottage that was adjacent to a tiny, private beach. I imagine that the proprietors, a couple named Barney and Eunice, considered the surrounding geography to be the main draw of their business. But while playing on the beach, swimming in the lake, riding on the boat and fishing were all pleasurable to some degree, I was happiest when I was allowed to burn a little time and money at Barney’s.
It was nothing more than one long, rectangular room with a concrete floor, a place where patrons could find any convenience they might have forgotten to pick up in town as well as the preferred vendor of nightcrawlers and waxworms. There were vending machines for soft drinks and newspapers, and I certainly purchased my fair share of candy there. But the real attraction for me was the front half of the establishment, which was dominated by pool tables and pinball machines.
I still remember the cool sensation of metal corner trim under my thumbs and the concave flipper buttons at my middle fingertips as billiard balls clacked from the sharply aimed cue sticks of local pool toughs. A fresh scent of pine from the sawdust swept floor permeated the air, and every few minutes you could hear the rising warble of an old, elongated spring followed by the firecracker report of the slamming screen door. There was a genuine jukebox across the room, filled with an assortment of popular 45’s that became the soundtrack of my time within that sacred place. The Steve Miller Band’s The Joker, David Bowie’s Fame, Bad Company’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy, Foreigner’s Hot Blooded. When I hear those songs today, I find myself still ten years old and standing before a pinball machine.
It was pinball that drew me to Barney’s like carpet tacks to a horseshoe magnet. Video games were primitive, home gaming systems were nonexistent, there were no personal entertainment devices to keep one dazzled with music and movies, so what else was a boy to do? I mean, besides running, playing, swimming, or fishing? Heaven, to me, was a quarter in the age of the five-ball pinball machine. Ecstasy was the hammer knock of a free game. Knowing nothing of the world and paying little attention to the recorded high scores, I fancied myself a premier pinball player. While the overgrown goons behind me wasted their lives on cigarettes and endless games of eightball, I engaged in the more refined pursuit of becoming a pinball wizard.
It really didn’t matter what machine was available. In fact, out of the many I played at Barney’s, I can only remember two specific tables. One was a Bally-manufactured KISS pinball, a hot item released at the height of the band’s fame. I never really cared for their music so much as I was entertained by their image, and so a KISS pinball machine was more appealing to me than an actual KISS album. I also recall – and what ten-year old boy wouldn’t – another Bally product based on Playboy magazine. Colorful comic art of a pipe-clenching Hugh Hefner embracing a pair of models adorned the back glass, and the start of every ball was heralded with a cheeky and flirtatious musical motif. But those themes, visual candy though they were, were just icing on the cake. Had there been machines based on quilt making or city council meetings, I would have played those, too.
Mom and Dad apparently saw little harm in my preoccupation. I suppose they figured if that was what I wanted to do with my allotted funds, and if it happened to provide me with even greater pleasure than the more conventional amenities of our pleasant surroundings, then so be it. Never was I more thrilled with their indulgence than on the day of my eleventh birthday, which happened to coincide with one of our Michigan vacations. I woke up, as was my wont, at some late morning hour, pulled on my black t-shirt with its ironed-on Alice Cooper decal, and strode confidently out the cottage door and toward Barney’s. I could feel the weight of a couple dozen quarters swinging like a pendulum in my pocket, striking my thigh with the promise of more pinball than I had ever played in one day. Swinging open the creaking screen door, I flared my nostrils and drew in the sweet pine aroma. The day was mine.
It was my birthday wish to sate my considerable appetite for pinball, and boy, did I ever. My pocketful of quarters gave me hours at the flippers, and by the time I exhausted my funds, I was physically exhausted as well. I was never an aggressive player, one of those guys who manhandles the machine to the occasional tilt. Such behavior was crass and vulgar to me. If you were good enough, I reasoned, you didn’t need to do that. All of my exertion was in the fingers and wrists, not a taxing effort at all unless y0u carry on for hours. When I finally walked away from Barney’s, my arms were aching. At last, I had had enough.
There were other wonderful things on that day as well. Mom and Dad gave me one of the big gifts for a boy of my age that year, a Kenner Millennium Falcon, the gold standard of Star Wars toys. I received plenty of well wishes along with the traditional chocolate cake. And that evening, I sat in a lawn chair and looked out over the lake, holding a blazing sparkler as distant heat lightning illuminated the horizon. I exhaled a satisfied sigh and stretched my aching arms. What more, I pondered rhetorically, could anyone possibly want?