It was early 1990 and I had just moved back "home" to St. Louis, Missouri from a year or so in Arizona. I was 22 years old, a bit adrift and wasn't even aware there was recession underway. After a bit I managed to get a contract position for a larger company on the west side of town. It was a software development gig and I was basically the grunt/gopher. But it was a foot in the door.
One day the project leader and I were just talking about stuff and I mentioned that I had just bought a couple of old pinball machines - a Gottleib Flying Carpet and a Williams Hot Line. Turns out he was a massive pinhead and we started talking various machines we liked (and didn't like) and had played over the years. He mentioned a little hole in the wall down the road from work that served lunch and had a machine. And that began a lot of days going for lunch (and often extended lunches and offsite "meetings") to play pinball virtually every day.
The first machine we played there was Earthshaker, followed by a Funhouse - John was deeply analytical when playing while I was more for just having fun and knowing that just "one good ball" could put me far out enough ahead that I might win a game against him. Though he was only about 7-8 years older than me, he was someone I could look up to, laugh with and he really made me think about things I had never given much thought before.
About 6 months later, as the econony worsened, funding for the nearly completed project was cut and I got cut loose. I was able to get on with an aerospace company back in Arizona and we kept in touch via AOL (this was 1990/1991) and continued our conversations. Life moved on for both us - I got married, got serious about a career, bought a house - but I still held on to the Hot Line and Flying Carpet and by the late 90s had picked up a Baby Pac-Man and an Earthshaker of my own. John quit his job shortly after the project got shut down, started his own company, became very successful and then sold it off, retiring at age 40 in 2000. He moved to the country an hour or so outside St. Louis.
We found each other again thanks to the internet in 2003 - I was living in Houston - sans pinball machines - going through a divorce and he suggested I come to visit next time I was in St. Louis. I flew up almost immediately. We rode 4-wheelers around the "farm", skipped rocks across the stream, used an old aluminum bat to try and hit rocks into the hollow tree across the stream and caught up on the past decade or so and just laughed and laughed. That night we went into the little town of Steelville for dinner, playing pinball, shooting pool and hitting on the local girls - picking up right where we left off, it seemed.
The next morning, I told him about my marriage issues, and he convinced me - based on his own experience, I think - that I needed to try and work it out.with my wife, if for no other reason than for my then infant daughter. I flew back to Houston and did make an effort - I was able to introduce him to my wife around Christmas in 2007 when a visit happened to coincide with one of his trip back St. Louis.
We stayed in touch again off and on, and one day in 2009 I went to email him and it bounced. I looked him up online and was shocked to learn he had been killed in a tragic accident on his farm in July of that year. I still think of him all the time - the older brother or uncle I always wanted - and the experiences with him are why the Earthshaker and Funhouse are both on my wishlist. Just like I wish he was still around to play pinball with and laugh and laugh.