Rosebud Was Her Sled (Dec 9, 2019)

By JudeRussell

January 10, 2020

47 days ago

Maybe it's a "well past mid-life" kind of thing, or a bucket list thing. But for some reason I've been bitten by the pinball bug of late, and in fact, this afternoon put a down payment on an older (circa 1974) machine....

To quote The Who, "ever since I was a young boy, I've played the silver ball...", which is to say, I've been a little pinball crazy all my life. As a youngster, we'd plunk thin dimes (3 games for a quarter back then) into pinball machines at Wisehaven Swim Club in York, PA (which still exists, 50 years later). I'm surprised there were no deaths by electrocution, knowing how sketchy chassis and electrical grounding was back in the day, and us kids standing on concrete in wet bathing suits....water dripping down our legs.

We'd line up our coins on the machine to reserve our place in line, we'd stand beside the game watching the person who was playing. Occasionally some wag would wave his hands across the glass surface, chanting "mystery ball", tormenting the player. We little kids would sneak our way onto the machines in between the bigger, older kids, or end up with the dog machines. Boy did I love to play.

I've got memories of bumming coins to play at snack bars that dad took us to, in hotel / motel game rooms on family vacations, at roller rinks, movie theaters, bowling alleys. Pinball was everywhere they had space to slide a machine into, back in the day. I remember bowling alleys where I encountered my first video games (Pong, then Space Invaders), and later the college game room (Lunar Lander, Asteroids, Defender, Joust) along with a few pinballs machines.

But ground zero for me and pinball were the arcades. Fun and Games in Framingham, MA (also still in business, although much different in terms of size and scope) when I was in high school and during college trips home. Smaller arcades in Worcester, MA when I was in school at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). Even as a young adult, at an arcade in Southington, CT (still around, but mostly a billiards room) when I first moved to Connecticut. I have yet to visit The Sanctum in Meriden, a pinball co-op which opens to the public on Monday nights, but it's on the list.

Some combination of Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist has pulled me in lately - virtually tire-kicking machines that I might have played in my youth, in decent shape, and at an affordable price. I was drawn to a 1979 Gottleib Genie machine - a wide-body, one of the first electronic machines, with blue LED score and digital sound effects. I recall playing it as a young adult, and thought perhaps that it might be more reliable / less fussy than an older electro-mechanical game.

However, when I connected with the seller (an octogenarian who has a warehouse in nearby Berlin, CT with a warehouse advertising ARCADE GAMES in neon that I have driven by hundreds of times, wondering what was inside), he asked "...are you interested in the older games?" I guess if you are reaching for "that summer feeling" (as Jonathon Richman sings about) then you go old-school: relays, mechanical reels, chimes, buzzers, and that satisfying "pop" when you win a free game via points, a special, or that surprise end of game match.

Also, my available space for a game is limited, and the wide body Genie might feel a bit cramped.

The proprietor was an old dude, probably same age as my dad would have been, still working it. I noticed his USN John F Kennedy carrier cap, heard him on the phone talking about navy veteran reunions - so I mentioned dad's service aboard carriers (helps to remember the names of the ships - Essex and Shangri-La) - and well, we were buds. I promised to show him Dad's cruise books, and if he knows of a good home for them, I'll happily pass them along.

He had a couple of older machines there (for a bit less money) - a 1971 Williams Gold Rush, and a 1974 Gottleib Duotron. The latter seemed in better shape, a bit less dated, and with nicer graphics (reminds me a bit of Jack Kirby space art), so I was drawn that way. The guy plugged it in, and I played a ball (the thing was seriously out of level) and well, the bells, the chimes, the lights - it hit all the nostalgic warm fuzzies. In 1974 I was 13, right in the heart of my pinball career.

There are probably nicer machines for less money out there, but this one comes with delivery and set-up, and the promise of on-going service if needed, and who can argue with that?

It was a total impulse purchase, but feels right. It's been a long time since I did something "unreasonable" like this - I don't take vacations or a lot of experiences. Hopefully this will give me some hours of joy. I'll invite elite friends (which is to say, anyone who feels like coming over) for pinball parties.

The engineering side of me is looking forward to owning and messing with an old pinball machine. Apparently there is a community of tinkerers and hackers (replacement parts, schematics, and self-help forums are around, as well as hacks to tweak the components, buff up the graphics, add LED lighting, etc.). And while it's not something I recall playing as a kid, it's not an entirely obscure game - you can even get Duotron swag via Cafepress: Shirts, mugs, bags, art and assorted other essentials.

I've even found a reasonably decent image of the sales flyer which I'm gonna print up and have framed.

At the end of Citizen Kane, the viewer realizes that Rosebud was the protaganist's sled - a token of childhood memories, long lost happiness. Pinball is a little like that for me - something that drew the parts of me that eventually became an engineer, something I never really got over, but perhaps put aside as I grew up. Now that I have time, space, money to indulge a little - well, why not recapture a little of the magic of my youth? 

And as an engineer, who has spent many hours over the years designing, troubleshooting, making measurements but does not get that itch scratched too often these days - well, a 45 year old electro-mechanical device sitting in the basement that needs occasional tweaking, repairing, adjusting, upgrading is just what the doctor ordered!

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29 days ago
Rosebud! Nice literary choice there. Pinball means a lot to budding engineers! I never put 2 and 2 together, but that must be why I’ve always been obsessed with it. Enjoyed your story. Gottlieb is a great choice by the way, they were different machines!
20 days ago
Great story. "Mystery ball!" I like that. We use to roll our smokes down the glass.
You conveyed the old school 'summer feeling' really well.
I must watch Citizen Kane one day.

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