My Whirlwind Life:The Pinball Adventure

By Pinicus

September 20, 2021

26 days ago

My story began in the fall of 1990. I was a sophomore in high school and had joined the JV football team. I hadn't played football before but my best friend was a real all American athlete and convinced me to join with him. On October 5th, 1990, eleven members of the JV team, including myself, piled into a pick up truck wearing our jerseys and headed over to the neighboring school to watch and support the varsity team playing. The truck blew a tire causing the pick up truck to flip ejecting the nine kids in the back killing two of them. My best friend would be one of them.

I spiraled downward after that; stopped playing sports, hung with a different crowd. In those days there was actually a designated student smoking section in school which I started to frequent, and I started cutting classes.

By junior year (the first one), I stopped going to class all together. I would go to school but just hang out. I would also cut class and head over to the video store across the street and spend hours playing Whirlwind, my very first pin. Whirlwind became my new best friend. It kept me company and entertained me when I didn't feel like talking to anyone or doing anything. 

In my (second) junior year, the school decided they couldn't handle me anymore and sent me to an alternative school. The spiral continued and regretfully, the alternative school was not conviently located across from my beloved pinball machine. 

My downward trajectory continued and I knew I needed to turn things around so at 19 I joined the US Army. I signed a 4-year contract as an infantryman

In my 3rd year, I found myself in Bosnia, and another very depressing circumstance. While it was a hazardous assignment, the number one killer was actually suicide. My unit was guarding a bridge that had Serbs on one side, Croatians on the other, and us in the middle. We would guard the bridge for 8 days and then return to our homebase for 8 days where we continued security. We would get 2 days off while we were at the homebase. There wasn't much to do, but right by the PX the Army had a Williams Indiana Jones:The Pinball Adventure pinball machine. Once again as things were tough I found comfort in pinball and would spend nearly all my spare time playing it.

In my downtime I would also write letters; something of a forgotten art these days. Morale was low, so I started writing letters to different celebrities in hopes that they might come and visit. Inspired by a guy that came to entertain us with a hula hoop (and after seeing Shawshank Redemption), I started writing celebrities who I thought the guys might like to see. They found it entertaining but were sure I would never get a response. 

Right before we left for Bosnia the Army said, "We are giving you a week off. When you get back, we leave for Bosnia." They hadn't given us that opportunity on other deployments. California was at the top of my list of things to do, so I spent my week off there with an Army buddy.

I absolutely loved California...the weather, the vibe...and we were always doing stuff, unlike in Fort Drum, NY where it felt like there was nothing to do and it was always freezing. The TV only came on once and the Good Day LA Show was about to tour the Playboy Mansion, but I never got to see the tour because the TV was turned off and we were back on the move.

So I get back, and we're in Bosnia and I'm writing all these letters to different celebrities on behalf of the guys, and I decided to write one just for me to Playboy.

I remember loving mail call. One of the guys would come in with a sack of mail and read off names. It was a great feeling when your name was called. I remember on this particular mail day the guy got to a letter, paused, and had a "No Way" kind of look on his face as he read my name. I had finally gotten a response and everyone circled around to see who it was from.

Of all the letters I'd written, I only ever got one response and it was from Playboy. It was an invitation to tour the Mansion when I got home. 

I kept in contact with the woman that wrote me and would write letters every now and then telling her what I was up to. When my contract ended after 4 years I expected I'd go right to the Mansion. Instead, I got talked into going to Ireland with my brother and stayed for months. That trip turned into the next thing which turned into the next thing. 

It was 3 years later. I had stopped writing letters about a year earlier after I lost the address and just got busy. I had a dream of moving out to California after loving it and finally decided to head west. As I packed up my car I came across the letter to Playboy. It was a perfect time to get in touch with them and there was a phone number on the letter that I had never used. 

I called the number and someone answered, "Playboy Mansion, can I help you?" So I asked for the woman who I had been in touch with, "May I please speak with Mary O'Connor?" They redirected me to another person who gave me the same greeting and the same question. As I was put on hold I was expecting this to be one of those embarrassing moments where Mary would not remember me. I was blown away when she came on the line and said, "Where have you been? I haven't gotten any letters from you and was wondering what happened to you!" I told her I was heading out to California and she set me up for my tour. 

I had an uncle getting married in San Francisco around the same time and would head up to the wedding from LA after my tour. My brother would accompany me. 

When we arrived at the Mansion it was so exciting. You're at the gate and a big rock with a speaker in it starts talking to you. The gate opened and we could barely contain ourselves as we drove up the long driveway. When we finally arrived there were two beautiful girls waiting to give us our tour, one of them being a Playmate named Julie McCullough. They toured us around the whole Mansion: the grotto, the grounds, and of course the game house. They had two Playboy pinball machines in the game house. I said how awesome I thought that was and Julie pointed herself out on the backglass of the 35th Anniversary edition. So cool.

Hef would come down at the end of our tour and we got to say hello and chat for a few minutes before Mary came down. Little did I know, Mary was Hef's right hand and the gate keeper to the Mansion. She took a liking to me and eventually kind of adopted me. I found myself going up to the Mansion on weekends and I got to go to all the parties. I loved going into the game house and playing pinball when I was there. 

I ended up getting a call from the NY city fire department while I was out there and after years of waiting I finally had been offered the job of NY city firefighter. It was a tough call and I was halfway through the testing process in LA but decided I would take the job. 

I got out of the academy in July 2001 and was assigned to a firehouse in Manhattan so when September 11th happened I found myself working and trapped in the building during both collapses. I would survive but not everyone I was with did and it was quite a start to a brand new career.

I came very close to quitting and heading back to the west coast after but ultimately stayed and continued my career and its enormous challenges. I flew back and forth to the west coast for the next 15 or so years until Mary passed away. 

It was a very depressing time after that. At the same time of Mary's passing I split with my girlfriend of six years, my dog of 14 years died, and I was having huge difficulties at work with a new boss. 

I decided to seek out my old friend Indiana Jones for comfort. I came across pinball map which listed all the bars in the city that had every pinball machine. I went to a place that had Indiana Jones but it was broken so I played the other machines that were there. Wow! I loved it! All these games that are so old and yet brand new to me and so fun. This started what I would call research and development after the unit in the fire department assigned to trying new gear.  Rather than searching out Indiana Jones I started searching out any pinball machine I had never played and being in nyc I had a lot of options. 

In the meantime pinball had gotten a bit of a jolt. New companies like JJP had just come onto the scene. It was towards the very end of my career I was playing a lot of wizard of oz which was on my developing list from the research and development. There was something about the call outs at the time too. "I'm just biding my time...."

It was around this time I bought my first pinball machine which wasn't even on the list: Big Buck Hunter. Bought solely for the art. Mary had a little cabin in Branson, Missouri we would vacation at and when she died I bought it. Accidentally finding big buck hunter on craigslist I got it in Pennsylvania and shipped it to St Louis and picked it up and drove it to Branson without ever seeing one or playing one. 

After that while visiting a friend in South Carolina we went to a place that had pinball machines and I was introduced to Sterns Playboy. I would later find out from Julie that one wasn't in the game house because his boys took it to their mom's house. That would be my second machine when I got back from that trip. 

It wasn't long after that that I was able to leave the fire department and put a few years of my military time towards early retirement. When I found out I could retire I thought the Pacific Northwest seemed like a good spot so I took a vacation and came out to explore it. That's where I met a very special girl in Vancouver. 

We did a long distance thing with her coming out to NY mostly. On a trip to Vancouver she took me out for an R&D around the city where I was introduced to Black Knight 2000. Instant love. When I got home I found one not far from me in NY to buy at a great price. 

Upon retirement some guys get a small parting gift for the firehouse. I might have went a bit over board. I decided that I would not just get a pinball machine for my firehouse as my parting gift, but one for every firehouse in the battalion. 

In all honesty that was my plan B. I decided to go back to my roots of writing an actual letter aiming big and wrote to Billy Joel asking him if he would play for the Battalion if I were to organize a Battalion event to surprise them. I actually got a response back but I guess they can't all be winners, but maybe I just inspired the next pinball theme? Or better yet, maybe this gets to Slash and he does what Billy couldn't.

I tracked down the four pinball machines for the four firehouses on pinside and went as far as Georgia to find one I was looking for (Rescue 911). I managed to find two in Pennsylvania (Fire! and another BK2K) and one in Indiana (Ripleys Believe It Or Not). The one in Indiana was the last one I picked up and was for the fire house I had been assigned and was pretty special because it was not far from where Mary's gravesite was in Indiana so I was able to stop in and see her. 

They all had meaning and I wrote up a few words describing why I thought those specific pins went to each house. I rented a uhaul and delivered all of them to each firehouse and wished the guys well.

By this point I had sold all of my stuff; my car, my apartment, and whatever else I had stored in my dad's house. My dad was getting pretty sick of pinball at this point since his house was the staging point until I could deliver all the pins to the fire houses.

It was at this time that my brand new Winnebago Revel would arrive and be ready for pick up just days after delivering the pinball machines to the firehouses.  I drove it off the lot to the firehouse where there was a retirement party under way. It was quite a site as people coming out of the subway would see all these guys drinking outside a bar and hanging around this van with the awning fully extended, all the lights on, and the guys sitting in chairs like we were at a campsite with the Empire State Building just 15 blocks north. From there I was off on my first adventure to Newfoundland in the van for a few weeks. When I returned from that trip I started touring different areas of NY. 

I stopped into a brewery where the bartender, a young guy, admired the Revel and told me how he would love to travel but couldn't because he just had a baby girl. I asked him, if you could travel anywhere in the world where would you go? He said, you know where I would go? Chicago! I was thinking, I said anywhere in the world, try again.  He explained to me why he was so excited to see Chicago. Then I said, did you know that Chicago is the pinball capital of the world? I told him a little history of pinball and how it was home to Stern pinball. 

After he left to help other customers I decided to email Stern pinball right from the bar stool. It didn't take long before I got a response from Zach from Stern inviting me out for a tour of the factory. Just like that I had my next trip. I was off to Chicago. 

I had just started filming the trip in NY thinking I could start a YouTube channel. Chicago was the first big episode. The trip was an epic one. I went to Second City to watch comedy and ended up going out with the cast of the show after. I met the girl who ran the Lyric Opera House who got me a ticket to my first opera ever and gave me a tour back stage after the show. Museums, the Chicago Bears, sight seeing, and of course I got to tour the Stern factory by none other than Zach who I had originally corrisponded with. Stern was just getting ready to unleash the Beatles into the world.  

I edited the episode and it came out awesome! I had all of it on film except the stern factory. I asked Zach if I was allowed to film but he wasn't excited about that. He let me take a few pictures in certain areas which I added to the video with voice over. I decided I would release the video after the next video and dedicate it and send it to the inspiration for the trip, the young bartender Evan and his daughter Emilia.  

So for the next episode I went to Branson to the cabin and was going to do a Branson edition. It was towards the end that I ran out of space on my phone, made an error trying to correct it, and erased it all. In a panic I found a number online for service only to have contacted a scam place that actually scammed me out of 100 dollars trying to recover the data by getting me to buy Walmart gift cards and giving them the gift card number. Embarrassed, heart broken, and defeated I left Branson on Thanksgiving and started making my way to the west coast. 

I would spend the next months exploring the west coast. It was in December a buddy of mine from the fire department contacted me and said he wanted to walk the Appalachian Trail. We had talked about it but he just all of a sudden decided. I told him how I was on a van adventure and didn't think I would be able to now. It didn't take much convincing and just like that I had to be back in NY by March to attempt the 2200 mile walk from Georgia to Maine. 

I should also say that in all these adventures, that special Vancouver girl, Samantha, was flying in and visiting throughout. It was around this time I went up into Canada and explored spots in and around Vancouver with her.

The time went fast and there was just a couple of weeks left before I had to be back. It was then that Mary's sister in law asked me if I wanted to carry a walking stick that belonged to Mary's brother for my walk on the trail. So I zipped down to LA where she would also give me some of his ashes to spread along the way. What an honor. 

When I got back to NY I only had a few days to get organized before I was flying down to Georgia. I hadn't done much research on the trail so I wasn't sure what to expect. One part of trail life is aquiring a trail name. I didn't have one but everyone I met admired my walking stick and thought it should have something to do with that without even knowing the story behind it. 

I was talking with a fellow hiker when he said, "listen, you really need a trail name. What hobby are you into?" I told him I liked pinball. He laughed and said, "I'm not sure people will recognize you for that." Shortly after that after finally telling someone my whole story the name Indiana came. It was where Mary and her brother were from which would cover the story of the stick, it would cover my career I just retired from and pinball as the last state where I picked up the last machine, and I wore a full brim hat that would make me look a bit Indiana Jones. It also happened to be my last stop in the van adventure on the way back to NY to stand over Mary's grave with the walking stick before heading straight to NY where would I park the van before heading to Georgia to start the trail.

Right around the time I started the trail (March 5) JJP announced they were re-releasing the Wizard Of Oz in the yellow brick road edition. That put the yellow brick road tune in my head for the entire hike. 

When I completed the trail near the end of September (September 20, which is also the day I began writing this story on pinside) within days I was on a plane to South America for some r&r.

Of course the rest and relaxation vibe changed when Ecuador would have national protests and riots. It felt like something I would have only seen on the news excpet we were right in the middle of it. We were locked down. 

Right before we left I had lost the key to BK2K so I got a lock picking practice set to bring with me. At that point there wasn't much else to do but practice picking locks. The Black Knight would have no chance now on my return. I also had some time now to research the yellow brick road edition of the Wizard Of Oz. 

I had a few questions about it so I reached out to JJP and I was surprised when none other than Jack himself returned my message. I told him I was trying to find one to see in person to which Jack said I could come to the showroom. Wow!

When I returned from South America I made an appointment to get some work done on the Revel, and found out the place I bought the Revel from is 5 minutes down the road from JJP. I messaged Jack to tell him which day I was coming and he apologized because he would be out of town but I was still welcome to come by the showroom. I was impressed to think that Jack would have shown me himself. 

When I got to JJP I didn't know where to go in and found an open door. I ended up in what looked like the assembly line area. It was pretty quiet and as I stood looking around not knowing where to go a guy came up and asked if he could help me. I told him I was looking for the showroom and he looked a bit confused so I told him how I had been in contact with Jack.

He showed me to the showroom where they had one of every one of their pinball machines but they were all turned off. He fired them up before leaving and told me I could stay as long as I wanted to. 

When he left it was so cool to be in this room on my own. Yellow brick road was right there but I had to walk around and admire all the machines. 

As I was walking around marveling at the beauty of those machines an older guy walked in. He greeted me and we shared an awkward moment before he said goodbye. 

By this point in my pinball journey I knew game designers, but mostly by name. About a year after my showroom tour, I was reading an article and realized that Pat Lawlor himself had come in to greet me and I had no idea. A part of me couldn't help but feel a bit embarrassed. 

A couple of weeks after my showroom visit I was on a plane to visit Sam in Vancouver. We weren't sure what adventure was next and this was just a visit. However, I ended up falling in love with the area. The location of her apartment was amazing and there was a bar that I could walk to that had a pinball tournament every week and they would leave the games on free play all day on tournament night. Even if you were the first one out you got a free beer! 

Sam and I had talked about if we ever got a house what we would both want. Both of us liked the idea of a house with a good amount of land and maybe doing some kind of hobby farm with of course enough room to start a good collection of pinball machines. Except we knew nothing about farming so buying a property was an expensive experiment. 

Just a few weeks after arriving I found an ad on craigslist for a farm house for rent on Vancouver's Sunshine Coast. Sam wasn't impressed by my discovery. She wanted to be back on the move doing another adventure and I had just gotten to Vancouver. 

I talked Sam into going to look at it and we both fell in love with the place. We were shocked when a couple of days later the people contacted us and said they completed the interviews of everyone and we were the top of the list and it was ours if we wanted it. We weren't sure what to do. Sam loved it but she had it in her mind to be on the move but we decided, let's do it for a year and take it from there. It checked every box to be able to try out the farm experiment. 

The plan now would be to stay at the farm house on the coast part of the time and the city the other part. The big thing was that we had to fill up an entire house with furniture. 

It was at this time I located a Whirlwind in Seattle and a Wizard Of Oz in Vancouver. I locked both of them in along with a sectional and rented a uhaul to collect them all in one day. I started with Whirlwind. 

It was a slow crossing to get into the US but I finally got down there and collected the Whirlwind. I bought it off an older couple that said they didn't use it anymore so I should have expected when I turned it on to play and the fan kicked on I got a mouthful of dust.

When I got back to the border I had to go into customs. They asked what I had to declare and I said a pinball machine. They asked what I paid for it. I had heard they were going to bang me out on taxes on a 1990 game at 12% so I curved the price by 50% thinking no big deal and thought it was a fair deal even though I still wasn't happy about it. I can understand a new game but 1990? Come on!

Then the custom agent, said, great what game is it? I said Whirlwind. He said, oh, a system 11 game. I had a big smile and said, Yes! I'm impressed! Then my smile changed when he said, so you got a Whirlwind for 1500 dollars? That is extremely low for a top 50 game on pinside. I was a bit off guard at this point and said it needed work. He pressed and said well what does it need? Only I would get the pin head custom agent.

This is my weak point in pinball. One of the reasons I loved the idea of a brand new yellow brick road was because I would have no mechanical issues and I knew nothing about repairs and when he asked what was wrong with it I'm sure it showed so much I may have well said the flux capacitor wasn't pumping 1.21 jigga watts. 

I eventually buckled and they let me off with a warning and only charged me for the 12% tax on what 3k converts to in Canadian. Not happy about it but realizing it could have ended up a bigger deal I continued off to get my Wizard Of Oz and hoped for a smoother transaction. 

I was able to have a buddy meet me at the guy's house and thank goodness. It wasn't an easy move and took three of us. I got a pretty good deal on the wizard of oz and it was signed by Jack which I thought was cool. The guy told me that the game was originally in a bar over here and Jack happened in the bar and signed it. 

It was an exciting time when I got the machines back home and set up. We moved in February 1st and then the pandemic hit in March. We landed this place right in the nick of time to get the house pretty well furnished  and I had two pinball machines to protect me from going crazy with the incoming plague.

It was at this time the stock market tanked and my mind strangley saw opportunity. I decided to take the absolute hugest risk and gamble the cabin by taking a loan out against it to invest in the market. I wouldn't make an enormous amount but I would make enough to buy myself an upgraded used truck and travel trailer to replace the Revel only now I didn't have payments. We are planning our first trip next week. 

I would also have enough money to buy my first new in box pinball machine only it wasn't for me. I met a lot of amazing people through Mary. Mary had a saying where she hated kids and would wait until they grew  up and adopt the ones she liked.

One of those grown up kids is a former opera singer named Heather. Heather would trade in her career and have two boys, move back to Maine, and has raised them on her own. I know Mary would have wanted to do something for those boys so I recently gave Heather a list of themes and asked her to let me know which one the boys liked best. So this December those boys are getting a brand new Jurassic Park premium. 

It was a strangely exciting time when the pandemic hit given everything  that was happening. It wouldn't be long after though that Wizard Of Oz had a mechanical issue. I was able to locate a burnt chip and realized this was well out of my know how so I contacted JJP. A guy named Butch Peel would get back to me and man, he was awesome. He would FaceTime and walk me through bit by bit trying to help me. He was so generous with his time and it was me that seemed more concerned I had him on too long. Even with guidance I just didn't have the experience to do it on my own and I would get so frustrated by my lack of experience. I contacted the few pinball connections I had made in my short time here but I was on my own.

I eventually found a place called John's Jukes that would help me out. These were the pros and they admitted they were having a rough time with it. John worked on it himself and had it for at least two months before he got it back to me. 

When I went to pick it up he showed me everything they did before they could figure it out and he admitted that while it was working fine now he did not have a smoking gun as to what was the cause.

I told him how I was very eager to learn to fix them myself and he said they used to offer a restoration class and that he might offer it again. I have been hounding him quarterly since but nothing until covid is gone. 

So while it was exciting to have my machines in working order the other exciting news was I found out I was going to be a dad. For no rhyme or reason we started singing and playing GnR's sweet child of mine to Sam's belly since we found out,

On 9/11/20 we left the hospital with our new baby girl. It was absolutely amazing to think 19 years earlier where I was that day. We named her Violette Mullan. Sam liked the name Violet and I put a French twist on it to honor my mom who was French Canadian and the only reason I was allowed to stay here. Mike Mullan was a firefighter I was with that day and I'm only here because of him. 

A month passed and October 5th, 2020 I was shocked when I just happened to see that JJP was releasing a Guns and Roses pinball machine and the CE had a Violette trim. It was absolutely stunning! 

It was amazing to me how that pinball machine seemed to tie together an amazing story of my pinball journey so far. Sadly, I didn't have the money at the time to secure a CE. 

We just celebrated Violette’s first birthday. I got her a backpack to carry her around in which she loves. I’ll put her in the backpack and we play Whirlwind together. It’s the only time I enjoy losing...when she’s with me in the pack and I dance around to the music while she laughs. It’s fun to think that after all this time, this story ends where the journey began, playing Whirlwind, and I’m excited to think that this next chapter starts the same way.


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5 days ago

Wow, that's quite a story!

Loved the part about the customs agent who knows pinball pricing... What are the odds?

Congrats with the baby :-)

5 days ago

It seems to me that you had a very exciting life.
It's great to hear that pinball has al ways been with you.
You can pass all your pinball adventures to your daughter now.

5 days ago

Awesome story man! I got addicted to pinball when I was in the NAVY, Bride of Pinbot on base. Eventually after 13 years I finally bought one of my own and now own a Guardians of the Galaxy and Iron Maiden. Also from NY .....respect!

5 days ago

Wow, such a moving story, great way to start my morning! I’m down here in the Everett and Mukilteo area, if you’re ever around, I’d be honored to play a game of GNR with you at my residence. 2063028382

5 days ago

That feeling that you get playing pinball, makes so many other things in life tolerable. And when you do something that makes you feel the way you feel playing pinball, it is a good sign to keep doing that as well.

Thank you for sharing your story.

5 days ago

What a great story!

I'll admit, when I first clicked and saw the size of it, I almost skipped it but I'm really glad I didn't. After a few minutes of reading, I was convinced that you could probably write a letter to Area 51 and be partying with the aliens and Groom Lake security playing Williams Alien Poker before you knew it! haha!

My wife and I welcomed our first child just weeks after you did and through all the stress of learning to be parents, pinball has kept me sane. Just as it has through much of my life. Amazing how this game touches us. Thanks for sharing :)

3 days ago

Nice story! I look forward to the hardcover edition.

3 days ago

Dude, is your name Forrest Gump? Crazy and entertaining story, thanks for sharing! (I loved Julie in Growing Pains - had no idea who she was at the time).

2 days ago

Best story on Pinside in years. Crazy how time flies.

2 days ago

Who's buying the movie rights to this epic?

2 days ago

Wow bro. that was a great story .
Thank you for your service first of all, both military and fire.
There is so much inspiration here and you seem to be driven by a positive force that got you through some heavy times.
Congrats on the beautiful baby and can't wait for the next story!!

1 day ago

Great story. Thanks for sharing.

1 day ago

Life is like a box of chocolates.

What a great story!

I can’t wait for the sequel!

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