Death By Flippers

By Robojuju

April 19, 2024

This story got featured & frontpaged on April 24, 2024


38 days ago


   I started playing pinball during the '60s in Albuquerque. It was an acquired taste as I was not in the habit of having spare change for such things as personal amusement. I didn’t play often until through pure luck I obtained an item I traded for my first pinball machine; an electrified metal sign with 25 lightbulbs on each side that I had salvaged from the abandoned “Comet” car wash a few blocks from my house. 
    My father had established an extensive desert junkyard in our 1 acre backyard and encouraged me to take the family wheelbarrow down to the “Comet” and procure any scrap metal to add to his collection. But that day my eyes were on that big metal arrow. Once I got it home I wired an AC cord to it and installed a few missing bulbs; the now working sign along with $10 got me an old pinball machine from the bar owned by my friend’s mom. 
   This now gave me the ability to play as much pinball as I wanted, without having to put up any money. I’d like to believe I quickly got much better. I played the hell out of that machine and learned some of the basics but there was always someone who could best me and that never changed. It’s taken my whole life to get as good as I am today and I dare anyone to refute that statement. But the destination is, as they say, never as interesting as the journey; and that is where this story takes off on its own. 
     After a hard divorce, my mother packed us up in our “new” ’64 Chevy Belair Station Wagon. I knew there were problems between them but as an angst-ridden teen, I had plenty of my own. All I could remember is, simply put, Dad was a little country, Mom was Rock n’ Roll. The last of 6 kids, I got the best both had to offer, mad engineering skills and deep rooted aesthetic sensibilities that have lasted me a lifetime.  When I was 15, the last of 6 kids, we all moved sans dad and pinball to California where I welcomed the culture shock that plunged me into Berkeley High School. I didn’t fit in with the Albuquerque Schools and Berkeley seemed to be just what I needed. I excelled in art, film, metal shop, welding and writing. It was the best thing to happen to me, I loved it. When I graduated, received my diploma and turned 18, my mother earned a well-deserved holiday and announced she was going to Yugoslavia for a while and we were on our own. That was fine with me, I wanted to continue my film studies and had found the “Berkeley Film House” for students to live, work and make movies together. This was where I met one of the most influential people in my life, Ed Krystal: artist, pinhead.
    Ed Krystal was an ex-Army brat who travelled the world courtesy of his father’s service. Lots of pinball on Army bases, so Ed played in Japan, Hawaii, Germany and even back home in New York. Even though pinball was still illegal in New York City until 1976, Ed could play on the base PX because it was strictly military personnel and their families. Ed was like me, a lifelong learner, always trying to study the game and learn each new table, trying to win a credit and achieve victory, to walk away triumphant in the eternal struggle of Human against Machine. But Ed was, also like me, an artist; and we appreciated pinball on a totally different level, the aesthetic. To us, pinball was an artform and instrument in its own right, an interactive kinetic sculpture, akin to a musical instrument, to be played and publicly performed while onlookers became the audience, applauding our fantastic flipper skills. 
    The ‘70s were a great time for Electro Mechanical pinball and the people who played them. Arcades really came into their own at the height of EM pins and the birth of video, but leading up to that, you had to visit sketchy pool halls, dive bars and arcades if you couldn’t find some at the bowling alley or Quik E Mart. For Ed and I, a few blocks from the film house, was Berkeley’s Silver Ball Gardens on Durant, an infamous arcade full of flipper freaks and ne’er do wells. It was dimly lit and had one guy making change in a caged off booth. Ed and I ventured in and quickly became at home. We played a lot of pinball in this 2nd floor venue above a record store and pizza joint. Our frequent visits conditioned us to go in anywhere for pinball, our improving flipper skills being our passport for entry. As we explored pinball habitats around Berkeley, we learned flippernomics. 
       I don’t remember who suggested it, but through a lack of funds, we were in front of a game with only enough coin for one credit. The solution was for both of us to play the game together, each one manning a flipper. Nudging would be shared, and the right side player would launch the ball. We agreed to swap sides after each ball. It was a unique answer to the problem and after we won our first game playing “Flips,” it became our de facto method. We both were good on either side but after many hours playing in this manner we settled into a standard arrangement; Ed preferred the left flipper and I liked the right. I was also a little better on the plunger or skill shot where you could get major points. On some games, it was the only chance you’d get to hit a certain target or feature sometimes affecting the rest of the game. So we took to our respective buttons and together we mastered the art of side by side pinball. 
     Ed and I started to get a name for ourselves as we carved one high score after another on any machine we encountered. The pinball had become wild game to us, moving chunks of meat brought down under the mighty claws of our flippered fingers. Every high score was a bite at the nape eliciting a resounding “clack” familiar to any pinhead who has earned an unpaid credit. We collected so many free credits we started to sell them to others waiting behind us for a chance to be a winner. And that was the difference between the people buying the credits from the people selling them. When they got a free credit, they boasted that they’d won a game. Players like Ed and I said we earned a credit. It was work getting that unpaid credit, making that ball do our bidding. “Pinball Wizard” was not part of the lexicon yet, the rock-opera Tommy was making a stir but hadn’t iconized in American pop culture. And there wasn’t a popular term anywhere for double players on a game, yet there were a lot of high scores broken by the dynamic duo.

                                      World Flipper Tour
In the early ‘70s I had the desire to visit my brother Mark who travelled to Europe and was living in Hamburg. I called Ed up to see if he wanted to go with… he did. Having been there before as an Army Brat, he was a little more familiar with travel abroad than I was, but I had hitchhiked many miles in the States by the time I was 19 and was ready for anything. We set off for New York answering a posted ride-share and drove in a hippie van for  5 days across the United States in the fall of 1973. Ed’s family was living in New York, and staying with them while we waited for our flight to Europe, we managed to find and play some pinball in New York. 
    The legendary Roger Sharpe, savior of American pinball, had not yet played a game in front of the New York City Council, so any pinball you did find was of the Add-A-Ball variety meaning you couldn’t earn credits, just extra balls, which you were supposed to play off. Earning credits was a form of prize with monetary value which made regular pinball a form of gambling in the eyes of the New York legislators, a view that banned pinball in there since Mayor LaGuardia, the # 1 enemy of Pinball. made it illegal in 1942. Although we played some pinball before we left and set some high scores wherever we went, we did not make any money selling pinball credits in NYC. 
     In early October, Ed and I flew from La Guardia to Brussels, the cheapest flight that got us close to Hamburg. On our way to the train station, we stopped in a café for some coffee and there we encountered our first pinball machine in Europe. And the interesting thing was it was a Rally machine, made in France. A very unusual game that used disc bumpers and block shaped kickers and targets. No below playfield ball trough, the ball always remained on the table. The posts, bumpers and kickers were lit and the scoring was done electronically with Nixie tubes although the game was electromechanical. It also had analog synthesized sound instead of bells or chimes. The game was a Skiing theme and we had more than a few games on it before we scored a replay and left for the station victorious.

       Hamburg, Germany…. St Pauli and the Reeperbahn

After we made it to my brother’s farmhouse and settled into Germany, Ed and I got jobs in the restaurant trade. Our rent was cheap so we saved up some money and on a day off, we ventured into an infamous part of Hamburg, the Reeperbahn, aka the red light district. During the day, it wasn’t that frightening and even if it was rough and tumble later, we still braved it because it had something we were looking for, Pinball!
    What we had been told was true; there are “Spielhallen” which were Arcades, usually with at least 20 games in rows on either side, almost all American games. We couldn’t believe it! This was in the greatest time for electromechanical pinball and we landed in not just a few but dozens of spielhallen. And they were open all the time. They had games we hadn’t even seen in the states from the big 3: Gottlieb, Bally and Williams. There were a few Spanish and Italian games but the American games were the most popular and abundant. 
        After a month we had explored most of the halls on either side of the street. We played  a lot of Bally games like Firecracker, 4 Million BC, Gator, Bally Hoo, Camelot, Big Valley, See Saw, Capersville and our favorite, Fireball. Then there were Gottlieb games like Bumper Pool, Spin A Card, Wild Wild West, Mibs, Royal Guard, 2001, El Dorado, Domino and Roller Coaster. The Williams games were some of our favorites because they played the fastest and had more variety to choose from. Games like Fun-Fest, Honey, Fan-Tas-Tic, Stardust, Gulfstream, Travel Time, Jackpot (the European 4 player version of Klondike), OXO, Jubilee, Dealer’s Choice, Smart Set, Magic Town and Shangri-La. It was pinball heaven and we were like the almighty and his son Jesus, ruling our kingdom. Once we learned enough German to make it known that we would sell our games that we earned, we started making Deutsch Marks to perpetuate our domination of all the games in St. Pauli. 
    One of the most popular games in Germany was Fireball, with its art work by Dave Christensen, a caped comic book flaming devil who was hurling fireballs right at you; it was one of the few pinball games to give a fairly accurate depiction of what you were in store for when the plunger was released and the ball was set in motion. And that was where I came in… this game had a unique skill shot off the plunger. If you launched the ball too softly it would clear the gate and enter the playfield without making any points. Too hard and the ball would go through the 2nd ball gate and enter the very top of the playfield, again not making any points. But if you pulled the plunger back just the right amount and released the ball consistently, you could get it to clear a top rail without going through the 2nd gate, do a U-turn and go down a ramp over 3 rollover switches that earned  1 thousand points each and lit the three pop bumpers to score 100 points when hit. It was nearly impossible to earn a credit without getting the skill shot every ball and since there was no special, the only path to a free game was with a high score. 
     When Ed and I played “Flips” I always took the right side because I had mastered that skill-shot and could nail the 3 thousand and light the bumpers every time. Ed was good at locking the ball in the “Fire Gods” saucers which when released, scored major points and made it one of the first games to incorporate a multi-ball feature. The center spinning disc with a grated rubber mat delivered the hurling balls promise on the backglass art. A ball rolling over the mat would get sucked in, spun around until it gained enough momentum to come careening off and randomly fly back onto the playfield causing unlimited frustration to players. This “randomizer” was our bliss. Ed and I had learned to expect it and deal with it whereas other players would become visibly distraught at the unknown outcome when the ball was spun back into action. Ed and I had played so much pinball together we were of one mind sharing two bodies and a pair of hands for operating the flippers. We were best of friends and thought we were unbeatable and indivisible. That is, until we met Elsa.
     One night playing pinball on the strip as we called it, we decided to knock off earlier than usual. We had been making side bets on some games and we ended up with a lot more money than usual and more angst to boot. To avoid a serious ass-whooping that we were facing from the losing side, we decided to step outside, have a smoke and let things cool off. We were towards the end of the Reeperbahn that we avoided, where all the prostitutes and sex bars were. There was a physical marker that let you know you were encroaching on the red light district; a brick wall in front of the entrance to Herbertstrasse. You go around it and then you can walk the 100 meters that showcases all the women offering their wares. We decided this was as good a place as any to escape our potential beat down so we ducked behind the wall and embarked on our stroll down whore alley as the Germans called it.
     I was not quite 21 and not wise to the ways of the world like my buddy Ed. All the ladies were in windows scantily dressed and posing provocatively. Having been brought up to respect women I had a hard time looking at them and averted my eyes when they tried to get my attention. Ed was flirting with them and making some crude remarks and gestures to which they responded in like manner. By the time we reached the end of the street, I was so embarrassed I looked like a cherry tomato to which my friend said, “You need to loosen up man! They’re just professionals looking to get some of the money we made.” He wanted to go back and hook up with one or a couple of them. I put up a fight, I think I said something to the effect of “Those women are somebody’s mother!” which made Ed laugh uncontrollably. That’s when we met Andrea.
     Seemingly out of nowhere, this beautiful red-haired beauty that looked like she stepped off a beer label confronted us. “You boys should be ashamed of yourself!” she said in a haughty German accent. How she knew we spoke English I don’t know but she had summed us up in a heartbeat and proceeded to lecture us on the naughtiness of what we had just done. I made some lame attempts to assure her I was not like that but I could tell I was failing to convince her. For some reason, unlike the prostitutes, I could not take my eyes off her; she was gorgeous. And it wasn’t her slender athletic frame, mischievous hazel eyes and playfully flowing hair; she was confident and smart. I get weak knees at beautiful, adventurous, independent women, the Ann Margarets of the world.  I was smitten and so was Ed. After talking with her for quite a while we managed to persuade her that we were not whore-mongers and she agreed to have a drink with us since we were buying.
     After a few beers at a club the Beatles had made famous 12 years earlier, we got to know our “St. Pauli Girl” better. Ed and I went into direct competition for her affections. Maybe it was the strong German beer or the feeling that she seemed to like me, I blurted out, “Would you like to come home with me?” to which she smiled coyly and said “Yes! But not tonight.” I couldn’t believe my boldness had paid off and I could tell Ed was a little bummed that he hadn’t stepped up to the plate first. We chatted some more, finished our beers and made arrangements for a “date” in 3 days where we would meet at our new abode since we had gotten kicked out of the farmhouse a month prior. 
    Ed and I had moved into a “Studentenhaus” and we had separate bedrooms in what was a dormitory style apartment. One reason we chose this place was that on our floor, someone had parked a beat-to-crap Gottlieb “Roller Coaster” pinball machine. This was a great game as it had some early form of wire ramps that made the ball act like a car on a coaster track and the artwork was early Gordon Morison portraying what looked like an in-bred family riding a roller coaster at the fair. We played the hell out of it having discovered that we could get free games by pounding the coin door just right so as to trigger the coin switch and cough up a credit. That game had become our nightcap, something we would do before retiring for the night and we knew every inch of the playfield, the sounds of the chimes and exactly when it would pop off a credit on points.
    The 3 days since meeting Elsa went by like a snail on a razor blade. When the evening of our impending date approached, I got off my job and headed to the U-Bahn, to make my way home. I was so excited about seeing her again I completely forgot to look out for the “men in gray” or the Ha-Ha patrol, the Hamburg Hauptbahnhoff Authority that scoured the trains looking for riders who had no ticket. They would get on a car and ask everyone for their “Fahrekarten Bitte!” and when we saw them, we would get off and wait for the next train. We never bought tickets, that was for suckers. Well in my amorous afflicted stupor, I didn’t notice them until they were right in front of me. With no ticket, I must have made their night, they made a big show of hauling me off the train at the next stop and marching me to their office where they kept me for 4 hours while they checked for any criminal activity under my name, made copies of my work permit and passport and belittled me in a way that Germans have perfected over the years. When I finally got out of there with a hefty 50 Deutsch Mark fine I was practically in tears. I was totally late for my date and feared I would never survive standing Elsa up.
    I must have looked like a whipped pup when I made my way up to our apartment and I thought Ed was probably asleep so I was quiet going in the door and making my way to my room. Before I shut the door I thought I heard something. Yes, it was voices coming from Ed’s room; I heard a women’s voice, and laughter… it was Elsa! I thought about bursting in on them, exposing them during their affair, but then I thought, I have no claim on her… I was the one who stood her up. I returned to my room and spent a sleepless night torturing myself with visions of what was going on in the next room. Around 2 am I heard Elsa leave, and I turned my thoughts toward my friend Ed, and how he had betrayed me. I must have fallen asleep at some point because I woke up at 10 the next day and didn’t come out of my room till noon. 
    The next few days were a little painful, I was depressed, angry and jealous at my good friend turned traitor, who had “stolen” my girl. He never said anything about it but he must have known I knew because I was acting unusually distant. I was also more introverted than usual as I plotted my revenge and obsessed on teaching Ed a lesson about friendship and loyalty.
     Later that week I came home after work and Ed had decided to retire early. He was a sound sleeper who snored slightly so at 10 pm I could hear he was totally under. I also knew that Ed would talk and sometimes move about in his sleep, it was hard to wake him once under. That was when I decided to prank him good. I carefully opened his bedroom door and confirmed, he was deep in dreamland. I went outside our apartment and made my way to the Roller Coaster pinball game. I unplugged it, managed to put a throw rug under the legs, and began sliding the game to our room. I pushed it into Ed’s room and plugged it in while Ed slept soundly. I put 20 Pfenning into the slot and punched off a game. Just as I predicted, a smile came over my friend’s face as in his sleep, he recognized the familiar sound of the game resetting. 


    As I pulled back the plunger I watched as Ed’s left hand began twitching as he heard the ball roll down the playfield. Although I was playing both flippers, when I hit the ball with the left Ed was in synch with my every move. I played the first ball and could tell Ed was keeping track of the score. He could hear the 1, 10, and 100 point chimes and he smiled when we made the first 1,000 points, well on our way by the 2nd ball towards a replay. This game was set for 5 ball play with a relatively hard replay at 4200 points. I watched Ed as I played a great game; he was twitching and flipping and nudging the game in his sleep as I racked up points getting closer and closer to a pop. On the 4th ball, I was getting within striking range of a high score credit, I could tell Ed knew we were close, he must have added up all the chimes in his head and figure we were very close. We were playing that 4th ball in total unison, it was a fantastic ball lasting over 4 minutes and Ed was shaking and flipping right along with me and I could see the excitement on his face as we got closer and closer to the 4200 points we needed to climax in a resounding POP!; earning a credit and announcing to everyone that we were the master of this game. As I shook and flipped the ball I could see that Ed was in synch and 100 more points would get us there. As the ball flipped off Ed’s flipper and headed towards the target that would give us a win, I gave the game a violent nudge which tilted the game, ending it and the chance for a credit. Ed arched up in his bed in excruciating pain as he realized in his slumber that I had purposely juked the machine. I went to wake him and gloat over my punking him. Nothing I could do would wake him. Ed was dead.

Story photos

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PPM Roller Coaster - 132 PF (resized).jpg
PPM Roller Coaster - 132 BG (resized).jpg

Comments

31 days ago

Is this Michael Schiess? Wow, incredible pin memoir and the part about Ed is truly the definition of, "death by flippers". Thanks for sharing!

31 days ago

Got to be Michael for sure.
Great Story, but you buried the lead, what was the name of that first game you bought in your youth.
Also did Elsa ever forgive you for "standing her up"
Also got to believe that last chapter(prank) might have been embellished a bit for effect.

cheers Tom

31 days ago

Hey Tom, Thanks for the kind words. I wish I did know the name of the game for sure but I think it was King Of Diamonds. The prank was on me. Ed 's memorial was last month. Well attended, he had a good life but it was cut short by Parkinson's. We were supposed to play pinball 24/7 in our retirement.
-Mike

30 days ago

That was a really great read, thanks for posting it.

24 days ago

"flippernomics." great. fun read.

11 days ago

Fun story...

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