A year ago, school stopped. No one could have foreseen optional classes taught remotely, the cancellation of state testing, and a virtual graduation to close out the school year, let alone the following academic year conducted over Zoom. Now that I have one Moderna dose in my system and the end is finally in sight, here’s a pinball story from suburban Boston a year in the making.
Last March, I was planning a pinball tournament and fundraiser to coincide with the opening of the spring high school musical, The Who’s Tommy. I teach in the Social Studies department and don’t particularly enjoy musicals; most of what I know about Tommy comes from the Data East game. I was curious to see how they were going to make this school-appropriate — no acid trips or sexual abuse, I guess — and also eager to spread the camaraderie, competition, and community that accompanies this impractical hobby.
During the second week of March, all school events were postponed. Ok, so no tournament with people milling about and touching the same surfaces, I get it. Then the musical was outright cancelled. Our new, restrictive reality was setting in. I was heartbroken for the cast and crew who had invested so much time into Tommy. But I was selfishly sorry for myself, too.
Six weeks earlier, I had plucked my first authentic barn find for cheap, a filthy Aztec that hadn’t yet rusted out. With the enabling help of my colleague Nate, I stashed it in the school’s cavernous wood shop; the stench of rotting wood would have filled my house and annoyed my family (plus my basement was already full.) The cabinet was beyond salvaging, but the rest was restorable. An aha moment struck me: a pinball machine was needed for the upcoming play...I needed a cabinet...why not convert my cabinet into a prop and have the crew build me a new cabinet? Nate asked his standout woodworking student, a lanky, contemplative junior named Avery whom I had taught in World History two years before, if he was up for it. He was, and eager to get started on this unique pair of projects.
Aztec was up first. Avery’s task was to transform it into a theatrical set piece to support actors dancing on it. I stashed away everything of value and left him with the plywood carcass. He reinforced joints with 2x4 studs and bolts, affixed super-strong legs, applied primer over the chipped cabinet, and took exact measurements for the eventual replica. Remote-controlled color-changing LEDs went into the head as Avery engineered the neglected seventies Williams into a 21st century monolith worthy of center stage.
And then school shut down, ten days before opening night.
At that time, I couldn’t have known that having a basement full of broken and battered pinball projects (Space Odyssey, Eight Ball Champ, Far Out, Jungle Queen, Stellar Wars, Eight Ball) was going to be the antidote for an extended lockdown. I got through most of them. It was empowering to wrest some control during a time of such instability. (Thank you, vendors – particularly Pinball Resource and Marco Specialties – for helping to keep me occupied and sane.)
Avery works part-time at the local hardware store. During my regular visits, we would trade stories through our masks, share photos of our resto projects — he had been working on rebuilding a snowblower — and lament our original plans, now abandoned.
Summer arrived. If I was going to get Aztec up and running, this was the time to do it. I just needed a cabinet.
One of my daily Craigslist visits yielded a Space Mission for short money but I didn’t act fast enough. The next week I spied a Grand Prix with a shameful turquoise cabinet badly in need of a shop job and a makeover.
I emailed Avery the listing, cc’ing his father: “Would you want to split the cost of this? I just need the cabinet. If you can fix a snowblower, you can fix this.”
The following week, GP was in our joint possession, and a stealth mission to the high school ensued. The Aztec cabinet we extracted looked a lot different than when it first arrived there, but it would soon come to house Avery’s first real pinball project.
College applications and his job at True Value took up a lot of his time for the remainder of the summer, but Avery’s Grand Prix is now close to done. He’s my student once again for AP Psychology, so I see him every day school meets, and occasionally on the weekends where he helps me navigate the loose hardware.
Aztec now looks amazing: Pinball Pimp stencils, lots of Flitz polish and Novus 1, plus a unique top apron decal. I worked with Mike from Beehive Pinball to create a playfield protector for it, since clear-coating is something I’m not ready to try just yet. It’s sitting with its EM and early SS cousins in storage as my finished basement is almost, well, finished. It’ll be back home and (hopefully) ready to play in six weeks, the date I’ll be able to hang out with other fully vaccinated friends. I can barely wait.
P.S.: Despite Tommy's cancellation, this still happened: Arlington High School's Virtual Choir