My dad owned a small, mid-Michigan burger joint called Mike’s City Dairy, which had a video game in the front, along with a juke box and a pinball machine in the back. Being born into my family (7 siblings) entitled you to work in the form of slave labor for my parents at the “store.” Luckily, I was the youngest of the family so I only got the best of jobs...like cleaning gum off from under the counter. In my downtime, I got to watch the high school kids (my siblings included) gather around and play the pinball machine, while jammin’ to the likes of AC/DC, Zeppelin, Bowie, Queen, Joan Jett, Van Halen, Survivor, and the Scorpions. Being too short to see the playfield, I’d work my way up to the front, rest my dirty li’l mits on the side of the machine to try and watch ball roll and the lights flash. I’d get chewed out by whoever was playing at the time, “Get off the game, kid!” “Back up!” “Hands off the table!”
After they’d run out of change, I’d get my chance to see what I could do. I’d pull up my upsidedown milk crate to stand on, put in my quarter, and try to hit the ball. I never knew there were rules, I just knew you’d try to hit targets, or try to light up the letters in things, like SILVERBALL MANIA. It was magical...but I never lasted more than a few seconds. My brother taught me to catch the ball and to draw imaginary lines to things I wanted to hit. I started getting better, but never could hold a candle to the older kids.
The real magic happened on Tuesdays. Reggie, from Harry’s Amusement, would come into the store to empty the machines, change lights, adjust switches, wipe the playfield and glass, and then put 8-10 free games on the machines for me. It was like winning the lottery! But over the next ten years, business at the store faded, and my parents were forced to lock the doors. Similar to the patronage at the store, my interest in pinball had drifted away as school and growing up took the forefront of my focus.
After finishing up high school, college, dental school, and a stint in the Navy, I got a call from my dad one day. “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that Reggie died.” As I thought about him, it brought me back to a time dominated by sensory overload and the silverball. “Reggie was such a great guy,” I reminisced, “I’m going to buy a pinball machine in his memory!” After playing a bunch of games at few barcades in Chicago, I settled on the Wizard of Oz. I was shocked with how far pinball had come, as well as the fact that they still made machines! I called a distributor, placed my order, and he laughed at me, “This is your first game?! It won’t be your last, I can promise you that.” I assured him that I only wanted one game, and I could never see any reason for having multiples. I’m now up to 11 games, have finished part of my basement off as an arcade, and I’m a firm believer in always needing just one more machine...until the next. And Reggie’s picture from his funeral card sits in a place of respect on the apron of my WoZ.