(the joy of ordinary things)
by Tim McGrath
“I love little baby ducks, old pickup trucks, slow-movin’ trains, and rain…”
from I Love by Tom T. Hall
They used to be in dark, smoky rooms. The places I was warned about: bars, pool halls, back rooms of bowling alleys. No place for respectable kids to frequent. Lord knows what goes on there, we’ve heard the stories.
The temptation of the silver ball was just too great. I’d heard the sounds coming from the little room at the back of the bowling alley before, next to the bar. The forbidden zone. The place I had to go. It was as if an invisible hand was pushing me on, luring me in. The dark just added to the allure of the whole thing.
Stepping through the doorway, bowling bag in hand, I found myself in a dark world, save for the mesmerizing light coming from the machines standing side-by-side. Glowing tips of cigarettes cast a soft halo of orange light on the players’ faces who were hanging on grimly to the fronts of the machines. Fingers pounding flippers, jiggling, shoving the machines, swearing, lots of swearing. As my eyes adjusted to the dark and days-old smoke, I drifted to the table closest to me and leaned in.
“Hey, doofus, don’t bump the machine, or you’ll get a clip over the ear hole, stand back! I’ve just about got another free game!” the guy playing barked at me. Backing off, I watched, mesmerized, as the silver ball bounced, raced, and slunk around the table always threatening to drop down the middle or side channels. The flashing lights and musical ding, ding, ding of the score reels rolling over and over held me in their spell. I jumped as a loud THWACK shook the machine. “Hot dang, got it!” the player shouted. “That makes three, got to get me some more.”
“Come on, Danny, give it up, we’ve got to go. Let that kid play your games. You’ve been at it for an hour.” Danny stared at me with a doubtful eye. Clearly, he was concerned I was going to be a big disappointment.
“OK, kid, here you go, don’t blow it!” Danny said.
He handed over a living thing. Buckaroo’s back glass and playfield were garishly lit with smiling horses and pretty girls in skimpy, too-tight blouses. Come on kid, try it, just once, you’ll love it, pretty girl seemed to say. How could I possibly say no to that? Imitating Danny, I stood with feet firmly planted, ready for action at the front of the machine. Fingers on the flipper buttons, feeling the warmth pulsing through my sweaty palms. Giving the flippers a try, I pulled back the plunger and let the ball fly.
I had no idea what I was doing, of course. Just to watch, hear, and feel the ball bouncing around the playfield, racking up points on the mechanical reels, though, was enough. Trying in vain to smack the ball back up into the playfield proved to be difficult. It moved too fast, and my flipper skills were nonexistent. Just like that, all the free games Danny had racked up slipped away. Didn’t make one bit of difference, I was hooked.
Another guy came up and slapped a quarter down on the machine. “Move, kid, let me show you how it’s done.”
Picking up my bowling bag, I slouched around the perimeter of the dark room. Games with names like King of Diamonds, Sing Along, Flipper Parade, Lady Luck, Four Square. All of them reaching out with an invitation to a secret and mysterious place. Some of them a little naughty, all promising good times with a wink and a nod.
A good chunk of my youth from junior high through college was spent in that room, and others like it. They became a go-to place with my chums, but also a retreat of sorts when I just needed to get away from whatever kid angst I was suffering at the time. If there was something troubling me, being in that space and banging away on those machines helped me sort things out. Loads of quarters were fed into them, and I suppose it was some kind of primitive therapy. Plus, it was just plain fun. What a kick it was to win a free game. When the satisfying THWACK of the machine paying out a freebie came it was all I could do not to shout out, “Ladies and gentlemen, raise your glasses, the kid just won another!”
I’ll tell you, my friends, those were the days. Playing pinball in those slightly seedy places was a delight; an ordinary thing teenage boys did back then. It probably consumed too much time and hard-earned cash. But, no matter.
The siren song still calls. When I see a machine, I have to stop and check it out. If it’s a machine from those halcyon days, and I have a couple quarters, I step right up and have a go. Instinctively, I assume the stance, flipper fingers itchy just waiting to do a trap and shoot. Brings me right back to that joyful, carefree time.
Lately, I’ve heard about and seen other people picking up the forgotten things; stuff done in a dimly remembered past. Baking, cooking from scratch, sewing and knitting, puzzle making, playing board games, even darning socks. I’ve enjoyed posts on social media of people thrilled with the sound of spring peepers and birds. The lovely photos of beautiful spring wildflowers, trying to learn their names. Hiking on our beautiful North Country Trail, delighting in the discovery of some of its secret places. Fishing, the trials of gardening, raising chicks, throwing a ball.
Finding joy in ordinary things.
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