They gathered around like moths to a flame.
Actually, around a pinball machine. My pinball machine. Fishing-themed.
I couldn't confidently ascertain their ages, even though the DJ at Skating Plus in Ventura on that pre-New Year's Eve day had called for rink races about a half hour prior, separate age groups joining in the mad dash around, and sometimes around again (for the older kids, two laps), and it was easy to see the demographics of the place for that day. But they looked to be about six or seven years old, maybe eight. My audience. All boys. A curious audience. I always adore a curious audience.
I plugged 50 cents into the machine and the game began. The plunger was actually shaped as a fishing rod and all you had to do was press a button on the top, and the ball would launch. Easy enough, and certainly easier to operate than the Nightmare On Elm Street machine to the left of the X-Files machine, which was to the left of me, and which I had played before. It was ok, but nothing particularly exciting. This machine, however, excited me. It was easy to operate, and it didn't require strenuous effort. I don't mind strenuous effort if the machine is well-calibrated, and this one was, but it called for a more easygoing style, my kind of style.
The kids watched as the ball went around the board, as the flippers shot the ball into parts I hoped would reap high points. And then the questions began:
"What's a long cast?"
"What's a short cast?"
Both easy to answer. The long cast, in the matter of this game, is when the ball goes completely around the board before reaching the flippers again. The short cast is when I immediately shot the ball into the hole almost directly above the right flipper for easy points.
They asked about the mechanics of the game, and they were fascinated by the multiball function, which I achieved many times. One kid, upon seeing it lit up on the machine's screen, informed me that I had to reach 26,000,000 for a free game. Easily reached, the game made a sharp, clacking sound and I had won my free game. During that game, the points to reach for a free game became 31,000,000, which I never accomplished. A little too difficult when you're only at 10,000,000. Not that the kids broke my concentration at any time (we even talked a little bit about basketball, and I expressed my recent preference for the New York Knicks, not because of how they've been playing recently, but because, to me, they embody a passion for basketball I've been looking for, should I wish to attach myself to a team after getting back into the game, watching it anyway. And after watching the Knicks, I do), but this wasn't the type of pinball machine I was playing for a high score. I could easily do that on Cruisin' Exotica, which was right across from the table my mom and I were sitting at, watching my dad and Meridith skate.
After the free game, I dug two more quarters out of my left pocket and asked the kids, "Want to see that again?" They did.
Being a substitute campus supervisor at my dad's middle school, I enjoy seeing that generation interact. I always hope for there to be little ruckus during the day, and I mostly get that. I could never teach, though. I never want to. I like being outside, where the kids act more naturally. In a classroom, there's expectations from teacher to student, and the student has more to worry about than merely what they're having for lunch and who's bothering the hell out of them today.
These little kids around me at the pinball machine, I don't know if their parents noticed, and if they did, they probably saw what I've been good at all this time. I'm good with kids. I have an instinct for who they are, what their personalities are like. I can figure them out right away. With those middle school kids, if I talk to them, I know I can somewhat level with them, while retaining my authoritative state as a campus supervisor. With these little kids, I didn't feel the need to be cutesy. They asked questions, and I answered them, simple enough. They got the gist of the game right away after I told them what a long cast and a short cast was, and just like me, they got really into the game when the multiball function was activated, keeping as close watch on the three balls rolling around the board as I was.
I loved their company. Somehow, I got them, and they got me. I was just one of them for those 20 minutes or so, because I'm completely enamored with pinball machines. After the final free game was over, well, that was that. I said to them, "Later," and I went back to my table to continue reading the 2005 Food Issue of The Oxford American that I had brought with me. I couldn't be expected to watch skating the entire time, and the more I read, the better my days are.
There was one other kid I liked, 10 or 11 years old, maybe 12 (I'm really good at determining ages, as you see). I was playing Cruisin' Exotica, the machine on the left, because the steering wheel on its twin to its right was far too loose, and I had trouble steering in the Vegas stage. Before this particular game, on this particular machine, I had won a #2 spot on the top #10 list for Hong Kong medium, which starts off the Cruisin' Exotica mode if you choose it. During this game, I was at the airport, rolling under a landing 747, and the kid sitting next to me, watching me play, said, "If you're in 2nd or 3rd place, just take your foot off the gas and put it right back on for it to go faster." I never knew that, and I replied, "Thanks, man!" It worked! All this time, I had thought that once you press down on the gas, your foot stays there, and that's all there was to it. As fast as the car goes, that's the speed, I thought. This was amazing. I also scored the #9 spot on that top 10 list. Thanks, kid.
10 pinball games that day (including two free games of T2 at the bowling alley next door, and a pool-themed machine, complete with a large cue ball), as many games of Cruisin' Exotica as people left quarters in the machine (sometimes I had to put in an additional quarter, sometimes two), and burgeoning minds watching me. Add to all of that the first half of the Knicks/Magic game that night, which I Tivo'd and got up to halftime before I went to bed, and it was a perfect day.