Friday, December 21, 2012

Back to My Temple

Handel's Messiah doesn't trumpet from invisible speakers when I walk into the Pinball Hall of Fame, my temple, for the first time since 2010, and my first time as a resident. Golden light doesn't pour down from a massive hole in the ceiling that wasn't there five seconds before. No.

The Pinball Hall of Fame isn't a monastery by dint of all the brightly-lit, sometimes noisy pinball machines on display. But it is my monastery. It's where I go for spiritual pinball fulfillment. I have played lots of pinball machines before, at Don Carter Lanes in Tamarac, Florida when I was in a Saturday morning kiddie bowling league, and other places, but never like this, never with pinball machines of different eras and arcade machines in rows for you to walk up and down, to find that one machine that is exactly you, to gape at the history of pinball right in front of you, carefully and lovingly restored and well-maintained. Any pinball machine that comes here has a new life, a new home, a way to always be remembered, to always be active.

The first time I went there, I was stunned by all that was available to me. I wanted to play everything. I laughed out loud when I saw The Addams Family and Twilight Zone pinball machines, because those had been the ones I played at Don Carter Lanes, the ones I could always rely on for a few free games because some kid had put quarters in them, but had to rush back to play their frame of bowling, and forgot about it. I always knew when to look, especially when there was a crowd around Mortal Kombat, because someone was bound to leave quarters in those pinball machines.

This time, at the Pinball Hall of Fame yesterday afternoon, I walked in and I didn't feel that rippling excitement that I did that first time, or even that second time. But that second time, I was just exhausted from all the rushing around, which took a major toll on me. I didn't have as much fun as I usually do there because I wasn't sure what was going on inside my body, though it was likely a combination of too much caffeine, too much junk food, too little sleep. Because I don't do caffeine anymore, because I eat better, because sleep comes easily with the previous two, I was better prepared for what I was looking for: The Tron: Legacy pinball machine, Galaga, and The Pinball Circus, the rarest pinball machine in the world, with only two prototypes in existence, one at the Pinball Hall of Fame.

Before we left the house for Mom and Meridith to go to their pedicure appointment at a shopping center on Tropicana Avenue that used to have Albertsons as its anchor and for me to go to the Pinball Hall of Fame, I also added the Wheel of Fortune pinball machine to my list, to play it for Mom, and the Superman pinball machine, to play it for Meridith.

Now, here I was, inside, looking around, looking down the ends of the rows from my vantage point. And the first thing I did? Popcorn. 25 cents. Drop a quarter in, making sure one of the free white paper bags is under it, and the popcorn comes out. I ate as I walked past the rows, first spotting the Tron: Legacy pinball machine and grinning. Next, my search for Galaga in the row on the far right side of the building, where all the arcade machines were. One Ms. Pac-Man machine had other games running on it including the war game, 1942, but it didn't look like Galaga was on it. The other Ms. Pac-Man machine that actually had Ms. Pac-Man on it was all that it had. No Galaga. Disappointed? No. It just means that during the two weeks of vacation that Dad and Meridith have, starting after work today, if we go back to the Fashion Outlets of Las Vegas in Primm, I'm rushing right back to that Galaga machine in the food court, eager to try to get past Stage 17. That's all.

My first game was the Wheel of Fortune pinball machine for Mom. On Ball 3, the ball got stuck at the top, and I looked for where the ball was at the top, also looking for a volunteer who usually cleans the glass of each pinball machine, or the main guy who runs the place, to try to get my ball back. But it was time for me to try a skill I had previously only watched at Don Carter Lanes and other arcades with pinball, because the previous two times I was at the Pinball Hall of Fame, I didn't need to do this: I bumped the cabinet of the machine to try to put the ball back into play.

During this attempt, I discovered that some machines are more sensitive than others. If you bump the cabinet too hard, the machine displays "TILT," and your game ends immediately. I bumped the cabinet just enough to make it noticeably jiggle and the screen said "Danger," but the ball went back into play. The game ended pretty quickly after that. As you hit the barrier under each contestant in the machine, they guess a letter of the puzzle, which of course is "POWER BONUS." Pretty easy. But I didn't get further than the "P" and the "O" in "BONUS."

The Pinball Hall of Fame also has a drink vending machine, with varying prices for cans, plastic bottles, and glass bottles. It's $1.50 for Yoo-Hoo. That's what I bought, and I made the mistake of chugging it down faster than I've ever done with any other drink, just to get back to playing. I had an annoying headache later last night from that.

After chucking the glass bottle into the trash can next to the vending machine, I went searching for The Pinball Circus and found in the second-to-last row to the right. Sitting before me was $1.5 million dollars of pinball machine. Two prototypes were made, and according to the written text cards taped above the machine, one was tested in a Chicago location, and it was found to have made just as much money as Indiana Jones and Star Trek, the two most popular pinball games at the time of its testing. Both Indiana Jones and Star Trek were table-top pinball machines, whereas Pinball Circus is a vertical machine. Plus, another partner in the cost of this machine was not to pay an extra $1,000 related to something with the machine, so both prototypes were ditched in a back room at Williams Gaming (this was years before they ended pinball production and focused squarely on slot machines), until years later when two former WMS employees came together to give the Pinball Hall of Fame one of the prototypes, because of its rightly perceived standing as a museum for pinball machines as well. This is only one of two in the entire world.

The photos I took of the text cards on my cell phone (I couldn't take any of the actual machine itself because it remains mostly dark when it's not in play, only lighting up when you're playing it) are inconveniently blurry, and I can't quite read clearly the bit that says pinball fans kept searching for "The Holy Grail of Pinball," as this machine was billed, but never got to play it. That's exactly what I'm going for in one of the novels I want to write, albeit with a fictional rare pinball machine. It was hugely inspiring to me to read that part. The next time we go, which may well be during this two-week vacation of Dad's and Meridith's, I'm going to have Meridith take photos of these two text cards with the digital camera we have, hoping it'll come out clearer because I need this information.

During my only shot at Pinball Circus, I loved that when you shoot the pinball up the ramp that leads to the mechanized elephant, it lands on the elephant's snout and the elephant tips its head back to put it on the metal coiled ramp that runs right back down. I loved that! I think I saw the acrobat attached to the ceiling of the machine spin a couple times, but I'm not sure. I was so occupied with watching the elephant.

During Ball 2, the ball lodged somewhere in the left side of the machine and all I could do was hit the flipper buttons as well the "Launch Ball" button and the "Extra Ball" button in a vain attempt to put the ball back into play. I was not going to push the cabinet of a $1.5 million dollar machine, and especially not this one, the rarest pinball machine in the world. This is a shrine, a valuable part of the history of pinball. I was thinking of asking the main guy to see about it, but he's not the kind you approach about that, since he was doing something else at the counter in the back. They get to it when they get to it, and I'm sure they noticed it long after I left, when they shut down the machines for the night. Chances are it'll have been fixed before I go there again. I wasn't disappointed because I got to see the machine in person and study it. Some websites have photos of the inner workings of the machine, and there is YouTube video of the machine in action as well, but to actually be able to play it briefly was an enormous honor and is solely responsible for putting me back on my research for this one novel.

Tron: Legacy came next, and I wish I could own this machine. It's one of my favorite movies, and of course has Castor/Zuse (Michael Sheen) in audio clips on it, and it's so much fun to see the thin neon tubes line up along two of the paths the ball can take, to simulate light cycle racing. It's $0.75 for one game, or $2.00 for three, and later on, I put in $2.00. When I put a $20 bill in the change machine after I had had my popcorn and before I started anything else, I was amazed at how many quarters had come out. After we'd gotten home and I expressed my surprise over this, Meridith told me that $20 is 80 quarters. Well, it seemed like a hell of a lot more, and I'm glad I had the foresight to bring a plastic baggie with me in which to put those quarters.

The rest of the time was part walkaround, part being a vulture on other people's pinball games. I played the Superman pinball machine for Meridith, I played the Elton John Capt. Fantastic pinball machine, I played the Popeye pinball machine, I played the Space Jam pinball machine (I didn't even know they made one of those!), I played the Star Trek: The Next Generation pinball machine, which has a nice variation on the theme music, I played with the Peppy the Clown marionette, which you operate to music, pushing buttons to lift its hands and feet while the Jetsons theme song plays (only a quarter to play it), I got two tiny monkey figurines and an alien figurine from the toy vending machines that only cost a quarter just like the popcorn and the candy vending machines there, and I may be missing one or two machines, but that's what happens when you're in heaven.

As I was finishing my third Tron: Legacy game, I noticed that the guy next to me was having trouble with the Transformers pinball machine, the ball getting stuck or it cycling too quickly, and he left it. Little did he know that he left it on Ball 3, and so I played the remaining two balls. I'm not into Transformers, but I never pass up free pinball. Then, after Meridith called to say that she, Mom, and Dad were on their way to pick me up, I played the Ripleys Believe It or Not pinball machine for Meridith, then walked around once more. I found a pinball machine called Diner (not based on the Barry Levinson movie) in the far-right aisle, but thought about playing Tron: Legacy once more. As I got to the end of the second-to-last aisle, past the Pinball Circus machine again, upon which I hit the "Start Game" button and saw again that it said "Pinball Missing," I saw that the Austin Powers machine, one of a row against the darkened windows at the front of the building, said "Press Start." I did, and found that my old Don Carter skills came in handy because I got a free game. Someone had left quarters in there! Out of all the pinball machines I played, I scored the most points on the Austin Powers machine, possibly because the written sign for it boasted of powerful flippers, and that was true. The replay for the game, the score you have to hit in order to get a free second game, was a little over 100,000,000, and I was at 76,000,000 before my game ended. There's also the chance of getting a free game if the last two digits of your score match the two digits given by the machine after your game is over, but of all the machines I played and all the times I played Tron: Legacy, I didn't win a free game from any of them.

Next time I go, I want to try the diner pinball machine. That will be my first one when I get there. The second will be Tron: Legacy of course, and then I'll ask Meridith to take photos of those text cards above Pinball Circus that I need for my writing. I'm sure that with Meridith there with me next time, there will be air hockey. She loves air hockey, I like playing it, and they have a table tucked into the far upper left corner of the building. The row where the air hockey machine is is home to what seems like a game graveyard, with a semi-organized jumble of pinball machines and two Star Wars arcade machines, one of Episode I. It's a little haunting, but maybe they'll be turned on again, replacing a pinball machine or another game that's not making so much money lately. I don't think the Star Wars machines will find life again because there's not enough room for them anyway. And who would dare replace the '90s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade machine with one of those? You never shut down a classic.

The Pinball Hall of Fame is actually one of two personal temples. The other is the Boulder City Library, which I haven't been back to yet, but I consider it that because they're not afraid of old books (I love that somewhat musty, well-cared-for smell, and the mustiness is not from neglect. They really do take care of their books, but books do age), and they've kept their card catalog for the public to use if they want. They're not skittish about history there. But for a weekly temple, as in the library I go to every week, that would be the Whitney Library.

I still have quarters in my plastic baggie from the $20 I put into the change machine. I didn't have to use the other $20 I had, though I'm sure I will use it the next time I go. However, there won't be a two-year gap ever again as there was between this time and the last time. This is where I belong. This is where I feel most at home. And the best part, besides finally seeing Pinball Circus of course, was that my old instincts kicked in. I knew (mostly) how to keep a ball from falling into the gutter when it seems like it's going to fall in the space between both flippers. I don't have the courage yet to nudge like other players do, but I will soon, and yet I did ok with the strategies I used. I knew how to knock a ball back into the right or left inlane next to the flippers before hitting it again with the flippers. So that's a start.

Now that I'm familiar again with the layout of the Pinball Hall of Fame, I know exactly where to go the next time, but I'm not going to rush to where I want to be. At times, it's enough for me to just walk through the aisles, admiring all these wonderful examples of pinball history. There's even pinball machines from the 1950s, an entire aisle full of them. This is where I can fully embrace my love of pinball and sometimes watch those who share the same love. There's a lot of us, and this is truly a temple, where pinball will never die.