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“He’s a pinball wizard

There has got to be a twist.

A pinball wizard,

S’got such a supple wrist.”

-The Who 1969

When I was twelve years old a few of my friends asked me if I would like to join a bowling league. The bowling league was on Saturday mornings and the alley was located just off the town square. Since Mom and Dad had been a part of an adult league and seemed to enjoy the experience, I figured why not give bowling a try. Besides, my friends were going to be there and if nothing else the social aspect would be satisfying. I had never bowled before but, just like most sports, it didn’t take me long to learn and if not the best bowler I didn’t embarrass myself.

Bowling as a recreational sport in America has always been considered “blue collar” in its appeal and participation, but it does share an idiosyncrasy with the more erudite sports of golf and tennis; fans are not allowed to talk during competition. I’ve never understood why this is. After all, when I stood on the pitcher’s mound, sixty feet six inches from home plate, and attempted to throw a little white ball into a space no larger than a six-inch by six-inch square, the yelling and screaming of the fans and the taunting from the opposing team’s bench seldom distracted me from hitting my target. Not so in golf, bowling, and tennis. When watching these sports on television, the volume must be turned up to a level capable of recording the whispering voices of the play-by-play announcers as they attempt to describe the activity in front of them while at the same time not wanting to become a distraction to the participants. Golfers are thrown into a tizzy at the faint sound of a camera click as they address their ball on the tee, resulting in the offender being thrown off the course, and tennis fans are known to “shush” each other repeatedly in order to create an atmosphere in the stands that mimics the inside of a public library. So too there is an expectation of silence among those who wish to participate in the bowling experience.

Twelve and thirteen year old boys, regardless of etiquette and rules, weren’t about to pass up an opportunity to distract their opponents and throughout the league play, funny noises, grunts, whistles, and derogatory comments could be heard as each bowler was about to begin his approach. At first the reactions to the distractions, besides causing much conflict between bowlers and teams, were obvious in the results; the distractions often accomplishing their intent. But as with all “white noise”, the distractions became so regular that they no longer accomplished what the “distracter” intended; eventually no longer being attempted. There was however one distraction that did have a detrimental effect on all the bowlers and surely kept the scoring down for everyone: pinball!

In the common area of the bowling alley, prior to reaching the lanes, there were two or three pinball machines lined up along the wall. Once we discovered how fun they were, one particular machine especially, we gravitated toward them. The one we liked the best was the old-fashioned pinball machine; replete with rubber flippers and all the bells and lights one could ask for. In addition, we found out that if a certain score was attained, a free game would pop up (“thock” the sound made at the instance the free game was delivered) and that possibility was seemingly endless (we had as many as twenty free games to play at one instance and due to our moms waiting for us outside to take us home, we had to leave the free games behind for someone else to enjoy; thus doing our part in giving back to the community).

Instead of focusing on the bowling game at hand, once a particular frame was completed each of us would run up to the pinball machine and play the game until it was our turn to bowl again. The pinball game was so much the focus of attention that at any given point the only person down on the lanes was the person bowling at the time (“Hey guys, I just bowled five strikes in a row!” Cricket sounds.). All the while you were bowling your frame; your mind was on what was going on at the pinball machine (the giggling and loud “thock” sound of games being won inevitably made their way down to the lanes; now that’s a distraction!) Once we began playing pinball, there was a steady decline in the scoring averages of most of us in the league. Maybe we should have formed a Saturday morning pinball league and scrapped the bowling.