I needed to make some changes in my life, so I moved back to Columbia, Missouri. I fell in love with pinball out here, while attending the University of Missouri-Columbia. My new home is a house called The Ranch, and it’s about a mile or so out of town. The land surrounding us is lush and grassy. A pack of geese command the cloudy pond. Three eggs rest in the center of the diving raft, surrounded by a ring of goose shit and down. The geese ignore the raft, so we assume the eggs are duds.
My summer plan is to write a lot and work on graduate school applications, and the Comet in the front room of The Ranch will provide me with plenty of distraction. Pinball is a superior break-time activity, and I envision long sessions of writing broken up by twenty-minute pinball breaks.
Comet is the first installment in the Williams roller coaster trilogy, and it has three ramps: the orange Corkscrew in the upper left hand corner, the Cycle Jump on the right hand side, and the Comet, dead center. The object of the game is to hit all of the targets in the two shooting galleries—a row of ducks on the left side of the machine, and a row of rabbits on the right. Once you hit all four targets on each side, consecutive rides on the Comet ramp within a certain time frame will get you 30,000, 50,000 and then 100,000 points. Riding the Comet three times during this same time period also lights up the extra ball shot on the Corkscrew. Comet is generous with the extra balls: if you hit all the targets a second time, another extra ball shot lights on the Cycle Jump. It’s not unusual to win two extra balls in a single game.
The four rollover targets at the top of the machine are another way to score lots of points. Rolling the ball over each target lights up a number: 1, 9, 8, or 6. (And yet, Comet was manufactured in 1985. Does anyone remember 1985? Were people eagerly anticipating the immediate future?) You select which target is lit using the right flipper. If you light all four targets on your third ball, you have ten seconds to get the ball into the last bucket of the Cycle Jump and score a million points.
A million points still seems like a lot of points to me. A million points is a refreshing change from the modern games where you win two hundred and thirty-nine million some odd points just for launching the damn ball.
Targets work well with my new plan. Targets are simple, and I’m trying to keep my life simple. Hit the banks of targets, ride the Comet three or four times, reap the rewards. Ducks and rabbits. Comet’s background music is goofy, but I don’t mean this as a pejorative: all pinball machines should have goofy music. There’s something goofy about the Cycle Jump, too. It doesn’t look like any part of a pinball machine I’ve ever seen. The steep stainless steel ramp launches the ball into a plastic bucket with three holes. The first hole awards you 20,000 points, the second 40,000, and the last one 200,000.
The Comet ramp is a little warped and consequently, it’s a difficult shot to make on the fly. When we remove the glass and run our fingers along the plastic track we can feel the bumps and tiny ditches on the ramp. (This is not a design flaw, by the way. It’s just that our particular version of the Comet ramp is beat up. We could really use a new one. If anyone wants to sell or give us their Comet ramp, please contact me at the e-mail address above.)
Typically, I begin with the ball at rest on the left flipper. After I shoot the ball up the ramp, it circles around and drains to the right flipper. Usually, the ball has enough speed that I can transfer it back to the left flipper simply by keeping the right flipper in the up position. Then I begin the process all over again. I love this sort of repetition in pinball.
My friend and new roommate David bought the Comet a long time ago, and it sat in a corner of The Ranch for years, dusty and idle. Now it’s repaired, in excellent condition, and set to free play. I am pleased to report that the thrill of winning a replay on a pinball game doesn’t diminish when you’re already playing for free. I have never lived with a pinball machine before, and I’m trying not to incorporate it into every household activity. It’s not a good idea to start a game while a meal simmers on the stove top, and using it as a reward for chores doesn’t work, because I like doing chores. Instead, I try to play at regular times: I give myself three games after my morning writing session. The duration of my pinball break is entirely dependent on my skill. In the evenings, playing doubles with a roommate is a pleasant way to pass the time, but playing pinball with multiple people can be tricky. It’s more relaxed and fun, and yet you can lose momentum, while you wait for the other person to play their ball.
The other day, some friends came out to The Ranch and someone grabbed an acoustic guitar and picked out Comet’s background melody while David played. It took me a moment to register this subtle effect, and as the music from the machine and the guitar intertwined, I could not stop laughing.
When it was my turn, another friend strummed soothing chords for me. Then I missed a shot and the music changed. My friend performed his version of acoustic heavy metal. I messed up again. He was trying to make me laugh, trying to make me play worse with his guitar playing. It kind of worked. We know each other too well. I can only hope this sort of psychological warfare continues, all summer long.
We’re going to set up a stereo into the pinball room, and to be able to control the soundtrack of a pinball afternoon seems too awesome to even think about.
Playing pinball every day improves flipper control. The other day, after a long bike ride, David and I played a different pinball machine in town, and David’s flipper control appeared to be sharper than usual. I can’t speak objectively about my talents, but overall, our pinball muscles had greater tone and definition. I enjoy the idea of improving our pinball skills out at The Ranch and then taking those skills into town and having our way with the city’s machines.
I feel spoiled, having a pinball machine at my disposal, accessible at a moment’s notice. A Comet set to free play is twenty-nine paces from where I sit, and I’m not sure I can get to the end of this sentence without considering the possibility of rising from my desk to take a pinball break.
It’s now a few days later, and the weather has turned. The clean, clear spring days have vanished, replaced with an endless overhead gray. It rained hard last night, and the night before. It’s hailed twice. I forgot how long Midwestern thunder lasts, as the cracks roll into a symphonic rumble.
One of the goose eggs appeared in the refrigerator this morning. So in addition to the pinball sorrow, I now live with the kind of person who steals goose eggs.
We’ve all lost our Comet magic. Last week we were champions, and now we struggle with basic shots. None of us can explain it. I curse the game like a frustrated teenager. Comet leans slightly to the left and needs adjustment, and worst of all, a switch has broken. It has something to do with the flipper and the rollover targets, and now the million shot hardly ever lights up.
A few more days have passed, and David and I raised the legs to make Comet faster, and we fixed the slant. We slid the glass back over the machine, and played a game, marveling at the speed and spin of the ball. I scanned the instruction manual, even though 88 percent of the material was over my head. I know very little about electronics, and I consider myself a good reader, but I may as well have been reading Roland Barthes. Soon, though, I was confident I found the broken switch, the one that controlled the rollover target, in a diagram. We finished our games, opened the machine back up, and looked inside.
David tinkered with the flipper assembly and bent a small piece of metal so it touched another piece of metal, while I hit the flippers. This sometimes made the switch work. We wondered if the two pieces of metal should be attached permanently. Neither one of us had any business fixing a pinball machine, but we borrowed a soldering iron, applied a few drops of solder, and lo: the switch worked. My first assist with a pinball machine repair, and it worked. We still feel proud.