The only time I think about nuclear annihilation anymore is on the first Wednesday of the month, at high noon. Noon is when Columbia tests its tornado sirens, and when they first go off, I forget I live in the Midwest. I forget weather can be dangerous. For two, maybe three seconds, the blasts of sound transport me back to seventh grade, a time when I was terrified of four things: Ronald Reagan, mushroom clouds, radiation poisoning, and girls. I explored at least three of these fears in a short novel I titled The Missles Are Coming! [sic.] The book was my entry in my school’s Young Authors Contest, and it took twenty years for anyone—parents, teachers, friends—to remark on the misspelling. And the person who caught the mistake after all those years?

A girl. A woman, to be exact.

Who knows? If I’d grown up in the Midwest, maybe I wouldn’t have been afraid of anything. Girls, tornadoes. I’ve been thinking about tornadoes a lot because of the sirens, and because I’ve been playing a bunch of Whirlwind at the Sub Shop in downtown Columbia. Whirlwind is a tornado themed pinball machine, but it’s not clear to me if the goal of the game is to chase a tornado or to avoid a tornado. The backglass art is a highway tornado scene in medias res, and includes renditions of an airborne pig, a kid in a backward baseball cap aiming a video camera at an anthropomorphic cloud, and a minivan outfitted with a Doppler dish.

Although this evidence points toward a tornado chaser themed pinball machine, when multiball is ready, the game declares in a serious weatherman voice: “THE STORM IS COMING. RETURN TO YOUR HOMES.” So am I hiding in the basement or am I speeding down some rural route trying to get the best angle on a funnel cloud?

Pro-tornado, anti-tornado: either way, you have to hit targets around the game, and each target represents a compass point. Once you hit three directions, you can lock a ball for multiball by shooting up the main ramp. Locking a ball on Whirlwind is difficult but refreshing. The difficulty arises when the three spinning discs set into the playfield switch on. If the ball rolls across a disc, it shoots off in a random direction. The refreshing part is courtesy of a fan built into the top of the machine that blows a casual breeze down onto the player. A breeze so casual, all I can think of is a gigantic fan blowing a pinball player back against the far wall. Imagine playing pinball while struggling to stay vertical against a gale force wind. Now add some indoor rain. Also hail. Some hail would be cool. Maybe some tornado sirens. . . could someone get on that?

I don’t have much in the way of pinball theory to offer up about Whirlwind. I’m sure the designers came up with a brilliant storyline, but when I play Whirlwind, I don’t think about the storyline, and I don’t consider the aesthetical implications of what I’m doing. For a game with such an unusual motif, it’s shockingly generic. Playing Whirlwind at the downtown Sub Shop is all about the classic rock atmosphere. When I lived in Columbia eleven years ago, the band you were most likely to hear blasting out of a boombox in a Sub Shop kitchen was Fugazi. Everyone I knew who worked there was straight edge. Eventually, Fugazi was supplemented with something like Pavement or Guided by Voices.

Things have changed. The downtown Sub Shop has gone full-on hippie, brothers and sisters. There’s a Tolkien mural that gives me nightmares. Classic rock record covers line the walls and delightful classic rock puns (BREAD ZEPPELIN, GRATEFUL BREAD) adorn Sub Shop’s plastic cups.

It’s fun to get multiball on Whirlwind, because the spinning discs switch back on, and the three balls skitter and crash into one another. It’s a tough game, though, and I can barely manage to lock three balls. The layout is clunky, and put that together with the spinny discs, and you get a ball on Whirlwind that’s jittery and unpredictable, like a sophomore loaded up on substances on a Thursday evening. Like a sophomore bouncing around the room with a lovely Midwestern girl to “St. Stephen.” He’s knocking lamps over, and you kinda want to ask him to just cool out.

Or something like that.

- - -

Sometimes tornadoes are not enough. I heard a rumor that the Sub Shop out by the mall had pinball, so I drove out to investigate and maybe to have some fries. (The Sub Shop out by the mall is infamous for being the only Sub Shop in town with a deep fryer.)

I was not impressed when I walked into the Sub Shop and saw a Wheel of Fortune pinball machine. I hope you will not be too disgusted with me if I admit the only reason I would ever lower myself to watch Wheel of Fortune is to laugh at people who don’t know how to spell. (And considering my track record with the word “missile,” I’m aware I have zero credibility in the spelling department with my readers.)

I began to doubt the inclusion of Wheel of Fortune in my column until I heard a very familiar song begin to emit from the Sub Shop speakers. As I dumped my quarters into the slot, I heard an acoustic guitar being strummed aggressively. The chords chimed, and assembled into a classic rock anthem.

The song was the Who’s “Pinball Wizard.”

I broke out in goosebumps. Believe it or not, I had never played pinball while listening to the song.

The Wheel of Fortune pinball game looks like a slot machine that has sprouted flippers in order to give the player an actual chance to win a game using talent and skill instead of relying on probability tables. The game is gaudier than the average pinball machine, with lots of neon lights, not to mention Pat Sajak and Vanna White’s smiles on the backglass. Please don’t ask me to look directly into their faces, okay? Game show eyes can suck out a man’s soul.

I really want to shape the rest of this sentence into a Pat Sajak-As-Patron-Saint-of-Car-Salesman joke but, man oh man, two games in, I was totally into Wheel of Fortune pinball. I can’t make fun of it. I really didn’t think the game show would translate into a decent pinball machine.

The only disappointing thing about Wheel of Fortune is you don’t get to guess what the phrases are. (This is at least half the fun of watching the show: screaming everyday phrases at so-called cretins.) I guess there are a finite number of Wheel of Fortune phrases you could load onto the pinball machine’s computer, and someone could master them all. And guessing phrases isn’t the mark of a good pinball player, is it?

To guess a letter, you have to shoot the ball at a bank of bobbleheads—Lonnie, Maria, and Keith—and then the contestant bobbleheads guess a letter.

The sounds from the show are intact, so the bobbleheads scream the letters out. There’s something strange about shooting a silver ball at a bobblehead and then have the machine call out: “T!”

“There is one T.” (Pat Sajak says calmly.)

“S!” (I can’t even begin to explain how funny this sounds.)

“There are three S’s.” (Again, his voice: smooth as a used car salesman.)

So I guess bobbleheads are smart. They always guessed at least one correct letter.

- - -

As for my sub, I forgot to ask them to hold the mayonnaise. You always have them hold the mayo at Sub Shop. With the exception of tuna, mayo does not belong on a sandwich, but this is neither the time nor place to discuss my deep and complicated feelings about mayo. My sub was hot and gooey. And the fries, the fries I have fantasized about for years?

They were not french fries. They were fried potato chips. Limp and soggy, like someone had left a sack of potato chips on a picnic bench in a summer storm.

- - -

Back to the pinball. Wheel of Fortune the pinball game is easy and generous, and I had a gas playing it. If you think it’s frustrating to watch a bunch of so-called cretins on Wheel of Fortune, consider how much of a cretin you will feel like when you can’t fill in the blanks on the following puzzle, because you can’t make a simple shot on a pinball game.

Take a guess. The category is headlines:

M _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ M _ _ _

Say it out loud with me so I don’t feel like such a cretin: “Man Walks On The Moon! Man Walks On The Moon!”