Some childhood memories still remain vivid in my mind. One happy one that I recall reminds me of that wonderful opening scene in the film, Citizen Kane. If you have never seen this movie and do not want to know how it concludes, then please do not go on reading this blog because it will be a spoiler. I am quite sure the movie is readily available inasmuch as it is a classic, directed by the young and talented Orson Welles, who also starred in it. My recommendation: If you haven’t seen it, see it and then come back and read this blog.
The opening scene shows Kane on his back, dying, with his last breath uttering the word, Rosebud. In an effort to decipher the origin of this word, a reporter interviews several of Kane’s close acquaintances in flashbacks that provide the picture’s material. The film portrays the development of Kane’s life from a young striving individual to a newspaper magnate who wields great power. Although a fictional work, many compared Citizen Kane to the real-life newspaper mogul Randolph Hearst. There is a scene showing Kane as a boy frolicking in the snow that connects us with that last word uttered by Kane, Rosebud. Although the reporter cannot solve the meaning of this word, at the end of the film the audience sees a sled in a fireplace with the word Rosebud, on it, slowly disintegrating into flames.
I grew up in northern New Jersey in the ‘50’s where there was plenty of snow. When the blizzards brought snow, it was like manna from heaven insofar as the schools had to be closed allowing us kids to have a day off. Two close friends of mine had the good fortune to live at the top of their streets that were both long and steep, and due to the snow, blocked off from traffic. It was one of the natural delights as a child to take my sled to either of those locations and enjoy the thrill of sleigh riding down to the bottom of those streets.
But it was not a sled that I longed for as an adult. As I child my brothers and I would go down to Beach Haven, a pristine shore in New Jersey, every summer to spend a few weeks visiting the family of an old college friend of my father. It was there that as a child of 6 or 7, I discovered miniature golf and pinball with my brothers. I still remember the place we would go to: Beacon’s Golf and Amusement Arcade. The latter consisted of pinball games with the price per game being a whopping five cents. I became fascinated with one game, called Jalopy, when one day my younger brother and I were watching this other kid, a few years older than both of us, play and win 25 free games with the Kid, the driver of Jalopy number 6. I think he appreciated the awe and amazement we expressed when the games started ringing up to 25 as he offered me the chance to play one of his free games. His generous gesture began my career as a pinball player and my early infatuation with Jalopy. Each summer when I went with my family down the Jersey shore, I spent many a nickel playing Jalopy.
Since then I played a variety of pinball games and became fairly adept, with an almost reflexive knack for manipulating the flippers, an intrinsic part of the game. As an undergraduate at college there was a breakfast place on campus that had five or six machines with the same group of guys always playing the same games. I made some friends playing pinball perhaps related to both my enthusiasm and skill at the game. One of the games I excelled at was called: World Series. Because I was an avid baseball fan, I, especially, enjoyed playing it. However, as the years went by, many features of pinball were changing, one of which reduced the number of balls in a game from five to three, in addition to the inevitable raising of the price per game. In essence, what had happened is that now you had to pay more to play less per game. These changes along with others diminished my interest in pinball. Moreover, as pinball had become less popular with the next generation due to their greater fascination with video games, there were fewer places left to visit that housed pinball machines.
As the years went by, I thought about the fun I had in playing Jalopy. It had been over 50 years since I had first played that game. After searching for it on the internet for about a year, I finally found an owner of it that actually lived in Southern California about 50 miles from me. Upon going to his home, I discovered that he was a collector of pinball machines. When I told him of my interest in buying the game Jalopy, he said he would paint it and get it looking like new and, when I returned to buy it, it did indeed appear to be in mint condition. After playing a number of times, I decided to buy it.
Jalopy became more than a memory for me than the sled had been to Citizen Kane. That is to say, the act of both finding and obtaining the pinball machine of my childhood, as a personal possession, reified the memory. What is most surprising is that when I currently play the game (of course for free though it does have the original nickel coin slot), I thoroughly enjoy it. I have thought about this. Jalopy, like practically all pinball machines, was hard to win free games simply because the proprietors wanted the customers to keep on pumping their money into them. Consequently, despite the fact that I have owned it for about fifteen years, and have played it countless times, I still find winning at Jalopy quite challenging. Winning at Jalopy is somewhat similar to winning at card games in which skilled players won’t always beat other players due to the fact that they may be unlucky in drawing poor hands. If Jalopy was a game of 100% skill, then eventually I would figure out ways of winning the game consistently. This does not happen due to the unpredictability of how the ball caroms off the side, what bumper it hits, where it will go in relation to the flippers and, then how I will react to all this uncertainty, some of which I can control, and some of which I cannot. In this sense, I would say that Jalopy is more like poker than say bridge, a much more complicated card game that involves some luck but a much greater degree of mastery and expertise than does poker.
The irony is that if the game no longer would demand attention to the prerequisite dexterity necessary to win free games, my enthusiasm for it would wane. That is what is fascinating about humans: Difficult situations stimulate us to work harder at the task that confronts us with the goal of improving our ability to overcome their challenge. When I invite friends and family to play, they are quite amazed at how hard it is to win a free game which makes sense inasmuch as they have not played it or practiced it as much as I have. Because of my familiarity with Jalopy, when I demonstrate my prowess at it, my friends and family can appreciate my performance even if I don’t win a free game on that attempt.
The perception of time differs during one’s childhood. As a child the time to play one game felt much longer than it is presently. When I enter my home office where I have Jalopy, I tell myself I will only play one game but before I know it, I may play three or four more times in no more than five minutes. Since I have owned Jalopy, I have been able to relax but still try to outmaneuver the machine in an effort to win free games. It remains a source of great fun.