Friday, February 15, 2013

No. 475 – Someone Saved My Life Tonight

Performer: Elton John
Songwriters: Elton John, Bernie Taupin
Original Release: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
Year: 1975
Definitive Version: None

The Kenny Centre Mall was (and is) a shopping center, not a mall. It’s now a pretty good ethnic-cuisine hub, but when I was a kid, it was known as the location of Food World, where I later worked, and The Pharmacy. The Pharmacy was famous school-wide, because that’s where you bought candy, comics, and baseball and football cards.

In 1974, Kenny Centre had a huge expansion built in back. When I saw that the shop on the north corner of the L-shape expansion was going to be an arcade, I was a more than slightly interested.

As I mentioned, on my first trip to Florida in 1973, I got my first taste of pinball at the arcade down the street, and I was hooked. From then on, every time I went to Florida, Dad and I would go to the arcade and play a few games after some putt-putt on the roof. Now, an arcade called The Electric Wizard was opening practically in my backyard.

Dad took me the first time, soon after it opened. Being an adult, he no doubt could see the potential was high not only for his little boy to waste all of his allowance quarters there, but also hang out next to—and possibly get beaten up by, or worse, become friends with—juvenile delinquent teens. I was forbidden to go to The Electric Wizard without parental supervision.

This, of course, was an unjust ruling from my perspective. I mean the teen-agers who hung out with the arcade owner or manager in the back were scary, granted, but … come on. The treasures that lay there tempted me unmercifully.

Well, I had been similarly banned from The Pharmacy when I first became mobile after I bought my 10-speed in 1973, too, but it soon became apparent that that rule was unenforceable. My parents tweaked the pharmacy ban to an ask-permission-first rule.

That was a more liberal rule, but when it came to trying to get Johnny Bench in a pack of cards, the odds were increased by additional purchases, thus extra trips to The Pharmacy. To skirt the ban, I used classic misdirection. Where did you go? Marty’s house. Did you have fun? Uh huh.

As long as the specific question of going to The Pharmacy wasn’t asked—and as long as they didn’t notice the bubblegum in my mouth or the card-shape bulge protruding from my jacket or pants pocket—I wasn’t lying. I just wasn’t telling the whole truth, your honor. I did go to Marty’s house; you just failed to ask whether I also went to The Pharmacy. (Can you tell I come from a line of lawyers?)

I employed a similar strategy for The Electric Wizard. Summer Rec was an Upper Arlington summer program of supervised activity for kids up to age 14 at each elementary school. For me, that meant team dodgeball and what we called German baseball (baseball with a big, red, rubber kickball). I went every day, and it proved to be the perfect cover in the summer of 1975.

Eric, a friend of mine from fifth grade, would ride his big sisters’ tandem bike to Summer Rec. He’d check in, pick me up, and we’d ride down to The Electric Wizard in the afternoon and play games until our quarters ran out.

In the front room, which was the only room visible from the sidewalk, were the air-hockey tables. I never played this game before, and you would play under the watchful (and very much crazed) eye of The Electric Wizard himself, who oversaw the room from a massive painting that hung on the wall.

Around the corner lay the pinball machines, side-by-side in two neat, opposing rows. I don’t remember all of the games, but I definitely remember Bally’s Wizard, which had a Tommy theme; and Satin Doll, by Williams, which was the first pinball machine I ever turned over (cracked 100,000 so the analog ten-thousands counter rolled from nine to zero).

In the back, where the scary delinquents hung out, was a pool table and a few shooting games. The only thing of real interest back there was the manager’s office, where we’d get change, and a couple of games that were played on a TV screen. One was called Pong and the other was Tank. I liked Tank more. But … video games? Who wants to waste quarters on those when you have a dozen perfectly good pinball machines right here?

The p.a. system was on either to WCOL, top 40, or WNCI, rock, and I’m all but certain that I heard this song at The Electric Wizard for the first time, because, well, Elton John was played everywhere back then. In retrospect, I’m surprised The Electric Wizard didn’t have the Captain Fantastic pinball game, but it didn’t.

Eric and I would run out of quarters just about the time when the supervisors opened the gym for the big team dodgeball games that typically ended the day at Summer Rec. We’d head back just in time to join the game and provide my alibi. Where have you been? Summer Rec. What did you do? Played dodgeball. OK.

The defense rests.

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