I didn’t set out to be a short-term mentor that night. I wanted to play a little pinball, drink an international beer or two and soak up the atmosphere at the new joint in town.
But a kid needed help.
My compadres and I were at The Feisty Goldfish, a retro arcade in Marion’s Historic Depot District featuring classic video games, pinball, foosball, shuffleboard, darts, new consoles on widescreen TVs and 70 or so beers from around the world. I don’t usually stray far from cheap domestic but if it’s on special, well, I believe I will give that one a try.
My childhood pal and former co-worker Derek Poteat has a hand in running the place, having gotten out of the newspaper business when the getting was good.
There was a mixed crowd there that evening, from the usual chamber of commerce suspects to 20-somethings seeking small-town excitement to families with young kids sprinting from one game to the next.
I had a go at a couple of pinball machines and was contemplating which one to conquer next when a kid who must have been about 5 or 6 ran up and came to a sliding stop beside me.
He eyed the machine, looked up and said, “Does that take money?”
“It’ll take it,” I said, “but it doesn’t need it. You’ve got a wristband on and these are on free play. That wristband means you can play whatever you want.”
Technically, it meant he could play whatever he could reach. He was a little fellow and barely saw over the top of the machine. He needed a stepladder or a brother’s back to climb on to play some of the games in the building.
The kid pushed buttons on the front of the machine until it lit up, sounded off and spat a pinball out in front of the plunger.
“What does it do now?” he asked.
I pulled the plunger for him, launched the ball onto the playfield where it bounced off a couple of bumpers and then disappeared down the middle because the kid had not manned the flippers.
When the ball disappeared, he cupped his hands in front of the machine as if it would pop out like a gumball. It was a heartbreaking spectacle.
I knew we could walk across to the other side of the building and this kid could school me on every PlayStation game on the shelf, but he knew nothing about pinball. Somewhere down the road of life there would be a situation where he would at least need a passing knowledge of how a pinball machine worked. At this point in his short existence, he lacked that knowledge.
He needed help. He needed a mentor. But I was retired.
My mentoring days were done. I taught my kid to ride a bike and which end of a pool cue to use. I told her not to tug on Superman’s cape or spit into the wind (Thanks, Jim Croce.)
Eventually, she listened and learned.
Today she is a full-grown, taxpaying, upstanding member of society helping look after aquatic creatures at a big-city aquarium. She doesn’t ride bikes or shoot eight ball that often, but she could if she needed to.
I had done my part passing along knowledge and now I just wanted to ride off into the neon sunset with a specially-priced international beer.
The kid just looked at me.
“Ok, son,” I said with a deep sigh. “The object of this game is to keep that metal ball flying all around there by hitting these buttons on the side, which controls the flippers. Your reward is noise and lights and an endorphin rush.”
After a while, he got the hang of it, sort of. He will likely never be a pinball wizard but at least he knows it’s not a gumball machine.
Now, back to mentor retirement.