Feb 26, 2022 • 10M

Stolen Quarters

Ep. 8 - The Dark Side of a Pinball Wizard

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Appears in this episode

Hal Walker
Hal Walker, Ohio musician and writer living with severe ME/CFS, weaves music, stories and community from his bed.
Episode details

Hi. It’s Saturday and this is “Living in a Body.” Please click the play button to hear me narrate the story with original piano music. (a 10 minute listen) ~ Hal

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Stolen Quarters

You're gonna find out sooner or later, so we may as well have this conversation now.  I'm an addict. I spent many years in active addiction and I’ve spent equally as many in 12-step recovery. Today, I'm so glad to have some solid abstinence and sobriety behind me. If you also identify as an addict, you already know things about me that I've never told you. If you're not an addict, you may need me to do some explaining.  

You see, moderation has never been my strong suit.  I’ve never been a “middle path” kinda guy. I like things that are intense and I like things that make me feel good. Generally, if it feels good, I want more of it. For many years, I lived two lives. There was the life I showed you — Hal, the golden son of a Presbyterian minister — and then there was the hidden life — flippant Hal sneaking around in a dark alley way on a mission to score somethin’ or other.  I’m not proud to say that there have been times in my life when getting a fix took precedence over my family, my friends and my work. There. Now you know. Time for church…

The beloved view from the second row at the Kent Prez.

It’s 1980. I’m 14 years old and I'm sitting in the second row of the United Presbyterian Church in Kent. My mom insists that my three sisters and I sit toward the front of the sanctuary as a sign of support for my dad who’s the minister of the church.  My father’s powerful baritone voice soars from the pulpit and then flies into one of my ears and right out the other. I'm sitting quietly in the pew fantasizing about pinball. When we get home from church, I will ride my bicycle a mile and a half across town to my favorite place, the Play Palace.  I’ll spend the afternoon all alone inserting tokens into machines in search of free games, high scores and peak moments.

My dad’s sermon is the perfect opportunity for me to plan my escape. The sense of anticipation shortens my breath and heightens my senses. If pinball were food, my mouth would be watering right now. I visualize every subtle nuance of my current favorite game, “Eight Ball Deluxe” and I imagine myself owning, conquering and becoming one with the machine. Today’s gonna be the day I finally satisfy my adolescent longing.

Pinball Wizard

I remember the hours after church on Sunday to be the most depressing hours of the week. Drained by a full morning of being the son of a preacher’s wife and strained by the thought of Monday’s piano lesson (for which I was unprepared), I needed a release. Looking back, I wish I’d had the courage to call one of the guys over on Ada Street. Mike Gilcrest, Dave Predergast and Rick Brown were known for their weekend pick-up games of basketball and touch football. Or I wish I’d had the notion to reach out to my next door neighbor Georg. We’d been best friends all through elementary school. Together as kids, Georg and I were a dream team for unplugged inventions. We created a frisbee golf course, we built a secret clubhouse and we wrote a book called “The Nothing To Do Book.” On this Sunday afternoon however, I wasn’t interested in connection or invention. My mind was made up. I needed a pinball fix.

Harold Jr. and Hal lll

My dad was a great man. In fact, he was nearly perfect. Believe it or not, in 90 years of living, he never once told a lie. He graduated from Birmingham-Southern College at the age of 18, went on to preach from a pulpit for 50 years and then spent his retirement as a gardener, an environmentalist and a theologian. In the 1980’s, my dad always kept a nice stash of quarters in his desk drawer.

I, on the other hand, was lacking a moral compass. I’m not proud of it, but for whatever reason, early in life, I picked up lying, cheating and stealing. Those behaviors became the norm for me. On those depressing Sunday afternoons, surrounded by privilege, with money in the bank and given everything I ever wanted, I would sneak into my dad’s dresser and steal just enough quarters so that he wouldn’t notice. I’d walk out with sweaty palms and quarters in my pocket. I’m very glad to report that before my dad died, I made amends for these actions.

Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

It’s a blue sky Sunday afternoon in the 1980’s and I’m over on East Main Street about to enter the den of the Play Palace. When I step in, I become the king. The people move aside and the machines come alive. The whole world stops. I’m swimming in the sounds of Ms. Pac Man, Crazy Climber, Dig Dug, Donkey Kong, Tempest and Frogger. This is the original video game room and I’m the original generation. All alone, I step up to the machine, insert my token and the play begins.

Not only am I an addict, but I'm also a pinball wizard.  Over the years. I've gotten my share of high scores, extra balls and free games. There’s a classic knocking sound that a pinball machine makes to signify the winning of a free game. It’s a loud, satisfying crack against the skull. The sound signifies a next level of success. It’s an intense shot of serotonin and it lasts no more than an instant. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go find yourself a pinball parlor somewhere and hang around just long enough to experience that iconic knock of a free game.

Play Palace, circa 1982

The object in a game of pinball is to keep the ball in play for as long as possible. But eventually the game has to end. The ball goes down the shoot and you run out of quarters. Eventually, it’s time to go home. So it’s about five o’clock now and I’m walking out into the sunshine. I’m faced with the reality that once again, I just spent three hours all alone in a dark noisy room on a beautiful sun shiny day. This is the regret phase of addiction. “Damn. Why’d I do that again? I’ve got to stop living like this. Next Sunday, I should stay home and practice the piano.”

Actually, I can see how that cycle of addiction played out many times in my life. The imagining and the anticipation leading to the stolen quarters which leads to the solitary ride across town which leads to the peaks and the highs and is followed by the lows and the regret and the vowing not to do it again. If you know what I’m talkin’ about, you know what I’m talkin’ about.

Isn’t it amazing to be human — all our stories and our quirks and our old patterns. I’m glad to be 55 now. Actually, I’m turning 56 next Saturday. I’ve still got that hunger inside but it’s quelled by some years of good living, a sponsor and the fact that I’m 85% bedridden. I still need help connecting with that part of me that lives in reality, that knows how to love and has the freedom to take the next right action.

I hope this post wasn’t too much for you. For some reason, I trust you enough to tell you this kind of stuff. If you’re inspired, feel free to share something about your dark side that you’ve never told anybody. Ha. I’m just kidding. But no really, this is a safe place to be yourself with all your humanness. I’m so glad you’re here. I’m glad I’m here. I’d love to connect with you in the comments. Have a great week. Hal

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