Nowadays, teenage boys have it made. Most have access to man caves and media rooms that serve as perfect hangouts. When I was thirteen, you had to leave home to find anything remotely similar. In my case, a hundred yards down the alley behind our house, nestled against the local college’s northern boundary, lay a hamburger joint called Gus’s. It sold cheap, greasy food that nobody actually liked. To strengthen the place’s appeal, the owner (yes, his name was Gus), added a step-down lounge where college boys played pinochle, drank sodas, and smoked as if taking a drag on a cigarette was an Olympic event.
I found the hangout strangely alluring. To be truthful, what really enticed me to Gus’s place was the nickel pinball machine located in the far corner of the card room. If you knew what you were doing, you could play up to six balls at once while they wildly bounced around racking up free games (as many as twenty before the machine stopped doling out freebies). If you were good at it, you could play the game for hours on a single nickel.
But I wasn’t good at it and I didn’t have any money to invest in training, so I was constantly scrounging for coins. Soon tiring of rifling through coat pockets and digging between sofa cushions, I’m ashamed to say that I stooped to sneaking into my father’s rare coin collection to feed my nickel habit. I’d hand Gus a 1917 Standing Liberty quarter and ask for change. Gus would examine the rare coin, sneak it into his pocket, open the till, and then cheerfully count out five nickels—as if he were doing me a favor. Then he’d wait for me to lose five games and repeat the cycle.
After dozens of hours of expensive practice, I eventually advanced to the point where I could easily keep several balls in play at the same time. In fact, I became so proficient that by the end of the school year, my eighth-grade buddies addressed their remarks in my yearbook to “The Pinball King.”
One evening in July, I walked into Gus’s with a nickel in my pocket, hoping to play pinball for a couple of hours. To my chagrin, there stood my eighteen-year-old brother, Bill, along with Mike and Rick, his weasel friends. The three took great pleasure in torturing me. Bill ridiculed me about everything from my curiously large feet to my tenacious cowlick. Putting me down wasn’t merely Bill’s hobby, it was his raison d’être. Mike couldn’t give me enough wedgies, and Rick’s torture du jour was either an Indian-burn or a Dutch-rub. In response to their unwanted attention, I prayed for a curse to fall upon the lot of them.
On this particular day in Gus’s card room, my prayers were answered. There they were—my three tormentors—playing the pinball machine. More accurately, playing my pinball machine and playing it poorly. I watched the trio from a distant corner for nearly half an hour, and not once did they win a free game. And then it hit me; it was the perfect setup for me to finally exact revenge on them. I could humiliate them all in one fell swoop.
“Hey look who’s here,” Mike shouted as I approached. “It’s Bill’s dweeby brother. Hey zit-face, don’t you know that nerds aren’t allowed in here?” Then he tried to give me a wedgie.
“Would you like me to win you some free games?” I asked my brother.
Bill scowled and said, “You think you can win free games on this pinball machine? You? The world’s biggest twerp?” (My brother dabbled in oxymora.) “You’d need to stand on an apple box just to reach the flippers.”
“Well, I just thought you might want some free games.”
This generous offer earned me, as I knew it would, both a Dutch-rub and an Indian-burn from Rick. Then the hapless threesome returned to pumping nickels into the machine until my brother finally turned to me and said, “So you’re saying you can win us some free games?”
“Yeah,” I responded. Nothing more; nothing less. No embellishments. No bragging or heightened volume. Just the one word. “Yeah.”
Bill stepped away from the machine, motioned me forward, and said, “Okay, hot-shot. You’ve got one ball left.” Winning free games was never easy; doing so after four of the five allotted balls had been lost would be nearly impossible.
“Does baby need a booster chair?” Bill taunted as I approached the machine.
I pulled back the plunger and shot the last ball onto the sloped playing surface. As designed, the steel sphere made a beeline to the gobble hole but I expertly feathered the flippers just so and—smack! I avoided a disaster. Slowly my muscle-memory took over. Within minutes I had built the extra-ball count to five, rolled over the activate button, and whammy! Out came the five bonus balls. It took every nerve in my body to keep the spheres alive as my score skyrocketed until a beautiful sound filled the room. It was the machine announcing the first free game. Pop! I continued this frantic dance for another five minutes until the twentieth report signaled that I had won the last free game possible.
Everything I had done at Gus’s until that day had been in preparation for this glorious moment. The question was: How should I celebrate? When you do something as astounding as thrashing your older brother and his toadies (in public, no less), you face a fork in the road. You can ridicule the three by pointing out that they’re five years older and you still whipped them in a pinball game. Or you can take the road less traveled by rejecting the feral pleasures of revenge and acting like a mature adult.
It wasn’t an easy choice for me, but here’s the path I took. I didn’t pump my fist, point at my chest, or dance a victory jig—despite an overwhelming desire to do so. Instead, I gave my three tormentors a subtle nod, turned on my heel, and calmly walked away from the machine as if the miracle I had just performed was routine. No big deal. Just business as usual.
“Who was that kid?” a lingering customer asked Bill as I walked away.
“My jerk brother,” Bill responded with a look of disdain.
“Well, you’re right about one thing,” the customer continued. “Someone was acting like a jerk. But it wasn’t your little brother.”
I hadn’t expected such immediate results. Despite my desire to maintain a mature demeanor, I grinned on the way out the door. I had taken the road less traveled, and it had indeed made all the difference.