“The quarter is stuck, but the machine is still working,” said Steve.
Each of us looked like we were seeing our first Playboy, wanting to look, but afraid of being caught. We had just hit a potential arcade gold mine. The quarter in the Skeeball game was stuck and the game kept giving us free plays. For fifth graders, there could be no better luck. The key was to make sure that we didn’t blow our good fortune.
Next to the food at Busch Gardens, the arcade and games of Germany sucked up money the fastest. Once our cash was gone we were forced back to the lines and rides. The rides were fun, but they didn’t offer the chance to hang out, win prizes, and pretend to be much cooler than any of us would ever become.
“Let’s play a couple of games and then go ask the guy for some change,” said James.
“Yeah, but only get change when he’s by the door to the arcade. He always stands down there for the air conditioner,” I said. “We don’t want him coming down here. And run back…”
So began our first life scam. Young kids were taking on the behemoth, Anheuser-Busch, in an epic game of profiteering at Busch Gardens. On one side stood the corporate giant famous for Budweiser, clydesdales, and “knowing when to say when.” This is the company that saved Williamsburg with a brewery, gated community, golf courses, and a modern sense of business. For three fifth graders from Magruder Annex Elementary School to think that they could out wit a titan of industry was ludicrous.
But, boys will be boys.
Steve was the coolest of the kids. He was a side arm throwing pitcher who grew early, which made him seem like he was a better athlete than he was. James was a straight haired bowl cut kid who lived next to an abandoned Mack truck. His house was cool for the pitch-back that he had and for the truck that we were forbidden from going near. Right…
I was the gypsy who had just moved across town, but who still kept in touch with my old friends. The funny thing about Williamsburg back then was that the two counties really did not mix. Kids in York county stayed there and Williamsburg-James City kids stayed there. I was lucky to have friends on both sides and on this day York county was in full force.
Steve was territorial, “Whatever we do someone has to stay with this game. We can’t lose the lane.”
James was the scout, “Ah, shit, the guy is going in the arcade. I’ll go get change.”
I was the babysitter, “Stop cussin’ or the guy might come over here.
Our little trio were Skeeball upstarts. We had learned to bank the ball off the side rail for a better chance at making the fifty point shot. One of us would point to the spot where the ball had to hit while the other watched out for the guy. We decided that we would only collect on medium or large prizes. This was mostly because we didn’t want to carry around the little stuffed animals, but also because we didn’t want the money man coming down to our lane very much. The three of us became totally focused as Steve started a really good game. In fact, we were so focused that we lost track of the guy who we had started calling The Bank.
“You guys really love this game,” said the Bank.
We each looked back as if we had been caught with the Bo Derek issue in hand. “We sure do, but it is so hard,” I said.
“Well, have fun,” said the Bank as he turned and headed back for the arcade.
“Man that was close,” said James.
Steve shook his head and kept bowling, but guttered the next three balls to win a small prize that would go unclaimed. We continued playing and working our quarter scam for a couple of hours. I went for pizza. James went for chocolate. Steve kept honing in on a large prize. Each of us had won a medium, but none of us had ever won large one. It seemed the St. Louis based conglomerate had us beaten.
“Damn, me,” said Steve after a 260 game and another medium prize. “I’ve got to get 280. I’m so close.”
We ran out of money and the Bank was starting to get suspicious of how we were still playing. He came around more frequently and we resorted to striking up conversations with him. He went to Christopher Newport College and wanted to be a teacher. He had a girlfriend who worked at the LeMans cars. I ran over there and met her. She sent the Bank a note back, which seemed to make him happy. The distractions were working as the mojo was returning to Steve.
Ball 1 = 50
Ball 2 = 50
Ball 3 = 50
Ball 4 = 50
Ball 5 = 50
“Last ball,” said the Bank. “You guys are done. I know there is something wrong with the machine.”
Steve lined up his shot and rolled the ball down the lane. It ricochetted off the wall and hit short on the lip of the thirty point score. Somehow it caught and edge and caromed up to the lip between the forty and fifty point holes. The ball hung for a second and dropped off to the side where gravity deposited it in the ten point hole.
“Ahhhh!” screamed Steve. “I was that close.”
“Come on, Bank man, one more game. He’s so close,” I pleaded.
“Naw, y’all have to go, but pick a big one, you earned it.”
Steve grabbed a panda and we started heading for the parking lot. My mom would be picking us up soon. As we crossed the bridge into Hastings, Steve stopped and sat on a bench.
“What’s wrong, Steve?” asked James.
“I can’t take this bear. I didn’t win it.”
“You played the whole day on their money. Of course you can take it,” I said.
“Naw, it just doesn’t feel right,” said Steve.
With that we started walking back toward Germany, past the wolf sanctuary, the bird show and the sky ride. It was there that Steve turned left.
“Brad, you know who the Bank’s girlfriend is, right?” asked Steve.
“Yeah, that’s her over by that gate.”
Steve walked over to her, “Hey, your boyfriend works by the games, right?”
“He sent this for you.”
Steve handed the panda to the Bank’s girlfriend. He never gave her a chance to give it back and took off running towards us. We ran the rest of the way back to the parking lot, getting there just as my mom and my family’s paint peeling AMC Hornet pulled up.
“Did you have fun?” she asked.
“It was alright,” I said.