This spring, I finally made it to the Ann Arbor VFW Pinball Museum – one of the world’s largest collections of playable pinball machines located in one of pinball’s most fitting locations.
Luckily, to “make it” to VFW Pinball, one need not be a competitive player. Twice a year, the venue opens to the public and anyone who reserved a ticket is allowed to enter the old Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) hall in an idyllic field in rural Michigan where a gaggle of pinheads play more than 500 unique pinball machines all year, restoring them and fine tuning them just so that they will be ready for a small-but-lucky bunch of ticket holders to play.
That’s how a casual player like me slipped in unnoticed. I’d learned to play at the bowling alley as a kid when the proprietor taught me to catch, cradle, and aim so that I would stop accosting his machines by pounding away on both flippers at once. Then I didn’t play again for twenty years until I moved to a town with a vibrant pinball community and realized that pinball had grown up without me. I walked into a bar one day and saw all the new Sterns, Chicago Gaming, and Jersey Jacks and wondered, “Who the hell is Jersey Jack?”
Over the last year, I’ve been catching up on pinball. I played Monster Bash until I had pretty good aim, learned to nudge from draining down the center on Attack from Mars, and figured out how to hit the looping ramps on Creature from the Black Lagoon. I’d even won a few matches on Black Rose, Champion Pub, and Safe Cracker – all of this from the Williams app on my phone, of course.
My name was on the list at VFW Pinball, I had $80 cash in my pocket, and I was ready to pass myself off as a competent pinball player.
I made it all the way down the dirt road, through parking in the field, past the picnic shelter with the smoldering grill, and just inside the doors of the main hall where the cash and ticket-taker asked if this was my first time attending before I blurted out my confession: “I’m just a casual player!”
I clearly wasn’t the first imposter he’d ever met. He just grinned, but a kind woman at the desk took me aside to explain the show to me: Here’s a map in the foyer. Follow these halls and go through all of these doors into each of the outbuildings to find more machines. She told me the pinball collection’s history, how the zoning changed after they bought the VFW hall so that commercial businesses could no longer operate in this residential area. VFW Pinball now exists in pinball’s fashionable quasi-legal state and its challenges with local law mean VFW Pinball wasn’t really a commercial business and I wasn’t really a customer. That’s why they only open twice a year and we all need permits. Any questions?
“Yes. I noticed the address said Brighton. Is this the same Brighton where the wizard from The Who song played?” I got the impression that I may not have been the first casual player to say that either, but she didn’t give me a firm answer. I’m reporting that yes, VFW Pinball is the Brighton where Pete Townshend’s pinball wizard must have played 'em all.
What playing pinball on my phone and even playing in my local dive bar with its 40 pins did not prepare me for was the cacophony of hundreds of pinball machines in four long isles of the main hall nearly all being played at once. I needed to wander just to acclimate to the clacks and dings, knockers and voice callouts, and the muggy spring air, thick with the smells of wood and wax, old wiring and ozone.
I’d made a list of games I wanted to play – all of the popular titles from my Williams app, of course, plus I generally wanted to play anything with animations on the playfield, made by companies I’d never heard of, or with unique bash toys or interactive toppers.
Most of my list was in the main hall, but these were popular games, filled with players lined up so closely that their fingers nearly touched. I was worrying about playing my first ball of the day right between two other people when Jurassic Park screamed and it flustered me enough to just keep browsing.
I wandered until I found myself in an outbuilding past the secret marijuana patch (prohibition ended in Michigan) through a door marked “Top Secret Nuclear Warehouse Keep Out.” There I spotted Ali – is this the first pinball machine ever featuring a Black person?
Pinball is a subculture, sure, but it’s a subculture predominantly by and for white men. I decided to hit my first start button of the day on Ali, as a sort of rebellion against the eras of pinball that produced themes like Gottlieb’s Totem, William’s Aztec, and Zaccaria’s Black Belt.
When I turned around, there it was – my first Kiss. The game I’d lost countless quarters to as a teenager. I may have squealed a little. After all the balls I drained over the last year while trying to get the hang of the smooth modern pinball machines, those old pop-bumpers and drop targets were much easier to hit than I remembered. I wanted to rock and roll all night, but I’ve already paid that machine enough attention.
From there, I bounced around like a silver ball on a playfield, playing most of the games on my list 3 times each before moving on. Nothing prepared me for playing Whirlwind – the first time the fan hit me at the same time as the strobe lights, I dropped my ball. I also drained when the creature appeared below the playfield in Creature from the Black Lagoon. I vowed not to waste my time on Attack from Mars, but had to play Revenge from Mars with its 3D playfield. I didn’t know TV screens had been used on play fields before Stranger Things. Neat!
I nearly died of embarrassment when I got the ball stuck on a ramp in Al’s Garage Band Goes on a World Tour and had to retrieve a staff member to remove the glass for me. The volunteer acted like it was no big deal and happened all the time, but it was a first for me… until moments later when I made the same mistake on Radical! right in the main hall in front of all the baddies. What kind of nube goes around a pinball museum breaking the machines?
At least I hadn’t walked away from a game still in play. Not until the flippers dropped on a Zaccaria and I thought I had broken that machine, too. Turns out that was a Zaccaria feature and not a bug, which I embarrassingly learned after reporting it to staff.
Even though I have fallen hard for all of the bash toys and animation, my favorite pin to discover was Williams’ The Defender. Between the intergalactic wars theme and the color palette, this is what pinball from the 80’s looked and felt like in my mind's eye. It gave me nostalgia even though I’d never seen it before and inspired me to go discover how mesmerizing futuristic space themes can be. I went on a bit of a journey playing games like Genesis, Embryon and Orbitor.
I was shocked when I heard last call. VFW Pinball is a portal to another dimension where time does not exist and yet it was all over in the blink of an eye. Bumping fingers with the player next to me no longer scared me to pieces and I had forgotten to worry that anyone was watching my game.
In fact, I wanted someone to notice when I put my initials in Terminator – until I realized the game had been recently reset. The game call out told me, “Fuck you asshole!” so I felt pretty awesome adding my initials: MOM.
If you attended, let me know what you found to love at Ann Arbor’s VFW Pinball Museum and I’ll add it to my list to check out in the fall when I return to Brighton to play ‘em all!