a reflection shared from our resident Botanist, Carlton Milhouse
It’s been a good harvest this year. Throughout the summer months my days were consumed with my herbalogic enterprises, allowing little time for anything else. As with any fruitful venture in life it is only after reaping the reward that we step back to contemplate what we have done. That is if we ponder it at all, which I’ll admit I often don’t.
In high summer (no, not that kind of high) the days are long and filled with labor from dawn to sometimes well after dark. One of the few things that help me to endure these rigors is music. I entered this season with a heightened awareness for the monumental anniversary this year has marked. My playlists have been liberally seasoned with those iconic releases of fifty years ago. Led Zeppelin 1, Abbey Road, In the Court of the Crimson King…. these only scratch the surface. All of these and more have always been in my repertoire, but if only for nostalgic reasons, they have enjoyed a renewed appreciation. Now, as we fast approach 2019 in the rear view mirror, I would like to share some reflections spurred by another of that epochal class of 1969: The Who’s Tommy.
Earlier this year I made a trip to Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with our very own Celeste Wilde. It was actually my first trip there. I have to say that on the whole it was a pretty cool place, but honestly I didn’t come away completely “wowed” by it. Maybe it’s Cleveland, maybe it’s me, but for any who have been to Cleveland lately you’ll have to agree: Cleveland is not the rock and roll town it used to be. Within it’s steel and glass frame on the shores of Lake Erie the Hall of Fame does it’s best to replicate at least some of that. Alright now, I’m not trying to dis the place. If you’ve not been and you like rock music I encourage you to visit, but make it a day trip if you can. There is no place I will recommend staying in Cleveland.
The highlight of this trip was discovered nestled within the bosom of The Who exhibit. Wandering about we stumbled upon a darkened nook where there stood two items. First there was a token dispenser, much like one might see in any arcade. It was equipped with an optic register to read the wristband they issue with admission. A few short steps away there stood a work of beauty: a full sized, humming, flashing pinball machine. Tommy’s Pinball Wizard no less! Celeste and I are the anti-Yogi. We’re a little dumber than the average bear, but even we could figure out how this worked. Out of a four hour visit to the Hall there was easily an hour and a half spent playing Pinball Wizard.
Before that day I was convinced that we had entered an age where the growing majority of our population knew nothing of pinball machines, those having been surpassed long ago by gaming consoles and other digital forms of entertainment. On the ride back from Cleveland the conversation settled about the pinball experience and I was quite heartened to learn that the pinball machine has indeed enjoyed a renaissance of sorts. Our conversation on that ride continued to weave in and out of the pinball experiences of our youth.
My own exposure to this venerated form of entertainment came, as it did for most of my generation, from arcade tents at various fairs and festivals. My first forays with the device were exercises in frustration. I came away from these convinced that these machines had been designed for the sole purpose of eating quarters. As with anything one only becomes proficient with practice, for which I was sorely wanting. Growing up on a farm in that era did not present a multitude of opportunities for this, but this was to change when I began high school.
Although I lived in a rural setting, it was at the time on the periphery of a suburban school district. Most of my classmates lived in the suburban sprawl that came to life through the 1960s and 70s. I was a member of that small contingent known affectionately as the “country fucks”. The school was just off of route 40, known as it is in those parts as Broad Street, and for kids like me this brought an entirely accidental benefit. It meant that for at least a fews days of every week I had access to such adolescent diversions as were not accessible from the farm. These included a steady supply of members of the opposite sex, recreational drugs and yes, even pinball. Blessed with neither an abundance of disposable income nor the requisite social skills to engage successfully with girls, I naturally gravitated to pinball. I know. Sad isn’t it? Well, thats life.
Being involved in a number of after school activities I was left with some period of time between these and dismissal from the day’s classes. Thus developed the ritual of making the trek out to Broad Street, turning right and walking the few blocks east to a local pizza joint called Dino’s Bar and Grill. In those years there were a variety of choices within walking distance for a youth to be misspent. My selection of Dino’s can be attributed to nothing more than the familiarity of it’s name. Some of you may recall a song from the rock band Thin Lizzy, The boys are back in town, in which the “boys” were known to hang down at Dino’s Bar and Grille. I had enough sense to know that my Dino’s was hardly that Dino’s, but as the song was still in current rotation on FM radio I took it as an invitation. I’ve not been back inside of the establishment to see whether or not it’s interior is likewise unchanged, but my suspicion is that it remains what it always was: a dive. Within the boundaries of the same city there is another establishment (also of the dive class) which proclaims itself as the cultural center of the Midwest. I have often mused that this may account for the prevalence of depression and suicide in the region. I could, of course, be wrong.
As our conversation continued I recounted to Celeste how I had developed my pinball skills back in the day, down at Dino’s Bar and Grille. This in turn led to one particular occasion at Dino’s which I had previously filed away into some dark and dusty corner of my memory. When I had first begun these forays out to Broad Street they were mostly solo. Some other ne’er do wells of the same age class would frequent Dino’s in those after school hours. Some of them I knew casually; most were just strangers. One of the first that I became acquainted with at Dino’s (and later on to a greater degree at school) was a young man by the name of Tom Gray. Young Thomas would later earn the moniker Tom Tripper. That is a title that probably bears little need for explanation to most, but I will elaborate further in due time.
We actually made our first connection due to the fact that we smoked the same brand of cigarettes, Viceroy. I don’t recall exactly when I migrated from these to the more conventional Cowboy Killers, but I do remember that in one of our first meetings Tom explained to me that they had become his smoke of choice because the brand was positioned in such a way at the local IGA store as to make them quite easy to boost from the shelf. Tom wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he was a font of knowledge for practical matters such as boosting cigarettes from retail shelves.
As a relative stranger to the neighborhood it was good for me to have Tom as a companion. Though he was no older than I, he carried a certain street cred due to family connections. Tom was the younger stepbrother to the children of his mother’s second husband. By this time those lads were well off in college, but apparently they had blazed quite a trail before him. For good or ill Tom was a known quantity, whereas I was unmistakably one of the country fucks. It also helped that he was quite handy with a pool cue and this was his recreation of choice. And smoking green. And, later on….
I mentioned that he came to be known as Tom Tripper. In the mid seventies if you were in high school, and you were looking to score your first hits of acid, it was always beneficial to have a collegiate connection. Young Thomas was the embodiment of this maxim. He was very smart in one way especially. Tom recognized early on that he was a consumer, and thus was not suited to act as a distributor. His stepbrothers no doubt aided in this decision. In any case, though Tom never sold acid this did not mean that he would not share. His most famous exploit by far was a live demonstration, in the middle of the cafeteria, of how to drop microdots under your eyelid. To this day I won’t even do that!
Tom and I eventually became a regular pairing on the pool table at Dino’s, when it was available. Whenever there was a wait we had the choice of two pinball machines to pass the time. I don’t recall the theme of either of them, but there was one in the rear near the pool table and the other in front, in what passed for their dining area. Most times we would stick to the machine in the rear because if we were playing pinball that meant we already had a quarter up on the table. Over the course of some months I became pretty confident on that machine.
The key to successful recreational drug use is in understanding one’s limitations. The success is defined by nothing more than avoiding incarceration. Others may disagree, but that is the crux of the biscuit my friends. The youthful tripper is still filled with that euphoria, the blissful elation which engenders the sincere belief that anything is possible. They have not yet been instilled with the requisite paranoia needed to navigate the harsh cruelty of the adult world. It is in that very perilous mental state that I entered Dino’s one afternoon with Tom. I was about to discover one of my limitations.
On this particular occasion Tom had some purple barrel to share. These were like a microdot, but larger. It was rumored that they were a stacked double dose of purple microdot, though I couldn’t say for certain whether or not this was true. This was not my first encounter with the drug, but this was to be the first time I had entered Dino’s in such a condition. My prior experience up until that point had been solo events; sitting up all night in my bedroom with the White Album over my headphones, the textured patterns in the ceiling paint depicting a re-enactment of bloody European history. That was a safe place for me to trip. This was very edgy. If I’d not been along with Tom I am certain I would not have dropped that hit when I did, around 3:00. It had to have been about 3:45 when we arrived at Dino’s. The experienced psychonauts in our audience can do the math and make an educated guess what happens next.
This was a warm day and quite sunny. Waveforms were already merging with heat mirage rising from the pavement. For the inexperienced tripper on their first public outing this was very unsettling. Once we reached their door I was eager to get inside. Without even looking into the back room to confirm it, I was immediately struck with the sensation that the table was already occupied. I felt hostility reaching out for us. The next thing I knew we were at the pinball machine at the front of the shop, facing out to the passing traffic on Broad Street. That was good. A geographic reference, a way to remember where I was.
Somehow I managed to extract a quarter from my pocket and successfully guide it into the slot. It jolted me when I felt the machine hum to life in my hands and then, for some time that seemed like an hour, I was part of the machine. I really felt it! This was a hallucination. I had lost all four balls inside of five minutes and probably did not even register 10,000 points. And that was just O-Kay. Lights were flashing everywhere, all sounds were compressed about my ears, and Tom drops his quarter. Then I got schooled.
I can’t pretend that I’m some kind of pinball aficionado. I don’t scan Craigslist to find machines for sale and you won’t find me stalking the county fair circuit to see what is the latest in a twentieth century technology. They are a vestige of my youth and thus I enjoy them. Having the opportunity to play for an extended time for the first time in decades can revive a lot of memories. I maybe have not logged enough hours at pinball to be qualified for this judgement, but for my money Tom’s performance that afternoon was the most impressive display of pinball skill I have ever witnessed. He had at least twenty minutes in before he lost his first ball. And I was left paralyzed there at his side on a stool, hypnotized by the blur of the ball, the passing traffic and the sounds of the machine which seemed to come from everywhere but the machine. That day I learned one of my limitations: do not trip in public places. Tom could do it and many others can, but I am not one of them. It is a rule I have lived by, lo these many years.
Celeste’s reaction to this tale actually took me by surprise. She smiled and seemed genuinely amused, while at the same time her smile wore an underlying expression of a look which said “are you really that much of a dumbass?” After responding with the obligatory “what?”, she said ” He’s your pinball wizard? Tom, Tommy…. duh?”
Wow! That was like getting hit with a club! See, for me the memory was always about the trip, and the name Tom Tripper. It matched. It just stuck to his memory over the years. Until that instant in the car I had never thought of it as Tom, Tommy the Pinball Wizard. She was right. Tommy was all about breaking free of limitations. Both of them.