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A Christmas Eve I’ll never forget

A pinball machine was at the top of my Christmas list in 1975.

The concept was ambitious, and not reasonably attainable, since pinball machines cost thousands.

But as a 10-year old, it was the secret Santa wish.

A friend whose parents weren’t on the Ole Miss faculty had a pinball machine and it seemed the ultimate dream since the only places with pinball machines in Oxford at the time usually had older patrons using them, making it hard for a 10-year old to squeeze in a game.

At the old Ole Miss Union they had a pinball machine in the grill, but students usually had it tied up. They had a couple of pinball machines in the old Kreme Cup on University Avenue, but teenagers gathered there after school and smoked cigarettes and our parents didn’t want us hanging out around the pinball machines.

That was a problem, since pinball was still the rage in 1975, fueled by the release of Bally’s Wizard! Machine that year.

My actual Christmas list was more humble, featuring items from the Sears catalog like a Miami Dolphins jacket and a Hot Wheels racetrack. But I wanted a pinball machine so bad in the days leading up to Christmas it was all I could think about.

But then a strange thing happened on Christmas Eve, a Wednesday that year.

Walking through the Ole Miss campus that afternoon it was mostly a ghost town, with all faculty and staff gone and all buildings closed except the student union grill, left open for foreign students, mostly in engineering, who remained during the break.

My friend Stevie and I wandered into the union grill, finding the Bally Wizard! machine untouched, ready to be played. We only had a couple of quarters, but plunked them in and got the many flippers moving with the push-button action.

The relatively new machine was quite worn from its heavy use. Halfway through the first game Stevie figured out the tilt function on the machine was broken.

“What?” we screamed, high-fiving.

Christmas had come early.

We pushed the machine all around that Christmas Eve, bumping it on the corners and shoving it from the sides to keep the silver ball alive. We called ourselves pinball wizards, and hummed the Elton John tune.

By the time the sun had set at about 4:45 p.m. (the third shortest day of the year) we had more than 60 credits from winning so much, and our score soared into the millions, turning the scoreboard over and over.

We felt rich, and invincible. And, we ignored the time, until Stevie noticed it was nearly 6 p.m.

“What?!”

Leaving dozens of credits on the pinball machine to walk away and go home felt like self-betrayal. But it was getting cold outside and we knew our parents would be worried.

So we scurried home, leaving the credits behind.

My mother was waiting at the door, of course, with a furrowed brow.

The explanation didn’t suffice, but it was Christmas Eve, so we soon moved on.

The next day gifts under the tree were from the Sears catalog, and they were delightful. Included was an Atari video game that I hooked up to the television and didn’t stop playing with friends for the next year.

I never even thought about a pinball machine that Christmas. The experience from Christmas Eve was enough, and the video game was better than I could have imagined. In fact, I never even had it on my list.

The Atari was inexpensive compared to the pinball machine, but it was the future, and my parents had taken my desire for a game into something more reasonable, and useful. And it was better than pinball.

Not even close.

I learned the Christmas of 1975 that a child’s want list isn’t about the specifics they actually get.

My parents had taken the time, and money, to provide wonderful, thoughtful gifts. And in no time at all, my friends and I became wizards of Atari, while the pinball machine kept getting pushed around.